The Dragon's Slave
The old man on the mangy nag gave another pull on the chains and Dean stumbled forward, falling on his knees on the rocky ground. His knees had been abused enough over the past three days. They didn't take kindly to this latest abuse and he groaned.
"Quiet!" the nasty old man snapped, his ragged beard blowing in the mountain wind. "Get up on your feet or I'll drag you."
He had been minding his own business, just riding though this, probably cursed and definitely rat infested, high mountain village. He was trying to get to the sea and had lost his way.
He had been riding with his father's guards and had gotten separated when the horses were spooked by forest wolves. He had found an overgrown trail and followed it. The path had risen steadily upward and he had hoped to find a southern pass but instead he found this hell hole on earth.
The villagers had leaped on him like the damn wolves and dragged him off his horse. They clawed at his clothes and, ignoring the insignia of rank, had ripped his silver thread embroidered clothes off and left him only a breech cloth and a ragged, thin shirt as protection against the cold.
He had no idea what they wanted of him. Their language was barbaric. None of them spoke the tongue of Dean's kingdom by the sea and offers of ransom fell on ignorant ears. They chained his hands to an iron circle set high in the roof of a windowless stone shed and left him there.
At least he was alone. Cold, hungry and bruised, but alone. They had pawed and molested his body; pinching and prodding like he was a steer ready for auction.
After three days chained in the dark with only a woman bringing him water at random intervals, the door had at last opened and this nasty piece of work with a ratty beard and deep sunken eyes had appeared and prodded him with a staff.
"You'll do." The old man muttered and Dean's heart leaped.
"You speak my language!" Dean shouted and tried to get to his feet. " I am …"
The old man hooked Dean's feet out from underneath him and sent him crashing back down to the dirt floor. His arms jerked up painfully and he hung there, leaning forward, his head bowed and his raw knees scraping the floor.
"Don't speak." The gnarled visitor snarled. "I don't care who you are or who you were. Or who you think you are. Right now, you're meat. That's all, and meat doesn't speak. Shut your mouth or we'll carve you up here and now."
"Dean shook with the cold. He heard someone call out, "Barbizon!" and the old geezer turned his head at the call. "Come get him," he yelled back. "And find his damn boots. He won't make it without them."
In a while a couple of burley oafs appeared, carrying his boots. One of them slipped them on his feet and the other one swarmed up the chains to the iron circle.
Dean thought his boots felt strange and they also had a smell to them. He realized that someone had been wearing them. Whoever this Barbizon was he had enough authority to get the boots back and Dean was grateful. At least now his feet and lower legs were warm. The black boots reached up to his knees.
The airborne oaf released the chains and they thudded heavily on to the dirt. Another thing to be grateful for, thought Dean. The idiot had missed Dean's head.
One of the big guys gathered the chains and pulled. Dean lurched forward, towards the open door.
Once outside he realized how much the stone shed had cut the wind. There was a group of riders waiting, including the charming Barbizon. The chains were passed up to him and he looped them over his saddle horn. The riders then urged their rough mountain ponies into movement. Evidently his guards would ride to wherever they were going but Dean got to walk.
His chained hands were pulled out in front of him and he stumbled along, trying to keep up with the horses. They were headed even further up hill. The air was a tempest, the sky loaded with grey storm clouds. Dean knew wherever they were going he wasn't going to like it.
After three days without food and not nearly enough water he was weak. Without movement the muscles of his legs had stiffened and he wasn't given a chance to walk it off slowly. It was either move with the horses or get dragged. He moved.
After a while he yelled "Barbizon!, for God's sake let me rest" He got no further, The old man turned and swung his staff into the side of Dean's head, knocking him onto the stony ground." I told you once, meat does not talk." the old man barked.
On one hand, it was rest of a kind; on the other hand, he thought he might have a concussion.
Once again the chains were pulled and he rose to his feet. Now his arm and thigh were bleeding and no one cared. They rode on with him staggering along. He praised God for his boots. It was hard to imagine what his feet would have looked like at this point without them.
The clouds finally broke and lightening flashed. Fat raindrops fell. Dean held his face up and licked up all the water his tongue could reach.
The old man's horse shied and danced, pulling Dean from side to side. Once again his knees hit the stones and pain arched up his spine. He thought he might have busted a knee cap that time. He knew both knees were bleeding freely. Combined with the blood from his thigh, the liquid was pooling in his boot.
Barbizon looked up into the sky. "We're not going to make it," he told the guards. "We're going much too slowly. Harmel, give him your horse."
One of the guards slid down from his horse's back and laid hands on Dean, pushing him up and on to the horse. "Why do I have to give up my horse?" Harmel grumbled to Barbizon.
Dean lay against the horses back, trying for any available heat. He buried his scraped hands in the animal's mane
Barbizon answered Harmel. "Look at the sky, you fool. If we don't speed up we'll be out here at sunset. If no sacrifice is chained to the pole the God will come after us."
"You are the youngest of us. You can run with the horse. The meat was ready to lie down and die." Barbizon whipped his horse's head around. "Now, let's ride. We have to be done and off this path before the sun sets."
Harmel grabbed his horse's reigns. "Wait, stop," ordered the old man. He walked his horse closer to Dean and suddenly lashed his staff across Dean's back. "Listen to me, meat. Don't try anything. Don't try to run. It will do you no good. If the God doesn't take you, we'll run you to earth and kill you. Now, ride. The God prefers his meat alive" Barbizon's smile turned sly. "I think he likes to hear the screams."
Dean's back had been just about the only part of his body not in continual pain. Well, that was over. He nestled as close to the horse as possible. Now they were jogging along.
He thought about what he had heard. He was evidently about to be sacrificed to these barbarian's God, whatever that was. It didn't sound good and he was so exhausted and weak he doubted he could fight much of anything off. The only thing he liked was that these people were pretty much scared stiff of this God of theirs. Good, thought Dean, make 'em suffer.
Finally they stopped moving and he was dragged again. This time he was dragged off the horse. He missed the animal's body heat. He lifted his head and looked around.
They were nearly at the peak of the mountain. In a shallow depression carved out of pure rock a finger of stone pointed at the sky. At the very top was another one of those damn iron rings. He was slammed against the stone and one of the oafs clambered up the back of the pointing finger. Dean figured there must be steps or hand holds carved out of the back. His chains were dragged upward and fastened to the ring.
While one of the oafs was playing monkey boy, a couple of others were locking his feet into shackles hammered into the stone platform. Everyone stepped away and he was on display, arms over his head and legs spread apart. He faced out over the edge of the cliff, nothing between him and the sky except for a few feet of rocky ledge.
Barbizon wheeled his horse and looked over his minions' work. "Good," he said. "Now, strip him and cut him."
The few thin rags he was wearing were cut away. One man drew his knife down Dean's thighs, making cuts intended to bleed. The other man started carving on his chest creating some kind of a symbol Dean could not see. He could only see his blood, pooling on the rock as he leaned forward.
With a rush and a clatter the men mounted up and took their horses down the trail as quickly as they could, leaving Dean chained to the rock finger, naked, displayed and bleeding. Dean figured that between the bleeding, the abuse and the cold, his death ought to be right along and his suffering would end. At least, he thought, he had an excellent view. The lightening flashed, thunder rolled and the rain increased.
Dean was pretty sure he was close to death now. His blood pool had expanded and a little while previously he had stopped shivering. He had heard of this type of death. The healers at home had warned him about something they called hyperthermia. He thought he might have firsthand knowledge now about the subject. He was looking forward to death to end the pain
Something changed. He felt it in the air. Something was blocking the wind and there was a heat source in front of him. Every nerve in his body craved the heat. Just won't give up, he thought to himself. Stubborn body, refusing to die. He was so tired he could barely lift his head. Actually he kind of rolled it and tried to look sideways as the whole head was just too heavy to pick up.
He was looking at something. He wasn't really sure what it was but it appeared to be a living creature.
The first though was "Is this a dragon?" There were no dragons. If there ever were dragons they were long gone and only children's tales were left.
Whatever this was in front of him it was a deep royal blue in color. Huge talons dug into the rock. Following the leg up he came to a body that might be part snake. It sparkled with encrusted jewels of some sort. Looking up just a little more he saw the head. It was a dragons' head, complete with scales in a multitude of colors. The lips curled back exposing rows of sharp, pointed teeth; perfect for ripping flesh from bone. Dean managed to find a forgotten shiver.
The wings though were worth dying to see. They were huge, blocking the view from the platform and Dean thought he had seen something like them before on peacocks. When the creature shook his wings a sound like ocean waves rolled off. They were a rich royal blue gilded with touches of gold and the peacock feather's eyes were an experiment in beautiful. The dragon arched the wings and moved in on Dean.
Great, Dean thought, now I get to be eaten alive. Wonderful. The rest of this crap wasn't quite bad enough.
The dragon, however, extended a talon and proceeded to snap the shackles on Dean's ankles. For the first time in what seemed like hours he was able to stand with his legs closed.
The dragon then snapped his wrist chains about a foot or so from his hands. He still wore the chains like bracelets but now he could lower his hands. The blood flowed back into his fingers.
He fell forward as his numbed legs failed and somehow the dragon caught him. He felt hands on his body. Where had the beast been hiding those, he wondered. As he looked down he noticed that the impressive talons had changed into a man's legs enclosed in a royal blue draped fabric. This was all too difficult for him at the moment. He just wanted to sleep.
The dragon lifted him like a bride and carried him to the back of the sacrificial platform. It sat down with its back against the wall, as much out of the rain as possible and held him on its lap. The wings came forward and one acted as an umbrella while the other covered him like a blanket. It was soft and warm and smelled of wild flowers and powder.
Then, with a shock, he realized that the dragon was licking his wounds. Its tongue was soft and warm and wherever it touched the pain receded. He moaned a little at the comfort and then sleep took him away.