A Matter of Scale, part 2 of 2
by Jonathon Burgess
Hristomarth Rofolio never expected to get caught stealing. What’s more, he never expected the bargain that saved his head. But after being sent to investigate a problem in a tiny mountain village, he’ll wish he’d kept his date with the executioner.
Hristomarth pulled himself up and over the ledge with one final exertion. He rolled over onto his back and lay panting as clouds scudded through the late afternoon sky overhead.
The deputy scrabbled up to join him, face stony and impassive even in the face of his efforts. Hristomarth ignored the fellow, considering the wide cavern mouth that yawned before them on the far side of the ledge. Darkness draped the interior, while a strangely offensive reptilian musk issued forth from it. He had no trouble believing this the abode of a dragon.
Hristomarth rose and adjusted the sword at his belt. It was a heavy thing, perfectly serviceable, though plated in silver and decorated like an aristocrat’s showpiece. The hetman had insisted he take it in spite of his missing fingertips—village rumor held that it was the returned blade of a great warrior born in Seetch, one of those lost and doomed figures, an Illuminate. Hristomarth had considered throwing it away almost a dozen times during the ascent.
Gadasac’s deputy rose to his feet and eyed the cave entrance with one hand on the axe at his belt. He nodded slowly to himself, turning to peer down at Hristomarth.
Hristomarth sighed. There really wasn’t anywhere else to go.
He dusted off his jacket and straightened his hat. Then he sauntered casually into the gloom. And almost immediately stopped.
Nesnatoth lay just inside the cave. She was massive, as unlike her wyrmlings as it was possible to be. Where they were fat and relatively harmless, she was lean and dangerous. Where they were diminutive, she could have easily devoured a horse with a single snap of her long maw. The scales of the dragon’s hide were a dark blue, like sapphires held against a night sky.
At the moment, she slept. Hristomarth watched her great torso stretch and relax as she breathed, a wheezing exhalation that almost pushed him back with its bellows’ force and mighty odor.
Hristomarth considered what to do next. He had to admit that he did not have anything especially clever to say. Beside him, the deputy stared wide-eyed at the ancient wyrm, uncharacteristically awed.
The dragon froze in midwheeze. She sniffed the air before opening wide, milky eyes. Then she sat up.
“What is this I smell?” the dragon rumbled. “Silvered steel and enlightened power?” The dragon ran a long gray tongue out to taste at the air.
Hristomarth drew the sword at his side and held it in both hands, his healthy left compensating for his maimed right. The ancient wyrm twisted her head to follow the noise rather than peering down at him directly. Hristomarth glanced again at the great milky eyes and realized that she was blind.
“Greetings to you, Nesnatoth of Mount Wirh,” Hristomarth said with every ounce of obsequiousness he could muster. “It is only I, Hristomarth Rofolio, ex-Troupemaster and occasional larcenist.” He danced aside as the dragon leaned in his direction. “I would speak with you about your whelplings, on behalf of the village down below.
Nesnatoth froze a moment, then raised her head. “Ah! My children. My beloved children. All seven of them, so fine and healthy! Have you seen them, small mortal man? How their scales shine, how full of life they are?”
She twisted her head around, following his step against the floor of the cave. Hristomarth slowed. He noted that Gadasac’s deputy had edged back outside the cave with his axe in hand.
“I have seen your children, great wyrm,” replied Hristomarth. “And fine and beautiful they are. But they are unhappy down in Seetch Village. They wish you would come and take them home.”
Nesnatoth lowered her head, seeking. “Oh. Such a wish is dear to this ancient heart. But I am old beyond your ken. I am old and blind. My every breath is weaker than the one before—I am dying. There comes a time when children must be forced from the nest—this we dragons know. Now is as good a time for them to learn the ways of the world as any.”
Hristomarth backpedaled, made a pirouette, and slid along the ground away from the dragon. “You are wrong, great mother,” he said. “They rampage out of frustration, and when tired they cry out of loneliness for you. They are too young, and crave only your presence. It must be said that perhaps your race could be more attentive to your offspring.”
The dragon quirked her head. “Do they?” she said softly. “Oh, how I ache to see them again.”
“Then descend to the village and retrieve them.”
Nesnatoth nodded once. “I shall. I shall indeed do this. But first I must take care of something else.”
Hristomarth paused and lowered the sword. Relief washed through him, though his maimed hand ached from holding up the blade. “Why wait, great old mother?”
“Because now I have found you, Illuminate.”
Nesnatoth leapt forward. Her jaws snapped shut around Hristomarth, enclosing him in a fang-edged darkness.
* * *
“The prisoner has faced down a dragon and lived,” said the deputy of Gadasac Township from a dozen paces behind. “I suspect that the prisoner disregards his accomplishment too strongly.”
Hristomarth trudged down the mountain path, sulking. His jacket and hat were still sodden with Nesnatoth’s reeking blood and saliva. His hands ached from wielding the sword the villagers had thrust upon him.
“She proved exactly one heart’s palsy away from devouring her last meal,” he said. “Cutting one’s way through a dead dragon’s mouth do not songs and stories make. And the blade broke in the process—it is a certainty that the accursed village of Seetch will add this to their inevitable disappointment. Why do you insist upon our return? What is the point, I say? And also, why do you walk so far behind me?”
“Because the prisoner still stinks of dragon,” replied the deputy.
The gap in the palisade walls of Seetch Village appeared ahead. Nothing was obviously burning, but thin trails of smoke smoldered off into the sky. A great cacophony echoed out from the walls, however—the yowling screech of seven draconic wyrmlings calling out for their mother.
Hristomarth crept cautiously into the village. In the center of town before the grange hall sat the dragonlings. They were curled up into a great scaled ball, raising their heads up to the sky and calling out in screeches that sounded like a herd of cats with their tails being stepped upon. The villagers stood around them at a safe distance, staring forlornly. Most covered their ears.
The hetman noticed Hristomarth and the deputy. He ran over to greet them, the rest of the villagers following along behind. “How glorious it is to see you again!” he cried over the din. “The little monsters have…” he trailed off as he took in the state of Hristomarth’s clothing. “By the Axioms! You appear to have had a rough time of it, and incurred a vile stink as well. Were you successful in convincing Nesnatoth to return?”
“In a word: no,” replied Hristomarth. “The dragon was old and dying. To examine a positive angle, she will not plague you further.”
“That is cold comfort,” replied the hetman, wincing as the wyrmlings’ cry reached an especially sharp pitch and shattered a window. “How now do you plan to evict these monsters?”
Hristomarth shrugged uncomfortably. “It may be time to accept this fate. Such a course of action seems the surest way for your current distress to transmute, almost magically, into placid tranquility. And who knows? Perhaps a new opportunity will present itself, should you still seek one by that time.”
The cacophony ended abruptly. The wyrmlings had suddenly fallen silent. They peered around at each other in surprise, then lifted their muzzles to sniff at the air. One by one they peered in Hristomarth’s direction, eyes wide.
The wyrmlings bolted as one from the middle of the street. They ran pell-mell at Hristomarth, the villagers scattering with cries of alarm. The first of the diminutive creatures leapt at his chest, bowling him over, knocking his wind out, and jamming the broken sword into his hip. Then the rest were on him, nuzzling and chewing affectionately at his legs. He flailed at them, a preternaturally clear vision of being devoured alive in the forefront of his mind. The wyrmlings appeared to think he was roughhousing though, fighting back with increased fervor. By the time he managed to stand all were licking at him, especially where Nesnatoth’s blood and saliva had coated him the thickest.
Hristomarth looked in bewilderment at the villagers and the deputy. The hetman peered at him shrewdly before nodding once. “Your argument is most prescient,” he said, making a sign for the villagers to clear a way to the gate. “And I believe such an opportunity has presented itself quite clearly. For once, praise may be due to the Ministers of Fate.”
Then, without much ceremony at all, Hristomarth was ejected from the village of Seetch. The villagers threatened him with farming implements, thrown rocks, and the direst of curses as they chased him out the palisade gate and down the hill until he had reached a crossroads, tripping all the while on the still-affectionate dragons.
When they were assured that he wasn’t going to return, the villagers ascended back to Seetch, the deputy of Gadasac Township remaining behind. He watched Hristomarth impassively.
“Well, then,” cried Hristomarth as a dragon tried industriously to climb to his shoulder, gouging a trail up his back as it went. “I suppose you think this especially humorous.”
“I am not possessed of a sense of humor,” replied the deputy. “However, I am assured that Vigilant Erfenot will find the fate of the prisoner deeply amusing.” The deputy moved to the crossroads, edging around Hristomarth and the dragons. He stopped at the road that led westward, turning back to face Hristomarth. “I now attest that the problems of the village of Seetch are resolved. The prisoner’s sentence is commuted to exile. Head east or south from this place; do not return to Gadasac, on pain of death.” With that, he turned abruptly and began marching back to the lowlands from whence he’d come.
Hristomarth yanked off his hat and threw it at the man. The draconic wyrmling on his shoulder snatched it out of the air and chewed happily at it. “Wait! What am I supposed to do with these little monsters? Such a fate for my past indiscretions seems woefully unbalanced!” The wyrmlings were excited by the tone in his voice and brushed up against his legs, gnawed on his boots, and fought each other for the best spot of dirt from which to nip at his fingers.
The deputy of Gadasac Township paused. “I recall the ex-prisoner complaining quite clearly yesterday,” he called from over his shoulder. “Weren’t you looking for replacement performers for your circus?”
Hristomarth watched despondently as the deputy walked away, the setting sun casting its flames across the sky, herald of the coming night. Then he yelled as one of the little dragons bit him sharply on the knee.