Varcorak awoke in the deep of night. Dull, hot pain throbbed through his belly. His scarred stomach always ached when the swamp spoke to him in the tongue of storms, warning him of liars, thieves, and blades in the dark. Varcorak opened his eyes to bronze slits. Ailsa skulked in the shadows nearby, dressed and picking through his belongings in silence. The swamp never lied. Disappointment, cold and bitter, tugged at his hardened heart. He was not surprised she was robbing him, but expectation made betrayal no less painful.
For a time, Varcorak feigned sleep just as he’d feigned his trust. The girl put so much effort into earning his trust all he had to do was act as though she’d succeeded. But Varcorak knew why she here. Thieves always thought they were one step ahead until they were drowning in his swamp.
Part of Varcorak hoped she’d stay. But he’d locked that part of himself away long ago. He could not let it endanger him again. Survival was more important than companionship.
Varcorak watched Ailsa fill her pack with proof of her thievery. She seemed to have an eye for value and chose items she could easily carry. That was smarter than some thieves. She’d also put blankets over some of the light stones. To a dragon’s eyes, darkness only painted the world in shades of blue-black. There was no shadow that would hide her from him.
Varcorak tensed when Ailsa paused beneath the portraits of his daughter. Ailsa touched Nykarys’ scales, her egg shell, and then she moved away. At least the girl expressed a proper reverence for his family. He’d hate to have to tear her apart for stealing something of his daughter’s.
Varcorak pinned his ears back when Ailsa moved to a crate covered in the purple and gold cloaks of long dead dragon slayers. The crate was filled with more wood-framed portraits that Varcorak kept hidden for a reason. Ailsa pulled free a depiction of a human woman. She stared at it, then at the paintings adorning his walls.
“Yes, that is the girl from the swamp.” Varcorak lifted his head.
Ailsa spun around, mouth agape. The startled terror that shone in her blue-green eyes was magnificent. She dropped the portrait atop the discarded cloaks, stumbling. Her mouth worked like a gasping fish dragged from the swamp. She snatched up her pack.
Varcorak eased up to his paws, yawning. “Don’t I even get a goodbye?”
Ailsa turned and ran.
That was rude. Very well, then. No more games. Varcorak coiled his strength and sprang. He crossed half the room in one leap, and the rest of it in a second. The dragon’s claws scratched the stone as he skidded to a stop before the exit. Varcorak whirled on Ailsa. He snapped his tail, its webbed spikes went rigid like finned blades. He flared his spines and roared.
The sound was all fury and threat, echoing off the stone walls. Ailsa dropped her pack, clapped hands over her ears. Varcorak prowled towards her, every motion coiled strength and menace. He struck Ailsa’s pack with his paw. It tumbled across the floor, spilling stolen treasures in a broken line.
“You think I didn’t know, Girl?” Varcorak hissed as she scrambled away. “I am not so easily fooled by a soft touch, a kind word, and pastries! You think you have the look of a mercenary? Where are your scars, where’s the dead fury in your eyes? You have the look of a filthy little thief who’s wriggled her way out of every danger she’s ever stumbled into.” Varcorak’s voice grew lower with every word till each syllable was little more than a rumbling growl. “Well, Girl. Wriggle your way out of this.”
Ailsa snatched up a golden goblet as she dashed away. She hurled it at Varcorak. He batted it aside, grinning. When Ailsa hurled an entire wooden crate at him, Varcorak knocked it out of the air just as easily. The wood shattered, goblets and jeweled vessels scattered across the floor. He snarled at her, shaking his aching paw. He wasn’t about to let Ailsa make a mess of his home.
Varcorak took a few measured steps, gauging Ailsa’s direction. Then he pounced on her, bearing her down against the stone floor. Ailsa coughed and wheezed as the dragon rolled her onto her back.
“Stop being so dramatic.” The dragon pressed a paw to her chest. “You haven’t even felt my weight.” Varcorak snarled in her face, his spines raised. “If I wanted–”
Ailsa suddenly had a dagger pressed to the dragon’s throat, behind his jaw. Clever girl. “Let me up, Dragon.” Ailsa’s stormy blue-green eyes were wild, flashing fear and anger. “Or I’ll cut your throat.”
“Do it then.” Varcorak unsheathed his claws against her chest. “You use your little blade, I’ll use my claws, and we’ll see who dies first.”
Ailsa held her breath, the blade trembled against the dragon’s neck. “Just…let me go. Neither of us has to die. Let’s…talk about this.”
“Talk?” Varcorak splayed his ears, hissing. “I think we’re past that now.”
Ailsa panted, her body heaving beneath his paw. She felt fragile. Too fragile. “Let me up, or I’ll cut your throat.”
“So you said.” The dragon flicked his spines back against his head. “Go on then.” Varcorak hissed in her face, withdrawing his claws. “Kill me. Open my throat, and watch me die. I won’t retaliate, but I can’t promise the same of the swamp. Hurry, Ailsa, or I’ll retract the offer.”
Hot pain stung Varcorak’s throat as Ailsa pushed the blade into his pebbly-scaled flesh. Wet heat ran down his neck. Ailsa’s hand trembled, and Varcorak sneered at her, flaring his spines again. “Not so easy, is it.”
Ailsa bared her teeth in a grimace of fear and effort as she pressed the blade harder. Varcorak grit his teeth against the pain. Ailsa shook beneath him and red blood ran down her arm. “Just let me go, Var. Don’t make me kill you. Please!”
“If you meant to kill me, Ailsa, you’d have already tried and discovered your blade insufficient.” Varcorak jerked his head away from the blade then swatted it from Ailsa’s grasp. Ailsa screamed in surprised pain, cradling her hand. Varcorak wiped blood from his throat, then glanced at the knife. “Sharp, but too small.”
Ailsa tried to crawl away, and Varcorak grabbed her. The dragon reared to his hind legs, and tossed Ailsa through the air. She screamed and landed with a thump on Varcorak’s blankets and pillows. Varcorak was back atop her in an instant. The dragon stood over her, preparing himself for whatever she might try next.
“Anymore tricks, Thief?”
Ailsa slammed her booted foot between the dragon’s hind legs. Varcorak only grunted. He’d already tucked his tail to protect himself. Ailsa kicked him a few more times, and Varcorak just grinned at her.
“I’m not stupid, Thief.” Varcorak hissed at her. “I know how to protect those. Anything else you’d like to try?”
Ailsa panted and coughed. She struggled for breath as her eyes darted around the room. She fought against Varcorak’s grasp, her nails scratched at his scales.
“Stop acting like a cornered rat, Ailsa. It does not become you.” The dragon swiveled his ears back in distaste. “Take a breath. Face me with some pride.”
Ailsa stopped struggling. Blood dribbling from Varcorak’s throat speckled her olive skin with crimson. Ailsa glared at the dragon, fury and defiance replacing the fear in her eyes. She wiped away the blood and smeared it across Varcorak’s foreleg.
Varcorak smiled, rumbling his approval. “Yes, that’s more like it.”
“What now, King Ugly?”
Varcorak arched his neck. “King Ugly? Not bad, but you’re not as clever as you think. Tell me, Ailsa.” Varcorak snorted, blowing her black hair around. “Do jailors often discuss their town’s problems with their prisoners?”
“What?” Ailsa blinked, staring up at him. Varcorak grinned as gears struggled to turn behind her blue-green eyes.
“You thought this was all your idea, Ailsa, but it wasn’t. It was mine.” Varcorak swept his green-mottled wings out in a grand gesture. “When I heard my town arrested a wandering thief, I decided to play a little game.”
“Wh…what?” Ailsa stammered. Her bafflement was delightful. “What game?”
“You were the game, Ailsa.” Varcorak licked her cheek, whispering into her ear. “I instructed the guards to talk about my demands around you. See if you’d be ambitious enough to wriggle your way out of that cell and into my lair. And you were.”
Ailsa wiped more dragon blood from her face. “So you knew. All along.”
“That you were a thief who planned to rob me?” The dragon flicked his wings, dragging their tips across his bedding. “Or about the red root?”
Ailsa sucked in a breath. “How…?”
“My town is loyal.” The dragon lashed his tail. The spines caught a pillow and sent it tumbling through the air. “They sent message about the tarts before you even arrived.”
“But you ate them!”
“And they were delicious.” Varcorak drummed fingers against her shoulder, lifting a few spines. “I had a part to play. Besides, red root grows in my swamp, Ailsa, I know it well. It only makes dragons drowsy.”
“Goddamn it!” Ailsa balled up her fists, shaking.
“Infuriating, isn’t it.” Varcorak curled his tail, reveling in his victory. “All this time spent playing me. Must have thought yourself so clever. I even gave you a chance to come clean about it. Instead, you betrayed the trust you thought you’d built.”
“You wicked bastard!” Ailsa punched his forelegs.
“Wicked?” The dragon let her punch his scaled limbs all she wanted. It scarcely hurt. He growled low in his throat, baring his fangs. “So says the one who pleasured a dragon just to get to his treasure.”
“You manipulative son of a bitch!” Ailsa pounded her fists against his limbs, his chest.
“Manipulative?” Varcorak’s growl rose. “You were the one who feigned comfort when I needed it most! Who sat with me as my companion, offering me drugged treats.”
“You told me that bullshit story!” Ailsa lashed out again, flailing in sudden fury, her face red. “I felt sorry for you! I thought you were crying, I thought you were lonely! Now you tell me it’s just part of some bullshit game? I almost stayed here with you!”
“And I hoped you would!” Varcorak snapped at her. “The story was real, Ailsa, that wasn’t part of the game. That just…” The dragon glanced away, gnashing his teeth. Anger made his fire glands churn. Bitter fire bile coated his tongue and cold claws sunk into his heart. “Last night I bared something real to you. I hoped your comfort in return was just as true! I clung to the futile hope that you might change your mind and stay, even as I knew you would not.”
“That…was real?” Ailsa went still, staring up at him. “…I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care.” Varcorak snapped his jaws. He took a deep breath, and pulled out the talon she’d left deep inside him. “What is done is done. This is where we are. The game is over, and what happened no longer matters. Now you’re just…” Varcorak growled, low and bitter. “A thief.”
The color drained from Ailsa’s face. Something sad flickered in her eyes, and she worked her lips in wordless silence. Varcorak pushed his paw over her mouth to keep her that way. Fear once more replaced sorrow in her eyes. He lifted a digit to clear her nose, breath washed over his scales in fearful snorts.
“Bite me, and I’ll crush your jaw. Clear?”
Ailsa nodded once.
“Good.” Varcorak lowered his head, his bronze eyes boring into Ailsa’s blue-green ones. “I don’t want to hear your apology. In fact, I don’t want to hear you say another word. You will lie there and listen. Is that also clear?”
When Ailsa nodded, Varcorak removed his paw. Ailsa took a deep breath, staring at the dragon. She rubbed her jaw. Varcorak pinned his ears back. “I never planned to kill you, Ailsa. Game or not, I enjoyed our time together.” The dragon glanced away. “Despite your manipulation, I took solace in your comfort. Perhaps that speaks ill of me.” He gazed at his daughter’s portraits. “And you told me to visit my daughter. I…did not expect that.” Varcorak sighed and shook his head. “So I have a deal to offer you. Nod if you wish to hear it.”
“The man you assaulted in town. You tracked him here to reclaim something he took. Correct?”
Shock slackened Ailsa’s face before she grimaced and glanced away. “My father’s knife.”
“Then the deal is thus. You may choose between sentiment or wealth. Your father’s knife, or one piece of my treasure. Not both. Then you may leave my lands unharmed. If you return to my lands, I will kill you, Thief.” Varcorak tapped an unsheathed claw against her throat. “Fair?”
Once Ailsa nodded, Varcorak settled on his haunches to let her up. She scrambled away from him and snatched up her pack. He curled his tail around his paws, watching her back away till she stumbled over spilled treasure. She gazed down at a jewel-crusted goblet and wrung a leather strap between her hands.
“If the choice is too difficult, I can offer you the Devil’s deal, instead.” Varcorak flared his spines, cocking his head. “Isn’t that what you called me? The Devil?” He rustled his wings, smirking. “Curious? You may speak.”
Ailsa squeezed her empty pack. She grit her teeth. “Tell me.”
Varcorak grinned at her, unfurling his wings. “You may fill your pack with all the treasure you can carry. Escape my swamp, and the treasure is yours, and so is your father’s knife.” The dragon lifted a paw, unsheathing a single claw. “The catch, Ailsa, is that come morning I will hunt you through my swamp like prey.”
Ailsa sucked in a breath, her body rigid.
“I’ll give you plenty of time.” Varcorak unsheathed the rest of his claws, ticking them off. “I’ll sleep in late, I’ll hunt breakfast, I’ll bathe…and then I’ll come find you. And I will find you, Ailsa. The swamp will make sure of it. When I catch you…” Varcorak sheathed his claws, set his paw back down. “I don’t know what I’ll do. Perhaps I’ll paddle you right there in my swamp.” Varcorak grinned when Ailsa’s jaw dropped. “Perhaps I’ll hoist my tail and let you paddle me.” A snarl replaced the dragon’s grin, his spines flared. “Or maybe I’ll just drown you in my swamp and leave you to rot.”
Ailsa’s face slackened, her eyes went wide. She stumbled back from the dragon.
Varcorak drummed claws tips against the floor, flicking his tail. “Wealth, sentiment, or the Devil. Decide.”
Ailsa crouched down, picking through some of the spilled treasure. A shame Ailsa only seemed to want the one piece. She’d been so much more entertaining than the usual fawning wenches they sent his way. She reminded him of the first human woman he knew, the one he found in the swamp. Why, she was–
“Fuck it.” Ailsa crammed treasure after treasure into her bag.
“The Devil’s deal it is.” Varcorak flicked his tail, his spines clattering. A smile spread over his muzzle. “A pleasant surprise. Good girl, Ailsa.”
“Call me that again, and I’m gonna use that paddle on your balls.” Ailsa glared at him, buckling her treasure-filled pack shut.
“I’ll be sure to bring it, then.” Varcorak’s grin widened, his ears perked. He rustled his wings. Ooh, this was already exciting. How was he going to sleep? When Ailsa shouldered her pack and went to the tapestry, Varcorak bowed his head to her. “Good luck, Ailsa. See you in the morning.”
Ailsa was gone without another word.
Once Varcorak was alone, he cleaned up the mess Ailsa left. As he put the treasures back where they belonged, his gaze wandered the painted faces of old lovers, of family. Many of them were gone now. He picked up the painting of the human woman. He stared at it, shivering. They were so much alike. He put it back with the other portraits he could not bear to hang.
Varcorak found himself standing below the paintings of his daughter. He brushed his pads across his favorite image of her. “Maybe Ailsa’s right about visiting you. I think you’d like her.”
Varcorak stared at his daughter’s face. He could almost hear her lovely voice teasing him for talking to himself. Chiding him over the way he conducted his life.
“Maybe if I spare her, I’ll take her to meet you.” He sighed, leaning his horned head against the wall. He closed his eyes. “I miss you, Ny.”
When Varcorak opened his eyes again, the paintings stared down at him. He snorted. “Don’t look at me like that. She brought this on herself.” Varcorak glanced away, pinning his spines back.
“That’s not fair, it’s different from your mother.” Teeth of ice bit into his heart. “Someone had to protect them. But Ailsa chose this path.”
He turned his head to gaze into his daughter’s eyes again. “You want me to spare her, don’t you.”
Varcorak flopped onto his haunches, crossing his forelegs over his plated chest. His neck frills tingled. “Oh no, you can’t turn this around…well, yes. Maybe she is right about that.” Varcorak sighed, flicking his tail. “Sometimes the roads we walk do choose us. The swamp certainly chose me. Some days I wish it hadn’t.”
He hissed under his breath, then chuckled. “We both know the swamp will never let her leave. So tell you what. I’ll let the swamp decide her fate. But if it lets Ailsa live, I’m going to let her steal your treasure. See how you like it.”
Varcorak laughed in bittersweet amusement. He stretched his neck, nuzzled the center image of his daughter, and then turned away. He tidied up his pillows and blankets, smiling. It had been ages since he got to hunt someone. Varcorak stretched out upon his bedding, and lay his head down.
The dragon smiled.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the tale of Ailsa and Varcorak during Dragon Week. This week’s episodes were courtesy of D. Wilder and his novella The Devil’s Deal. You can catch up on all the episodes and find contact information for D. Wilder here.