Ailsa settled upon a thick blue blanket with silvery patches. Still damp from the bath, she hadn’t bothered to dress. She opened up her pack, glancing at the dragon. Varcorak sat on his haunches nearby, his finned tail curled around his paws. Pale blue light made the gray lines and blotches of old scars stand out against his belly.
“You’ve a lot of scars.” Ailsa retrieved a couple brambleberry tarts and set them on the blanket. Each was twice the size of her first and wrapped in a golden, sugar-dusted crust.
“A lot of people try to kill me.” Varcorak peered at his scars. “Just as they’ve slain so many other dragons. Humans believe us evil. Even you called me the devil.”
Ailsa glanced at the tarts, sighing. “I doubt my opinion matters to you. For what it’s worth, your town doesn’t seem to think you’re evil.”
“And you wonder why I stay.” Varcarok stretched a wing, staring at it as though the green markings told a story across its black expanse. “Peace is as viable a means of survival as bloodshed.”
“So it is.” Ailsa picked up a pastry and waved it at the dragon’s scars. “Those attempts ever come close?”
“This one.” Varcorak traced a claw tip along a thick, gray scar marring his belly. “This one terrified me. I thought it was my end.”
“What happened?” Ailsa clutched the tart in both hands.
“Are you going to give me that tart or just tease me with it?” Varcorak licked his muzzle, rumbling a hungry purr.
Ailsa laughed. “I was going to eat it, but if you’re going to beg for scraps like a dog, here.” Ailsa passed the dragon the treat, then pushed a few more towards him. “They said brambleberry was your favorite.”
Varcorak popped the pastry into his muzzle, spines trembling in delight. “Oh, yes. I love these.”
“Good. There’s cakes, too.” Ailsa dug a cake from the pack and took a bite. The honey icing was melted, but it was still soft and sweet. “Maybe I’ll trade you for one of your tarts.”
“A fair trade.” Varcorak eased down onto his belly, licking sugar from his paw. He cocked his head and gave Ailsa an odd look. “Do you really want to know about my scar?”
“I do.” She may as well keep the dragon busy while the red root worked into his system.
The dragon reached for another tart. “Then I shall require your companionship.”
“Companionship?” Ailsa smirked, drumming her fingers against the leather pack. She grinned as Varcorak ate a second pastry. That’s right, King Ugly, eat them all. “Are you asking to cuddle?”
“Yes.” Varcorak snorted. He rolled to his side and hoisted a foreleg in invitation. “And bring the tarts.”
Ailsa carried her pack across dragon’s bedding and settled against his chest plates. When Varcorak wrapped his foreleg around her middle, Ailsa fought the instinct to twist away before she was trapped. She relaxed after a moment, telling herself the dragon just wanted to cuddle. Varcorak’s warmth helped soothe her.
Ailsa stroked the black scutes of the dragon’s foreleg, removing tarts from her pack with her free hand. She pushed them towards the dragon, along with a honey cake. Ailsa kept one tart for herself, marked by an extra incision in the crust. She picked up her tart, and leaned back against the dragon.
Ailsa took a bite of her pastry. The crust was flaky while the red-black filling was sweet and with a tart edge. It was studded with whole berries. No wonder he loved them. As Ailsa ate, she stroked Varcorak’s stomach. Her fingers brushed smooth scar tissue, and she glanced at the fat gray blotch.
“I was young.” The dragon’s spines drooped, his ears pinned back. “Too young to be hunted.”
Ailsa scowled. “You were being hunted?”
Varcorak glanced away, growling. “Dragons are always being hunted.”
Sympathy knifed through Ailsa’s armor. She knew what that was like to be hunted, to wander alone. How difficult life was when you never felt safe. Ailsa swallowed, and stared at a mirrored lantern just to keep her eyes off the tarts.
“It’s alright, Varcorak.” Ailsa rubbed his foreleg scutes. “No one hunts you now.”
Varcorak shifted, and Ailsa glanced up at him. She immediately wished she hadn’t. The smile the dragon gave her nearly broke Ailsa’s heart. There was honesty in that flicker of a smile that spoke of genuine comfort and consolation in her presence. Old bastard really was lonely. That wouldn’t keep Ailsa from stealing his treasure, but it might keep her up at night.
Ailsa patted the dragon’s hand. “Let me get us some wine.” Varcorak moved his leg. Ailsa rose, poured them each some wine and returned to the dragon. “Here. This will help.”
Varcorak accepted the wine with another smile that made Ailsa cringe inside. “Thank you.”
Ailsa settled back down against the dragon’s chest. This time when he enclosed her in his foreleg, she didn’t feel trapped, just guilty. “You don’t have to talk about it, Var.”
“I don’t mind, Ailsa.” The dragon selected a tart and gazed at it like some unsolvable puzzle. The sugar crystals glittered in the blue light.
Ailsa took a drink, then set her goblet down and splayed her fingers over the back of Varcorak’s free hand. Maybe it would do the dragon good to bare a little of his black heart.
“I was young.” Varcorak’s voice drifted, aimless upon a dark ocean of memory. “Not ready to live alone, but life had not given me a choice.” The dragon swallowed, pinning his spines. “Too young to be so afraid.”
Ailsa stroked the dragon’s foreleg, furrowing her brow. “Why would they hunt something so young?”
Varcorak bared a few fangs, gave her a dark look. “Easier to slay a monster before he’s fully grown.”
Ailsa winced and picked up her goblet. She’d drink the whole bottle if she didn’t need to stay sober. “That’s cold.”
“Slaying dragons was their only goal.” Varcorak turned his gaze away, his wings shivering. “They tracked me all summer. Several times they ambushed me, drew my blood, but never could they end me. The longer it went on, the more terrified I became. In desperation, I set my own ambush. Slew a few of them, drove the rest away. I offered pieces of their dead to the swamp in hopes of earning its protection and intimidating the others into retreat.”
Ailsa sipped her wine, rubbing the back of the dragon’s hand. “Didn’t work?”
“No.” Varcorak stared at his reflection in his wine, spines rising. “A few nights later, I cowered in my tiny cave while a storm raged outside. Shattering thunder startled me and I leapt to my paws. In the next flash I saw them slinking into my home, intent on murdering me in my slumber. The storm they’d used for cover saved my life.” Varcorak’s voice grew hoarse, and he took a drink of wine before continuing. “I tore one of them apart, burned another alive. I sound evil saying that, but I just wanted to live.”
Ailsa tightened her grip on her goblet.
The dragon turned his head, staring at his scarred belly. “I managed to kill them all, but not before one of them pierced me with a barbed lance made to kill dragons. He wrenched it from me, and the barbs…tore me. Inside.”
“Oh, God.” Ailsa shuddered, biting her knuckle.
Varcorak grimaced, flattening his ears. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. Sometimes, when it storms, it still hurts.”
Ailsa traced a finger around the outline of the fat gray scar. “You’re lucky you survived.”
“I did not think I would.” Varcorak’s voice grew distant, his bronze gaze unfocused. “I had never seen so much blood. I tried to stop it, but it poured across my paws in a red tide. I twisted in pain and screamed till my throat tore.” The dragon hung his head, his ears drooping. His wings shook. He balled a paw into a fist. “Then I cried, Ailsa.” Varcorak’s voice cracked, growing hoarser with every word until it broke entirely. “I cried. I did not want to die. Not like that, not bleeding out, forgotten in some damp cave. I was so afraid, so utterly alone.”
“I’m so sorry.” Ailsa set her goblet down to squeeze the dragon’s paw between her hands.
“I was so afraid, Ailsa. Afraid I would die without ever mattering to anyone, with no one to remember me.” Varcorak took a shuddering breath, and turned his head away from Ailsa. His spines sagged around his head. “I…I need a moment.”
Ailsa furrowed her brows as the scaly bastard tried to hide his tears. Hell, she hadn’t even known dragons could cry. Varcorak wiped his eyes with a paw, choked back a gravelly sob, then another. His wings shook, a whimper escaped him. Ailsa swallowed, trying to strangle her sympathy before it got started. Damn dragon wasn’t supposed to be able to make her heart ache.
Aw, hell. Least she could do was comfort the beast before she robbed him. But only because she’d brought it up. Not because she felt sorry for him. So close to dying alone in his youth. Lonely and terrified. Damn it, Ailsa, cut it out! Ailsa’s throat clenched as she rose. Before she could stop herself, she wrapped her arms around the dragon’s neck.
“It’s alright, Var.” Ailsa pressed herself to him, stroking his neck. He’d better appreciate this. “You’re safe, now. You’re not alone anymore.”
Varcorak heaved a sigh, his brassy voice a battered, rusted horn. “No, I am not. I have you, Ailsa.”
Wasn’t that just a knife in the belly. “And your daughter, Var. And your town.” Ailsa rubbed his scales, blinking back a few tears of her own. “Right?”
“Yes, Ailsa.” Varcorak turned his head to gaze down at her, his bronze eyes wet and bloodshot. His pebbly scales crinkled when he smiled. He lowered his head, nuzzling her cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Var.” Ailsa hugged his head, and then eased back down to sit against his body. “You gonna be okay?”
“I’m fine.” Varcorak slipped his foreleg around Ailsa’s middle. “That was a long time ago. I try to forget how frightened I felt that night. How alone.”
Ailsa grimaced. The comforting warmth of Varcorak’s foreleg around her made for a blanket of guilt. “How did you survive?”
“The swamp.” Varcorak lapped up the last of his wine as he collected himself. He stared into the empty bowl. “Starting with the storm it sent to warn me.” Varcorak gazed at his windows. “As it always does.”
Distant lightning sent ice down Ailsa’s spine. Any moment now the storm would strike her dead. She hoped the dragon could not feel her goose bumps through his scales.
Varcorak pushed his bowl away. “I drifted on agony and fever dream, heard my father’s voice. He’d taught me fresh brambleberries quell bleeding, fight fevers. I woke and crawled from my cave, and there they were. Piles of them washed up around my home after the storm.”
Ailsa leaned her head back. “Lucky for you.”
“Not luck.” Varcorak’s voice sharpened. “The swamp. When I was dying, it brought me medicine. When I could not hunt, it sent me food. When I could not protect myself, it made a friend of my enemy.” The dragon gestured at the portrait of the gray gryphon with gray mottling. “The swamp provides, Ailsa.”
“It provided a gryphon?” Ailsa blinked, wondering if the red root and wine were influencing his story.
“He came to steal my kill.” Varcorak curled his paw and lay his head down upon it. “Still young, like me. Stalking a half-drowned flock of mud hens washed to my cave. I was too weak to fight him. He could have claimed my life and my land. Instead, he took half the birds, and left. The next day, he returned with a fresh kill and gave me half. Of all the gryphons…” Varcorak yawned, and closed his eyes.
Ailsa nudged the dragon when he did not continue. “Of all the gryphons…what?”
“We were threats to each other. Gryphons and dragons.” Varcorak opened his eyes to bronze slits. “So the swamp sent me the only gryphon who could help me make peace between our species.” He closed his eyes again.
“That’s it? You can’t end the story there! How long did it take to heal, what happened with the gryphons?”
Varcorak lifted his head, peering at Ailsa with bleary, unfocused eyes. “Sorry, Ailsa. I’m suddenly…quite drowsy. I’ll continue tomorrow if you wish.”
Damn. She’d stepped right in her own snare. “I’d like that, Var.”
“Good. Thank you for coming, Ailsa.” The smile the dragon gave her left her choking on her own guilty heart. “It has been…too long since I’ve known companionship.”
Ailsa forced a smile while she still had the strength. Her lies were getting harder to speak. “Even a dragon needs a friend now and then, right?”
“Yes.” The dragon laid his head against his paw again. “He does. Will you lay with me while I sleep? Sometimes that memory haunts my dreams.”
“Of course.” Ailsa fetched herself a blanket. “Var, remember what I said. When I’m gone, go see your daughter. Please.”
“I doubt she wants to see me.”
“Visit her anyway.” Ailsa sighed as she wrapped the blanket around her naked body. She curled up against the dragon so he could feel her warmth, her presence. Her words were a knife in her own heart. “I’m here if you need me.”
“Thank you, Ailsa.”
Ailsa pulled the blue blanket up over her face. She wiped her eyes. “Sleep well, Var.”
I hope you enjoyed the tenth episode of The Devil’s Deal by D. Wilder. Stay tuned for the final episode tomorrow. You can catch up on episodes you may have missed and see the full schedule along with contact information for D. Wilder here.