By the time sunset reddened the horizon, the procession of village elders had vanished. Rowena squinted through her tears to watch the last of them retreat into the woods along the path winding back to town. Back to their safe homes and barred doors. No one wanted to risk meeting the dragon. Not the elders, the parish priest and curate, or the Baron's chaplain. Not his men at arms, who had stood guard to keep the peace during the offering of tribute. Not even his dark-robed household wizard. Not her neighbors, who had acted friendly enough until this day came. Least of all Rowena herself, chosen for the creature's annual feast. With the fading daylight, the poppy-tinctured wine began to wear off. Fear trickled through her veins. Her throat, still raw from the crying she'd done before the priests had dosed her, was parched with thirst.
Already numbness crept up her bound arms. She strained against the rope that tied her to the withered tree at the verge of the stony foothills where no shepherds dared graze their flocks. The edge of the dragon's land. She choked down the scream that welled in her throat. Nobody would come to her rescue. Anyway, if released, where could she go? Any of the hamlets that owed allegiance to the local Baron would cast her out if she begged for refuge. It was considered a dire omen for a dragon's sacrifice to return alive. Rowena's own grandmother had been driven from her home in a distant land for that very reason.
Rowena tried to find comfort in her grandmother's amulet hanging from a thong around her neck, hidden under the traditional white shift. Grandmother had slipped the charm over Rowena's head at the last moment. According to Grandmother, the bronze disk had enabled her to escape alive from a dragon's lair. Her native village had exiled her for fear that the dragon's rejection would bring a curse upon the community. After months of wandering she had found her way here and given birth to Rowena's mother
A breeze sprang up, drying the clammy sweat on Rowena's bare limbs. A chill prickled on her skin, despite the season. Every Midsummer Eve the dragon swooped down at sunset to collect his annual tribute. As tradition demanded, the Baron and the priests had cast lots to determine which town would supply the maiden. The lot had fallen upon Rowena's village, and within the village, her name had been chosen. Of course the lot never fell upon the Baron's household, a village elder's daughter, or a priest's sister. This year, with sickness rampant among the local children, the choice had not been left to chance. Rowena knew she had been sacrificed because of her grandmother's dubious past, suspected of having unleashed a curse upon the community.
Rowena squirmed to work her way around the tree until she faced the hillside instead of the path to the village. The rope scraped her wrists. She saw no bones scattered nearby. Maybe the monster carried his victims to his lair instead of devouring them on the spot. She prayed that if the amulet didn't protect her, the end would come quickly. Would his jaws bite her head off, or would he first incinerate her in a roar of flame? On countless winter nights she had listened avidly to the ballads and tales Grandmother had picked up while wandering the countryside and wished she could live those adventures. Now she would have emitted a bitter laugh at her silly notions of adventure, if her throat hadn't been clogged with fear.
A winged shape glided toward her from the peaks in the distance. Her chest tightened, and her heart hammered against her ribs.
The creature loomed before her like a giant bat as it sank to the ground. Her unbound hair blew in the wind it stirred up. It settled in front of her and folded the wings on its back.
Her stomach cramped with terror, although the dragon looked smaller than she'd expected. She had imagined him as large as a church or perhaps even so huge his wings would blot out the sun. Still, at twice the size of the Baron's warhorse, the monster was fearsome enough. Instead of thick-bodied like a horse, though, he looked sinuously elongated, with a serpentine tail.
His crested head, with jaws the length of her forearm, lowered toward her. Holding her breath, she waited for the dagger-size teeth to rend her throat. Her legs trembled. The glittering eyes fixed upon her. She squeezed her own eyes shut. His hot breath blasted her in the face. It smelled like a bonfire of pine branches with a trace of incense.
Something like a scorching whip lashed her neck. She choked back a scream. Now the fangs would pierce her flesh.
But they didn't. Hissing, the dragon withdrew his tongue, the "whip" she'd felt. When she dared to look, he was staring at her with his oval, slanted eyes-the color of emeralds. Not that she had ever seen an emerald up close, but she could think of no other word for that green glow.
He stretched one of his front feet toward her. His claws touched the skin just above the neckline of her shift. She couldn't suppress a whimper. The dragon withdrew his talons and used them to snap the ropes that bound her to the tree trunk. Her legs crumpled. The dragon's leg wrapped around her like a cat's paw scooping up a mouse.
With a cry, Rowena shoved against the scaly chest. It felt smoother than she'd imagined and as warm as the outside of an oven. A rainbow of greens, blues, and violets rippled over the creature's hide, as if coated with powdered gems. No wonder legends claimed kings would pay a fortune for a dragon's skin.
There was no knight here to slay this beast, though, and no matter how beautiful, he would still devour her. Tears trickled down Rowena's cheeks.
The next moment, panic dried them. The dragon leaped into the air and spread his wings. Her stomach lurched. She swallowed bile. A scream ripped from her throat. The dragon spun her around to face away from him and clutched her against his chest with both forefeet. Wind whipped her hair and stung her eyes. Her legs dangling, she gripped the creature's front limbs and babbled a frantic prayer. Better to get her throat slashed by his fangs than fall to the rocky ground and perhaps writhe in agony for hours with a broken spine.
With her back to the dragon's body, she could see the rocky hills ahead. In the dying light she saw they were heading for a dark gash in a cliff above a ravine. After several minutes of flight, the dragon glided to a stop on a ledge barely wide enough to hold him. No wonder the Baron's men at arms had never stormed the dragon's lair. Only something with wings could reach this entrance.
The dragon put her down and nudged her inside. She stumbled, fell to her knees, and crouched there, shaking. The nausea subsided to mild queasiness. She looked up at the dragon, who towered on his rear legs in the "doorway." His wings, though shaped like a bat's, weren't black or brown, but iridescent with shades of emerald and turquoise.
She almost fainted when he spoke to her: "Get up, girl." She had to think a second to understand the guttural phrase. She couldn't tell how he formed the words, with his mouth open but not moving. His voice rumbled and made the nerves quiver in the pit of her stomach.
When she didn't move, he hooked his claws around her elbow and dragged her upright. The floor of the cave felt like polished marble under her bare feet, instead of the rough stone she expected. A pearly glow emanated from the walls, weaker than the sun, but she could see much clearer than in moonlight.
"Walk," the dragon growled. His tongue snaked out to lash her arm. Shivering, she obeyed. He slithered into the cavern after her.
The entry tunnel opened into a huge chamber with a vaulted ceiling, much higher than the roof of the village church or the Baron's hall. Through a rift far overhead she glimpsed the gray of the evening sky, rapidly dying toward night. Several portals opened off this central room. At the far end lay a heap of gems and coins. So the tales about the dragon's treasure hoard were true. If she could escape from this lair and take a handful of those jewels along, she could flee to some far country as a rich woman.
She reminded herself that she couldn't escape, not unless she learned how to fly or to crawl down the cliff like an insect. Besides, no doubt the dragon would kill and feast on her this very night.
He prodded her toward an alcove near the pile of treasure. Satin cushions filled the space, with covers of silk and finely woven wool spread over them. The dragon pushed Rowena, and she collapsed onto her back. His talons snagged the upper edge of her shift. He tore it down the front, leaving her naked body exposed.
Her skin prickled. Now he would surely rip her heart out.
He sniffed her, and his muzzle touched the amulet. One claw plucked at the disk, about the size of a woman's palm, etched with a dragon's profile and encircled by runic symbols. Raising his head, he snorted a puff of smoke. "S-s-s-so…what is thisss?" He nudged her again.
The long, sinuous tongue circled her neck and snaked between her breasts. Bolts of heat and cold shot through her.
Knowing the dragon understood human language gave her the courage to speak. "Are you going to kill me now?" She gripped the amulet. It hadn't kept the beast from carrying her off, but at least she wasn't dead yet.
He raised his formidable head. "Kill? Why?" His breath behind the words hissed like a snake's. The sound echoed in the vast chamber.
"To eat me."
"I did not bring you here as food." Now that her ears became attuned to his speech, she understood him more easily.
"Then what-" Her voice came out as a thin squeak. "Didn't you devour the other girls?"
A puff of smoke displayed his contempt for that question. "I burned to ash the ones who died of sickness or starved themselves to death. Those who lived longer, I set free at the turn of autumn."
Was he lying? Dragons had a reputation for deviousness. "None of them came home, that I ever heard." Possibly because they feared the kind of reception her grandmother had suffered?
"I am not to blame for that." He loomed over her, and again she felt and smelled his hot, incense-scented breath.
With his clawed forefeet he tugged off the remnants of the shift. Again his tongue tasted the hollow of her throat and swept down the front of her body. It circled each breast in turn. She shuddered with each lash of the whip-like appendage. If he didn't want her as food, why did he seem to be testing her flavor?