Something woke me from my slumber. Perhaps it was the clinking of one coin against another or the musical waterfall tones of a pile of precious trinkets sliding to the ground. Maybe it was a slight breath of air from a different direction. Whatever it was, it brought me out of a deep sleep and into a very disagreeable state of alertness.
The first thing I noticed after opening my eyes was that my precious hoard was significantly diminished. When I went to sleep, the mountains of gold and silver, diamonds and platinum, magical weapons, and jewelry enough to outfit an entire army of queens had been taller than I stood. Now, however, it barely reached the top of my snout.
Apparently the mountain under which I had chosen to sleep wasn’t as secret or secure as I thought. Humans—I could smell the disgusting creatures all over my cavern—had found the tiny crevice I’d left open to the outside world, slipped inside, and stolen nearly everything I’d painstakingly amassed over thousands of years.
This simply would not do. No self-respecting dragon would ever be without a sizable pile of treasure. I had to collect everything that had been stolen, and I had to punish the thieves who had the audacity to steal my pretties right out from underneath me as I slept. They would pay for their temerity with their lives.
I slowly climbed to my feet and crawled forward, my limbs and wings stiff and slow to respond. I displaced my remaining treasures, sending coins slipping and sliding off my scales to the floor of the cavern that was my bower. It was one of my most favorite sounds but I didn’t allow myself a moment to enjoy it. I had much work to do.
But first, I had to break out of the mountain.
I found the small crevice I’d left open—the one the thieves had used to sneak inside—and worked one of my claws into it. Pulling and pushing, prizing out bits of rock, sometimes even digging like a burrowing badger, I slowly opened a hole big enough for me to thrust my head through. I took the first breath of clean mountain air I’d had since falling asleep. I had no idea how long I’d been sleeping, but the stiffness in my body told me that the time was more likely measured in centuries than mere decades.
I stretched my neck out as far as it would go and worked my shoulders into the ever-widening crevice. Soon enough, my shoulders broke through and my body and tail followed. I was free and I roared a challenge into the air, warning the surrounding mountains that I had woken.
My wings slowly unfurled and soaked up the early morning sun. I pumped them a few times, feeling their strength and power return. Then I took off, flying high into the air, wheeling and banking like an eagle above my mountain.
The world below me had changed while I slept.
When I went to sleep, I had been surrounded by a few scattered tribes of unsophisticated barbarians. They posed no threat to me so I left them alone, preferring to hunt the lands far to the south, across the Middle Sea, where treasure was in abundance.
Now, as I flew over the once-empty forest that surrounded my mountain, I saw evidence of a civilization that rivaled the one I had preyed upon before I went to sleep. There were roads, smooth and straight and paved with stones, cutting through the dense trees. In the distance, on the plains that lined a river fed by the spring in my cavern, there was a city, large and square and surrounded by thick walls, manned by men in suits of metal armed with long, strong swords. In the center of the city was a palace. I was certain it was filled with treasures—probably my treasures.
Those barbarian tribes had grown up, metamorphosed into organized, intelligent, militaristic cultures. And they were brave enough to plunder a dragon’s hoard. They deserved everything that would befall them.
I flew above the city, watching the metal men scurrying to and fro, whipped into a delightful-smelling fear by my sudden appearance. They slowly organized into a large army and I turned away from the city, knowing that I was not up to the task of breaking it just yet. I needed to regain my strength first.
I found a small village a few miles from the city and flew above it, loosing my lightning breath. The thatched roofs of the village’s few scattered buildings caught fire and people poured out, screaming and wailing. I roared a challenge and attacked them, reaching out with my front legs and grabbing up the men between my claws. I stretched my wings and soared up as high as I could, then dropped the villagers. I followed them down, watching the expressions of terror as they plummeted to their deaths. Their screams were sweeter than almost anything I’d ever heard.
I landed and feasted on livestock. Some of the survivors came at me with farming tools, and I ate them, too. The rest of the survivors, mostly women and children, scuttled away into the thick underbrush, hiding from me. I laughed and plundered their temple, collecting the gods’ treasures and then flew back to my cavern to add their riches to my own.
It was a good beginning. But my goal was the castle in the city. The army, however, would be a challenge and it would be some time before I felt strong enough to take it on. In the meantime, I would pit my strength and magic against the surrounding villages and farms. It was the slow but careful way to rebuild my riches.
Word soon reached the castle. There was a dragon loose in the countryside, and it was preying on the villages and farms that surrounded the city. Streams of survivors poured through the walls, straining already scarce resources. But Cathal the Bright, king of Elimberris, wouldn’t turn any of them away, so the city of Ausci was filled to the brim with dirty, diseased peasants and their equally dirty and diseased livestock.
Dandryw the Bard, servant of King Cathal, stood in the treasure room and shook his head with dismay. He had known that one day the dragon would wake and discover its hoard gone. It would, of course, want it back and would eventually track it to the room in which he now stood. He’d explained all this to Cathal and his stupid knights when word of the sleeping dragon and its treasure had been brought to their attention, but they hadn’t listened to him. They never listened to him, despite the fact that he was clearly more intelligent than anyone else in Ausci. He’d gone on a pilgrimage, after all, and had traveled clear to Tusci and back. What had Cathal ever done, except be born of a queen? An accident of birth did not a ruler make.
And now everything that he said would happen had come to pass. Dandryw knew that Cathal’s days were numbered. There was no way the dragon would allow the thieves to live. They would be punished—probably in the most horrifically painful ways imaginable—and they’d be dead, and Dandryw would be out of a job. Not for the first time did he regret being born when he had; he would have far preferred being alive five hundred years ago, when the Tusci empire was still whole and sound. The Emperor would have listened to him, and valued his counsel. The Emperor would never have allowed his stupid knights to steal from a dragon or invite it to eat all his subjects.
A piercing shriek sliced through his thoughts, and Dandryw glanced out the treasure room’s single window. He could make out the silhouette of the dragon, and it was coming closer. This was it, then. The end of Cathal and his kingdom. Dandryw looked around at all the boxes and chests of gold and sighed deeply. He couldn’t take all of it with him, but maybe he could take some of it, enough to start anew, perhaps in the Caliphate to the west.
As the dragon battled the soldiers of Elimberris, Dandryw the Bard stuffed his pockets and planned for his future.
I emptied the country of its population within a matter of months. Every village, farm, and hamlet within a day’s flight of the city was a smoking ruin. Men lay dead and rotting on the ground, half-eaten animal corpses and scavenging birds their only company. All the temples I came across had been emptied of their gold and silver, precious jewels, and relics. My hoard was growing, but more importantly, so was my strength.
I was finally ready to take on the city and its army.
I left my mountain, soaring on heated updrafts, letting the army see me coming. When I reached the city, I flew in lazy circles above it, breathing down lightning on the outer buildings, setting their thatch alight and sending people out into the streets. The noise was terrific—screaming women and horses, men shouting orders, children crying, and the wonderful roar of a massive fire. Most of the people filling the city’s streets were half-starved and weak; it would be an easy slaughter.
The metal-covered army slowly organized a defense and counter-attack. They lined up in rows on top of their walls and flung arrows at me, which simply bounced off my thick scales without making so much as a dent.
More metal men poured out of the gates in the city’s walls, men on horses armed with long poles and swords. One man, whose metal was shinier than the rest and whose helmet was topped with a red feather, screamed a challenge at me, swinging his sword around and demanding that I land and fight him.
He clearly wanted to die. Who was I to disappoint him? I roared loudly, answering the shiny man’s challenge with one of my own.
I landed in a field near the castle and watched as the cavalry formed up in ranks behind the shiny man with the red feather. He was riding a beautiful white horse that looked as though it would make a fine meal, so I reached out and knocked the shiny man right off his mount. Then I snapped up the horse and ate it while it was still screaming and kicking to get away.
The shiny man cursed me and once more challenged me. I darted my head forward, jaws split wide to breathe my lightning down on him. He swiped at my mouth with his sword.
It hurt; it cut me deeply and I bled. I screamed and backed off, pawing at my mouth with my front claws while the shiny man advanced on me slowly. Once he was in range again, he stabbed at me over and over, splitting my beautiful sapphire scales. My blood spilled onto the grass of the field and I cried out in pain before taking off, soaring up high into the sky where I knew even the arrows couldn’t reach me. The sword had to be magical. Nothing else could cut through my scales with such ease. I knew if I wasn’t careful, he would kill me.
I flew straight at the army like an oncoming hurricane. I grabbed horses and soldiers in my claws and mouth, rending them limb from limb and swallowing them down just like I had the villagers and their pigs. Soon, just the shiny man was left standing alone in a field of his soldiers’ blood.
I landed in front of him and hissed. He threw his sword at my feet and fell to his knees. He pleaded with me to let him live. I almost did, but then I saw one of his hands reaching for a concealed knife in his boot. I snapped my head forward, jaws closing around his waist. I bit him in two and spat out his body, leaving it in the dirt and the blood. He wasn’t even worth eating. He was nothing more than tainted, duplicitous meat.
I returned to the castle through empty streets. I could hear people whimpering in their homes, praying to their gods, but I ignored them. There was little sport in killing defenseless women and children. Only the very old and infirm men were left to farm and protect the city. The thieves had been punished enough; let the rest of them live.
I scaled the castle walls, sniffing for my treasure. I finally found it, locked away in a room at the top of the highest tower. Putting my face against the single window, I heard a curious sound from inside. It was a man, speaking to me.
“Oh, great wyrm,” he said. “I beseech you—spare my life and I will tell you wondrous tales. I will help you amass even more treasure. I will serve you, oh Beautiful Sapphire.”
I shape-shifted into a human and floated into the room, lest I scare the man away with the awesome vision of my dragon form. A small man cowered against a pile of gold and silver coins. He was dressed head to toe in brown and had brown hair and brown eyes. He held his empty hands up in front of me and abased himself, bowing over and over, begging me and plying me with pretty compliments.
I confess—his words stroked my ego. I was a beautiful dragon, as blue as the bluest star sapphire, as strong as any dragon in the world, and as powerful as Bua-Bith, the father of all dragon-kind. But it had been so long since someone had told me these truths. Perhaps I would keep the little brown man around so he could tell me again and again how wonderful and beautiful and powerful I was. He had such a pretty way with words.
“Who are you, little brown man?” I asked.
“Dandryw the Bard, mistress. I served Cathal the Bright…er, the Late. And may I know your name, Jewel of Heaven?”
I chuckled softly. Jewel of Heaven, indeed. “I am Massalisto the Lightning Breather. I have decided to let you live if you prove helpful. Find some pack animals and load them with my treasure. Bring them to my home in the mountain. Do this for me, Dandryw, and you shall live. At least for a little while.”
I took off once more into the air, soaring back to my mountain home, pleased with myself. The thieves had been punished, my hoard had been collected once more, and I’d found a servant.
Dandryw was both annoyed and relieved by his new circumstances. Relieved, of course, that he was still alive, that the mighty dragon had deigned to allow him to live and serve her, but annoyed that his lot in life had not improved.
A month passed. A month during which Dandryw told Massalisto stories of the Tusci empire, stories of the lands that were conquered by the Emperor and folded into his vast holdings, stories of the power and wealth the Tusci Emperor held. Massalisto seemed to enjoy these stories and asked him many questions. In answering her, the seed of an idea was planted in the brown bard’s mind.
He might have been born five hundred years too late and missed out on his chance to serve an Emperor, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t help Massalisto create an empire of her own. She would need guidance and advice, someone to whisper into her ear, someone to point out which kingdoms and territories were ripe for conquering. And he was just the person to fill that role.
So he filled the dragon’s mind with stories of the Tusci Empire and all the while, studied his maps and listened to the gossip of traveling merchants. Finally, he found a kingdom that was weak and casually mentioned it to the dragon one night before he told her his stories.
“Lady of Heaven,” he said. “You enjoy riches and plunder very much.”
“Yes, this is true. What of it?”
“It seems to me, Brightest Star, that your opportunities to amass more riches are thin now. You have conquered all of Elimberris, emptied its temples of their gold, and subjugated all of its people.” Dandryw paused for a moment, giving his next words extra emphasis. The hook was baited, now to see if the dragon would bite. “Wouldn’t you like more?”
“More?” she asked, seemingly surprised by the concept. “More what?”
“Of everything, O Azure Dream. Gold, land, power. More of everything.”
The dragon fell silent, a certain contemplative light in her eyes. Finally, she nodded. “Yes, I want more.” Then she turned to fix Dandryw with a terrible, piercing look. “How do I get more?”
“There are other kingdoms, my Exquisite Celestial Goddess. Other kingdoms as weak as Elimberris. You could conquer them as easily as you conquered us. They are even richer, in gold and people and land.”
“Tell me of these kingdoms, my little bard. Tell me how to conquer them and take their gold.”
Over the next few months, Dandryw proved to be very useful. He led me to two other small kingdoms that were as weak as the first I’d conquered. Soon, my territory stretched over the mountains to the sea, across endless forests and rivers and fields. My wealth grew steadily, reaching proportions of which I never dreamed. Still, I wanted more—more treasure, more land, more power.
Sometimes I would fly over ruined, ancient cities, gleaming white in the sun. They were peopled only by marble statues that depicted noble-looking humans. The tumble-down buildings had once been glorious; they were dotted with exquisite mosaic floors and elegant, fluted columns. Frescoes depicting gods and monsters were painted on nearly every wall. Hot springs had been harnessed in small square buildings, for, as Dandryw explained, humans to bathe in.
All of the known world had been controlled by these people, these Tusci, who blossomed, flourished, and fell into ruin while I slept. And the Tusci had been ruled by one man, the Emperor. He had done exactly as I did—deposed kings, destroyed armies, and swallowed up territories. Why shouldn’t I be a new kind of emperor? I wanted frescoes and statues of me spread through the known world. And oh! The gold I could collect!
“Jewel of Heaven, there is no reason you shouldn’t become Empress of your very own empire,” my little brown man told me. “I propose that you call it… Massalia, after your magnificent self. There are many rich kingdoms just to the north of us that lie waiting for you. Let me send envoys to talk—”
“Envoys? Talking?” I asked with disdain. “Are they so powerful that I could not just sack them as I have the other kingdoms in my… my empire?” I asked, trying out the new word and finding that I liked it. Dandryw fell silent and I could sense that he was suddenly nervous. “I see. So they are powerful.”
“Yes, Sapphire Empress. They will be a challenge. But I have every confidence that they will soon find themselves under your rule. Please, allow me to send envoys to them. If word of our conquests reaches them, perhaps they will surrender without a fight.”
I snorted in derision and licks of lightning danced around my nostrils, arcing between my snout and the floor in front of my little bard. “But I want a fight. I want to hear the screams of my enemies as I devour them whole, as I sunder their cities and bring them to their knees.”
“Yes, Light of the Sky, you are surely a wondrous sight to behold as your lightning breath rains destruction down on your hapless enemies. But, if you will permit me to be so bold, your armies are not strong enough to take on the northern kingdoms. Sending envoys to seek a peaceful surrender will only serve to strengthen you.”
I scowled at Dandryw. He was right, of course, and I hated that. “Peace is for the weak,” I said, in a mood to argue.
“In that case, perhaps there is another way, my Cerulean Empress. The Tusci Emperor employed trained assassins.”
“Trained assassins. What are these? Are they like those dancing bears who were here last week?”
Dandryw tittered a nervous little laugh and shook his head. “No, Brightest Glory. They are people who can be paid to kill other people secretly. They use poison or a quick dagger in the back under the cover of darkness.”
I admit to liking that idea very much. My little bard had made up for being right about the wisdom of a peaceful approach. “Tell me more. How did the Tusci Emperor use these…assassins?”
“He used them to undermine a kingdom he wanted. He paid assassins to kill the ruling king’s strongest supporters, leaving armies without leaders, people without protection. Then he sent in his own armies and the kingdom fell easily.” I made a thoughtful sound and Dandryw’s brown face lit up. “Does my Azure Star wish me to employ some assassins?”
“Yes. Do it at once. “
Dandryw was as good as his word. Within a year, the dragon’s empire covered an area that took three weeks to cross on horseback. It spanned from the Great North Sea to the Middle Sea and encompassed hundreds of miles of rich forests, two mountain ranges, and five rivers. In the middle of it all sat the capital city, Massalia, named, of course, for the blue dragon who held the vast territory.
Once a day, as her magic permitted, Massalisto would shape-shift into a human and present herself to her subjects, meet with envoys, hear grievances, and issue new laws and edicts. Dandryw had taken on the mantle of her chief adviser, telling her how the Tusci emperor would handle things, filling her head with the ancient, long-dead ruler’s advice and his opinions. But really, they were Dandryw’s words, not the Tusci emperor’s. The small brown bard was the real power behind the throne.
Soon, people from all over visited the dragon’s court to pay homage to her. Southerners brought incense, silk, and spices. Easterners gave her beautiful, strong, fast horses and delicacies of fish eggs and carefully-crafted liquors. From the north came furs, amber, and intricately carved scrimshaw. But nothing came from the west.
“The Caliph who rules the lands that lay over your farthest western mountains is so powerful,” Dandryw explained when Massalisto questioned him about the lack of gifts from the west, “he feels he doesn’t need to pay homage to—and these are not my own words, Most Splendid Potentate, so please do not punish me for speaking them—an upstart pretender.”
The dragon roared, shaking the pillars of her throne room, sending bits of marble crashing to the floor. “He will fall to me!” she raged as lightning arced between her wings. “He will prostrate himself at my feet! He will swear fealty to me and then I shall bite him in two and devour the pieces!”
“Yes, Terrible Indigo Lady. The Tusci emperor once faced a similar enemy. To conquer them, he—”
“Enough of the Tusci emperor!” the dragon thundered. “Who is ruler here? Massalisto or the Tusci?”
“You are, of course, Light of the Moon. But—”
“Then I will decide how to defeat this Caliph. Not the Tusci,” the dragon turned her narrow-eyed gaze on the small brown bard, pinning him to the floor with the weight of her attention, “and not Dandryw the Bard.”
“Yes, Cyaneous Fire. As you wish it,” Dandryw said, bowing deeply and backing away from the dragon.
He fled through the castle to his suite of rooms. He was losing his grip on the dragon. She was shutting him out of the decision-making process. He was no longer in control of her actions or her decisions. Was there someone else whispering in her ear? Someone else giving her advice?
That night, Dandryw slept only fitfully, tossing and turning in his soft, feather bed, twisting himself up in his silken sheets as he worried and agonized over how he would regain his hold over the dragon. In the darkest hour of the night, a quiet noise woke him and he watched a shadow enter his room through a window that overlooked the castle’s courtyard. Paralyzed by fear, he watched, wide-eyed and breathless, as the shadow crept across the floor and materialized at his bedside.
The shadow lengthened and became a tall, thin man. “Oh, good,” the shadow-man said in a cultured and refined voice. “You’re awake. That makes my task so much more delightful.”
“Your…your task?” Dandryw slurred, his tongue thick with fear.
“Yes. My task. You see, I was hired to kill you. Now, normally, I would just slip in here and cut your throat while you slept, but the kill is made so much more exciting for me if I can explain who hired me and why you must die.”
“D-d-die? B-b-b-but, I have money! I can pay you! Don’t kill me!”
The assassin chuckled and shook his hooded head. “I’m a man of my word. I’ve already accepted payment for your death. I couldn’t very well go back on my word, now could I?” The assassin unsheathed a wickedly sharp knife and turned it in his hand, letting the moonlight catch the blade and glitter along its length. “Would you like to know who wants you dead?”
Dandryw shook his head, his body stiff and unresponsive. “Please,” he begged. “My mistress, the Empress Massalisto, will be furious if she finds me dead! Her wrath is terrible—”
“Oh, you poor little man,” the assassin said in an amused tone that held nothing but contempt. “She is the one who contacted my guild. She is the one who wants you dead!” The assassin laughed and leaned forward, knife held high.
A surge of strength broke through Dandryw’s paralysis, and he flapped his arms at the descending assassin, trying in vain to fight the man off. The knife cut through the bard’s defenses and buried the length of its blade into his chest, right between his third and fourth ribs.
Dandryw felt a sharp pain and then his mind slipped free of his body. Soon he was floating upwards toward the ceiling, and he turned and looked down at himself. He looked so small and fragile, lying there staining his bed with the crimson blood pouring from his chest. He watched the assassin clean his blade on Dandryw’s silk sheets, and leave, climbing out the window by which he had entered.
Part of him wanted to fight, to return to his body and destroy the dragon. But he soon realized the futility of that. He would never win that fight. She would kill him in less time than it took to blink. But she had been clever enough to use an assassin instead—something he had taught her himself.
He looked at everything he had accomplished. Using his advice, Massalisto had conquered a huge empire, something she would never have done without him. He was resigned to his fate. Dandryw the Bard, once the most powerful man in the world, drifted away as a feeling of peace suffused his being, and a warm, white light welcomed him.