“Humanslayer" by G. Scott Huggins
At the foot of the mountains at the cold edge of the world, a dragon lay dying.
Fresh snow fell on him. It was stained a deep and sticky red where he had clawed his way up from the pit. The stake driven through his thigh should have killed him already. Cutting through it and escaping the trap had taken all his strength, and now he could do no more than twitch feebly.
He drew in a breath half-muffled by the snow that enfolded him. He held it until he was forced to exhale through the red-hot pain of his broken jaw in a gargling groan. His broken jaw! That was the wound that had ultimately killed him. Even in this weak and useless human form, he could have called upon the Theurge. Stopped the bleeding in his leg. Healed the torn muscle and smashed bone in a matter of hours, and conjured flame to keep him warm.
He was going to die of irony, and bad luck. But mostly, came the thought that hurt more than his wounds and chilled him more than the snow, from his own stupidity.
It could not have been an hour ago that the young dragon had congratulated himself on his cleverness and observation: when he had found the human hunter’s body, lying so peacefully in the snow. The ritual that had enabled him to transform into the likeness of a human had taken a full day, but altering his face into one that the humans would know and trust had been the work of mere minutes
And then he had run from the body and plunged through the snow-covered trap not thirty paces away. And it had killed him. His body just hadn’t let him go yet. But it would, soon. The snow was beginning to feel warm, like the gentle breath of his mother. In the distance he heard shouts. The shouts of humans. To have come all this way and not even to have seen the enemy. Darkness pulled him down like poisoned gravity.
He woke into the agony of broken bone, his arms and legs flailing out of his control. “Hold him! Hold him down!” A gurgling wail broke from him, and a crushing weight bore him down. He drew in a breath, and suddenly his mouth was full of a choking, sweet liquid. He swallowed desperately and drew in another breath. Pain hammered at his face. Nightmare. Let me wake. But it was sleep that took him.
When next the dragon awoke, he was too weak to do more than twitch his fingers. Waves of pain washed through his body, like those of the shores of the Ocean Aeternam. They broke gently but insistently on his thigh, throbbing with a deep, burning pain. At his jaw they pulsed with a fiery heat.
He opened his eyes. His teeth were bound together with some sharp-smelling apparatus of animal hide that wrapped his face and head. The bone was set. That much he could tell. He did not dare move his head, but his eyes roamed.
He lay on another animal hide with the fur still attached, and another such hide covered him. He was warm. He lay in one of the humans’ caves, stuck off in some deep alcove. The exit was screened off by a mat of thin strips. Beyond it, the glow of a fire flickered, and the shadowy forms of humans moved.
The silhouette of a human drew the curtain aside and entered. Was he a prisoner? Would it question him? No, think, he told himself. Why cure you when they could torture you so much more by leaving you wounded?
There was only one conclusion. His disguise had worked.
The human bore awkwardly in its hands a steaming bowl. The aroma filled the small room.
Dragons and humans had this in common: they both killed and cooked their prey. But surely even a human could not imagine him capable of chewing food? Or was it merely going to eat in front of him?
It sat beside him. He could see the outlines of its face and body — her face and body, he realized — dimly outlined on the glow of the fire. Young, he thought. Dressed in the thin furs all the humans wore. She laid a gentle hand on his forehead.
“Don’t try to speak, now. Your jaw is broken. I’ve brought you soup. Can you sit up?”
She didn’t wait for any feeble efforts on his part, but put her hands under his shoulders and heaved. Panic seized him, but the hide bindings kept his jaw from moving, though not from stabbing him with fresh pain. A whimper escaped his swollen lips.
“I know, it’s going to hurt for some time,” she said. “But you should eat, if you can. You’ve been asleep for two days. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
She sat beside him and dipped a stick with an even smaller bowl on the end of it into the bowl, which was filled with hot water. She slipped the stick between his lips, and he found that he could suck in the liquid, as if he had been doing it all his life. This human body knew how to meet its needs, even if he did not.
The taste was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It tasted like liquid meat and flavors he had no name for, revolting and delicious at the same time. And his body was hungry. The hunger overcame even his pain. He slurped it down.
Faster than he could believe, he was full, and warmth lapped him inside and out. But the pain of his injuries still hammered at his leg and face. The woman rose. She put the bowl down, and drew something from her clothing, something he couldn’t see. Then she returned to his side. “I . . . I can ease your pain,” she said, voice trembling. “Will you let me?”
Let her? Who would stop her?
Her hand returned to his forehead. “Thystur klishain mnoyu,” she chanted. His eyes snapped open. She was invoking the Theurge!
“Male’ain volnoi eth brathan.” A wave of cool power flooded his body. The pain receded. “I haven’t healed you,” she said “Don’t try to rise. I’ll be back in the morning. But you should be able to sleep now. Sleep, Eorlan.”
And with a swish of the curtain, she was gone.
Sleep did not come for the dragon, even as the light of the cave’s fire dimmed to a red glow. Even under the furs, it was cold. Colder than he had ever been at night, except out in the snow.
He had never expected to have to sleep in this strange human body. To be injured, yes. Perhaps even to be killed. That was the chance every young dragon took to earn a place among the Exalted. Any dragon could dive on a party of humans, incinerating them in a storm of fire. And, like as not, most of the humans would have scattered and hidden, leaving the dragon to lumber about the hillside, never knowing whether or not he had ever killed the little monsters. Such a thing was not even worthy of a name for a young dragon. Even more humiliating, such a dragon might be pierced by one of the humans’ poison-tipped arrows.
But to face humans in their lairs, to slay them with their own weapons and in their own form, to wipe out a whole nest of them, well, that was an accomplishment. Or even better, to take the weapons of their warriors, and leave them knowing that he had passed among them like a ghost of a flame, and them none the wiser—that would have been a coup that would truly have won him a High Name.
And what was he instead? Lying broken at their mercy and fed like one of the animals they bred for slaughter. Branded with a Human name. Humiliation whose only consolation was that none of his weorre would ever know of it.
And comforted by human sorcery.
That thought would not go away. So Humans could invoke the Theurge? Why didn’t they do so more often? If the human truly believed that he was one of them, why had she merely lessened his pain, and not healed his bones? If he could only speak, he could have done it himself. Well. Dragons were the people of the Theurge. He had changed his form, but he was still a dragon. In a week, no more than two, he would be healed anyway. He might be able to accomplish his coup yet, and reclaim everything he had set out to.
Despite this comfort, it was long before sleep claimed him.
“Are you awake, Dragonslayer?”
His eyes snapped open. Daylight streamed through the cave mouth beyond the speaker who stood in the doorway. The speaker was a broad man, thick with muscle, wrapped in furs. He held up a hand. “Don’t try to talk. You are tough as mammoth hide, I’ll give you that. Still, you’re lucky we found you when we did. We’d all given you up when you didn’t return from that blizzard. Might as well have been an avalanche. Three days ago, now. And torn up like you were . . . ” He shook his head in wonder.
“But that’s what makes us who we are, eh?” The man laughed aloud and slapped him on the shoulder. Throbbing pain erupted in his leg and jaw and he winced. Then he brightened, for the woman who had tended him last night came up behind the newcomer. He hoped she would cast her spell again. He hoped she had food, for he was ravenous again.
The newcomer, however, seemed not to have noticed the woman. “Fertha’s relieved. I don’t know what scared him more: that you were dead or you weren’t. I know he wouldn’t have wanted to face you if you’d come back at the head of a raiding party. Besides which he’d have had to find someone willing to take his daughter again.”
The dragon was irritated. Who was Fertha? And what did his daughter have to do with anything? Did he dare try to speak? He settled for a grunt and a wave.
The newcomer raised his eyebrows. “Oh, Clod’s here with your breakfast.” He edged aside, making her squeeze past him. “I don’t envy you the soup you’ll be eating for months. Feed him up, Clod. And don’t make it worse by spilling it on him,” he said, shaking a finger at her.
The furs he wore dropped aside to reveal the mail he wore underneath them. Shimmering scales caught the dim light. Dragonhide. A spasm of rage and pain passed through the dragon. So. A dragonslayer: one of the humans who had himself climbed the Wall of the Night to hunt and slay his people. And dared to wear them as trophies. A proud man. One he would take special pleasure in humiliating.
He turned to go, and met an older man, coming in. “Chief Fertha!” he exclaimed. “Your line of dragonslayers is preserved!” He snorted. “Potentially, at least.”
The old man gave him a sour glare. “Kerdan Dragonslayer,” he said, evenly. “I’ll need you to take over Eorlan’s duties until he is well. And by the grace of the Dead and the Absent Gods, I hope to find out how soon that will be.”
“I’ll see if I can find the time,” Kerdan said, in the same expansive cheer, clearly not caring a whit. “No rest for the bold, eh? Farewell, Eorlan Dragonslayer!” He strode off, leaving the dragon staring after him. Then he — that is, the man whose face he wore — had also been a dragonslayer? He felt ill.
The girl approached him. “Don’t spill it on him, Clod!” snapped the old man. “I’m sure the Dragonslayer can feed himself.” He snatched the bowl from her hands, slopping the steaming broth over his fingers. “Gods damn you, girl, must you overfill the bowl? Go clean my chambers!”
“Yes, father,” she said, tonelessly.
No pain spell? The dragon took the bowl in his hands, grunted, and pointed to the girl. But she was gone, and the human chief ignored him. He lay back and winced. A gnawing chill awoke in his gut.
There were still splinters deep in the wound. They wouldn’t stop a dragon’s healing, but they would slow it down significantly, and they hurt. “Gods be praised you’re back. What happened out there?”
Was the man so stupid? “Eorlan” cocked his head. The older man blinked. “Oh, of course. Your jaw. Two months to heal, Peliar says. And I don’t sleep easy these days, not when deathwalkers can seemingly wipe out whole septs encamped for the winter.”
The dragon ignored him and began to eat the soup. It was hot, and every touch of the spoon against his lips bruised them, but it tasted like life itself, despite its strangeness. Fertha rattled on. “Sept Gorlim of the Altui clan. We just got a runner from their High Chief. They found the whole camp, slaughtered. All of them, down to the babes and the elders. Slaughtered like animals, he said.”
So, one of his wingmates had accomplished what he himself only hoped to. And had doubtless received his High Name even now.
“Bad enough our hunting parties and harvesters are slaughtered and run off by dragons in the autumn,” the human chief went on. “At least we have the bravery of men like you and Kerdan to fight that, eh? But to have our winter hideouts devastated by evil spirits! It’s more than a man can bear, that.”
The dragon stared at him. Bravery? The humans thought they were brave to attack dragons torpid in the heat of summer? In their dens, where they could barely move? Cunning and smart, perhaps, but brave? Too much to think of. The pain in his jaw and thigh were building again. Throbbing.
The old man clapped him on the forearm. “I don’t have much more fight left in me,” he whispered. “It’s time for a younger man to take up the longspear. Watch out for Kerdan. I know you two have been friends a long time, but I think he’ll fight you for it, when it comes to that. Heal fast.” He rose.
The dragon caught his arm. He grunted, gesturing at the door.
“Yes? What do you want?”
How to make him understand. Could he say the girl’s name? Clod? Why did they call her that? “Gl-gl-gl.” He nearly choked. His tongue was too swollen.
The old man shook his head.
“Gld!” Eorlan grunted, at length. He pointed at his chin, then at his thigh.
“Oh!” Fertha’s eyes brightened. “Well, that’s a good sign. And at least she’s good for something,” he muttered. “I’ll send her back.”
It hadn’t been ten minutes when the girl came back. Her shoulders slumped, and she looked defeated. Sad. He would never have known how to read a human face when he was in his right body. The body knew things he did not. Or did the transformation even alter his mind? There was a disturbing thought. She sat down beside him, watching him with a peculiar, almost a fearful intensity. What did she have to fear?
She reached a hand under his furs, and he waited for her to invoke the Theurge, but instead her cool hand traveled up, carefully avoiding the wound to his thigh. Further up, until . . .
He twitched and squealed. Pain ripped through his jaw and thigh. She jumped back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Sorry, I thought . . . Father said . . . ”
He gestured to his thigh, and then to his jaw, groaning. For long seconds, she just stared at him. Clutching handfuls of fur through the pain, he tried to approximate the words of the invocation: “Hhshtrrr. Klshn. Myuu.” He pointed again to his wounds.
If anything, the girl’s eyes popped wider, and she hissed an indrawn breath. “You . . . ” She steadied herself. “You want me to do the sorcery?”
“You . . . you listened to the words.” She was staring at him in wonder.
Had the real Eorlan not known of her link to the Theurge, then?
“Ehssh,” he said again.
She tottered forward, touched his head as if he might burn her. “Thystur klishain mnoyu,” she intoned. “Male’ain volnoi eth brathan.” Again, the pain receded in a cool wave. He lay back, muscles unknotting. He picked up the empty soup bowl and brandished it at her. “You want more? All right.”
He spent the time it took her to get the soup wondering what she had thought her father had wanted her to do to him. He reviewed the conversation in his mind. But even after she brought him back the soup, it made no sense.
She was in and out for the rest of the day. He discovered the indignity of having to piss while moving his torn leg as little as possible. The splinters were maddening, far too deep to dig out, even if he’d had a suitable knife. There was more of the broth at evening. Each meal was filling, and yet he was hungry in a couple of hours. As the light from outside gave way to the bright red of the cave’s central fire, she returned to him in the company of an older woman who carried a pair of small jugs. Even he could see the resemblance between the two. This must be her mother. Clod balanced another bowl of soup awkwardly in her hands. He took it from her gratefully.
“Ruath, take one of these and set it out of the way. I’ll just put this here. Fertha says it’s in tribute to your courage, and it’ll help with the pain.” She put the jug within easy reach. It smelled like spoiled fruit. “It’ll help you forget the pain, of that I’ve no doubt. Hold still. Don’t worry, I shan’t violate your spirit with sorcery. Thystur klishain mnoyu.”
So this was where Clod — or was it Ruath? — had received her link to the Theurge. Her mother muttered another command, but nothing happened that the dragon could see. She peered at him and made gestures.
“I don’t see any further injuries that we missed,” she sniffed. “I only hope we got all the dirt and wood out of that leg. Well, if we didn't, we can't keep opening it back up to dig around. Ruath will be with you tonight.”
“Mother, if I sleep here, I might hurt him,” she said hesitantly. “Can’t I . . . ”
“We have no doubt you’ll take good care of him. Just make sure to sleep soundly.” She addressed him. “Get better soon. We all need your strength.”
The girl looked at him. Why did she have two names? “It’s not that I don’t want to sleep here, but . . . I’ll be careful.”
He blinked at her and grunted what he hoped would be taken as an assent, while wondering where she was going to sleep.
“Would you like some of the wine?” she asked. She sounded afraid of the answer.
He lifted the jug and sniffed at it. They drank rotten fruit juice? He grunted and put it down. She stared at him. Then she approached.
He went rigid with shock when she climbed into the woven-reed bed beside him and tucked herself under the furs. She edged away from him, so that she was almost right up against the stone wall. The dragon’s mind reeled. Then . . . this Clod was his — Eorlan’s — mate? And the chief’s daughter? It made a kind of sense. A chief of the humans would choose a dragonslayer to protect his daughter, just as a queen dragonne would choose dragons of High Name to fly her daughters. He cursed his fickle luck: the man whose face he had assumed was not only known, but trusted with leadership. But he could take no advantage of it until weeks of healing had passed.
Sleeping was awkward. It was his right thigh that was injured, and his jaw was broken on the right. He rolled onto his side and faced the woman. But his right arm was balanced awkwardly on his side. If he moved it forward . . . he could not do that without touching her. But they were mates, were they not?
Tentatively, he rested his hand on her side. She tensed, and almost he recoiled. But then she breathed again. Slowly, she inched closer, and his arm draped over her side. She was warm. Warmer than he could have guessed. Sleep fell like a soft hammer.
The next few days went by in a slow blur. The pain got better and worse as his bones healed. He learned gradually the names of several other people. Clod/Ruath’s mother was Peliar. Kerdan came to see him every day or so, sometimes in the company of other Human hunters. Some wore dragonscale armor. He listened to their reports. They watched the dragons. Tracked their movements. Few of them were dragonslayers, a title reserved for the men who had crawled into dragon lairs and killed with blade. Kerdan and Eorlan were men admired. And one of them froze to death in a blizzard. So much for the great dragonslayer, he thought.
And so much also for the great dragon warrior who fell into a pit and broke his jaw, he was forced to admit.
But as they spoke, he learned better of them. All of these men carried poisoned arrows and longbows, prepared to defend their herds and farms against the dragons that dove shrieking out of the sky. They were not the size of his head. And yet they were ready to loose their poisoned splinters against a firestorm that could strip their flesh from their bones.
They spoke of how huge the dragons were, and how difficult it was to kill one even with a poisoned blade. Kerdan himself had nearly died in achieving his title. One arm was a mass of scar tissue where he had been burned by the breath of his target.
And they spoke of legendary humans, who had managed to take scales, and even teeth from dragons while leaving them alive. They counted coup for a title, if not a name. The dragon was forced to admit something he had never suspected.
These were not cowards.
Kerdan made suggestions to him and the dragon grunted agreement. From time to time, Clod-or-Ruath would come in and bring more broth. When they noticed her, the men called her Clod. Was Ruath a title that meant “daughter,” then? Only to be used by a mother? At night, she eased his pain and slept beside him. The cold meant that they huddled together for warmth.
By the fourth day, the swelling in his jaw had gone down, but pain and itching was throbbing through the healing bone. Kerdan and two hunters were in the room, going on about herds and dragon sightings. Clod-or-Ruath was busy in the corner of a room, arranging something-or-other.
He grunted for her, but she could not hear him over the loud conversation. He grunted again. And again. He waved his hand but her back was to him. Kerdan noticed. “Hm? What is it, Eorlan?” He pointed to his jaw.
“Oh, pain, eh? Here: this will bring it down.” He held up the jug of spoiled fruit juice from where it had lain untouched.
Irritably, the dragon waved it away and grunted, pointing at the girl. The hunter before him misunderstood. “What, you want me to feed it to you?” he laughed. “How sick are you?”
The itching was driving him mad. She wouldn’t turn around. “Gl-gl-gl . . . ” he sputtered. He couldn’t get her usual name out. He took a deep breath and as slowly as he could, took a chance. “Rrrruuuuathsh.”
The hunters shut up. “Rruath,” he said again.
She turned to him, staring like she had never seen him before. “What?” she whispered.
“Rruathsh,” he said again. “Please.” He pointed to his jaw. “Hrrts.”
“He wants Clod to bring him the wine?” whispered the hunter.
Kerdan snorted. “What’s wrong with you, Eorlan? Drink up, Dragonslayer. Wash your pain down.” He waved the jug in “Eorlan’s” face.
“Nrrh!” grunted the dragon. “Rruathsh! Please!”
As if in a dream, she approached him. The hunter rose. “If that fumbler is doing sorcery, I’m leaving.”
Kerdan, remained seated, locked eyes with “Eorlan.” He took a deliberate sip of the wine. “A man’s drink,” he said, grinning. The dragon had seen such grins before. They immediately preceded a blast of fire, in dragons. “But I’ll leave you to what you need.” He took a bigger gulp of the wine. “Let me know if you need help finishing that off.” He rose, the challenge clear. “Take care of him, Clod.”
When they were gone, the girl stepped forward and invoked the Theurge, touching his face gently. The pain and itching receded. But when it was over, she continued holding his face in her hands, staring into his eyes as if searching for something. “What happened to you?” she whispered.
The dragon could only stare back. Clearly, she meant something beyond just his injuries. But what?
The real Eorlan would have acted differently. Would have drunk the wine, obviously. Should he? His stomach roiled just thinking about it, and what it would feel like to vomit with his broken jaw bound shut didn’t bear thinking about.
What did humans say to their mates? He didn’t even have any experience of what dragons said to their mates, yet! He raised his hand to her face. She flinched, and then let herself lean into it, never breaking eye contact. “Nnnthing, Rruath. Feel better,” he managed.
Tears started from her eyes. Why? What had he said wrong? Should he have called her Clod, instead?
“There . . . there are splinters in your leg,” she whispered. “I could try to remove them?”
She knew? Then why hadn’t she done so before? “Esh!” he grunted.
She opened her mouth. Closed it. Bared his leg. Drew in a breath. “It’s healed very quickly,” she said, voice trembling. “I’ll try not to hurt too much. But there will be pain.”
Did she really think he feared pain? Wasn’t this Eorlan a warrior? He gave what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze on her arm.
Ruath placed her hands on either side of the closed wound. Invoked the Theurge. Repeated her ward against pain. This time the cool wave of her sorcery almost dizzied him. “Xecora derev’a!”
Red-hot needles lanced upward through his wound. Unconsciously, he gritted his teeth and then regretted that decision. Stars exploded in his vision and a hoarse cry ripped from his throat.
When his vision cleared, she was looking at him fearfully. A dozen or more reddish-black shards of wood protruded from his reopened wound. Shakily, carefully, she removed them. The dragon lay back. Already, the stabbing pains of the past week were gone. She had removed them. A tear ran down his face. “Hhnk you,” he managed.
Staring at him, she rose and departed without a word.
Without the splinters, the dragon’s healing accelerated.
Two days later, he was able to put weight on his right leg for the first time since his fall. He would limp for a bit, but he was mobile. He tried only when he was alone, at first. If he were to carry out his coup, he needed to be fit enough to run. But he did not want the humans to suspect his true strength. The day after that, he felt confident that his jaw had knit, and he was hungry enough for solid food that he could wait no longer. As the cave outside took on the colors of sunset, he limped over to a chest and discovered a sheathed knife. He cut the leather brace from around his jaw. He invoked the Theurge. Five minutes later, he was healed.
When Ruath returned, she shrieked. “Be very still, Eorlan,” she whispered. “If you move it the wrong way, you could . . . ”
“It feels well enough,” he said. His voice was rough with disuse, but clear. “You are a good healer, Ruath.”
Her face flushed a sunset red, and her mouth dropped open. “It can’t be . . . ” she whispered. “It can’t.”
“Why are you afraid?” he asked. After his long silence, his curiosity overcame his caution. “Why do you fear to use your power?”
Something awoke in her. She looked deep into his eyes. “I thought . . . you would not want me to use them. It is a dragonslayer’s part to bear pain. To trust in his own strength. Not in sorcery or in the care of women. So you and Kerdan have always said. And I am clumsy.” She knotted her hands in her furs.
Ah. Kerdan’s behavior made more sense now. The dragon had shown weakness, by his lights, in asking for her aid. Stupid, but it made a kind of sense.
He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Pain may have taught me new wisdom. You are a good healer.” Her face shone in wonder at the praise. “Could I please have something to eat?” he asked. “Something not liquid?”
As in a daze, she brought him stewed meat with some sort of spongy food. “If you feel any pain, stop chewing,” she said. He ate it all, even the spongy stuff, which tasted like nothing he’d ever heard of before, and asked for more. When at last he was full sleepiness descended on him like a heavy fur. He was scarcely aware of her crawling into bed beside him.
When he woke in the firelit night, he felt her hands brushing his face. He opened his eyes and saw hers shining like globes of water. She froze. In this light, so close, he could almost imagine her as a dragon, face ruddy in her own fire.
He was holding her in his sleep, and felt her softness. She moved against him and suddenly he was aware of another feeling: a growing heat. His hands tightened on her and she let out a shuddering breath. Her face moved forward and just for a moment he wondered if she was going to bite him. Then their lips locked together and their hands moved. His breath came faster and faster. Part of him — a part that was dazed and half-asleep — was revolted by what he was doing. With a human? But the body knew how to meet its needs. His hands rose and cupped the roundness of her breasts and she moaned Eorlan’s name.
“Ruath,” he whispered, and entered her. For a long time, nothing mattered but her. But his body and hers. He had never guessed what it could feel.
Afterward, he lay in the dark, feeling the human woman where she had curled up inside his arms.
His coup was in his grasp, he knew. With the Theurge again at his command, and his own strength, he could rise, take his weapons from the wall, and kill every human here. Those who saw him would trust him until it was too late. He would be accorded a High Name by his weorre. A name of valor.
All he had to do was kill her people. Which would kill her, leaving her shattered and defenseless.
And if he instead executed a coup? Stole the weapons of their warriors and destroyed their stores of food? In the middle of winter, that would only be a slower method of killing them. Of killing her, where she lay, helpless.
His planned act of valor wasn’t better than those of the human dragonslayers. It was worse. The path to honor and glory, so clear before him, had vanished in the night. Sleep came hard.
He awoke with her arms around him.
Half awake, the dragon studied them. There was a mystery here about this girl, who seemed to be afraid of him and care for him at the same time.
Eorlan would have understood it, he thought.
Her hands were so small. He held one of them in his own. And yet in the night, next to him, she had been as big and as strong as any dragonne.
He blinked, and looked at her hand again where it lay in his own.
It had four fingers.
She had no thumbs.
He looked from her hands to his own and back again. Where his fingers were straight and more or less the same length, her eight fingers were differently sized. One on each hand was almost the length of his own. Some were almost full-length, and some had only a single joint. Where his fingernails were smooth and round, hers were narrow and curved. Some protruded almost like dragon claws.
Claws. Clawed. That’s what they had been calling her. Not Clod.
The pieces fell together like a flood filling a valley. They disdained her because of her deformity. It was why she handled everything awkwardly. Without thumbs she had no firm grip. Was clumsy.
And he had not noticed. All the humans looked strange and awkward to him. What was one more little difference? But now he could see it. And they mocked her because of it. The one human who had truly eased his pain, who had tended him while he was wounded. Who, unlike any other in this rat hole, could command the Theurge itself.
And how had Eorlan, her mate, treated her? He remembered her fear, and her amazement when he had called her by her name. He thought he knew.
Anger built within the dragon. These men, these tiny proud men, were defiling something precious, because they could. They were able to do so because they were small of mind, just as they were able to worm their way into dragon lairs because they were small of body. He owed them something for their defilements. He remembered Kerdan’s grinning face. For their challenge. He looked at the sleeping woman who shared his bed. He owed her something as well. He rose, and she woke. “Ruath,” he said, gently.
She sat up, and he noticed the way she hid her hands under the furs, as if he should not have to look at them. “Yes, Eorlan?”
“I am well. Bring me my clothes. I would go hunting.”
“Eorlan,” she quavered. “You can’t be healed so fast.” Then she looked at him and it was almost as if she knew what he was. “Can you?”
“Trust me, Ruath,” he said, hefting his bow. “Bring me my clothing.”
When he stepped out into the main room of the cave in his dragonscale armor and his furs, armed with his bow and honed dragonbone longknife, the shock on every human face was plain to see. They had, after all, expected him to be abed for at least two moons. “Eorlan Dragonslayer!” “By the Dead and Absent Gods!” “Eorlan Ferthasson!” The shouts rang around him, and men slapped him on the back.
It did not take long for word to reach Fertha and Kendar. The other dragonslayer reached him first. “By the Dead Gods,” he exclaimed. “I’ve never seen a man revive so quickly! Why, you look ready to go out and cut down another dragon, not like you were half-dead just two days since, whining for sorcery to deaden your pain.” And he smiled, but the bared teeth seemed to “Eorlan” to be less than delighted.
Eorlan returned the smile, grasping the other man’s hand. Both tightened their grips. “And you look like a man who deserves a just reward for his words and deeds while I was wounded.” They released each other.
“Well, I think this calls for a feast!” shouted Fertha. “A feast in honor of Eorlan Dragonslayer!” A cheer went up on all sides, and the humans began preparations to honor their miraculously recovered hero.
The tables were laden with meat and the spongy food the humans called “bred,” which the dragon devoutly hoped was a misunderstanding of the same sort as “clod” had been. In addition, there were steaming mounds of more kinds of vegetation than he had imagined could be eaten. Humans were omnivores, of course, but he hadn’t realized just how much that word encompassed before he had seen a Human banquet.
Fertha gestured him toward the head of the table. Looking around, he intercepted Ruath and clasped her hand. Reflexively, she pulled away. “Eorlan, my place is . . . ”
“With me,” he interrupted her. “Are you not my wife? And my healer?”
Stunned, she opened and closed her mouth. “Well, yes, but . . . ”
“Your place is at my side tonight.” He led her to where a place had been cleared for him. Eyes widened as he sat Ruath down beside him. A thick slice of roast, red and dripping with juices, lay on his plate, and a large mug of the spoiled fruit juice stood beside it. Fertha rose.
“Tonight, we celebrate my daughter’s esteemed husband, Eorlan Ferthasson, the dragonslayer! He was dead, and is alive again, and is healed beyond our hopes! We feast!”
There was a great cheer, followed by the plundering of the table of bread, fruits, and other dainties the like of which the dragon had never seen. But Ruath sat as though invisible, and reached for nothing.
That wouldn’t do. The dragon rose and gathered up choice breads and fruits, anything he saw others grabbing, and dumped it on Ruath’s plate. Then he turned to his roast. It was large, far too large to eat. He saw that around him others were slicing their portions with knives. Ruath handed him a short knife from her belt when she saw him looking. He cut his roast into several slices. Then he cut hers and returned it to his belt.
“Oh, pardon me, Clawed, but I didn’t get any of the apples,” called a cheerful voice. Kerdan plucked one of the shining fruits off her plate. “By the way,” he continued, “I hope you washed that knife since Clawed touched it. It might spoil the meat, otherwise.”
Ruath bowed down under the name and the laughter that followed.
The dragon’s hand shot out and arrested Kerdan’s hand. “Her name is Ruath,” he said.
The table went silent. “Excuse me?” said the dragonslayer. “You want to let go my hand, Eorlan.”
The dragon rose to his feet. Then he raised his voice. “Ruath is the one responsible for my recovery. If you dishonor her, you dishonor me. Call her by her name.”
Kerdan wrenched his hand free. “Is this a joke? You’ve called her Clawed since before you married her. Since before you thought you could sleep your way into the chief’s chair instead of fight your way there. And you didn’t stop calling her that when you settled for fucking her because you were in love with her father’s title. I’ll call her what I please.” He snatched up a mug and took a gulp. “And I won’t stop for a milksop who begs for sorcery because he can’t even hold his wine.” He drained the mug, and then spat a mouthful in “Eorlan’s” face.
A roar went up from the crowd and the dragon wiped his eyes to clear them, but Kerdan was already on him. A solid right slammed into his ribs. He backpedaled and ducked the hammerblow left. With both hands, he shoved his opponent backward. It gave him just time enough to see Kerdan charging at him. They caught each other by the wrists
The dragon knew that if he invoked the Theurge, he could end the fight now. But winning by sorcery would not be a victory among humans. They had to know that Kerdan had been beaten, not ensorcelled.
Suddenly, Kerdan’s forehead shot forward, and the dragon ducked just in time to take the force on the left side of his jaw rather than his nose. Pain shot through him, and Kerdan’s foot caught him right over his wounded thigh.
The dragon let out a grunt of pain. If he had not healed himself, or the splinters had not been removed, the fight would have ended right there. And Kerdan knew it should have. His eyes widened in puzzlement. The dragon stomped down on Kerdan’s foot and felt toes crack. The man grunted pain.
But Kerdan was not a man to be daunted by pain. He was also far more experienced at fighting as a human. He slipped his left hand out of the dragon’s grip and landed a solid blow to his stomach. The breath was driven from his lungs. Kerdan overbore him, taking him to the floor. The hand drove for his throat, and the dragon barely caught it in time.
“You’re weak,” Kerdan grated. “Relying on women when what you needed was strength.” He forced the dragon’s hand inward. Any second now, Kerdan would slip his grip and have him by the throat.
The dragon’s eyes lit and he smiled. With his last breath, he said, “But my woman was more reliable than your strength.” And let go. The meaty hand closed on his throat and sealed his windpipe shut.
The dragon’s hand found Ruath’s knife at his belt and stabbed upward eight times in rapid succession. Kerdan looked puzzled, his grip slackened, and he rolled off the dragon.
Staggering to his feet, the dragon paced back to the table and pulled the dazed Ruath to her feet. He placed the bloody knife in her hand. He raised his mug. “To my wife,” he said into the silence. “Her name is Ruath.”
He lifted the wine to his lips. It tasted like counting coup. It tasted like victory.
Later, in their chamber, he told her, “No man will ever call you Clawed again.”
She gazed at him, like a woman afraid that she would wake from a dream. “I have something to say to you,” he said, “and it will not be easy for you to hear. I am not the Eorlan that you knew.”
She turned her gaze down. “I know.”
“You know?” He gaped.
From beneath her furs she drew a knife chipped from a dragontooth. “Eorlan was dead,” she said. “He was out too long, and the cold was too fierce. But my father made us go out anyway. When we found you, you were wearing furs such as any hunter might wear. But not the ones I had dressed you in. And you did not have this, your most prized possession. You valued it above all else. When they picked you up, I stayed to look. Your footprints, after the blizzard, were fresh, running straight into the trap. I followed them back . . . to you. And this.”
He could hardly breathe. “Then what did you believe I was?” he whispered.
“I didn’t know,” she said. “Perhaps a miracle? Or a ghost? A curse? But whatever you were, you could hardly have been worse. What are you?”
He told her.
“And what is your name? Your true name?”
“When I return,” he said, “it will be Eorlan.”
“When will you return?”
“When do you want me to go?”
It was the next year when he succeeded old Fertha. And another cold night when he awoke, Ruath snuggled against him in their new chambers.
Something was wrong.
He could feel it in the air of the cave. It had been a better winter this year, and under his guidance, the humans had been able to hide their herds from the dragons, for the most part, and drive off those that had found them.
But now he felt the strength of the Theurge building in the cave, and he knew that it was no human using it. He took his longknife from the wall and crept out.
The stranger was just emerging from one of the countless rooms of the cave. His sword, man-made iron, dripped on the floor. Shorter blades decorated his waist: a trophy belt. His head snapped around and he took in the sight of Eorlan, watching him. He grinned. The air about him shimmered with heat, held there by the Theurge. “You dare face me with that sliver?” he said. “Human, you have no idea what you face.”
“But I do, young one,” Eorlan answered. “And I say this once: you will win no High Name here.”
The dragon’s jaw dropped. “How do you know of the High Names?”
Eorlan cocked his head. “How do you think?”
The younger dragon struck out with the Theurge. Eorlan whispered his own command and the air solidified before him in a wedge, deflecting the blast to either side. His assailant charged out of the fire, blade coming down in a savage arc.
Eorlan sidestepped and let his attacker’s momentum carry him onto his knife. The younger dragon crumpled, the light going out of his eyes. “How?” he choked.
“How do you think?” Eorlan said sadly.
The next day, Eorlan commanded the Theurge and showed the people what had attacked them. The news spread to other septs and clans. Slowly, the dragons learned, and sent fewer of their young to win High Names among humans.
It was forty years later when Eorlan took Ruath out into the woods secretly one night at the end of a summer. Her hair was gray, and she was weakening. They spent a last night together before he began his transformation.
When at the end of it, he emerged, his copper scales and bronze wings shining in the morning sun, she gazed up at him in wonder.
“You are beautiful,” she said.
“You Always Were,” he answered. He lowered his head. “Shall We Return Home?”
“Your home?” she said. It had been long since he had heard her afraid.
“So Long As You Are There, It Will Be Our Home.” She smiled, and mounted his shoulders.
“Will they give you a name, at last?” she asked, s his wings stretched.
“I have a name,” he said. “And they cannot add to it. Let us tell them.” And he launched them into the brightening sky.
Copyright © 2020 G.Scott Huggins
“Humanslayer,” by G. Scott Huggins is the grand prize winner of the sixth annual Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. The award recognizes the best original adventure fantasy short story in the style of fantasy greats like Larry Correia, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, Andre Norton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Weber. Scott Huggins lives in the American Midwest. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and cats. He loves bourbon, bacon, and pie. His website can be found here.