The Beasts Above
One summer day, well past the noontide, Corlan was riding his mount up the side of a mountain, the trail along the cliff barely wide enough for them to pass, when he heard a familiar screech echoing through the desert canyon. He turned in the saddle, glancing back over his brawny shoulder, whiskered chin brushing his sweaty shirt. His eyes brightened as he gazed down the long, ancient riverbed, searching for targets at the extreme range of his vision. He examined the crest of the jagged hills there, then surveyed the bronze sky just above them. With a scratch of his whiskers, he grinned.
A dragon clan was approaching. He counted again. Eleven of them in a loose V formation. Just when he believed he would never fill his quota, there they were! It would be a good day, after all.
Corlan pulled rein on his mount. Brushing his wind-swept hair out of his face and keeping his eyes fixed on the clan, he reached behind the saddle for the dragonslinger. Pulling the tubular weapon around to his lap, he next grabbed an iron bolt, wrenching it from one of two quivers that hung from each side of his mount. He loaded the bolt into the weapon’s barrel and screwed back the spring lever to the third mark.
Squeezed against the cliffs overlooking the barren canyon was not the best location, Corlan knew. He had been heading for higher ground, to his usual place which had better cover. Yet the dragons were already coming. Even so, he decided, from this cliff he could easily pick a few of the aerial beasts out of the sky. He could fill his monthly quota and be heading back to the city for a stout brew and a good woman. After enough days of relaxation, he would return to the Valley of Death once more.
He set the weapon’s mark on the first dragon, a large gray-belly, and released the spring. The iron bolt shot out into the canyon and struck the nearest winger behind the base of the jaw, a weak point, ripping the beast out of the formation.
As he watched the dragon fall to the valley floor, a puff of dust forming when it crashed, he smiled. No soft heart for Corlan; he was only doing his job: saving the realm from the scourge of dragons. That’s what he always told people. It wasn’t that he enjoyed culling the herd. Yet he had admitted a few times, usually while drinking, that the work was pleasant enough. He had a lot of time to think, sitting on the canyon’s edge, waiting for dragons to fly past.
He was less interested in explaining how he happened into this risky occupation. “Politics,” he snarled at those who asked. “Mere social squabbling, all it was. Not at all what people might assume.” What they might have assumed was that sometime in the darker days of childhood he’d had an unpleasant encounter with a dragon, even a small one. Thus, hatred for them would boil throughout his life until he could resist no more and marched out to battle them. People would understand that; most members of the Dragonslayer Guild told similar tales.
No, for Corlan, it was different. He was new to the occupation. One day he had been the grandson of a king, the next day an outcast making his way across the battlefields of the realm. His father had taught him well the military arts. So he had served any lord who offered him enough coin. He trained soldiers to fight, then watched them die—thought Corlan, marking the next aerial beast.
As a field captain, he had garnered some fame: the second Battle of Green Mountain was a decisive victory. And the Battle of the Two Rivers, north of Bany, decided a crucial border. For that, he had been handsomely rewarded by the Prince of Nerk. The next war, however, did not go as well—
The dragon’s scream shook him from his thoughts. Ripping the lead winger out of the formation compelled its lieutenants to turn upon him with their full fury. Corlan was ready, of course. Few men could keep their fear in check when dragons swooped down. In fact, many a loincloth was soiled by the first encounter. Their lives were measured in minutes—with a toasty end to regrets imagined and loves unfulfilled. And yet, he often realized, he hadn’t much to live for anyway. He’d wasted most of his thirty-eight years and saw nothing in his future, so he relished the fight.
He loaded the dragonslinger with a fresh bolt, ignoring how unprotected his location was. The metal dart was the length of his arm and tipped with a trident of barbs. For good measure, between the barbs was a capsule holding the best poisons the wizards could create. Upon impact, the barbs cutting into the flesh of the dragon, the capsule would burst and spill its toxin into the body of the beast—in case the wound itself did not take down the creature.
As he prepared to fire the weapon again, Corlan kneed his broad, muscular mount, the ungainly hippor, into the shadows of the cliffs where they would be safe a moment longer than if they were in full view. The hippor grunted disagreement but complied. The quivers of iron bolts that hung from each side clanged.
“Come on, beasty! I’ve a gift for you!” he shouted at the next dragon trying to locate him on the mountainside before giving a vain cry and turning away.
Corlan scanned the clear sky, bronze sun nailed to the zenith. He measured the distance with his trained eyes. He could rip a few more, he decided, thinking of children that had been carried away and farmsteads burnt. The more dragons dropping from the sky, the better. The better the ground, he thought. He loathed stepping in dragon waste.
Pressing his boot against the side of the cliff, Corlan dismounted, dropping to the dirt beside the reddish-brown hippor, raising a reddish-brown cloud of dust. The hippor yawned. Its broad throat opened for a moment, flashing its tusks before closing. A snort from its nostrils sprayed the ground.
“You keep doing that, Chug, and I’ll trade you for another!”
He kicked some dirt over the toes of his boots to dry the mucus sprayed from the hippor’s nose. Pulling a cloth from the saddlebag, he wiped his leg from knee to hip and tossed the rag over the edge of the cliff. The wind blew it back at him. He slapped the cloth down and trained his eyes again on the approaching dragons.
Corlan expelled a hard breath as he screwed back the spring lever. He was tired of the hippor. If only horses still existed. But the last horse was dead more than a hundred years already. It had been kept in a small pen on the palace grounds where the king thought it would be safe from a starving citizenry. In the end, it was not safe. So the wizards used old magic to create this new riding beast.
Three of the dragons were circling overhead, locating their prey against the mountainside. Corlan’s red and brown clothing merged into the reddish-brown cliffs. Even his auburn hair helped him blend in. Yet their eyes were sharp. He wished then that he’d reached his usual hunting spot where the overhanging rock protected him.
The beasts screeched their displeasure. With boots planted in the dirt, he leaned back against the hippor, urging it tighter against the cliff. He took his stance, checking the bolt in the dragonslinger. He had another bolt leaning against his knee, ready to load next.
The grey-belly with teal throat stripes came in screaming, wings wide and talons drawn, making a ridiculous spectacle—as though it was trying to frighten children all the way in the city.
Corlan sent the iron bolt through the dragon’s throat. The beast dropped from the sky, falling past him and down to the valley floor. The iron bolt had cut clean through the dragon’s neck and continued arching into the sky. Teal clouds of glandular fluid from the dragon’s throat dissipated in the hot, dry air.
In went the next iron bolt, the spring set, weapon aimed.
The second dragon, a female grey-belly with splashes of orange on the tips of her pale wings, came straight at him, likely upset about loosing her mate. He saw the fluttering throat skin, heard the high-pitched cry before she expelled a burst of noxious gas which, with a deliberate hiccough, ignited. The dragon’s subsequent breath sent the fireball blazing at the cliff.
Corlan crouched under the hippor’s large head. Flames exploded around him, splattering against the cliff.
Squealing, the hippor bumbled forward, almost trampling him. Its bulbous rump and hairless tail were aflame. Corlan swatted at the flames. There was nothing more he could do. A canteen of water would not be enough and he needed the water for the journey home.
“Now do you hate dragons?”
Before he could decide what else to do, the dragon charged the cliff again after making an arc through the sky.
Corlan shoved another iron bolt into the dragonslinger. His hands worked without thought, pulling back the launch spring to its tightest mark. He raised the weapon, aimed, and released the bolt, striking the dragon under its lower jaw, close to the sweet spot.
Momentarily distracted, the aerial beast crashed into the cliff, one sharp wingtip scraping along the trail that hugged the rocks, nearly catching his boot.
Corlan dove aside—as he glimpsed the hippor disappearing over the edge of the cliff, its rear end burnt and smoldering.
In the next instant, a large red-bull swooped up from below and snatched the fat animal in its maw. The dragon sailed high into the sky with its treasure. With a quick toss, the dragon caught the hippor in its mouth and bit off half, letting the other half fall. Then the dragon dove and caught the second half, and downed it in another gulp. Taking on the extra weight forced the dragon into a lower course and it struggled to rise. The other dragons screamed but the red-bull only belched in response.
The formation turned away, continuing along the valley. They would not spare more time or effort dealing with another pesky gamekeeper. Three already were lost on this passage through the valley. Count yourselves lucky, thought Corlan, breathing hard despite the reddish dust blowing off the cliffs.
“I got greedy,” he mumbled, kneeling on the trail. He placed his hand inside one of the footprints left by the hippor.
He scanned the valley below for other dragons and thought of the stories he’d heard in this tavern or that one. Travelers reported that beyond the mountains, at the far end of the Valley of Death, long after it turned to the southwest, lay the dragon nesting ground. A vast marsh, a sea of grass spotted with low isles. On those isles dragons would settle during the cold season and mate. After the cold season, their nests would be full of eggs. In the spring, they would hatch. And he would meet them later in the Valley of Death.
If only he could make his way there to the nesting ground and destroy their eggs before they hatched. Then the entire realm would be safe for humankind—even for the well-ensconced prince and his fashionable court. Certainly he would be rewarded by the prince. Besides, the less Corlan had to step around dragon waste, the better. He was already into his third pair of boots this year.
He realized he had no beast to carry him and the remaining iron bolts down through the mountains and back to the city. One quiver of bolts had fallen with the hippor and the other had only three bolts remaining. He was done with hunting.
“Should’ve waited,” he cursed.
He was glad he was not any farther from the city. It would still be a hard journey by foot.
“No more Chug.” He clapped his hands to clear the dust.
After brushing his sleeves, he blithely ran his fingers through his long, tangled hair—almost as though he were about to step into the private chamber of a lady of the Court whose attentions he had garnered in recent weeks. The lovely, blond Petula, he sighed. Instead, he was only setting himself for the road home. It seemed his life was nothing but roads: always going somewhere but never arriving.
His boots had gotten scuffed and the snot of the hippor made every particle of dust cling to them. He sat on a rock and pulled off his boots to clean them properly. As he worked, he could hear the fading cries of the dragon clan winging down the valley. The clans seemed smaller than usual this expedition, so perhaps the efforts of the Guild were actually reducing their number.
When the dragons were gone, he thought, he and his fellow guild members would be out of employ. No more enjoying the prince’s favor. That mattered little. But no more the admiration of the ladies at Court, either. That did matter. The ladies loved bedding a dragonslayer. After all, he was the only true man at any Court gathering.
“Pity,” he grunted, examining the results of his cleaning.
Rebooted, Corlan set out at a brisk pace, the heavy dragonslinger resting against his shoulder. The quiver of three bolts hung from his other shoulder. They would become heavier the more he hiked, so he whistled a bawdy tune as he hiked the trail, eager to return to the Burg once more.