Ailsa rinsed the mud from her dress, then wrung it out and pulled it on. The wet blue fabric clung to her skin. She stepped into her boots and snatched up her pack. Ailsa searched for her sword and knives before she remembered they were locked away in the town jail.
Ailsa scowled, following the dragon. The beast’s posture had changed. Varcorak’s tail hung, its spiny fins dragged the ground. He held his head down, spines pinned flat to his skull. His green-mottled wings were half-unfurled as though he were ready to fly to safety. Each time thunder cracked the still air the dragon jumped and glanced around.
By the time they’d reached the manor it was as if someone had opened the clouds with a knife. The crushing deluge would have soaked Ailsa to the skin if she wasn’t already wet. She cradled her pack to protect it from the rain. She doubted the dragon would eat soggy pastries.
Varcorak hunkered beneath the overhanging roof that sheltered the entryway. Fluted columns in alternating white and black marble spanned either side of the dragon. The pillars culminated in elegant arches supporting the tiled eave. Rain pounded against the roof tiles in a hissing cascade, pouring down around the dragon. The rain brought a sweet freshness that covered up the danker scent of the swamp.
As Ailsa ran to catch up with the dragon, she spotted a few more statues near his entryway. Like those dotting the plaza, they were missing their heads. “What’s with those?”
“I didn’t like the way they were looking at me.” Varcorak growled. “Dead eyes. So I pulled their heads off.”
“Oh.” Right. Nothing creepy about that.
“Come inside, Ailsa.” Varcorak walked into the archway that served as entrance.
Up close the dragon’s manor looked like a limestone fortress, square and sturdy. An immense tapestry hung across the arched entry. An image of the dragon adorned the tapestry, inky black and emerald green. The dragon’s name was scrawled across it in fancy script. Varcorak. Beneath the dragon was another phrase. The Black Shield.
“The Black Shield?” Ailsa raised her voice over the rain. “What does that mean?”
“The town calls me that.” The dragon pushed aside the tapestry long enough for Ailsa to slip through. “Because I protect them.”
Ailsa patted dragon’s haunch in thanks and went inside. “Good name.”
Varcorak snorted. “I suggested Varcorak, King of the Swamp, and Bringer of Desolation, but it wouldn’t fit.” The dragon padded inside and let the tapestry fall shut.
Inside the dragon’s home, Ailsa was struck by the quiet and the pleasant aroma. The stone walls and thick tapestry shut out most of the rain and thunder. Coils of gray-brown smoke rose from smoldering incense in iron braziers. It left the air smelling of the deep forest melded with exotic spices.
“Is that incense?” Ailsa laughed, almost in disbelief.
“Yes. Humans don’t like the smell of the swamp.” Varcorak flared his nostrils as if reveling in the scent himself. “Do you not like it?”
“It’s nice, actually.”
“Good, because I’m lighting more.”
Varcorak walked to a brazier holding a clump of wet, red-brown moss. He took a breath, and spat a burst of stunning, red-orange fire across the brazier. Ailsa winced at the flash of heat, but could not tear her eyes away from roiling flames erupting from the dragon’s mouth. Great. They really could do that. In the fire’s wake, the moss lingered as smoldering embers emitting pungent smoke.
Ailsa shifted her pack, chuckling. “Never thought dragons would have incense in their lair.”
“Lair.” The dragon grinned, lifting his ears. “I like that word. Makes me sound dangerous.”
“You are dangerous, aren’t you?” Ailsa smiled.
“Extremely.” The dragon rumbled, splaying his tail spines. “Especially to those who betray my trust.”
Ailsa wrenched fear’s cold fingers away from her heart. Varcorak couldn’t know. “I can’t imagine anyone would dare cross you.”
“Not if they appreciate the use of their limbs.”
Ailsa smiled, looking around the dragon’s lair while her eyes adjusted. It was a bit dark inside. Windows dotted the upper walls, the panes shone white-gold when lightning flashed. Mirrored lanterns hanging on iron hooks emitted a pale blue light. Ailsa examined one and saw the light came from a misshapen lump of crystal. Glowing rocks? Those were definitely worth snatching.
“Where’d you get these glowing rocks?”
“I found the light stones in the swamp.” The dragon swished his tail. “The swamp provides.”
Sure. Damn lying dragon.
Once Ailsa’s eyes adjusted, her jaw dropped. She’d expected a mess. She thought Varcorak’s hoard would be big pile of coins with scattered crowns, jewels and skulls. Instead it was tidy, ordered, almost obsessive. Every wall was lined with shelves, crates, chests and more. Ancient tomes filled elegant bookcases. Gold rings glittered in a crystalline display case. A jeweled scepter sat upon a lone shelf. The dragon might know every bit of treasure here.
Varcorak’s tail brushed her as he walked by. “What do you think?”
“It’s not what I expected.” Maybe if she only stole from closed chests he wouldn’t notice till she was gone.
Varcorak snorted and stretched a wing. “I suppose you thought I slept on a pile of coins in a cave.”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
The dragon tossed his head, hissing. “Why do humans think dragons sleep on metal? Sounds profoundly uncomfortable. And untidy.” The dragon clicked his teeth and waved a paw. “If you had a collection of valuables, would you just toss it about on the floor?”
Ailsa’s gaze wandered across portraits and busts of dragons adorning his walls. “So what do you sleep on?”
“Pillows and blankets.”
Ailsa followed his gaze to the largest pile of bedding she’d ever seen. Woolen blankets, comforters, cotton sheets, silk spreads, lumpy pillows and frilly cushions, all neatly arranged in the corner. “Where did you get all that?”
“The town.” Exasperation stretched the dragon’s voice. “More comfortable than animal hides and easily washed. You will sleep upon them with me. I promise not to roll over and crush you.” The dragon smirked at her, flicking his ears. “Do you wish dry clothing?”
Ailsa grimaced, tugging at her wet blue dress. “I’d love it.”
“This way.” The dragon walked to a series of wooden crates along the wall. “Unless you prefer to go naked.”
“Sounds like what you’d prefer.” Ailsa set her pack down, grinning.
The dragon pulled a crate free. “Don’t leave your pack there.”
Damn dragon was obsessed with tidiness. Ailsa picked up her pack, and set it in an empty space between crates. “Better?”
“For now.” The dragon pushed the crate towards her. “Your clothes are in here.”
Ailsa bit back an insult and replaced it with a smile. Good thing she was gonna rob this dragon and run. She doubted she’d last more than a few days with him before she got herself eaten for kicking him in the balls. She knelt down and opened the crate, wondering where he got the clothes that filled it.
“What are these, trophies from your last victims?”
“Only a few of them.” The dragon yawned, tongue curling.
Ailsa ignored the dragon as she appraised the garments. She glanced at colorful dresses and frilly skirts, but needed something suitable for her escape. Half of it was moth-eaten anyway. Before long, Ailsa was tossing old clothing on the floor just to irritate the dragon.
“Stop making a damn mess!” The dragon snapped his jaws when the box was nearly empty.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ailsa said, her voice all false innocence. “Don’t worry, I’ll clean that all–Oh!” Ailsa pulled out a pair of well-worn black leather breeches. “Here’s something.”
The dragon peered at the pants, tail twitching. “Oh, I liked her. Shirt should be there too. Green and gold.”
Ailsa seized a green sleeve and pulled the shirt free. “You didn’t eat her, did you?”
“Certainly not.” The dragon stuffed clothing back in the box. “I rescued her from the swamp.”
Ailsa stood and held the pants against herself. “Aw, how sweet, someone you didn’t drown. Didn’t think you had any kindness in you.”
The dragon narrowed his bronze eyes and pinned his spines back. “Do not presume to know what is in my heart.”
Ailsa grimaced. Beast had a point. “Sorry.”
The dragon grunted and busied himself packing clothes away. What kind of woman got herself lost in a swamp? A woman like Ailsa. Did she rob the dragon too?
Ailsa stripped off her boots and wet dress, and stepped into the dry breeches. She glanced at the dragon while she pulled them up. “You really like human women, huh?” She buttoned up her breeches. A bit tight but they’d do. “Are we your fetish, Dragon?”
“I don’t know that word.” The dragon cocked his head. “I like many things, human females included. That surprises you?”
“Yes.” Ailsa scooped up the green blouse and pulled it over her head. “I thought dragons would only be into…” She adjusted the blouse. The gold-hemmed emerald sleeves were a little short. “We’re not even the same species.”
The dragon shrugged green-mottled wings. “We’re both sentient creatures who speak our consent. What is not to understand?”
Oh, sure, make her look like an idiot. Thanks, Dragon. “If you put it that way…”
“Humans complicate things. Pleasure is natural. It is not to be ashamed of.” The dragon fetched her wet blue dress, and laid it over the crate. “How are your clothes?”
“Dry.” Ailsa fidgeted with them. “Thank you.”
The dragon moved the crate against the wall near her pack. “How did you find yourself in my town?”
The question caught Ailsa off-guard. She couldn’t tell the dragon the truth without blowing her cover. Ailsa made a show of adjusting her breeches. “Passing through on my way out west. Figure all the instability out there means lucrative work.”
“So you decided to stop by the swamp on your way to die in someone else’s rebellion?” The dragon shifted a few crates, but Ailsa saw through his feigned disinterest. Varcorak knew more about the outside world than she expected.
“Actually I hoped to work here and avoid the damn rebellions.” Ailsa gave the dragon her best mercenary smirk. “Never know how those things will play out and losers rarely get paid. Turns out some scaly bastard’s got the local mercenary market cornered.”
“Indeed.” The dragon scratched his neck with a wingtip talon. “It’s for the best. The swamp would have ended you, and that would cause trouble.” The dragon gave her an odd stare, lifting his spines. “It only takes one dead trespasser to get people up in arms, hunting down the swamp tribes. And that makes the swamp very angry.”
Ailsa wasn’t superstitious, but the idea of an angry swamp was starting to get to her. Thunder rumbled, and Ailsa glanced at a window streaked with lashing rain. “Yeah, I heard there’s gryphons out there.”
“Gryphons, lizardfolk, horned coyotes, so on.” The dragon flicked his tail, spines scraping stone. “Humans call them what they resemble.” Varcorak arched his neck, flaring his gold-tinged frills. “They once sought trade with your kind until your people killed them for their lands. So the swamp fought back, and the dead town outside is the result.”
“I thought you said it was a plague.” Ailsa wrung her hands, glancing at the exit. Was he unstable or just toying with her?
“I say a lot of things.” The dragon stared at her. Mischief and danger danced together in his bronze eyes before he turned away. “I’m going to get us a drink. Feel free to look around, just put everything back where you found it.”
“Sure thing.” For now.
I hope you enjoyed the fifth 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.