The cellar became an oven. Simmering sweat stung his brow and upper lip. His hot flesh swelled under shrinking skin; he was afraid he would burst open.
Above the air rippled and sparked. Tongues of dragonfire licked the thin fissures between the roof rafters and poked through the gaps in the weave of scales covering the hut. Hal shut his eyes and trembled while cracking ceramic jars and hissing herbs mixed with the roaring whoosh of the flaming storm outside.
He would have screamed but he couldn't move his lips. He couldn't do anything, but melt, expire… His soul peeled from the Realm of the Living and he sensed nothing more.
The cold of the cellar floor against his spine returned him to the world.
"The evil has passed over." The sibyl's steady words cooled his blood and calmed his boiling insides. "We have survived another night." She dabbed his temples, his lips and his eyelids with an icy ointment.
Once he had pulled on his clothes and tied the knots of his mail the sibyl prepared a breakfast of pasty gruel for him, though she did not partake. When he was done he stepped outside and searched the morning sky for the palace of Aurora. But there were no turrets in the clouds. "Here I am, at the edge of the world. Where is she? Will I ever see her again?"
He walked around to the other side of the hut and found the sibyl raking scorched soil. Her long robes hid her shape but he remembered the rise of her bosom, the dip from her shoulders to her small waist and the curve of her hips. The feeling of her skin touching his in the cellar blazed in his mind.
"There might be a small root or tuber that escaped the dragon's fumes." Her words held little hope; the hoe yielded only dust.
Moving close, he smelled smoke and herbs. He wondered what the sibyl would do if he took her in his arms and kissed her. "May I have your name?" he asked.
"My name is Tesana." Her tightening brow conveyed suspicion, despite her hidden eyes. "Why do you want to know it?"
"I wish to thank you properly, Sister Tesana. You saved my life."
"I am a holy servant. We aid all souls in need." An awkward pause elapsed. "You must leave before midday."
"I will only leave if you will come with me."
"I cannot." She returned to combing the barren ground.
"Then show me your whetstone and grant me some oil." More memories of the cellar lit his thoughts – flashing air burning his eyeballs and stealing his breath as searing heat stung his skin. "I must sharpen my sword and clean my armor."
"You believe you can slay the dragon? After what you have seen?"
"I will kill it when it strikes tonight. I cannot bear–" He stopped himself. "I cannot allow you to suffer another attack."
"I can suffer many, many more attacks." She aimed her veiled eyes at his. "But the dragon must fall. Its evil is spreading. The nights are growing longer. The beast comes earlier and journeys further inland, I fear, with every dusk." She tapped his shoulder. "Your steel will not help you. The metal links carry heat. They will weigh you down and cook you faster when the demon breathes its fire."
"What defense may I have then?"
The sibyl gestured towards the golden hut. "Dragon scales."
"If I shield myself with its skin, the beast cannot harm me?"
"The creature's flames shall be repelled. Yet the heat will destroy you. The scales only provide short-lived protection. You must have a plan."
"You say you have the power of prophesy. Why don't you tell me the plan?"
"I would if my sight were that clear. I have seen the dragon's fall. It will drop from the heavens and crash onto the rocks by the shore. Yet I do not know how it will happen, or when, or how many more the demon will kill."
Inside the hut, Prince Hal sharpened his sword while Sister Tesana affixed dragon scales to a large wooden shield.
"The steel sings when you scrape it," she said.
"The song will be sweeter when it slashes the beast's throat." Hal stood and swung the weapon at a dragon made of air. "It is my destiny. Nothing shall keep me from slaying the demon!" he swore silently.
"I cannot see how your sword will be of any use. Even if it could hack through the dragon's hide, you cannot get close enough." Tesana leaned the shield against the wall. "The men of our village did not have blades as fine as yours, but all of them were brave. The beast burned every man who fought, from thirty paces or more. None had a chance to slash or thrust. The only one who harmed the creature at all was just a boy…"
"What did the boy do?"
"He was the oldest of the children who survived the first night of terror. I was watching them." Tesana touched her blindfold. "My eyes were not 'shrouded' at that time."
"He stole away to fight the dragon?" asked the Prince.
"When the sun set the day after that horrible night, the other women and I took the children and the old ones into the caves here in the cliffs, while below the men were defending the shore." She held a single dragon scale in her hands. "The boy had a small spear, for training. One moment he was striking at moonshadows on the cave walls and then he was gone." She fingered the shiny chunk of dragonflesh. "He ran to the cliff edge and watched the beast breathe fire on his father and the other warriors. With all his strength he threw the little spear." The scales on the shield cast flickers of sunlight on her chin and neck. "The dragon has a patch at the back of its head where its scales are soft. The boy's stick sunk in and held. The creature did not notice at first. Then the evil thing rose from its kill… Before I could reach the child–" Her chin tilted downwards. "He jumped."
"Onto the back of the dragon?"
"The creature soared into the sky and all the boy had to cling to was his spear. He could not hold fast with his legs. The dragon's gullet is almost as wide as a boy is tall. But that child hung on and did not fear the Lord of the Dead. He was determined to destroy the demon. He twisted the spear, drove it deep. Then the dragon felt the stab. It reared over, high above the rocks and the boy fell."
"If the lad had borne a sword he would have slain the worm," Hal said, returning his blade to the scabbard. A breeze coming through the unshuttered window ruffled Tesana's robes. Hal picked up her scent again – wildflowers and smoky rosewood.
Tesana let the folds of her clothing settle before she spoke again. "After we sang over his broken bones and lay them in the earth next to his father's, all those who still lived left."
"All except for you."
"Yes. My fate will be decided here. As will yours." She stood and stepped forward. "What other weapons did you bring? I heard more than just the sword."
"A bow and some arrows…"
"How well can you shoot?"
"I can hit a target on a giant dragon at thirty paces. Likely fifty or sixty paces. But arrows are for hunting birds and rabbits, perhaps a stag. If I did strike the soft spot, would the demon feel a thing?"
"No. And if you were hidden, it might never realize it has been pricked."
Prince Hal's eyebrows arched. "Pricked?"
"Is 'stung' a better word?" she asked.
"Stung? Are you talking about poison? A poison arrow? Can you poison a dragon?"
"I cannot promise it will work. Dragons have fire in their blood." The sibyl crossed the room to the stacks of jars and selected one of the few that bore no cracks. "Any poison with the strength to kill one would finish you long before you drew your bow." She rubbed the symbols painted on the front. "Perhaps we shouldn't try to slay the demon. We'll only stun it."
"Is that such a potion?"
"This is essence of tithon root. Three pure drops will kill a horse. With a good dose the dragon might be numbed and feel the need to sleep."
"I will slaughter it with my sword while it sleeps," Hal conveyed iron confidence, "and it will never wake again."
Tesana smiled, yet it lasted only a heartbeat. When she spoke her words were heavy, "I fear whether you kill the dragon or no you will pay a terrible price."
"No price is greater than honor. I'll win that no matter what happens. The other contest is life. If I survive and the creature loses its head, I'll win that too."
The sibyl said nothing.
"In the Gray Desert one of your elders told me he who slays the dragon will live forever. Is it true?" asked Hal.
"If he eats of the dragon's beating heart, he shall never die."
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