The campfire’s flame had died out shortly after the deep rattling of sleep came to the two men bundled around a hastily pitched camp.
In the early morning hours, before the lumbering rise of the new day’s sun from its own slumber, Rous lay awake staring at the once campfire, now a shallow depression in the earth with crumbling pile of charred sticks. Within the bowl and among the burned wood simmered the fire’s few remaining embers struggling to stay alive. Like tiny pieces of paper burned after a final reading, cast away to memory and later forgetfulness.
Rous was hugged tightly in his cloak. The evening chill had tempted him to unwrap himself and fetch more wood for the fire. Except, the grogginess of sleep had made him lazy. Inside his cloak he was warm. To leave would invite the chill to nip at his bones. No. The morning would warm him. Only a couple more hours. So he watched what remaind of the fire and tried to hold on to the tiny inferno that had briefly lived within.
His fruitless stirring against the cold–crinkling of leaves, shifting of the earth underneath him, the rustle of his cloak–woke Marcillo.
Across the dead fire, Marcillo’s head popped up. Half of his face pressed in, red from where he’d used his arm as a pillow. Leaves stuck in his hair. Eyes half lidded and protesting against wakefulness. He worked saliva into his dry mouth and then yawned, nearly chocking on his own spit.
“You a’ight?” asked Rous. “Swallow something awful did ya?”
Marcillo tossed his partner the finger and attempt to yawn again, this time spitting first behind himself. “You know what you can do with that, don’t ya?”
“Only in your dreams, Lo,” Rous said with a chuckle.
Again, his partner flipped Rous off. This time he gave his digit a crocked little wiggle. “You wouldn’t like it in my dreams. All wet and slippery.”
Rous groaned and shook his head.
“What time is it, Ro?” Marcillo asked tiredly.
Rous tore his eyes away from the crumbling embers folding in on themselves. He rolled over and looked across overgrown rolling green pasture, untended for generations, to a sheer mountain face still cloaked in evening shade. Above clouds rolled in like tiny fingers dragging forth a flabby pale slug. The clouds only held the faintest bit of morning light.
“Early,” Rous answered his partner. “Sun’s not up yet.”
Across the dead fire, Marcillo was stretching his limbs and groaning, his mouth around another yawn. “Were you gonna let me sleep so long? We woulda missed the dawn.”
Rous waved a hand as if shooing a dwarf hanging in the air. “Nah. You worry.”
“You worried! Last night. I wanted to go inside, take a look around before the last bit of light left the day. But nooo you said.”
As much as anyone can when they’re laying on the ground, Rous shrugged. “I wanted to see it glow for the first time at dawn. Prettiest thing they say.”
Suspicious of who they were, Marcillo eyed Rous sternly. Rouse sighed. “The storytellers. You know… those drunkards in the taverns.”
Scoffing, Marcillo said, “Pfft. Like they’ve been out this way. We’re at the ass end of nowhere, Ro.”
“Someone’s been here. Where’d you get the map then? Someone drew the route.”
Marcillo clutched the satchel he’d slept on the night before. “It’s old. We’ll be the first in a long time.”
Rous got up, stretched himself until his back cracked audibly, until his muscles loosened, and then he dusted himself off. “Then let’s be the first. C’mon. Time to go.”
“Finally! You got the fire, Ro?”
At the casual mention of the previous night’s blaze, Rous started. He turned his attention from checking his rucksack and looked over a shoulder.
Only a tiny fingernail’s worth of ember remained of the fire. He sighed. In minutes he’d see a better spectacle.
Not far away, near some tangled tree roots, was some loose dirt. Rous scooped some up and tossed the dirt onto the embers, smothering the meager remains.
He then rose to his feet, belted on his sword and long knife, and slung his rucksack over a shoulder.
Marcillo was stringing his bow, one foot on the stave, his whole body bending the taut ironwood so he could slip the string over the other end. He spread his arms in a small triumph and said, “Shall we?”
They walked through the field of waist high weeds. There was no road. Not out here. No soul had ventured this way in so long. If there had been a road at one time, it was buried now, swallowed by the inevitability of time and forgetfulness, like so many campfires with purposes served.
Cresting the first hill they saw the ruins of the old city rise above them. Burned out shells of wooden hovels, ashes of a fire long gutted out. As the hill that the city was built on rose toward the mountain, the materials used for the dwellings turned from wood to stone, although many a wall was up higher was torn down, scorched long ago, roofs of thatch burned and fallen in. At the very back of the city, built into the mountain itself, was a keep. Switchback stairs in the rock led across from towers and deeper back to larger buildings, almost as if the keep had been raised from within the mountain’s cave and built out. Even with finer and stronger building blocks, the long abandoned keep was crumbling. In tragedy, even the greatest lord could be brought as low as any commoner. And when dragons were involved, man was man. Dragons were gods.
The dragon that had brought the city low still dwelled within the city. Perched a top a shelf in the mountain’s rock was the dried out husk of the creature.
Both Rous and Marcillo marveled at the dragon’s corpse. These days it was nothing more than bones. Bones that resembled a tangle of brambles, pricked with thorns. If not for the familiar visage, anyone might mistake the corpse for ancient, gnarled tree. A very large tree but a tree growing out of he mountainside. But that was impossible. The corpse was nearly as large as the city. Even when the run rose, the scalloped rigging of what remained of the wings would leave the city cast in shadow. The dragon’s bones reared at the sky, jaws stretched wide, roaring silently.
“Do you remember what they say happened?” Marcillo asked Rous, unable to take his gaze from the dragon.
Rous shrugged uncommittedly. “Differs. Depends on who’s telling. Guess the dragon came, wanted to make its home in the mountain. Found the people living there. Killed everyone. Breathed fire. Tore and bit.”
“And it just sat down, roared with victory, and died?”
“Either the city’s lord sent a champion out from the keep to slay the beast or someone–like us–came, lured the beast out of hiding, and killed it.”
“And he died trying, the champion or knight or whatever, the dragonslayer,” Marcillo finished.
“You know the story,” Rous said.
“Yeah. But I like how you tell it, Ro.”
“One thing all the stories agree on is how whatever champion killed the dra–“
“Shut up!” Marcillo ordered harshly with impatient glee, a child afraid of missing the start of a trooper performance. “It’s starting.”
Slowly the sun banished the creeping clouds rolling over the long stretching mountain peaks. Rays of light broke through and began to fill the dragon carcass jutting from the mountain side. Once a darkened tangle of bone growth, the creature’s husk brightened, turning the bones from a bleak ink to a dusty light green that had once–long before two thieves had found their way into the valley–been stark white. Rous found himself stepping back as the bones creaked as if stretching, coming alive. His partner took a step forward, always eager to feed horses even if an animal might bite his fingers. From the dragon’s mouth dark shapes breathed, fluttering feathery wings and launching like a burst of white fire. Eventually the dragon filled with morning light, like a lantern at dusk, or campfire to warm a weary traveler. Until its core, a basket of woven ribs and breast, began to glow. Inside the center of the dragon’s torso an orb of light grew awake. The dusty green of the bones took on a golden hue then, as if blood were rushing back to liven the dragon’s extremities.
Marcillo grabbed his partner by the cloak, twisted the fabric in his fist, and gushed with wonder. “That-that’s it! Ro, That’s the champion!”
If anyone were to ask him to be honest, Rous would say he too was in awe at that moment, witnessing the dawning of the dragon bones. “One thing all the stories say. Champions and heroes don’t die in their sleep, in their homes, surrounded by grandchildren.” Rous shook his head and a tiny boyish grin lifted his lips.
Mischief also made Marcillo smile. “If thieves are lucky, they die in their beds, in large homes built on heaps of money!”
With the dragon helpless to stop them today, the two thieves proceeded into the creature’s shadow and to what remained of the city it long ago torched to the ground before its own death.