Amar rode in the prow of the boat, bound with jagged ropes and chained by her neck to the rail. Oars creaked and groaned as the long boat slid across the fog-shrouded waters, still as glass in the fallow light of morning. The clouds above were heavy with rain and the light of the sun only came down as a ghostly radiance, like a memory of spring.
All around them rocks jutted from the waters of the bay, and the rowers turned deftly to evade them, she saw how every man watched the surface sharp and wary, looking for the slightest disturbance. These waters were avoided for a reason, and they were all afraid. There were eight men in the boat, each with their hands set to the rough oars. And then there was Amar, daughter of a King and bound for the shunned isle ahead, and death.
The island emerged from the mist like a shadow, first the low, rocky shore, the hills green and dark and wet. The stones were heavy with moss right down to the waterline, and as she looked, Amar saw the spiral designs etched into the rocks, half-hidden by the thick growth. Once this island had been a place for men, and their worship of ancient gods now long forgotten. Now it was a place for death.
The shore was littered with scattered bones, crushed and broken to pieces. She saw the skull of a great deer, horns hung with moss and dark with age. The bones of cattle and fish mixed freely among the stones, and in the still shallows, the skeleton of a whale lay embedded in the silt, a few ribs jutting up from below.
The ship pushed up to the shore, and the men climbed out, splashing in the water. Their feet slipped on the mossy rocks as they pulled the ship onto the beach just enough to keep it fixed in place, and then they turned to her. They wore helms that hid their faces, and they clutched at their swords and spears as they took hold of her, pried the collar from her neck, and dragged her from the boat.
She did not struggle or curse, she was past that. In her mind she saw the slaughter in her father’s hall, the thanes down in their own blood. She heard the screams. Skall the Wolf-Son had done his work, and now there would be a new king in the hall by the sea.
Amar stood on her own; her feet were not hobbled, only her wrists bound with stout knots. She looked the men in the eyes, one after the other, and two of them looked away. She would neither beg nor curse, she only spat at their feet. “Get on with it.”
“We will bear no blood-curse,” one of them said. He took a sword and cast it ringing at her feet. “You will die here, but none of us will shed your blood.”
“Cowards you are,” she said. “You think that shocks me? Go back to your master and tell Skall I will have the blood-price for my father and my brothers. I tell you to strike now, or when next I see you, I will use your beard to grasp while I saw off your head.”
They backed away, watching her as though she were a serpent. They climbed back into the boat and pushed off from the shore. As they turned, one of them stood up and drew back his arm, cast his spear so it thudded into the earth ten paces away from her. “Take it,” he called. He was one who had looked away from her with shame. “You will need it.”
Amar watched them go. The air was very still, almost no motion upon the water save for a gentle, shallow swell. She knew this island was too far from land to swim ashore. She was meant to perish here. Unmoved, she watched until the boat was out of sight, and then she picked up the sword and wedged it in the rocks, used the edge to cut the ropes from her hands. The ropes made an adequate belt for the loose shift she wore, and she put the sword in it to hang at her side. Amar recognized it as one of her father’s old blades, the gold work on the hilt worn and faded. The steel was not bright, but the twisted pattern was still there, like flames frozen in the blade.
She was glad they had left her boots, for the ground was rugged and harsh. Amar took the spear and jerked it free, held up the keen steel head. It felt good in her hands. She looked inland, to where the ground rose up, and there she saw a swath of burned ground, the moss and grasses seared black, and she felt afraid.
Amar pressed inland. There would be nothing to eat on this island, no shelter from wind or cold. She could only grow weaker. Better to meet death while she was strong, there was nothing for her to lose by seeking it. The fog was so heavy, she could not see more than twenty paces ahead of her. The ground was a jumble of boulders, rounded by time and covered in thick mosses. The mist seemed to breathe up from the earth like smoke from some inner fire.
And everywhere she found more bones. Some were new and still dark with blood and rotting flesh, broken and crushed as though under the tread of heavy feet. Some were old, and covered over with weeds and moss so that it seemed they were bones of the earth itself. There was a smell in the thick air. Part of it was simple decay, but under that there was a bitter scent of char and sear, and under it all lay a murky reptilian stink that made her hair stand up on her arms.
She heard it first, long before she saw it. She heard a long, low sound, like a moan, and then a sound that she thought was surf, but then she remembered there was no surf this day. It was the sound of something heavy sliding across rock and bramble. Then she heard a grunt, so deep it seemed to speak in her guts, and then a growl. The mist seemed to move and heave, as if it were alive, as if it breathed. She firmed her grip on the solid ash of her spear-haft, and she climbed the bone-strewn hill with careful steps.
Amar crested a ridge, and found herself looking down into a vale. Standing stones thrust up from the wet grass, their lower reaches dark and oily. The grass was crushed down in many places, and the smell was stronger here, almost overpowering, and she flinched from it. The grunt came again, and part of the hillside moved and hissed with a stinking breath.
It was immense, with a body longer than a ship, and a tail besides. It had skin the color of corroded bronze, and heavy plates jutted from it like stones. It lifted a head as long as her body and shifted, heavy throat dragging on the ground. Its eyes were small and black as pits, but she knew they looked at her. The jaws opened slightly and she saw the jagged teeth in its black mouth. Belly to the earth, it crawled with its thick legs, churning the soil with claws long as her arm. Amar looked on the dragon and was afraid.
She gripped her spear hard in her hands and watched it as it moved. It seemed impossible that such a thing could die, that her slight steel points would kill it, but she had to believe it was possible. Otherwise, she was dead already. If she was, so be it. She would die fighting the wyrm, rather than lie down and wait for the end.
It saw her, that much was plain, but it gave no sign of alarm. As she stood, it settled down and laid its head on the grass, jaws open and smoldering. It breathed fire, that much was plain from the charred swaths upon the earth. She did not know how much, or how far. She had no shield, and no armor would save her from flames. She had to be quick.
So she advanced on it, spear ready, watching. As she drew close it lifted its head and turned it, watching her. Closer still, and it sucked in a great breath and hissed – a dreadful boiling sound that made her flinch. Slaver dripped from the bestial jaws, and it steamed in the air like hot oil. Amar watched it, looking for a weaker point in the armor that sheathed the monster, and she saw the underside was not so heavily scaled as the upper.
It hissed again, shifting its body around, the long tail sliding through the grass, scraping the rocks like a boat-keel. Amar moved closer, her hands shaking on the haft of her spear, and then she lunged. She ran across the open ground as the dragon reared up, and she stabbed in at the thick throat. It jerked back and then snapped at her, jaws clashing shut like a castle barbican, spraying her with hot saliva. She flinched, then lunged at it again as it drew back, and with a scream she stabbed her spearpoint in near the corner of the dragon’s jaw.
It jerked away, ripping the spear loose in a gout of blood so dark it was almost black. It snapped at her again, and this time the heavy upper jaw slammed into her and sent her crashing to the stony earth, breathless, clutching her spear, the wood haft vibrating from the blow.
She rolled and kept moving, hearing the beast slithering over the rocks, unable to see, her hair in her face. Then she was up and staggering backward, spear held up before her. She saw it there, head rearing back as if to strike, but something was strange about it, and then she ran as it snapped its neck forward and those black jaws yawned wide.
A gout of stinking black venom jetted forth, and then as it splattered across the grass it burst into white flames. Amar threw herself out of the way, feeling burning droplets fall on her left arm and her back, screamed as they seared through cloth and flesh. She crawled away, slapping at the flames that burned on her skin and would not stop. The stink of the fire was acrid and hideous, choking her with black smoke. She coughed and reeled to her feet, grinding her teeth against the pain until her jaws creaked.
Now there was a wall of fire between her and the dragon, and she could not see it. She squinted through the smoke and the ghostly flames, trying to spot it, waiting for the charge, but she saw only vague motion through the smoke and the steam that rose from the sizzling moss. The beast did not come. She wondered if it could endure its own fire, or if its flesh was mortal as her own. The blood on her spearpoint told her the truth.
She took the moment to head for higher ground, clambering up the slope to her right. The wounds on her arm and shoulder stung and burned and she gagged on the pain, but she did not stop. She swore to herself she would be burned away to bones before she let herself stop, before she gave way. She would escape this place and avenge her family, or she would die in the trying of it. There would be no other way.
With the vantage of the slope, she looked down into the vale again and saw the dragon there, moving around the other side of the fire, sniffing for her. It did not walk through the flames, and in that moment she knew she could indeed slay it, if she could survive long enough.
Amar hunted for a stone and pulled up a rock shaped like an egg. She stood up and hurled it down at the dragon. She banged her spear-haft on the rocks and shouted, stooped and took up another stone, threw it. “Here! Come and kill me! Here!” She watched and saw the beast turn its head, cocked to one side so one tiny eye could face her, and it sniffed the air.
She saw it gather itself, tail lashing, back hunching up high above, and then it charge like nothing she had ever seen before. Its feet churned the earth, tearing up grass and rocks, sending them scattering in its wake, tail lashing behind. It hissed like a boiling sea as it rushed up the slope with its jaws open, blood trailing from the paltry wound she had given it, and she saw the blood smoke where it touched the ground.
There was no time to get out of the way, and as the beast rushed up at her she fell back against the hillside, among the mossy stones, and she braced her spear against the ground. Her hands shook as the armored mass of flesh and fire hurled itself on her, jaws gaping, and she pointed the blooded point of her spear down that yawning maw.
She felt the spear bite, and then the haft bent like a bow under the crush of the onslaught. For a moment she was certain it would shatter, but then the spearpoint burst through the dragon’s flesh behind his jaw as the haft snapped straight, and the beast reared back, lashing its head side to side. The hillside crumbled under the monstrous flailing, and Amar scrambled to get away. Rocks turned beneath her and she tumbled down, the roaring of the monster all around her.
She caught herself, groped for her sword and found it gone. Then she saw it gleaming in the smoke and the mist as the dragon loomed above her like a shadow, and she seized it up, saw the patterns in the steel glowing in the sullen light. It felt alive in her grip, like a thing of fire itself.
A clawed foot slammed down beside her and she hewed at it, saw the bright edge cut the verdigrid scales and draw black blood that smoked. The dragon bellowed and shook its great head, the spear still wedged in its mouth. It drew in a great breath and vomited forth the black venom that burned whatever it touched. Fire covered the hillside, ran in rivers between the tumbled stones. Amar scrambled away from it, coughing on the savage taste of the smoke.
The spear-shaft burned away to a black cinder, and she saw the spearpoint where it jutted from the dragon’s flesh glow red, then white-hot before it fell away and shattered on the rocks. She reeled away, coughing and blinded, hearing the dragon bellow and thrash behind her.
She fought free from the smoke and clawed her way up the hill; wind from the sea blew away the reek and she gasped for breath, fell hard against a small heap of stones. She saw markings on it, and she realized it had once been a shrine or a grave of some kind. Something raised by man in this place long ago, before the wyrm came to dwell here.
She forced herself up, coughing and spitting out the taste of poison, and she made her way down the far side of the slope, the sounds of the beast behind her as it followed.
Amar struggled across the island as it went dark. She saw the dim glow of the sun burn down in the west, and knew that southward lay her home, but there was no way for her to reach it, not from this desolate place. But the land was lower and easier that way, and so she went south into a long heath of deep grasses, studded here and there with ancient gray stones etched with glyphs of coiling dragons. She wondered when the first dragon came here, where it came from. They said the wyrms came from the north in elder days, before ever a man dwelled in these lands, but that was a lie. Everywhere on this island she saw the marks of men.
She waded through the waist-high grass, and then her boots plunged into cold water. The smell of the sea was powerful here, and she realized she was in a salt-marsh on the low side of the island. For a long moment she hesitated, and then she turned to go back, seek another place to shelter for the night. Her legs and back ached from her long hike and from the battle; her wounds pained her. She would not fight the beast in the dark. Let the night stiffen his own wounds and drain his blood. Tomorrow they would contest again.
Then she heard the low growl from behind her and she turned, looked into the growing darkness. The island was vanishing into shadow, and every rock and hillock became a lurking beast filled with wrath and blood-hunger. She gripped her sword in both hands and watched, looking for a sign. The growl came again, and she saw something glimmer that might have been an eye reflecting the dying light.
Amar crouched down, hiding in the grass, and she began to try to creep through the water and the muck without making too much sound. It was difficult, and the mud sucked at her boots and slowed her down, and she dared not fight too hard lest she splash and attract the beast. She went a little way and stopped, listened. The wind was growing as the day passed, and the sighing of the grass hid whatever sounds she might have heard. Then she heard another growl and she gripped her sword tighter, holding her breath as she strained to hear.
The dragon came out of the dark sudden and furious, and she saw the flash of the black jaws as they snapped closed so near she smelled the foul breath of the beast and felt the slaver on her skin. She struck out, furious and shocked, and the sword cut into the bony ridge above the eye, bringing blood that poured down and blinded it for a moment.
She ran, not caring to be silent any longer; she stumbled and splashed through the marsh until the water was suddenly deeper, and she sank into her waist, fell and struggled up to her feet. The beast came thrashing toward her, bellowing, and then she saw a sheet of purple fire spread and she fell back into the water as the venom fell and burned. In a moment the muddy inlet was a lake of flame.
Amar burst up and thrashed away from the fire, slapping at it as it burned her skin. The venom caught on her sword and blue fire crawled on the steel. The waters sizzled, and then a hot wave washed over her as the dragon crashed into the water, parting the flames like the prow of a ship.
She dove and swam away, feeling the oncoming dragon through the water, the currents made by its bulk as it sought for her. The muddy bottom shallowed and she crawled out of the water, skin burned in a dozen places. She turned and saw the whole little inlet alive with fire, and in the midst of it, the dragon moved like a black shadow.
It rushed on her, and she wedged herself back against a stone, hunkered down, and she screamed as the massive jaws clamped on the rock and did not touch her. She felt the awful hot breath like a wind, and then she stabbed blindly and there came a hissing, awful stench and then fire bloomed. The dragon reared back and screamed as venom streamed from the wound, and Amar screamed as well, fire lashing along her body, searing her flesh. The dragon battered the rock and it broke apart, the impact sending Amar flying to splash down in the water, her sword lost.
The dragon howled, caught in a pool of its own fire, and Amar struggled to the surface, gasping for breath. She was covered with pain, and gasped at every movement, but now was not the time for her to weaken - now she had to press the attack. She crawled to her feet and looked for her sword, and there she saw it. It glowed like a star, the blade embedded in the earth, surrounded by a pool of dragonfire. The gold and bronze were melting even as she looked at it, but the blade only flared brighter.
She heard a bellow as the dragon saw her, and she had no time. It came for her, a hell of seared scales and drooling fire, and she reached out and grasped the hilt of her father’s sword. The pain lanced across her hand and fingers like lightning, and she screamed as she ripped the blade free and threw herself flat as the monster charged. A clawed foot smashed down beside her, and then the beast was over her, huge and black and endless. She stabbed upward, and the white-hot steel ripped through the scaled flesh.
The terrible momentum of the wyrm ripped the blade along its belly, and a mass of black, smoking entrails spilled out and hissed in the muddy water. Blood poured out in a torrent, and Amar screamed as she was blinded, the glowing sword hissed and thrummed in her hand as it was quenched in a black flood.
The dragon howled into the darkness, and it dragged itself away, guts streaming behind it in a mass; it tried to breathe fire in its final wrath, but its venom was spent, and it could make no more. It dug a long furrow in the mud as it dragged itself from the water, and then it collapsed there at the edge of the marsh, and died with a final shudder.
Dawn came like slow burning, lighting the east, crawling across the horizon. Six men rowed a long boat toward the island, watching every rock and ripple in the water, but they followed a pillar of smoke, black as the vanishing night, and it led them to the forbidden shore. The creaking of the oars was very loud in the mist-wrought stillness, and they wrinkled their noses at the smell of burning flesh.
They rowed into the shore, and there they saw the corpse of the dragon, laid out in the mud, still streaming black blood and smoking in the dawn. They stared, and spoke oaths and made signs against evil. None of them had ever seen a beast like this, and none of them quite believed it.
When they dragged the boat ashore, the tallest of them climbed out, stood in the marshy grass and lifted up his voice. “Amar!” he called, his voice sounding flat and thin in the fog. “Amar! Can you hear me?” He paused, listening, as did they all, but it was quiet. “Amar!”
There was a long silence, and he looked back at the men in the boat, and they cast down their gazes. He looked at the carcass of the great beast, and he knew they were too late. Then something moved in the tall grass, and he turned, putting his hand to his sword.
A shape walked out of the mist, blackened with soot and mud. It took him a moment to recognize Amar, the daughter of kings. She was almost naked, her clothes mere charred tatters, and her hair was burned down to a shock with blackened ends. Her skin was so dirty he could not say if she were wounded, but she carried in her hand a sword with no hilt or guard, just a tang in her fist, and a blade with steel marked by an overlapping pattern, like braided serpents.
She stopped and he saw her face was scarred by fire, half of it almost gone. He knelt in the mud. “My lady, we have come to take you back. A war is coming against Skall, the Wolf-Son. Those of us who are loyal to your fallen father turn now to you. Come, and lead us.”
She looked at him, her eyes blank and haunted, and then she nodded. He rose and swept the cloak from his shoulders, draped it over her as he led her to the boat. The men were in awe, looking at her fire-blackened visage, and the dread beast lying dead before them. They did not ask the tale - they could see it.
Amar seated herself in the bow of the ship. “Let us be gone from this place,” she said, and without further word, they took their oars and rowed away from the island of death. Amar stabbed her sword into the wood of the seat and let it stand there. Her hand was blackened and scarred from the dragonfire, and she held it up and looked at it. The burnt skin was loose, and there was no pain. She dug at it with her left hand, and the skin peeled away, revealing clean skin beneath it, new skin printed with a subtle pattern, that was almost like the mark of scales.