“Others are already calling for you to be branded. I can only hold them off for so long.”
Zarkir ignored the words. His teeth bit the shaft of the arrow imbedded in his shoulder and jerked it free. He spat it onto the ground with disgust; the crude craftsmanship left a bad taste in his mouth. Blood trickled from the wound which his tongue swept away. He wondered idly if his enemies would ever present a real challenge.
“Let them try,” he said.
The soft earth squelched between his talons as he waded into the river. Icy though the waters were in the pregnant pause between the change of season from winter to spring, he ignored it. The elements parted to allow him passage until his long body stretched half way between the banks. Zarkir dipped his black wings into the rushing waters, and cleaned them of grime. This time, he could not ignore the bite of the cold, and his spine shivered. Scales were thick enough to shrug off such worldly nuisances like temperature, but the fleshy membranes were not as protected.
He glanced behind him at the old dragon on the bank, shaded from the midday sun beneath the wilting branches of an oak. “I fight for them, against an infestation that would rather see them dead, and the fools cast away my gift.”
“Your gift comes at the expense of our peace.”
“There is no peace. The humans smash our eggs; they kill our young before their wings can taste the sun! They would kill us all if they could. The peace you speak of does not exist.”
“You must control your wrath. The fire in your blood burns too hot–”
Elder Vakatz seethed, smoke plumed from his nostrils. It angered Zarkir, who was already tense at another male so close by. The only reason that he remained calm was because the Elder was frail. Vakatz had an impressive six pairs of horns – one pair for each century he had lived. But his body was thin and his claws brittle. His scales had lost the vibrant colour of youth and had grown soft. It was a testament to him, for few dragons lived long enough to be considered Elders.
A growled sigh escaped the Vakatz as he attempted to dispel his anger. "I did not come here to trade barbs with you, Zarkir. You are a young, strong male. Our people have need of you. Do not throw away your life for your father's war."
"The Assembly refused retribution when my mother was slain. We are carrying out what you were all too afraid to do."
He knew that was too close to insulting the revered Elder, especially when a rumble like the coming of thunder echoed across the river. "Careful, Zarkir. You are a drakeling no longer. Some might consider you an adult now. I'm certain your father has noticed. Why else would he send you into these skirmishes more often than himself?"
The question prodded at Zarkir's mind, pricking at his interest more so than he cared to admit. It had been crossed his mind as unusual that his father had not sought to drive his son out of his territory upon reaching maturity, as was custom. Not that Zarkir wished to leave; he wanted nothing more than to stay with his father, the only parent he had left, who had raised him since his mother's death when he'd been just a hatchling. He wanted to make his father proud, wanted to fight alongside him for honour and for justice.
He shook his head to clear it of the niggling worms of thought the Elder had placed there. "My father merely appreciates my value as a warrior."
"Indeed..." Vakatz murmured. "Especially since he knows he could not best you in a challenge."
That was enough probing questions. Zarkir stepped out of the river, and shook his black scales dry. He stood tall over the hunched Elder, daring to look him in the eye in a show of dominance. Father had been right, he decided: the Assembly was filled with old fools who had no more teeth to bite with, so instead used whispers to divide other, strong-willed dragons. Still, there was enough respect in him to issue a formal dismissal. “Fly home, Honoured-One. May the wind be under your wings.”
Vakatz sighed in defeat, but left.
“Lord Father,” Zarkir called out, landing with strong feet upon the mountaintop.
A red dragon lay coiled a few feet below him, as large as Zarkir himself. His father, Bardinor, looked up at him. He slithered up from the ground as he stood. Bardinor stretched his wings and belched a bolt of flame.
His voice was deep with irritation. “Lower your eyes, Lord Son. I am in no mood for challenges today.”
Zarkir slunk back away from the higher ground, and his father followed his every step. Only when he reached the elevated position above his son was Bardinor satisfied. Zarkir kept his head and eyes lower than his father, his neck arched to reduce his height.
“The town of Saithe is bursting,” he said, and gestured with his smooth snout back the way he had come. It had taken him most of the day after leaving the river to scout from the skies their intended target before flying so many miles south. “The humans summon their ships with warriors and weapons.”
“They fear us. Good.” Bardinor’s tongue flicked out to taste the air. “You will strike them tonight.”
Zarkir gaped. “Tonight? Their garrisons are full and we don’t know their weapons. We mustn’t strike when we know so little.”
“Did I raise a coward? I thought I taught you to take back from these thieves what is ours.”
“I know that. But we need to be cautious. We must show cunning–”
“You will show the might of dragons!” Bardinor roared. Both his front legs slammed down on the mountain and it shuddered beneath him. “None can match the majesty of our breed. You will remember that when you show them your fire!”
Zarkir resisted the urge to peel his lips back over his teeth. His instincts begged to kill a challenger, but he cleared his mind. Though it burned his pride, he lowered himself in submission. Zarkir had always been the biggest egg in the nest, and grown far larger than expected. It meant he had to lower himself often so as not to appear confrontational.
"Would it not be wiser," he said in a deliberately quiet voice, "to draw their attention elsewhere? If they are guarded well, it would be practical to stretch their forces thin, first."
"There is no need for caution," his father said, relaxing slightly at his son's submission. "I already spotted their ships on the way to Saithe. Only one held Silver Knights, I sank it. You will find no real threat there."
At least that was some relief. The Silver Knights wielded weapons designed to bring down dragons. Without them, no other weapons could truly hurt him. “Will I expect you on the battlefield?”
“Not tonight. I have more important matters to attend to.” Bardinor looked to the sky. His scales rippled as he breathed in.
"At the height of our campaign?" Zarkir demanded. "Saithe is the final assault. It was their lord that ordered Mother's death, her bones that decorate his halls. Once we allow the others to see his death -"
"You speak as if there shall be any humans left by moon-down," Bardinor chuckled.
His stomach twisted. "Lord Father," he edged cautiously, "Surely it would be more effective to send a message to the survivors. That the dragons will not suffer murderers?"
"They are all murderers. And they would be too stupid to conceive of such a message even if you tried. That is why they must die."
"There is no honour in killing hatchlings."
Bardinor snorted a cloud of soot. "How unfortunate, my son, that your cowardly tongue were not human to convince them of honour when they decide to kill our hatchlings."
Efficiently reminded of what was at stake, Zarkir lowered his head a little further. A breeze shifted their way. His father immediately stood a little straighter in order to catch the scent that was carried with it. Zarkir could sense it too, a spice was on the wind that made his blood pound and his scales itch. It was enticing, intoxicating. Bardinor saw his far-off look and hissed.
His father took to the air, red wings catching the wind to propel him onwards. He looked back at his son. “Wash the land clean with their blood.”