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Arlian was winning his war against the dragons -- but he was discovering the costs of that victory might be far higher than he had expected, and more than he was willing to pay. Could he find a way to save humanity from both the dragons, and the wild magic the dragons had kept at bay?
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|Product dimensions:||7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.83(d)|
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By Watt-Evans, Lawrence
Tor BooksCopyright © 2004 Watt-Evans, Lawrence
All right reserved.
In the Dragon's Lair
The stench of venom and rotting dragon was overwhelming, and depressingly familiar. Arlian breathed shallowly as he raised his torch high and looked out into the darkness of the cavern, the long obsidian-tipped spear ready in his other hand.
The orange light of the flaring torch lit the upper end of a great sloping limestone chamber, perhaps a hundred feet wide and a quarter-mile long. Clustered nearby upon the vast claw-marked stone floor lay four dead dragons, their carcasses already collapsing in supernaturally rapid decay, their scaly black hide peeling back from white bone, their partially exposed spines arching well above Arlian's head.
A dozen soldiers wearing the white-and-blue uniforms of the Duke of Manfort's guards stood scattered around the dragons, spears and torches held ready; every so often one of them would glance expectantly at Arlian, awaiting orders. The fine wool of their winter coats would not have appeared white in the torchlight in any case, but was further discolored with smoke and streaked with dirt--they had been on campaign for months, out of reach of Manfort's tailors and cleaners. The mail shirts the men wore beneath their coats were smoke-stained and battered--but never rusty; polishing armor kept the soldiers busy and their equipment fit.
The piping on Arlian's own black wool cloak, once brilliant white,was now mottled brown and gray; the black had kept its color, but showed significant wear. His broad-brimmed hat was battered and shapeless, the plume that had once adorned it long since lost; his boots were scraped and scuffed, and his hair and beard needed brushing and trimming.
The fourteenth and final member of the party, however, remained clean and trim, his green-and-buff coat spotless. He stood near the cave entrance, staring at the dead dragons unhappily. He held neither torch nor spear. Arlian glanced at him, then turned his attention back to the remainder of the cavern.
He listened, and heard nothing but his own men, leather boots creaking or shuffling, woolen clothing or iron mail rustling, breath sighing gently. He looked, and saw nothing else moving but the dragons' remains collapsing in upon themselves.
There could be no question that the four dragons were dead. That was one good thing about the creatures, Arlian thought; one never need worry that a dragon was feigning death. If the flesh failed to sink inward, if the bones did not protrude through stretching hide, then the dragon was not dead. If the rot set in, the dragon was irrefutably gone.
Arlian and his twelve men had had no trouble in dispatching these four, despite their size and presumed ferocity--the dragons had been deeply asleep, as they always were in the winter, and none had awakened before they died. The last had been stirring slightly when four men had plunged the ten-foot black-tipped spear into its black heart, and had thrashed briefly as it died, but that was of no consequence. None of the slayers had been harmed, and the world was rid of four more of the foul beasts, four more added to the scores Arlian and his troops had dispatched.
It was odd how routine the task had become. For centuries, humanity had thought it impossible to kill a dragon; no known weapon could pierce that magical hide or harm the creatures in any way. Only recently had the late Lord Enziet's sorcery and Arlian's own experimentation revealed that the black volcanic glass called obsidian could cut easily through a dragon's flesh, and that a blow to the heart with an obsidian blade would kill a dragon instantly.
Once it was demonstrated that the dragons could be killed, Arlian had been appointed warlord by the Duke of Manfort, with instructions to exterminate the creatures--instructions he had been following enthusiastically every winter, when the dragons were dormant. In warmer weather, when entering the lairs of the great beasts verged on the suicidal, he attended to other matters.
The great obsidian-tipped spears and the knowledge of where and when the dragons slept had made killing them simple. Where harming a dragon in any way had once seemed miraculous, disposing of four of the monsters was now scarcely more than just another day's work.
Arlian frowned. Four. That equaled the most he had ever found in one place, but nonetheless, he had hoped for more; the report had been that at least six dragons dwelt in this region. The ancient documents he had inherited, files that described every recorded dragon sighting for the past eight hundred years, had said that half a dozen dragons, perhaps more, had swept down from these mountains some five centuries ago and laid waste to the town of Beggar's Oak.
That "half a dozen" report might have been exaggerated, of course--that was common. It seemed as if most of the reports he had followed in his fourteen years of dragon-hunting had claimed more dragons than Arlian had actually found in the caves and caverns he located. In some cases he supposed that might be because some of the dragons had departed, either died or moved on to other locations, but he was fairly sure that many of the original stories were simply wrong. It was human nature to exaggerate, to think every large bird spotted in the vicinity of an attack was another dragon, or every glimpse of a dragon was a new monster, rather than the same one seen twice.
And the records for this particular lair did not come from a survivor, but only from people who had seen the attack on Beggar's Oak from afar. Such a description would inevitably be less reliable than the accounts by survivors in the destroyed village itself.
Of course, often there were no survivors. There had been no survivors in Beggar's Oak.
Arlian waved the torch gently overhead and considered the dead beasts. If there had been six dragons in that long-ago attack, it was possible there might be another cave somewhere in the vicinity, one that his sorcerers and soldiers had not yet located--but after all these years of experience, his people had learned their job well. The vaguest accounts would usually be enough to locate the right vicinity, and a little simple sorcery could then find any nearby cave mouth. His hired sorcerers said it grew easier every time.
They had only found one entrance here.
Besides, Arlian had never yet encountered a confirmed report of an isolated attack, like the one on Beggar's Oak, that involved more than one lair of dragons. The great battles of the Man-Dragon Wars had sometimes involved multiple lairs, but all that had ended seven hundred years ago.
For all Arlian knew, two of the six reported dragons could have died of old age in the intervening years--but while dragons definitely aged, he had never found any solid evidence that they ever died merely from the passage of time, and five centuries was nothing by draconic standards.
Perhaps two of the dragons had died, not of old age, but in attacking the wrong target; many of the important towns of the Lands of Man were now defended with the gigantic spear-throwing catapults Arlian had invented, and he knew of at least six instances in which those machines had brought down or driven away attacking dragons. Only two of those had resulted in confirmed kills--but perhaps both of those had come from this nest.
Or perhaps there had been six in the cave today after all. There might be more to this cavern than the entry tunnel and the single vast chamber where these four had slept. Those other two dragons might well be sleeping--or waiting in ambush--just out of sight. The torchlight did not penetrate everywhere in the miasmal gloom even in the main chamber; the orange light illuminated large areas of bare stone, but shadows and darkness extended still farther.
"Does anyone see further openings?" he called. "Anywhere there might be more?"
Armor jingled, weapons rattled, and other torches flared in the cool, foul air as his dozen men peered around at the cavern walls, at the flow-stone formations and shadows thrown by the stalactites overhead.
"Not here, my lord," someone replied; Arlian recognized the voice of his junior lieutenant, a man universally known by the nickname Stabber. He had earned his name today; it had been he who thrust a ten-foot spear into the hearts of two of the four dragons, three of his men helping him to drive the point home.
"Nor here," answered Quickhand, the senior lieutenant. He and his men had disposed of a dragon, as well; Arlian himself, with help from others, had slain the fourth.
"Let us take our time, and look carefully," Arlian said. "I do not care
in the least for the possibility that a dragon might come up on our heels
as we leave."
He could almost hear the shudder his words evoked.
"Come on, you two," Stabber called, gesturing to his nearest companions. "We'll do this right, walk along the wall and inspect it inch by inch."
"A dragon needs more than a few inches to squeeze through, sir!" one of the others protested.
"And there might be an opening up above, among those stone spikes, where we wouldn't see it."
"Do as he says," Arlian ordered. "We do what we can, as best we can. And a dragon can fit through a smaller opening than you might think; their hide and bone is tough, but their flesh is far less solid than our own." He gestured at the gigantic rotting carcasses to illustrate his point.
"Yes, my lord."
"Stabber, you take your two around to the right, and Quickhand, you take two men to the left. Burn off any smears of venom you find--no sense in leaving it for scavengers. The rest of you, spread out across the floor--there could be pits below, or shafts above. Torches high!" He waved his own torch to demonstrate, and the flame roared and crackled; the air was still thick with flammable venom.
The venom fumes were why they carried torches, rather than lanterns; a lantern might be shattered by a flare, or smoked into uselessness. Torches were clumsier and did not last as well, but were far more suited to the environment of a dragon's lair.
The men obeyed, the two parties moving along the walls while half a dozen others scattered.
The man in the green coat, however, stepped down from the entrance, came up behind Arlian's shoulder, and said quietly, "My lord?"
Arlian turned his head slightly. "Yes?"
"My lord, if any more dragons remain alive in this place, surely they must be awake by now, and lurking in concealment, awaiting an appropriate moment to strike.
Arlian shifted his grip on his spear. "You may well be right," he said.
"My lord, killing four dragons as they slept was a task within our capabilities, but fighting a waking dragon? I think we might do better to withdraw into the tunnel and await events."
"I think not," Arlian said, studying the cavern ceiling for openings. "I have fought dragons before. They are fierce and mighty, but hardly indestructible."
The other grimaced-Arlian could see the expression from the corner of his eye. "Our ancestors thought otherwise for centuries," he said.
"And we have repeatedly proven them wrong. Obsidian can pierce the dragons' hides, and a blow to the heart can kill. You saw as much not ten minutes ago."
"Indeed. But any other dragons would be awake. And here, in these confined spaces, in foul-smelling darkness, can we hope to strike quickly to a moving beast's heart?"
"Quickly enough. I have done this before, my lord, more than once."
"We could lose several of our men to a draconic ambush, my lord."
"So we could. I have lost men several times in the past; some of those who accompany us today were present on such occasions, as you were not, and yet they have come here willingly, and they understand the risks. They know they might die today--but if we do not seek the dragons out and destroy them, Lord Rolinor, how many innocents will those dragons eventually slay?"
"Perhaps many, perhaps none. My lord Obsidian, we cannot accept the responsibility for every innocent life in the Lands of Man! We..."
"On the contrary," Arlian interrupted. "I have done exactly that in accepting the Duke's commission as warlord. It is my duty, my responsibility, to protect every innocent from the dragons, insofar as I am able, even if it cost my own life, or the lives of my men. It pains me that hundreds of innocents, perhaps thousands, have died beneath the claws and flame of the dragons in recent years, not only because any death is a loss, but because those lost lives were my responsibility. I have sworn to exterminate the dragons if I live long enough, and I mean to do so. We are all volunteers here, Rolinor--have you forgotten what we volunteered for?"
"I volunteered to slay dragons in the Duke's service, my lord, not to die!" Rolinor's voice was not entirely steady, his sibilants slightly slurred; Arlian wondered if the venomous atmosphere was affecting him.
"Then let us slay dragons, my lord, and try our very best not to die in the process." With that he turned away and raised his torch again, staring out into the cavern.
His two lieutenants were moving along the walls, long spears held ready, spreading torchlight into the depths of the cave, each with two companions following close behind with their own torches and shorter spears. Every so often one of the men thrust a speartip into a crevice to test its dimensions, or put a torch to a glistening streak of poison, sending a vivid flare roaring up the stone as venom ignited.
Each such flare destroyed hundreds of ducats' worth of venom, venom that the lords of the Dragon Society could perhaps have used to add to their numbers and buy the loyalty of more troops; Arlian was pleased to see that his men did not hesitate to burn the foul stuff.
Elsewhere in the cavern, away from the walls, the other soldiers were scattered, moving more or less randomly down the vast chamber, each with a torch, two with the long killing spears and the rest with shorter defensive weapons.
"You in the center, form a line!" Arlian called. "You might miss an opening if you just wander about like dazed sheep!"
Some of the men glanced back at him; one called, "Yes, my lord!" Then they wandered on as they had before.
Arlian sighed. These were good men, for the most part, strong and brave and obedient; except for young Lord Rolinor they had all been with him for at least two or three years now, and he knew them and was proud to lead them. Still, they were not as disciplined and thoughtful as he might have wished.
He considered sending Rolinor down to direct them into a better line, but then rejected the idea; Rolinor was no more disciplined than the others, and a good bit less dedicated and eager. Lord Rolinor was, in fact, the only one in the party who had not really volunteered. Oh, he had made a show of enthusiasm when he first arrived a week before, made a little speech about how pleased he was to join the great Lord Obsidian in his crusade against the dragons, but Arlian and Rolinor both knew it was all for show. Rolinor was here because he was trying to impress the Duke in order to establish himself in the government, and slaying dragons in their lairs was more impressive than overseeing fortifications or financing caravans--and probably safer than attacking the Dragon Society's strongholds, tracking down the Society's assassins, or attempting to capture the dragonhearts themselves.
Rolinor's family had sent him to court to carry on their long tradition of service to the Dukes of Manfort, and Rolinor was doing his best to cooperate, but his heart was not in it. Court intrigue suited him well enough, and he had no trouble playing the sycophant, but fighting dragons was clearly not something that held any appeal for him. He had not asked for a killing spear, and appeared to have lost even his short spear; he had not approached any of the dragons closely until after they were dead. He was here to advance his career, not because he hated the dragons.
Rolinor had not lost family or friends to dragons, as Arlian had. He had not twice seen his home destroyed by dragonfire. He had not conversed with dragons and felt their scorn and hatred. He had not seen a newborn dragon tear its way from a man's chest. While Arlian knew that another such monster was growing in his own tainted blood, Rolinor had never been thus polluted, never lived in dread of such a death. To Rolinor vengeance was only a word, an abstract concept.
To Arlian, vengeance upon the dragons was everything. Vengeance was why he lived, why he fought, the entire reason he had sought wealth and power, his purpose as warlord to the Duke of Manfort. Destroying the dragons and their human allies, protecting innocents from them, was far more important to him than his own survival.
"My lord!" One of the soldiers was bending down, waving his torch. He had found an opening in the cavern floor, and thrust his spear into it without striking bottom.
"I see it," Arlian called, starting forward down the sloping stone surface. "Stand clear! Spears ready!"
Copyright 2003 by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Excerpted from Dragon Venom by Watt-Evans, Lawrence Copyright © 2004 by Watt-Evans, Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
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