Blackbird Flies: Chapter Two

Pyre

This time of year, darkness fell early and fast. Senara now wore the woolen leggings and tunic she donned for archery practice, with a thick cloak on top of that. At least my hair was already pinned up for dinner, she thought, pushing a stray lock from her face as she slipped out of the palace courtyard from a side door. She wouldn’t have had time to do more than put it in a rough braid, and it was sure to have come completely loose halfway through her quest. I’d probably end up setting myself on fire, instead of the dragon.

She made her way down a rocky slope to the river that flowed past the palace and turned to follow its bank to the north. She breathed a word of thanks to the goddess that the palace was on the correct side of the river for her to reach the forest. She couldn’t imagine trying to find a way to cross it on her own at night. The moon was waning, but it provided enough light for her to walk without fear of slipping while she was still out in the open. Once the river turned, she adjusted her course to the west, reaching the forest’s edge in a matter of moments. The moon provided no help here, but she hadn’t expected it would and had come prepared.

Alchemy held little interest for Senara most of the time, but in the lessons she’d been forced to endure growing up, one use for the practice struck her as quite useful. Her tutor, Wes, noticed her interest and seized upon it, going on in great detail about the substances that could be combined to create light without a flame. He’d even let her try her hand at making a few alchemical lamps, and under his guidance, she’d made them well. There hadn’t been time to make anything fancy tonight, but she’d been able to scrounge up the basic ingredients.

At the forest’s edge she paused and pulled a well wrapped object out of the satchel she carried. Undoing the velvet cloth revealed a stoppered glass jar, and she removed the stopper, fishing around in her satchel for another item. She brought out a small glass vial and poured its contents into the jar before replacing the stopper. She gave it a solid shake as she slipped the vial back into her bag and the jar began to give off a steady pale blue light. It wasn’t much, but it should serve to guide her footing. “All right,” she murmured, stepping beneath the trees, “best be moving.” A twig snapped behind her and she jumped, almost dropping the jar. Glancing back, she couldn’t see anything, so she shrugged and continued moving forward. The sooner she found the dragon’s trail, the sooner she could stop worrying about predators in the forest, assuming the huntress was correct about that. Senara decided not to think about what could happen if the huntress was wrong.

She moved slow but it still took her only ten minutes to come upon her quarry. Like the huntress had predicted, the dragon rested at the end of a long, wide furrow in the earth. The creature had knocked down several trees as it slid to its final resting place, creating a small clearing around itself. Probably for the best. I don’t want to accidentally set the whole forest alight. Senara took a few moments to admire the dragon, wishing she’d been able to see it in flight. From her lamp and the faint moonlight, she couldn’t get a sense of the color of its scales but they had an iridescent sheen to them. The dragon was enormous, bigger than she could have even imagined. She thought if it stood beneath her tower in the castle, it could have reached into her windows and plucked her up without even stretching much.

Not that it would have done any such thing. Dragons steered clear of people, well aware of how their bodies were used if they let themselves be caught or slain. “So what were you doing out here in the first place, then?” Senara mused, taking the last few steps to reach the dragon’s head. She reached out and stroked its cheek, settling her hand upon it in a comforting gesture. “No matter. I won’t let them use you for their experiments. I promise. You’ll have a proper pyre.”

She dropped her hand and began rummaging in her satchel once more, pulling out a jug of oil and flint. A quick check in the archives ensured her that the dragon should burn hot and bright, destroying all of its remains well before her father arrived tomorrow morning. She just had to take care to start the blaze properly. The dragon rested on its side, and she could see the huntress’ arrow protruding from its heart. A lucky shot, indeed. The thick, barbed projectile managed to hit home where a scale had fallen and not yet regrown. A regular arrow, even to the heart, might not have felled the creature, but Senara supposed the huntress had been going after bears. Her shot had been intended to take down something large and mean with as much haste as possible. She sighed and shook her head, pulling on the arrow enough to pour oil into the wound.

She stepped back as she poured, trailing the oil along the dragon’s scales to its wings, giving the thinner membranes a generous dousing. Then she continued the trail of oil back down to the dragon’s head, filling its ears, eyes, and nostrils before drizzling the last of what was left into the dragon’s mouth. She was thankful that the mouth was hanging open. She didn’t think she’d have been able to pry those massive jaws apart on her own, and pouring oil down the throat was the key to burning a dragon’s remains, according to the text she’d consulted.

The wind picked up a little, rustling branches behind her as she readied her flint. She hesitated, trying to decide where to light the oil. After a moment, she decided and moved next to the arrow wound. Her hands shook as she tried to strike the flint. She got several small sparks that yielded no results. “Damn it all,” she muttered, trying to ignore the rustling behind her. She drew a deep breath and let it out, then struck the flint again. This time the oil caught. The dragon lit up in front of her as flames spread across the oil, following its path to consume the wings, then flowing up the dragon’s neck to its head. “May the sun shine on your days and the moon protect your nights,” she whispered, stepping back from the heat.

“Mother of night, are you mad?”

Senara whirled around, hand tightening around the flint. “Who’s there?” The rustling intensified in the brush behind her and a young man wearing the uniform in the royal blue and black stepped out of the forest. Senara blinked, taking a moment to recognize him as the guard assigned to her own detail. “What are you doing here?” She demanded, drawing herself up, taking strength from the heat of the flames behind her. Act like you have every right to be here and make him too scared to question you. “Did you follow me?”

He tore his eyes away from the blazing dragon long enough to shoot her a wry look. “Of course I did. Following you is my job, your Highness.” His eyes drifted back to the fire. “Your father isn’t going to be happy about this. The whole palace is buzzing about how much this dragon is worth.”

Senara swallowed, trying to steel herself. “Well, you’re not going to tell him I had anything to do with it.” She meant for it to be a command, but it came out sounding more like a question.

“Not unless I’m put the question,” he agreed. Seeing her relax, he managed a small smile. “I’m supposed to protect you, not stop you from whatever you’re doing, but…well. I’m not sure his Majesty would see the distinction, and he’s unlikely to order your execution.”

“Father wouldn’t execute you for–” Senara frowned and cut herself off. He very well might. She couldn’t pretend he wouldn’t be furious about losing his prize, and a member of the guard was as good a scapegoat as any. “Well.” She crossed her arms. “In any case. He’s not going to know we were here.” She glanced back over her shoulder and sighed. “I just want to stay long enough to be sure it’s really caught, and then we can go.”

The guard nodded as she settled in to her vigil. He glanced at her with curiosity once or twice, even opening his mouth as if he wanted to say something. Then he shook his head and settled into a resting stance, trying to keep an eye on both Senara and the fire.

For once, Senara felt uneasy in the silence. She turned to the guard and asked, “Do you think there’s any risk of the forest catching?”

He seemed to give the question serious thought, looking around to take in the clearing before shaking his head. “Not likely, your Highness. The landing made a good sized clearing, and with all of the rains lately it should be safe enough even if the wind does pick up.”

“Oh, good,” she breathed. He shot her another curious look and she couldn’t take it anymore. “You want to know why I did this?”

“It’s not my place to ask,” he said, straightening where he stood.

“That’s not a no,” Senara pointed out. He didn’t look at her. She sighed and tucked back another loose strand of hair, turning to watch the dragon. “I know the dragon’s remains are worth a lot of money, but…it was a living creature not so long ago. A magnificent one. It deserves more than to be carved up into little pieces and sold or experimented on. I couldn’t let that happen. Besides,” she huffed, crossing her arms again, “father’s rich enough as it is.”

“As you say, your Highness.”

She narrowed her eyes. She didn’t know why, but it bothered her that he might be thinking her silly, or mad as he’d said earlier. “Look, whatever you think–“

A strange creaking sound made her turn around. The sound appeared to be coming from inside the dragon. The guard stared at it with clear alarm. “Are those it’s bones?” He took an instinctive step in between Senara and the dragon. “Your Highness, I think we should leave, right n–“

The air filled with heat and light and sound. Senara got an image of flame rising up from within the dragon to engulf its entire body before she was pushed back by a physical wall of heat. Strong arms encircled her as she was propelled to the ground, and the guard managed to cushion their landing in a clump of bushes growing beneath a pair of ancient oak trees. Her ears rang as she struggled to sit up, pushing off the guard, who was trying to ask her something she couldn’t hear. Her eyes took precious seconds to focus, at last resolving on the inferno standing where the dragon had been. A surprised laugh escaped her lips, though it went unheard by either of them.

At least now I know for sure there won’t be anything left for Father by morning.

The ringing died down and she was at last able to hear the guard’s desperate attempts to get her attention. “…all right, your Highness? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him, managing a quirk of her lips. “You performed your duty admirably, Guard–” She paused and pursed her lips, realizing she had no idea what his name was.

“Trow, your Highness,” he supplied. “Eryl Trow.”

She nodded, then looked him over with a critical eye. “Are you all right, Eryl?” She’d have dusk’s own time trying to explain how she’d manage to damage her assigned guard while spending an evening in the archives.

“I’m fine, your Highness. A few scratches–nothing I can’t explain away.” He helped Senara to her feet, staring at the flames. “What kind of alchemy did you use on that thing?”

Senara shook her head. “No alchemy. That was just funereal oil. But the texts did say for complete disposal of the remains to make sure the oil and flame went down the dragon’s throat. There must be something inside of dragons that reacts with fire.” She let out a shaky laugh. “I wish the codex had gone into more detail about what would happen. Goodness, that could have been so much worse. Imagine if I’d turned up at court tomorrow with no eyebrows!”

“Better than not turning up at all because you’d died,” Eryl suggested.

“Oh, I don’t know. You haven’t had to spend an entire day with Duchess Renata’s daughter. Dead might be an improvement.”

Eryl made a face that Senara couldn’t quite decipher. “Actually, your Highness, I have, since I’ve been shadowing you during their visit.”

“Ah, well.” Senara cleared her throat and brushed herself off, embarrassed that she’d forgotten that detail. Perhaps she’d grown far too used to the presence of the Royal Guard in her day-to-day life. She tried not to think about just what, exactly, Eryl might have seen or overheard. “The inferno looks to be dying down. I think it’s safe to say my work is done. Let’s return to the palace, shall we? Eryl?”

She’d lost his attention. Eryl knelt on the ground, feeling the underbrush with a frown. He looked up, scanning the trees at eye level. Standing, he reached out and brushed his fingers over a scrape on the bark. “Something big has been moving around here.”

“A bear?” Senara suggested. Although, looking at the mark, it would have to be a massive animal.

“No.” Eryl’s voice was tight. He shook himself and then caught her eye, directing her gaze back to the fire. “I think the dragon’s been here for a while. Must have been heading to this spot or somewhere nearby.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Senara argued. She looked around, peering at the underbrush. “Dragons don’t have any reason to be south of the mountains. What would one be doing nesting here…” she pushed aside a bush and trailed off, eyes wide. “Eryl,” she managed to choke out.

He hurried to join her and gasped. “Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” he breathed, turning to her with wide eyes.

But she could see that he recognized it, just like she had. There, hidden in the bushes, a single gleaming dragon egg.

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