Lhai sniffed the water in his trough. Was the poison in there? He couldn’t tell. He cursed, not for the first time, that the Maker had given dragons such a poor sense of smell. What if he just didn’t drink it? How could they make him? He was as large as any of the guards. Bigger, if one counted his tail. His rough grey hide would be difficult for spears or swords to pierce. What could they do if he would not drink? But, then again, how could he refuse when he was so very thirsty?
He extended his wings, stretching nearly nine feet now from end to end. The cobalt blue feathers had come in fuller and thicker this time. It had been easy for him to swoop up to the perch yesterday afternoon, probably too easy. If he had resisted the urge to be away from these humans for a while, to sit above them and keep watch over their activities, maybe his keeper would have forgotten about the clipping. Another few days and perhaps he could have flown over the wall and away from this bailey. But his regular water and food disappeared a few days ago and the keeper would not let Lhai out of his sight. The clipping was near. His keeper was not so forgetful.
But now it was too late, and he was so very thirsty. He drove his head into the trough and gulped furiously, knowing that a deep sleep would soon overtake him.
When he woke up, Lhai could feel the cold iron and leather muzzle that had been wrapped around his face for the ceremony. It took a few moments before he remembered where he was and for the throbbing pain in his wings to come to the fore. He gritted his teeth and tried to stand, but was stopped by a sharp yank on the chain that lashed him to the stone pedestal.
To one side, keeping a safe distance, was a priest. He held a large, worn, brown book in his hands and smiled nervously at Lhai when their eyes met.
To the other side, at the same distance but looking much more certain of himself, sat the one they called Lord Kala. He looked bored by the state of affairs, as if he had something better to do. Lhai hoped his unconsciousness had delayed the proceedings, just to be difficult.
Out in front of him, Lhai could see the crowd that had gathered in the courtyard below, huddled together against the damp morning mist that was so prevalent in these parts. There were a few dozen people, ringed by another dozen guards in polished armor, creating a makeshift fence out of tall, golden spears. What the Maker had taken from the nose, She had given to the ear, but the crowd murmured to itself, making it difficult for Lhai to hear the contents of any one conversation.
The crowd hushed when the priest raised the book high over his head and began to intone the prayer. Lhai had heard it six times before, every year on the anniversary of his capture, a day that also happened to be Kala’s birthday. For Kala, the coincidence made Lhai’s captivity all the more auspicious. For Lhai, it was a cruel joke. The public never saw his wings getting clipped, never saw the real reason he could not leave the castle.
“And so the Maker, who is just and gracious,” the priest said, slowly and deliberately, “did promise that should any dragon come to your castle, then should you know peace and happiness.”
“Get on with it,” Kala said, slumped in his chair.
The priest picked up the pace, as ordered. “And so long as the dragon remains in your castle, the lord of that castle shall rule, with justice and mercy to his people.” The lines were well worn and got little reaction from the scrum.
As the priest continued, Lhai’s eyes caught some movement near the back of the crowd. He focused on a young boy, no more than nine years old, tugging urgently on the arm of the old man who stood beside him.
“Grandfather,” the boy said, in a loud whisper that was drowned out by the priest’s speech for everyone save Lhai. The old man tried to shush him, but the boy kept on. “Why does it wear a muzzle? Why is it chained down? If it wants to stay, why does it—” The old man put an end to the questions with a swift smack up the side of his head.
Lhai grinned, as best he could.
One benefit to having his wings clipped was that, for a few weeks afterward, Lhai was free to roam the bailey without much oversight. Each day he would struggle up to his perch on the inner wall and survey the activities of the humans.
He kept an eye out in particular for the boy who had so many questions. Lhai watched one day as the boy ran with great purpose to and fro around the bailey, slipping in between people twice his size. He was not playing; he was working, apparently as a runner for someone. He knew this place well, better than a boy of his age should.
One day, when the boy stopped by the well for a drink, Lhai flapped awkwardly down from his perch and landed on the stone wall of the well, a few feet away. The boy did his best to avoid looking his direction.
“You work hard, boy,” Lhai said, trying his best to smooth out the natural rasp in his voice.
The boy turned to him, his eyes wide and mouth agape. He quickly looked away and took another drink.
“Now, now,” Lhai said, shuffling along the wall toward the boy, “there is no need to worry. I am not going to hurt you.”
The boy stopped drinking, like he was mulling over the proposition, but did not look at the dragon.
“I know you have questions. How can I answer them if you will not talk to me, boy?”
“Lessard,” the boy said, after a deliberative pause. “My name is Lessard.”
“Ah, he speaks! You may call me Lhai, Lessard. So, what do you want to know?”
Lessard looked around to see if anyone was watching them. “Grandfather says you are dangerous, to stay away.”
Lhai sat back on his haunches, doing his best to look more like an oversized mongrel dog than a dragon. “Do I look dangerous to you?”
They continued like this, talking a bit every day when the boy stopped to get a drink. One day, Lessard leaned in particularly close. “Can you breathe fire?”
Lhai grinned. “What do you think?”
“My grandfather told me so,” Lessard said. “A single dragon could burn an entire village down.”
“If I could breathe fire, why would I still be here?” Lhai asked. “Your grandfather has, no doubt, heard many things in his long life and is most wise, but not everything he has heard is the truth.”
Lessard looked indignant. “Are you calling him a liar?”
“No, no, young friend,” Lhai said, in his best soothing voice. “One need not be a liar to be wrong about something, only misinformed. That is no sin.” He thought otherwise, actually, but he could not antagonize the boy.
Over the days, Lessard asked more questions borne of his grandfather’s tales.
“Do you live forever?” he asked one dreary afternoon.
“No, of course not,” Lhai said. “Everything must come to an end. That is the way the Maker made the world. But we do live a very long time, compared to humans.”
“How do you remember it all?” Lessard asked. “Your whole long life?”
“The Maker has blessed us with great memories,” Lhai said. “Once we have seen something, or heard someone say something, we will never forget it. One day, long in the future, when you are as old as your grandfather, I will remember our talks perfectly.”
Another day, Lessard asked if Lhai had a store of treasure buried somewhere deep in a mountain.
Lhai chuckled. “Not all dragons live in mines or caves,” he said. “But we do like to live apart from each other and apart from humans. And, yes, your grandfather is right about the treasure. Live a long life and you, too, will accumulate many things.” He did not mention that his own cache was surely gone now, with no one to protect it all these years.
One day, it was Lhai who asked the questions. “You always talk of your grandfather,” he asked, “but what of your mother or father?”
Lessard took a slow drink. “My father was killed. In one of Lord Kala’s battles. It was a long time ago, just after I was born.”
Lhai did his best to look sympathetic. “And your mother?”
Lessard stared into the well for a long time. “She’s gone.”
“Just gone,” Lessard said, walking away.
Finally, one day when the clinging rain of the morning finally came to an end, Lessard asked the question Lhai had been waiting and hoping for. “If you have wings, why don’t you fly away?”
Lhai hopped down off of the well and spread his wings wide, partly blocking the sunlight. “Look closely at these wings, Lessard. What do you see?”
The boy scanned the bailey, cautiously, to see if anyone else was looking, then stepped closer and peered at Lhai’s left wing. “Feathers,” he said. “Like a bird. So you should be able to fly.”
Lhai nodded. “Look closer. Does something look wrong about them?” He waved the left wing around a bit.
Lessard backed away. “They’re so short. Why?”
“Because,” he said, wrapping his wings down along his back, “they are clipped every few weeks, to keep them that way.”
“Who does that?” Lessard asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“My keeper,” Lhai said. “I do not know his name. But I do know he does it on the orders of Lord Kala.”
Lessard stood there, mouth partly open but saying nothing, for a few seconds. “Why would Lord Kala do that?”
Lhai moved a bit closer and whispered, “Because if my feathers grew back completely, I would be able to fly away from here.”
“But,” Lessard started to say, then stopped himself. “But, you stay here because it is the Maker’s blessing upon Lord Kala’s reign.”
Lhai slowly shook his head. “If it is truly the Maker’s will that I remain here, why must Lord Kala do this?” He unfurled his wings again. “I am a prisoner, Lessard, just as much as the petty thieves in the dungeon. It makes no difference that I am not chained every day. What is Lord Kala afraid of?”
Lessard said nothing more, only took another long drink, then ran off. Lhai flapped awkwardly back up to his perch on the wall and smiled, just slightly. He didn’t want anyone else to think he might be pleased.
That night the full moon was obscured, passing clouds casting a shifting white glow over the castle. Lhai had settled into an empty cart, enjoying its soft straw, when he saw a figure walking across the bailey. It was Lessard, doing his best to move without arousing suspicion.
“Psst, boy!” Lhai said in a loud whisper. “Lessard!”
The boy changed course and jogged silently to the wagon.
“What are you doing up at this time of night?” Lhai asked.
In the pale moonlight, Lessard’s young face looked tense and haggard. “I can’t sleep. Can’t keep from thinking about,” he said, nodding toward Lhai’s folded wings.
“That is kind of you,” the dragon said, “but it is not your concern, you know.”
“It is,” Lessard said, passionately. “The priests and grandfather say that what Lord Kala does, he does on all our behalf.”
Lhai decided to play along. “Still, you are just a young boy. I appreciate your sympathy, but…”
Lessard shook his head to cut him off. “This is wrong,” he declared firmly. “They shouldn’t do that to anybody, what they do to you.”
Lhai tried hard not to grin widely at the boy. He had come around more quickly that he could have hoped. “But what can you do against the strength of Lord Kala and his men?”
The boy thought for a moment. “How long would it take for your feathers to grow back? All the way back, I mean?”
“Not long, perhaps another week,” Lhai said, “but they will get clipped again in a few days.”
“And once your feathers have grown back, you can fly away?”
Lhai nodded. “Yes, I think so. It has been so long since I have truly flown, but I think I could.”
“Then all we need is a place to hide you,” Lessard said. “Let me think about it.” He turned and left without another word.
Two nights later, Lessard again came to Lhai while he rested in the cart. “I’ve found a place,” he said, waving for the dragon to follow him.
Lhai dutifully obliged, trailing Lessard to a spot where one of the bailey’s inner walls met the high outer rock wall of the castle. The boy fell to his knees and clawed earth out from the foot of the wall with his hands. In a few moments he had dug a hole, big enough to wiggle loose a stone in the inner wall.
“There,” he said, pointing to the hole in the wall.
Lhai crouched down and peered inside, slipping his long neck into the hole. “What is that?”
“It’s a back room, locked behind a door, in the blacksmith’s shop. It’s storage. I don’t think he’s been inside in years.” Lessard looked at the dragon. “It’s a place for you to hide.”
Lhai examined the hole again. It was small, but he could fit through it, with some effort. “All right,” he said. “Then what?”
“You stay there as long as it takes for your feathers to grow back,” Lessard said. “Then I’ll let you out and you can fly away.”
It seemed very simple when the boy said it. “Will they not come and look there?” Lhai gestured toward the hole and the small room beyond it.
Lessard grinned. “Trust me. I’ve spent a lot of time in that room. If you don’t want to be found, that’s the place.”
Lhai looked around and considered his options. “I suppose there is no reason to wait then, eh?” He began to shimmy his way through the hole. It was a tighter fit that he imagined, the rough edges of the stone scraping against his hide as he went through. It wasn’t pleasant, but he could do it again, when the time came.
“How long should I wait?” Lessard asked, already piling the dirt back into position, as if closing the last spot of Lhai’s tomb.
“A week,” Lhai said, “but no more. I will be starving by then.”
“A week,” Lessard agreed, then slowly moved the stone back into the hole.
The room was cold, dark, and damp, but it suited Lhai’s purpose. It was such an unpleasant place, he couldn’t imagine anyone making more than a cursory examination of it. He felt bad for Lessard, who must have been very eager for solitude to subject himself to it.
The walls were made of stacked stones, between which there were numerous cracks and crevices. It was not enough to light the room, but enough sunlight filtered through for Lhai to mark the passing of the days. It also allowed enough sound to seep through that Lhai could follow the goings-on outside.
The hue and cry had gone up in the morning after Lessard hid him, not long after the sun rose. There was shouting and the sound of pounding feet running all around the bailey. The next day there must have been an assembly of some kind, as Lhai heard Lord Kala address his subjects. He called for calm in this moment of uncertainty. When someone asked what it meant that the dragon was missing, Kala said only that, “It means dragons are very willful creatures. That is why its choosing to live here brings with it the Maker’s blessing.”
Fearing that his sanctuary might be discovered, Lhai went to a long, low bench that ran along the far wall. He was able to reposition the items stored underneath it and slide into the empty space. With his teeth he pulled a ragged blanket up over him. He made himself as small, as still, and as quiet as possible. Then he waited.
In his hiding place, deep within an already well hidden room, Lhai began to lose track of time. He didn’t know whether it was later that same day or the next when the guards came. First he heard a mass of voices. There was so much commotion in the bailey, he didn’t pick them out specifically at first, but he heard them growing closer and clearer.
Finally, he heard a baritone voice, the captain of Kala’s guard, berating someone on the other side of the door, charging him with the most grave of offenses. Lhai took a deep breath and tried as best he could to squeeze into an even smaller space.
The door thundered open, thudding hard against one of the many bits of furniture and debris piled around the room.
“In there!” shouted the captain, “what’s in there?”
“Just junk,” said the blacksmith, voice fluttering nervously. Lhai almost felt bad for him.
Feet moved in and around the room, heavy steps clomping on the dirt floor. There were several guards, at least three, plus the one who had been yelling. Lhai heard one of the guards step not six inches away from him. Instinctively, he flinched, enough that the blanket fell away, partly exposing his head.
One pair of feet turned and walked toward the bench, beside which another pair stood, motionless. Lhai swallowed hard, his heart pounding in his ears, then heard a loud thump from above him.
“What’s that?” he heard the captain say. The blacksmith said nothing. “Don’t you know that Lord Kala has prohibited any idols of the old gods? You’re not a blasphemer, are you?”
“No, no, of course not,” said the blacksmith. “It’s just a token. A family heirloom, really. It’s just a small thing, it fits in the palm of your hand. Nobody ever has to know it’s here. My father’s father, you see…” He was cut off by what sounded like a smack across the face.
“Yes, well, we’ll have to take it with us,” the guard said. “Anything else?”
The two standing in front of Lhai murmured to each other, and then to the captain, that there was nothing else here.
“Right, then, let’s get out of here,” the captain said.
Lhai watched as the feet only a few inches from him turned and marched back toward the door. In short order it slammed closed again and Lhai felt the fear and tension melt away from him. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.
Lhai stayed stock still in his hiding place, curled up so tightly that he shook. His throat was dry and his stomach ached. Every noise made him clench and catch his breath. He lost track of the days. How much longer before Lessard would come to let him out? When he heard the guards return and rough up the blacksmith just outside the door, he knew he could wait no longer.
Once they were gone, Lhai emerged from his refuge and carefully felt his way around the wall, searching for the loose block. When he found the one that just ever so slightly jutted out from the wall, he took a tenuous hold of it with his talons and began to pull. The rock was dry and slick and wedged tightly in the wall: his talons slipped off, sending him tumbling backwards. He redoubled his efforts, working more carefully to pry the block slowly out of its spot.
When the block was moved, he began to dig, throwing great heaps of dirt behind him. He could hear the sound of voices around, but did not give them much attention. Light began to creep through the hole the more earth he moved. It was daytime, not the best time for an escape. Never mind – he could take no more of this.
When the hole was big enough, Lhai dove in, head first. It was a tight fit, but he managed to make it through, bursting out of the other side to see a gathering of people staring at him.
“The dragon!” murmured the crowd, wide smiles beginning to blossom on the faces.
Lhai knew he had only a few moments before Kala’s men would come to put him in chains. It was time to do two things he had not done in all the years he had been held captive.
First, he took in a deep breath and unleashed a high, ragged, piercing shriek. It drove some of the assembled throng running, while others covered their ears. The smiles instantly disappeared. The mass of humanity stepped back, giving Lhai more room. It would surely bring out the guards, but they would be coming anyway. Either he escaped now, or not at all.
Second, he raised his wings and extended them fully, sweeping the air in front of him and driving the crowd back a bit more. He took a quick glimpse left and right and smiled. With great up and down strokes Lhai beat his wings and slowly began to lift off the ground, quickly gaining momentum. He shrieked again, just for good measure.
Lhai rose into the air, more easily than he had in years. His wings ached, sending shots of pain down his back. He gritted his teeth and beat them again, trying to push through the hot aching of muscles that had lain dormant for so long. Drawn by the commotion, a squad of Kala’s guards ran across the bailey and stared, mouths open, as Lhai rose slowly, five feet then ten feet into the air.
Lhai caught a glimpse of something shiny, the sun glinting off metal, out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw one of the guards notching an arrow in his bow. Lhai beat his wings harder and began to make for the wall. He needed another fifteen feet to clear it, but he could feel his weight dragging behind him.
“You idiot!” the captain shouted.
Lhai looked over his shoulder and saw the captain smacking the bow out of the guard’s hand. “We’ve just found it and now you want to kill it?”
Lhai smirked, knowing that a single arrow could not kill him, but if it somehow happened to pierce his hide it would slow him down, which he couldn’t afford right now. He took a deep breath and drove, with all his strength, toward the top of the outer wall. He rose higher and higher – first to the level of his perch, then to the top of the rampart – as he closed in on the wall. But he realized, nearly too late, that he did not yet have the height to carry him over.
Before he hit the wall, Lhai executed a long banked turn, so that he faced the bailey and the assembled crowd below. He stopped beating his wings and began to fall, just for a split second. Then he extended them again and swooped down over the bailey, plunging toward the crowd. The dive both caused them to scatter and gave Lhai needed speed. It also allowed him to see Lessard, hiding from the rushing crowd near the well. Lhai tried to give him a nod, some kind of acknowledgement, but he also saw some of the guard hustling back to the bailey with ropes and nets.
Lhai knew this was his last chance. He dove down to about five feet, gaining speed as he went, then banked hard back up toward the outer wall. He beat his wings with swift, powerful strokes, gaining height as he charged to the wall. The smooth, dry fibers of a rope smacked against a back foot, but failed to hold. This was too close. He had come out too early.
The wall loomed ahead of him, the top just out of reach. Lhai knew he couldn’t risk another dive down into the bailey. This was his last chance. He held his breath and gave his wings one last desperate push. He did not fly, unfettered, over the edge as he had so often dreamt. Instead, he came up just short, but managed to reach out and grab the top of the wall with his front talons. Gasping for breath, every muscle in his body burning, he pulled up and threw himself over, to the outside.
He had climbed up and over the wall furthest from the main gate, which only now was being opened to allow his pursuers out. Lhai took a deep breath and glided toward the nearest clump of woodland, trying to recover his strength. He knew there was no catching him now. He picked up his aching wings again and began to beat them in a slow consistent rhythm, powering out over the treetops. He was free.
Lhai circled high overhead, riding the gusts of warm air rising from the fires below. He wove his way around tall columns of black smoke, trying to see what he could.
Lord Ziaud had been all too happy to receive him, given that he was willing to listen to any inside information about his rival, Kala. But Lhai was quick to assure Ziaud this was not a business dealing. He was no spy. This was personal. Ziaud agreed to give Lhai safe passage in out and out of his castle, for the price of information. Over a long meal of finely roasted goat, Lhai had told him all he knew and heard about Lord Kala’s defenses. He told him about the number of fighters in the company, how poorly led they were and how easily frightened. And he told Ziaud about the walls and of the weak spot near his hiding place.
Ziaud was easily convinced of Lhai’s story of confinement. “Kala always did hold symbolism over strength. Like those gold painted spears,” he said. “Just like him to find a dragon and put it in shackles.”
Armed with Lhai’s information, Ziaud needed little prodding to attack Kala. He had wanted to do so for years, but hadn’t known enough of the details of Kala’s company to be certain of victory. Ziaud was a conservative man, but one who would strike when the opportunity arose.
Lhai had given only one condition to Ziaud before he told all he knew. “There is a boy,” he said, “named Lessard. He is the one who helped me.”
“You want to ensure he is not hurt?” Ziaud asked.
“More than that,” Lhai said. “He has no real family. After you finish with Kala, I doubt he will have anything left at all, especially if his grandfather does not survive the assault. Take him in. Give him a home. He will do right by you, I think.”
Ziaud weighed the condition for a few moments.
“And under no circumstances are you to keep him prisoner,” Lhai added.
“Very well,” Ziaud said. “It is a small price to pay to be rid of Kala.”
When the clang of steel on steel and the war cries of men in battle stopped, Lhai dropped slowly down toward Kala’s castle. He alighted on the north wall, the one opposite the site of Ziaud’s attack. The sounds of battle had given way to the sounds of grief and pain, of wounded men calling to the Maker for salvation, and of women weeping for those already gone. Ziaud’s men gathered prisoners, marching small groups back and forth across the bailey.
Lhai could see that Kala was among them, bloodied from a gash above his eye. His prophecy had come true. The dragon had left the bailey and Kala’s rule had come crashing down.
Away from the prisoners, amongst a group of soldiers standing under Ziaud’s banner, stood Lessard. He looked small and helpless compared to the armored men around him, but Lhai knew better. He hung overhead until their eyes met, then smiled and flew away.