The metallic scent of blood reached him first through the sharpness of the snow. For a moment, his heart leapt and he thought the battle was still raging, cries of dying men filling his ears and stopping his senses; but no. The mountains up ahead were the foothills of home, and there was no one else around, no sounds, no battle cries.
Easing his shoulders under their heavy mail – he hadn’t dared leave it behind, not when old Tom would curse him halfway to the grave if he didn’t return it – he trudged on.
The path crested and he spotted the source of the blood-scent easily: a great dragon, rear half fully skinned, muscle and sinew left exposed to the elements. Blood had seeped into the snow around it, tinting it pink.
He ran a hand over his face. He’d been at battle for nine and a half months. The war was supposed be over; coming home was supposed to be the end of all the carnage. But no, someone had to drop a stinking great dead dragon in his path. He gritted his teeth, hefted his pack, and trudged towards the beast.
Halfway there the bushes off the side of the path rustled. He barely had time to check that his sword was still in its scabbard before five scruffy-looking bandits appeared, three bearing equally scruffy swords covered in nicks and dings. The other two held rough-hewn bats, and one tried for menacing as he tapped the bat against his free palm.
The soldier sighed and eased his sword free. He could take the five of them on with his eyes closed – but probably not if he tried to keep them all alive. Gods, he was so tired of death.
The leader of the bandits swaggered forward. “Come t’ steal our dragon, have ye?”
“Put your sword down, mate. All I want to do is go home.” The soldier shifted his grip on his own sword in case the bandit lunged.
In response, the bandit sneered. “That’s what they all say.” He turned to his lackeys. “All right, boys. You know what to do.”
He gave them the nod and as one they advanced towards the soldier.
Gods preserve us all. The soldier adjusted his stance and let his pack slip to the ground.
A creaky rumble sounded, and before anyone had a chance to react, the great dragon’s tail swept right through the midst of the bandits, knocking them all off their feet. Three were immediately rendered unconscious, and without hesitation the solider leapt forward to follow up on his advantage, knocking out a fourth with the flat of his blade.
The fifth – the leader – cried out and lunged at the soldier’s shoulder, but the soldier ducked and let the stroke go past him. He dodged left, dropped to one knee and drove upwards with his sword, aiming for the bandit leader’s chin and intending just to knock him out. But the dragon’s claws caught him around the leg, destabilised him, and the sword drove point-first into the bandit’s throat. Arterial blood spurted, red and bright, life gushing from the man before his eyes.
War cries sounded in his ears, the smell of blood blocked out thought, and the pounding of a thousand warrior feet shook the ground.
The soldier barely even felt it as the dragon shifted its grip and dragged him closer. The smell of rotting meat on the great carnivore’s breath mingled with blood until it could have belonged to week-old bodies decaying on the fields, and the pain that lanced through him as the dragon bit down was the piercing of swords.
A moment passed in rippling pain, and the soldier realised he was on his feet, facing the great dragon while blood dribbled from his shoulder. He clamped down on the wound, noted that the dragon’s skin now covered nearly three-quarters of its body, and gazed up at the great iridescent eye.
The dragon turned its head, staring pointedly at where the bandit leader lay dead in a pool of his own blood.
Guilt stung the soldier’s chest, and he gulped down air like a man drowning.
Gently, the dragon nudged him with muzzle whose nostrils wafted smoke, and the soldier fell down beside the bandit.
What? he shouted in his head. What do you want from me?
But the dragon simply stared, waiting.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, the soldier gathered up the bandit in his arms. Yes, he’d initiated the attack, and yes, he was probably responsible for causing much loss and harm to other people; there was no doubt the corpse in front of him had belonged to a bad man. But still the soldier couldn’t shake his frustration at the senselessness of it all.
He’d had enough of senselessness. He pressed his forehead to the bandit’s. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want you to die.”
The bandit stirred in his lap, head tossing, eyes twitched beneath closed lids. The wound in his neck ceased bleeding; the skin began infinitesimally to seal.
The soldier’s gaze flicked to his own shoulder, where the bite mark had nearly closed beneath the tear in his chain-mailed shirt, then to the dragon, who was now fully clothed in skin again but for its tail.
“Oh,” the soldier murmured, eyes wide. “Thank you.”