Chapter 4: Reminders and Revenge
Dragon scales never stop growing, and Urgu’s crowded, shingle-sized scales gouged the venerable skin underneath; moreover, Urgu was so ancient that his scales wrinkled and peeled, which led to various bad habits, such as breaking the tree trunks he used as back scratchers, or his favorite, a roll in the Peachwine river, which he was currently enjoying. The waters, agitated not just by the dragon’s writhing, but also by his infernal body temperature, sloshed the river bank to drown bordering grasses in silt and scalding mud, and when he had finally relieved his itch, and flew away, the area was a steamy, nightmarish wetlands.
Water ran off Urgu’s soaked wings to the land below. He favored his right wing, as the left was tender from Gilliven’s sword slash. The dragon mused over recent events. Thinking was alien to Urgu, not because it was new, but because it was so very old. Though for several hundred years Urgu had pressed his natural advantages—his enormity, teeth, claws, and unquenchable fire—to provide sustenance and amusement, he remembered the society of dragons and other long-lived beings. Once renowned as a scholar by the dragons, the fae, and the swans, he had begun a history of what other learned dragons called the Human Age, and what he contended was instead the Age of Gods, for surely the pitiful human race could not have made so many advances on their own. The humans seemed blessed with deadly luck that helped their heroes exploit the tiniest chinks with blades smaller than a hatchling’s toe claw; and of the swans, the poor Djaltoujimin, it was not luck but religious malice that did them in. The swans were massacred by the Corunans’ obscene purity, that would allow no speck of difference to be seen or embraced by the Goddess.
While many dragons were hunted, more died in peace, and though for decades Urgu talked to himself to appease his own loneliness, he had not uttered a word or even remembered a single phrase from his vast reading for over a century. Now the ancient languages returned to him like a ghost, which is to say the horror of their long absence haunted him. His name was no longer a curse shouted by the two-legged vermin, but a shadow cast by who he once was.
A man with a sword had come to his lair and tried to kill him—the greatest, mightiest, and possibly last of his kind—like a dumb beast, and in that moment, the awareness he had long denied flooded back, and though the wound pained him, it was nothing compared to the burning shame that he felt when he looked around at his befouled abode. In his prime, he had sky-danced with the Lady Sekrina, regaled the fae with the Lays of Aviri the Swordbreaker, and feasted with the nineteen High Wizards of the Djaltoujimin, after which those enlightened sorcerers had contested with each other for who could make the greatest constellation by adding or subtracting a single star from the night sky. How pitiful would have been the end of him if Urgu had not caught the acrid scent of human flesh in time—he might have died stewing in his own filth.
More pragmatically, he knew that he could not let it stand, or the vermin would keep trying to kill him. They must be cowed by his show of force, but not reduced to hopelessness, or he would conquer their fears for them, and they would swarm his lair until he fled or was overrun. But when he burned one in every ten farms, and scorched one side of every Cjantoskan city street, he realized the human-like futility of his wrath. Unleashed, his rage only considered the present moment, and not the generations to come. Though they feared him now, the memory of his retaliation would beget new heroes.
Should he not flee, Urgu wondered, and burrow in some far-off island? While treasure tarnished under his lair’s layers of filth, the coins were minted with the faces of tyrants whose infamies had been forgotten, and the other antiquities were now paperweights at best. His collection of archaic scrolls were now no doubt dust, the puff of remembrance that breezed back through his consciousness all that was left of them. And yet, as he recalled chortling over the comedies of Aurator by the light of his own smoldering snickers, he knew that his greatest treasure would always lay buried there—the pleasure he had reading and re-reading his scrolls.
As a hatchling, his favorite tale in Schertahn’s Histories of the Dragon Kings detailed how Vultoq achieved preeminence in human, dragon, and monster realms. Unlike the ill-mannered dragons that demanded virginal princesses to be served up like street food—Princess-On-A-Stick—wise king Vultoq did not compel sacrifice, but instead, took the regal gifts as hostages to leverage the obedience of their less civilized neighbors. This was a tradition to bring back, thought Urgu, and as he had procrastinated for long enough, he soared toward, then overshadowed, Cjantosk.
Urgu glided over the sprawling city’s outskirts, then dived to seize a cow. Still coasting, the dragon bit off its head and forelegs with one chew, then took a few more bites. When the humans slammed doors, screamed and whispered, and shot arrows from windows to clatter on his hoary scales, he resisted the temptation to burn more farms, or even rain dragonfire down on their magnificent tulip fields, as he had already exacted destruction, and he wanted to be very clear with his new message. The humans must understand that today was no comment on past injustice, but a statement about their future relations. Urgu’s plan was to capture one of their offspring, and one of their elderly, as he wished his hostages to be the most vulnerable kinds of humans, so that they might learn not to wage war on a sleeping dragon.
Though the farms lay quiet, a human girl, not even a morsel, splashed in a mud puddle. No, not a mud puddle, he realized—it was an ash puddle, where the recent rains had mingled with the ashes of a corn field he had scorched. Though her play was so quiet that her family had overlooked her, in the farms’ stillness, her squeals and her smacks on the ashy water echoed, and when the dragon swooped toward her, he heard her family clamoring from the farmhouse windows. Only when the girl was caged neatly in his left claw did she start screaming, though it was more from being pulled away from her play, as she fearlessly scratched and pulled at the talons. The girl was too young to know a release at this speed would kill her. The dragon clutched his prey a little tighter, not to crush the human child, but to contain her tantrum, as he wanted her to live long.
His next prey tried to flee, but as it was bundled head to toe in decorative robes and waddled like a duck, he nabbed it easily in his hind claw, thinking at the last moment to spare his hostage from being bloodied by the cow remnants spattering his other foreleg. He knew not whether it was male or female, but he hoped the swaddled one would be a sedentary creature and able to care for the girl child.
When Urgu climbed arced away from Cjantosk, the humans spilled from their houses to weep and curse, and he tuned them out by humming an ancient draconian dirge. Discovering he only remembered the first stanza’s cadence, he repeated its melody until the human mob was drowned out in the distance. More than once on the way home, the peckish dragon almost chomped on the morsel in his left talon, rather than the cow in his right.