I circled the castle twice before beginning my descent. Soldiers rushed onto the parapets, and people in the village nearby pointed and followed my progress.
The cobblestones within the bailey made for a clean landing without the usual dust storm, but the reek of humans nauseated me. I folded my wings and drew back my head, ready to strike at the first sign of treachery. Humans are notoriously sneaky, and the bailey was a perfect place for an ambush.
Grandmother had taken up residence in Grundia Keep, everyone knew that, but what if she had died, or worse, been deposed? It wasn’t long before more humans appeared, snaking onto the bailey from their holes in the walls and carrying steaming bowls and cloths. After sidelong glances at one another, they approached with cautious steps. I reared, but refrained from snatching one up, remembering grandmother’s instructions.
I’d never been touched by humans, yet the warm water soothed me, and I decided to spread my wings for a thorough cleaning. Then came a surprise. Four of the creatures presented me with a chain mail vest. I had ripped through enough chain mail to know it was a flimsy excuse for armor (all right, perhaps a few humans touched me then), but its edges were lined with emeralds to match my skin. After a clumsy attempt to slip it over my head — they could barely lift the hem high enough — I snatched it from their hands. It hung nicely over my breast.
Then they presented me with pointy silver tubes ornamented with filigree and pearls. A trembling hand slid one of them over my right middle claw. Fingernail sheathes, the humans called them. They doubled the length of my claws but were far too frail to be of any use in combat. Still, if I walked with nails retracted they clicked pleasantly on the stone floor. My grandmother’s design, no doubt.
A tasty-looking morsel bowed and mimed that I should proceed to the entry, unaware that I was fluent in Vulgate. The portal, apparently enlarged to accommodate dragons, opened into a feasting hall. More humans poured in from smaller doors which made me suspicious, just the place to take cover if I released my fire, which I’d been withholding with some reluctance. Grandmother could have roasted half the gathering in a single burst. Yet years ago she chose to defend these weak creatures, holding off the mountain trolls at Highwater Pass. Subsequently, the humans served her. At least, that’s what I’d been told as a youngling.
The nameless morsel escorted me down the center aisle between tables laden with what they presumed to be food. I smelled meat but didn’t see any. If they thought vegetables and bread loaves would impress me, they were mistaken.
A stone platform awaited me to the right of a larger platform, that one clearly intended for grandmother. The pathetic humans stared wide-eyed as I turned, lowering myself onto the stone.
A gong resounded through the hall. Dozens of human males appeared at the main doorway pulling a platform on rollers. Grandmother sat on it, still as stone. At first I thought they had killed and mounted her, but as soon the platform cleared the doorway, she spread her golden wings. It was a perfectly silly display; neither of us could have taken off in that hall, but the weak creatures cheered and raised an extraordinary clamor. She could, of course, have leapt the entire distance of the room to her perch, and yet she suffered to be dragged slowly to the platform, pelted by flowers.
When she reached my end of the hall, she took her place, lifted her head to the ceiling and roared. One of the human females fainted, and birds perched among the high timbers dropped onto the tables. I, being only half her size, was obliged to lower my head to the floor in obeisance.
She then gestured, a fluid motion that flashed her fingernail sheaths, and humans appeared carrying meat. At least that part of the ridiculous ceremony made sense.
“Welcome, Heisskopf.” At last she recognized me.
“I honor you, grandmother,” I said, again lowering my head to the floor.
“It is well that you followed my instructions.”
“Together, we could roast this hall and feast properly.”
She belched smoke with her laughter.
When the meat arrived, I reached for the spitted carcass of a stag. Her hiss stopped me.
“Remove your fingernail sheaths before eating.”
“Why, grandmother?” I said, though I obediently pulled the sheaths from my claws.
“The humans will think you uncouth.”
“And that matters because…?
I thought she would strike me, but instead, she said: “Treated well, humans will follow you.”
“I do not need followers.” I bit into the carcass. “I can feed myself.”
“Humans increase in numbers. Dragons do not. We must adapt.”
“Dragons do not adapt, we conquer.” I had been overly bold, but she ignored my impudence.
At the end of the feast, she instructed those who fed us to give the remains to the “poor.” I did not know the term, but the humans seemed moved by the gesture.
That was the first of many visits. The battle of Cascalaid was not for years later, a decisive victory, and we won because of the humans. When grandmother fell they rose up like a wave. I thought they would flee in panic, but humans can indeed be courageous.
Tallyhern, the bard of Grundia, wrote an epic poem about grandmother and the battle. Her body, pierced by more than three hundred arrows, killed five trolls when it struck the ground. But the song is hard for me to listen to now, sitting in her place in the great hall, and I grind my teeth to hold back the tears.
This evening I receive ambassadors from Eldertorn and Corynthia. The balance of power in the mountains is shifting. Gesturing to old Stallrund to bring the meat, I remove my fingernail sheaths before the feasting begins.
Gerald Warfield’s short story, “The Poly Islands,” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.