Ailsa ascended old wooden stairs slick with moss and half-rotted by humidity and rain. Every creak made Ailsa’s heart jump. She braced herself to avoid tumbling back down the steep hill if a step broke. Aside from the decaying stairs, there was nothing to break her fall save the jagged gray rocks littering the tall, mossy slope.
Halfway up the hill, Ailsa glanced around at the swamp. The road that brought her here was just a muddy line through soggy earth shored up with wooden beams. Pools of brackish water and lines of emerald reeds stretched as far as she could see. Fat purple blossoms speckled a few patches of dark water. Tendrils of gray moss hung from the drooping boughs of massive trees with tangles of gnarled roots. From the wet land rose a broken line of imposing hills, all broken rock, soggy moss and trickling water. Gray clouds churned above her, distant thunder threatened rain.
Ailsa hated the swamp. It stank of wet earth and rot and she could have cut the thick air with a knife. And why was it so damn noisy? Chirping birds, buzzing insects, yowling beasts. Couldn’t they all just eat each other and shut the hell up? The cacophony made her nervous. All of civilization was behind her, and before her stretched the unknown wilderness. She felt naked without her weapons, her gear.
Ailsa scowled to herself. It seemed easy yesterday. Service a dragon, get out of jail, steal treasure. She’d signed the contract commuting her sentence without hesitation. But now that she was here in the reeking swamp, without her weaponry, she was starting to miss her cell. At least it was safe there. The guards didn’t let her bring anything more than a pack filled with baked treats, a simple gift for the dragon.
They even gave her a dress she had to wear. Sky-blue, light and airy. Not her thing, even if it was more comfortable than her blouse and breeches. Ailsa would rather make a clean getaway in uncomfortable clothes than trip over a comfortable skirt when fleeing with the dragon’s treasure.
Why did the dragon have to live in the damn swamp, anyway?
Ailsa’s stomach tightened. Giving a wicked beast a tug was hardly different than say, manipulating some filthy warlord with her mouth. Hell, the dragon probably smelled better. But she didn’t have to worry about the warlord roasting her alive or snacking on her limbs.
Ailsa grit her teeth and clenched at her soft blue dress. All she had to do was gain the dragon’s trust, and make off with a little of his treasure. By the time he was burning down that stupid swamp town for betraying him, she’d be pawning his jewels somewhere dry. What did dragon’s jewels go for, anyway?
Dragon’s jewels. Ailsa laughed. If dragons had those surely they were more valuable to their owner. Perhaps if she got them in one hand with a blade in the other, she could ransom their safety to the dragon. …And then she’d be incinerated.
At the summit, Ailsa gazed at the old limestone archway that capped the hill. Emerald carpeting covered much of the arch’s pitted surface. Rusted hinges were set in the stone. Broken, rotted wooden posts ran down the hill along with another set of wooden stairs on the other side.
Beyond the hill lay a town long since abandoned and reclaimed by the swamp. Wooden boardwalks lay half-submerged in front of flooded homes. Cobblestone streets spanned higher ground, lined with crumbling buildings. Broken signs and glass from shattered windows lay in the street. Brambles choked alleyways and scaled walls. Ivy hung from exposed rafters. A tree erupted through a roof. Birds nested in a fallen watchtower. The dragon himself lay in front of the ghost town, staring at Ailsa.
That wasn’t creepy at all.
Ailsa went cold. She stepped back on shaky legs and braced her shoulder against the stone arch. Her bowels attempted to braid themselves. Cold sweat broke out across her. All the trepidation she’d pushed aside hit her like a fist in the gut. She should turn around and…
And spend twenty years in a jail cell? Or should just run off into the swamp with nothing but a flimsy dress and a pack filled with cakes and tarts? Besides, she’d never get another shot at a dragon’s treasure. If she turned back, she’d have nothing to show for herself but cowardice.
Ailsa was no coward. She could not banish her fear, but she could best it. She’d been through far worse than a night spent as some dragon’s whore. As long as she kept the act up, the dragon had no reason to harm her. He wouldn’t demand a companion to live with him if he just wanted a snack. Besides, better to die trying to get rich than rot in some cell.
Time to meet King Ugly of Shit Swamp.
Ailsa descended the hill, staring at the dragon. From a distance he was all black scales and spines, as though the swamp itself spawned a primal guardian. Dark green markings were strewn across his back, his tail, and his wings. The beast looked twice the size of a horse, sprawled out upon his belly with his forelegs crossed. His brilliant eyes stood out like polished bronze coins.
Ailsa was so focused on the harbinger of her doom that she missed the last stair. She stumbled, stepped on her skirt, and pitched forward into a mud puddle. She planted her hands against the mud but it splattered her dress, and dull pain thudded through her.
The dragon laughed. Deep, guttural and growling, but clearly laughter. Heat rushed to her ears, reddened her face. If he was a barroom drunkard laughing at her, she’d threaten to slap the teeth out of his mouth. In the interest of survival, Ailsa swallowed her reply and picked herself up.
“So you’re the girl they sent.” The dragon lifted his wedge-shaped head. Ridged gray horns crowned his skull. Disappointment weighed his down his sonorous voice. “They didn’t even bother to tie you up.”
Ailsa picked up the hem of her skirt, shaking mud from it. Her flush grew. “Were they supposed to?”
“No.” The dragon’s voice was more rumbling brass than growling menace, tinted with smug amusement. “Waste of a lovely pole, though.” The dragon glanced at an old banner pole anchored in the earth. Strips of tattered blue cloth tied around it fluttered in the breeze. “Sure you don’t want to be tied up?”
“Would you?” He’d better not expect subservience. It wasn’t in her nature.
“Depends who was tying me up.” The dragon licked his nose. Webbed spines tipped in gold flared around his head. His lips curled across his tapered black muzzle. Was he smirking? “Is that an offer?”
Definitely smirking. Ailsa hesitated. His playful nature put her on edge. If he was human he’d have a knife behind his back.
“If that’s what you want, I’d be happy to tie you up.” That part was true. Easier to steal a helpless dragon’s treasure. Maybe she’d even give him a good kick in the balls for being a scaly pervert. Assuming he had those. She flashed him a genuine smile. “Nice and tight.”
“I’ll bet you would.”
The dragon uncrossed his forelegs to stretch them. Gray speckles dotted his splayed paws. Webbing spanned his toes, complete with an opposable thumb digit. The dragon pushed his chest up into the air, stretching a hind leg out. Segmented plates protected his chest and the front of his limbs. He yawned and his pink tongue curled between rows of sharp teeth. He rose up and shook himself, wings rustling.
“This way, Girl.”
As the dragon turned away, his long tail swung into view. Flexible, gray spikes lined the end of the dragon’s tail, connected by gold-tinged webbing. They looked like spiny, razor-edged fins. Ailsa gulped. Damn beast was armed at both ends.
Ailsa followed the dragon, getting closer for a better look. The texture of his black scales varied from pebbly across his face and paws to broader and smoother along his body. Scattered blotches of dark green marked him all along his back and his folded wings. Smaller emerald speckles mottled his tail, haunches and shoulders. Spots of gray dusted all four paws. Gold-tipped spines spanned by gray and green webbing decorated the side of his head behind his pointed ears. A larger frill edged in gold sprouted between his arched horns and ran all down the back of his neck.
Despite his spikes and armor, the dragon moved with a feline elegance. Muscles rippled beneath his black and green hide, yet his body was tightly coiled power, lithe rather than bulky. As he walked, his spined tail undulated behind him like a slithering snake.
Ailsa hooked her thumbs in the straps of her pack, deciding to break the silence. “My name is Ailsa.”
“I didn’t ask.” The dragon snorted, padding over broken cobblestone into the ghost town.
Ailsa scowled. “I’d rather you use my name than call me Girl.”
The dragon tossed his head, shifting a single wing. “I shall call you whatever I like, Girl.”
Great. That’d get old fast. “Fine. I’ll call you Boy.”
Ailsa smirked when the dragon cocked his head like a confused hound. In retort, he flicked his tail to the side and Ailsa found herself staring at the dragon’s testicles. Leave it to a dragon to find a way to show off and insult her at the same time.
Ailsa glanced away, her face burning. That was one mystery solved. Before the dragon settled his tail back into place, Ailsa snuck a peek. Looked like a couple of ebony goose eggs bouncing around back there. Despite her blush, she grinned.
“You’re just showing off now, aren’t you.”
The dragon smirked at her over his wings. “Wouldn’t you, if you had them?”
“You do have quite the pair of dragon-apples, I’ll give you that.” She shrugged, chuckling. Not that she had anything to compare him to aside from men. “Where are we headed?”
How informative. Ailsa scowled, but soon lost herself in her surroundings as she followed the dragon down the former main street. Broken cobblestone poked through the mud. Decaying buildings lined the road. Through a broken pub window, she saw a moldy bar still lined with stools. Remnants of clothing and leather goods still hung from shelves and racks in old shops. Down the side streets, Ailsa saw water. Cattails grew between the slats of broken boardwalks. Brown rot crept up the walls of houses that sat partly submerged. Ailsa couldn’t tell if the swamp was rising or the town was sinking.
I hope you enjoyed the second episode of The Devil’s Deal by D. Wilder. Stay tuned for more episodes all week. You can catch up on episodes you may have missed and see the full schedule along with contact information for D. Wilder here.