Chapter 11: Halos and Shadows
Urgu exulted as he soared, his outstretched wings grasping the air in huge clawfuls and mighty sweeps, and his prize tightly pinned between two hind talons. To the farmers and tulip-gazers below, the dragon seemed aimless, as his sinuous body was in the throes of such a victory dance that he zigged and zagged like a spurting balloon. His captive’s moans made his pleasure more delicious, and snorts of gleeful fire tickled his nose.
Now they knew. Now they knew what it was like to fear an avaricious enemy that crossed your doorstep and dredged through your treasures for prizes to hoard. For laying their hands on his rightful hostages, he flayed their pink tissuey scales, spoiled their delicacies, and stole their cherished leader.
Or would they know? A few generations past, as dragons measure their millennia-spanning generations, humans hid in trees, and sharpened stones and sticks. Once, Urgu had chortled over the scholar Jakursal’s scroll, in which that worthy author theorized that the clever humans were a false offshoot of draconic development, for even to consider the scrawny beasts failed dragons was too charitable, for their breath was far too weak, unable to burn even dry leaves, their hind legs bent the wrong way, and their clawless, wingless, forelegs were doomed to remain as useless as a hatchling’s. Though Urgu disagreed with Jakursal’s evolutionary argument, the premise—that humans were dead ends of some sort, that had somehow attracted the pity of the gods to elevate beyond their station—was inarguable, since Jakursal had founded it in Urgu’s own philosophy. That the gods had chosen some humans to sire the line that would become dragons, however, was laughable, not only for the intimations of bestiality, but because the human beasts were such lamentable lizards.
As rain spattered from low-flying, dark clouds, flashes arced over the jagged hills of Urgu’s lair, though the lightning was anchored neither in the ground nor the sky, but batted from side to side by two swans, each wrestling with the storm’s exploding turbulence. As the electric bolts were lobbed back and forth, they rebounded faster and faster like an increasing metronome, until one of the swans broke into a dive, and the other pursued, the ball of lightning blazing just ahead of him.
Urgu was amused to observe the fleeing swan veer towards him, for did this bit of fluff fear another lint ball more than a dragon? Its wings thrummed circling the dragon’s head, nearly droning out its warbling, then hissing, as it repeated its short speech in both the ancient language of the Djaltoujimin and Draconian. “Help me, mighty guardian of the earth’s riches!” Urgu remembered that this was exactly what the elder Djaltoujimin wizard, Trikrerta, had once said to Wise King Vultoq.
“‘This is not your nest, little bird, but mine’” said Urgu, also citing the ancient Histories of the Dragon Kings, though his next line was of his own invention. “If you were me, would you help two nest thieves having a falling out?”
The swan said “I am no hatchling, but Khlarn, a Djaltoujim full grown. I stole nothing, and share neither nest, nor flock, nor bevy with that one.” Khlarn continued, ”Slyvena ulminsener divessa truminya Djaltoujimin uri wyrmus,” which meant “Oh, great wyrm, I ask thee to honor the ancient pact of our peoples” and its sudden translation was like a great gust that cleared more dust from the caverns of Urgu’s mind, shaking his spine and shivering his tail.
“Show me my people,” snorted the dragon. “Only Urgu remains.”
“Not true,” said the Djaltoujimin, “they are few, but you are not alone.”
The other Djaltoujimin called out, “Blessed and honorable Urgu! This one’s lies offend even the gods, and I shall take him from your sight.”
“Either one or both of you shall die,” said Urgu, “and as he knows the scrolls and you do not, it is he that may escape my wrath.”
“You don’t have my measure, slitherer.” The Djaltoujim pointed its wingtips toward the skies, cantillated a hellish birdsong, and the clouds swelled and darkened. The stormy mass of the nimbostratus sunk lower and lower, crackling with balls and darts of lightning. Khlarn felt a stab of envy to see an ancient enchantment fluently accomplished.
Though the storm clouds were now like a gigantic halo above their heads, Urgu was unimpressed. “You’re a surprising one—one surprise away from death. With me, what you see is what you get.” The dragon’s monstrous wings rippled, coursing him towards the Djaltoujim, who at the last moment remembered that it had wings and forgot its spell in its haste to fly from the dragon.
When sunlight glinted through the dispersing clouds, Urgu dropped something in his charge, and Khlarn pulled his wings straight back, dropping like a stone to overtake the brightly robed human that plummeted to their death. Gripping the human by the shoulders, Khlarn then buoyed them with a whispered charm, to drift to a crag jutting from Urgu’s lair.
As they settled to the rocky spur, Khlarn saw on the slopes beneath him an old man, a girl. and a lamb, and with practiced ease and a sigh of satisfaction, slipped into his cozy human skin. He was often in a hurry to cast off his tattered, ill-tailored swan plumage, for that pelt cast a long shadow over many sorrows, including the massacre of his people and their missing eggs and scrolls, while his human hide covered that like a set of new clothes and a free and easy smile.
When the robed one removed her golden mask and dipped into a shallow curtsy, Khlarn shivered in a recognition numbed by its enveloping memory. She was a young monk a hundred years ago, her hair cropped, and her monk’s habit less ornate than these robes inscribed with stars and suns. Her religious zeal that day was signified by the torch she touched to their houses.
Though for decades a day had not passed without daydreams of retribution, decades more had passed Khlarn by, and now he mostly found himself struck dumb with astonishment at the fact of seeing, somewhat aged but alive, one of the monks that caused the swan diaspora. Though logic said this priestess should be well over a hundred, she looked scarcely older than fifty, and though he knew he should first think of her as a murderess, he could not help viewing her as a human anomaly and historical fact. Even more than he wanted to throttle her, he wanted to question this witness to reify his fading memory of that day.
When Khlarn took a step back and opened his mouth, words escaped him, but not the spell to unwrap the human skin encumbering his swan self, which then flew free from Urgu’s lair.
While Urgu’s immense wings cleaved the space between him and his prey, that Djaltoujimin was more maneuverable, swerving, zigging, and zagging like a water bug, and seeing Khlarn in flight, darted toward its quarry, leading the dragon’s murderous speed towards both swans.
As his venerable grief had not rekindled but reoccurred, Khlarn flew not from the hated enemy, but from the shadow of his sorrow, which after a centuries-long pursuit overtook him. Emboldened by the shadow of his monstrous ally, the heat of his sadness erupted in rage, and he turned upon the other Djaltoujim.
Pinioned between Khlarn and Urgu, the other swan dove for the treetops, and Khlarn followed, less from his own volition than dangling like a puppet from his anger, which quivered in him wingtip to wingtip. Rounding a tree trunk, Khlarn’s beak cracked a wing, sending his opponent in a spiraling, dizzying glide, to collide with the promontory below.
Khlarn alighted shape changing, so that boar’s feet flattened the grass charging the wicked Djaltoujim, who hobbled away a broken-winged swan, so shaken that it thought neither of a four legged stride or even human feet to hasten its flight. His enemy’s animal desperation moved Khlarn so that his anger cooled, and he changed to his second skin. “Why do you want me dead?” he asked.
The swan stopped its lame hop, turned on its good wing, transformed, and shook her human hand at Khlarn. The Djaltoujim’s naked human form had hair the color of blood and bright white, oddly unblemished skin, with neither freckle nor the discoloration of veins, less like human skin than like placid cream. “You are an abomination,” it said, “a bit of spell-singing divinity that spites the divine.”
“Would you find holiness in killing me?” Khlarn chuckled through the still labored breathing from being both pursued and pursuer.
“Aside from the goddess, blasphemer, no one finds holiness.”
This was too much for the ancient Djaltoujim, who wept freely his tears of frustration, pity, and sorrow. “You worship one who orphaned you,” he said, “and are lost to those who wish you saved.”
“Coruna saved me.” When she raised her good arm, a jagged burst of light cleaved Khlarn’s shoulder.
Blood soaked Khlarn’s robe, beard, hair, and right eye, so that he squinted up at the leering, younger Djaltoujim, whose face was both haloed and shadowed by the burning, midday sun. As he lay dying, he forgave this poor egg, who had never learned right from wrong, but was twisted by the lies of divinity. “I forgive you,” he said, choking blood that trickled into the blood pooling under him. “How many?”
She kicked him in the side. “Though evil knows not how to forgive, I will answer you, as your soul will not echo in the dwindling darkness. You assumed wrongly that the monks smashed the eggs. They saved a full flock.”
“One zealot shy of full,” said another voice. Craning his neck as best as he could, Khlarn was rewarded with a fresh spate of bleeding and the sight of a tall, muscled man, dressed simply in bright swaths of green linen. Merry green eyes blazed from a face fringed by a wild mane of red hair and a tangled beard.
“Step back!” shouted the albino Djaltoujim. “Who are you?”
“Two commands, one in the interrogative sense,” said the green-clad man. “If I disobey both, I transgress twice. You have much to learn about authority, hatchling.” His tone was a shade friendlier than neutral, like a school teacher. “In a very short time,” he added, and from his face fire erupted in an incendiary stream, engulfing the Djaltoujim and sending a back-blast of cinders and ashes over Khlarn.
When the fiery deluge stopped, the man’s face was immaculately unkempt, not one frowsy beard hair singed or out of place. He stooped to pick up Khlarn. “You could make this easier on me, you know,” the large man grumbled, but grunted only a little under the weight.
“Urgu,” Khlarn said feebly.
“Did my manner of speech or the fire tip you off?”
“I didn’t know...”
“That sentences have an object? That I change shape? That you should save your strength? All three are true,” he said. “Sleep,” he added, and Khlarn obliged him.