“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Calix said an hour later as he tucked a couple of large apples into the bodice of Lottie’s gown. The dress fit remarkably well. A little too well, if Calix were to be completely honest with himself. A few locks from his horse’s tail had made a passable wig. The horse wasn’t at all thrilled with this though.
“You look very pretty, Calix.” Lottie and Godric snickered as she tightened Calix’s belt across her waist. Lottie looked and felt much more at home in Calix’s doublet and hose than he did in her vestments.
“This is humiliating,” Calix blushed.
“Welcome to my world,” Lottie said over her shoulder as she pulled herself into the saddle of Calix’s horse.
Calix adjusted his sleeves and watched Lottie try unsuccessfully to mount his horse. “I bet you’re just loving this,” he said as he helped her get her footing on the stirrup.
“Thanks,” she said kindly, plopping herself firmly in the saddle. “Everything but the codpiece.”
Calix smiled. “You have corsets, we have codpieces.”
Lottie laughed. Not long and heartily, but a short chuckle born from actual amusement. It surprised them both. They simply looked at each other for a moment then, slowly, Lottie spoke. “Calix, what did you mean when you said you knew what it was like to leave your home?”
“Oh, I…” Calix stuttered. Luckily, Godric saved him from having to finish the statement.
“It’s time,” Godric said thrusting his huge, spiny head between them. “Is everyone clear on the plan?”
“You fly through the clan with me to the Crater of Trials,” said Calix. “Drop me onto Blood Rock. After the matriarch acknowledges you and inspects the ‘princess’ she officially announces the start of the test.”
“Right,” said Godric. “And remember Helgarth is a real tough character. Just keep calm and let me do the talking during the inspection.”
“Are you sure I’ll pass?” worried Calix.
“You look pretty authentic to me,” said Lottie and then adjusted his apples.
“Let’s hope so,” Godric said. “She’s not a vegetarian.”
Calix made a valiant attempt to hide the crippling fear that slithered down his spine. To her credit, Lottie gave no sign that she could see him shaking beneath the yards of lace and velvet.
“She is almost completely blind though,” continued Godric. “So we should be fine.”
Calix gulped. “Right. Then Lottie thunders in on horseback and challenges you to a fight to the death. After a few minutes you ‘kill’ her and are pronounced a full-fledged member of the clan, and Lottie and I sneak out during the festivities. Simple enough. Why do they call it Blood Rock?”
Godric and Lottie both could only stare at him in amazement. “I think I’m going to be sick,” Calix said. And then he was.
“Feel better?” Lottie asked after he had pulled his head out of the bushes.
“No,” he said.
“First time’s always the worst,” Lottie said. “It gets easier.”
“Being in distress.” Calix smiled at her joke, but after looking at her knitted brow and pursed lips decided he had misinterpreted the comment.
“Ready?” she asked him.
“Not in the least,” he replied.
“Good,” she said. “That’ll make your performance more real. Godric?”
Godric snatched Calix from the ground before he had a chance to respond and threw them both into the sky.
Calix meant to have stern conversation with Godric about his aerial abilities when they landed, but any minor frights he had about flying were quickly replaced by soul killing terror of the Crater of Trials. To say that the Crater was massive would be an understatement. Calix had only a brief glimpse of Lottie’s castle, but he assumed that three of them could have easily fit into the arena-like structure.
The Crater of Trials was a mammoth bowl scooped out of the bare rock of the Iron Mountains. Jagged and vicious looking cliffs jutted out at improbable angles over bottomless depths. The walls of the arena were charred from dragons’ breath of Trials past. The ground, at least what Calix assumed was the ground, it was hard to tell from this high up, was blanketed by ash, half melted swords and shields, and the remains of human knights who had the honor of participating in the dragons’ rite of passage.
The place stank of sulfur and smoke. A loud buzzing sound reached Calix’s ears and he looked down to see a living blanket of flies the size of arrowheads swarming over the rotting remains of fallen knights. Calix heaved as he was carried over the carnage and was relieved that he was high enough not to see his partially digested breakfast splatter across a neat stack of blackened human skulls. None of this compared to Blood Rock.
In the exact center of the Crater loomed a smooth tower of soot black rock. It stood twenty feet tall and twenty feet across. At closer inspection Calix understood how it had gotten its name. Scarlet stripes ran down the tower like the legs of a fine wine twisting an intricate latticework towards the arena’s floor. Calix shuddered and, all too soon, was unceremoniously dropped on the top of Blood Rock. The wind howled around him sending his skirts and horsehair wig fluttering. He really missed his codpiece.
Godric flew around the circumference and came to a landing at the north side of the Crater sending bones and armor clattering for yards in every direction. The crater was deserted. Godric took a look around and, Calix couldn’t be sure, seemed to shiver at the emptiness. He took a deep breath, tossed back his head, and roared. A moment passed and nothing happened. Another moment and still nothing. Godric waited with baited breath for what felt like hours. Finally, across the Crater, the call was answered.
It started as one voice, then a second joined in. A third filled out the chord and soon the pit was filled with the roar of dragons. They came from every direction, unseen heralds of the great beasts. The cacophony was unlike anything heard by human ears. Deafening and terrifying, but undeniably beautiful. The haunting notes struck the Crater’s walls where they were thrown back to their owners after being distorted and amplified until the arena was filled with a symphony of sound. Had Calix not been using all of his mental powers to keep from soiling Lottie’s dress, he would have indeed described it as spectacular. Then, the first dragon showed itself.
A great flapping was heard as the monstrous beast descended from the heavens and came with a crash to the rim of the Crater. More followed. Some came from the sky. Some writhed through the cracks in the arena floor. Some pulled themselves along the walls of the crater. From every direction they came. Each one alighting itself along the edge of the Crater to watch the Trial until the rim resembled a glittering crown fit for the most unapologetically wealthy monarch.
The Crater sparkled with reds, flaming oranges and yellows, icy blues, and deep violets you could get lost in. Every color imaginable was represented on the dragons’ leathery hides. They would be beautiful if their luster hadn’t come with foot long serrated spikes and talons that could tear flesh from bone in seconds flat. And the teeth! The teeth were sharp too.
The dragons, once in position, ended their song and for a while nothing happened. The silence stretched out over the Crater until the last echoing strains of the dragonsong faded, then one of the dragons, a bronze colored one with a wicked scar across its left eye and a sizable hole in its right wing, began stomping its foot. It added a chant with each stomp and the cliffs echoed with the noise. The chant and stomping was slowly picked up by the other dragons. The rhythm sped up and the chanting got louder until Calix feared his eardrums might explode. As quickly as it had begun, the chanting and stomping ceased and Helgarth presented herself.
Anyone who saw Godric would assume that he was a large dragon. This is mainly because not many people have witnessed a Dragon Matriarch and Dragon Matriarchs do not attain such a position by merely being large. Comparing Godric to Helgarth would be like comparing a Shetland pony to a Clydesdale. Helgarth towered head and shoulders over every dragon on the rim. She yawned revealing an abyss of teeth the size of broadswords and stretched her wings, plunging the Crater into darkness. Her scales, the color of smoky quartz, were pockmarked with scars, holes, and smooth burn marks. Helgarth was old. Impossibly old and her joints ached with arthritis. Her spikes were chipped and broken, some missing entirely and her wings were a spider web of varicose veins. Her eyes, huge and deep, were glazed over with a milky substance that cause them to spasm every once and a while of their own accord. When she spoke her voice was akin to someone dragging a dying mule across a dry riverbed.
“Godric? Godric have you returned with your prize?” she called out to the assembly.
“I have, Mother,” Godric called back.
“Mother?!” Calix shouted, unable to control himself. Fortunately, the height of Blood Rock made it impossible for any of the dragons to hear him. As such, he was allowed to keep his limbs.
Helgarth growled a low growl and descended into the pit. Calix may have been imagining things, but could have sworn he heard the vertebrae in her neck creak as she raised her head to the top of Blood Rock. He was thankful that the ancient Matriarch was blind or she would have clearly seen the sweat beading on his brow. Her milky eye twitched and throbbed and Calix held his breath. Helgarth brought her cavernous nostrils over to Calix and inhaled. Calix had to hold tight to his wig or risk it being torn from his head and into Helgarth’s sinuses as she took in his scent. She sneezed and almost tore Blood Rock apart in doing so.
“That’s a princess all right,” she said. “I must say I’m impressed, Godric. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Godric groveled.
“And the hero?” Helgarth began to circle her son intimidatingly.
“A p-p-p-prince,” Godric stammered.
Helgarth laughed, Calix’s heart iced over, and Godric tried to keep from shaking.
“You can barely say it, hatchling!” scoffed Helgarth. “How do you plan to defeat your p-p-prince?”
“B-b-by tooth and claw and flame,” replied Godric with his head hung. “And I’m not a hatchling mother.”
Helgarth roared a roar that shook the very foundations of the mountains. “Do not talk back to me, Godric!”
“I am sorry, M-M-Mother,” Godric was just able to get out.
Helgarth leaned in close to Godric so only he could hear her. “Sass me again, son, and hatchling or not I will tear you apart.”
Helgarth turned, joints screaming with arthritis, to face her clan. “Godric has retrieved a princess! His hero is on his way! Let the Trial begin!” she said. The dragons bellowed their assent. Calix couldn’t help noticing that dragons apparently took any available opportunity to roar.
“Do not disappoint me, Godric,” whispered Helgarth, as she ascended to the rim of the Crater.
The dragons waited for a prince to come galloping in and rescue Godric’s princess. After twenty minutes of waiting they became restless. Murmurs of the clan buzzed around the Crater and Helgarth’s sigh was enough to send shivers down Godric’s spine. The dragons huffed and tut tutted under their breath, Godric took to pacing the perimeter of the Crater, and Calix, having nothing better to do, took a nap. When Godric’s prince hadn’t arrived after a full forty five minutes Helgarth spoke.
“Your p-p-p-prince is late hatchling,” she sneered at her son.
Godric opened his mouth to respond but all that came out was a sound not unlike that of a heavy stone door swinging open on rusty hinges, which is exactly what it was. Every head turned towards the south facing gate as it slowly crept open.
“My god that’s a heavy door!” Lottie said squeezing herself and the horse into the Crater of Trials. She took in the scenery and promptly froze to see an entire clan of dragons staring her down.
“Is he here,” said Helgarth to the black dragon on her left. The dragon nodded then, remembering that Helgarth was blind, added a vocal affirmation. “Finally,” she said stretching out her neck. “Well, hatchling, let’s see what you’re made of. Go on Godric. Kill him!”
Godric winked at Lottie and then began circling her. When he was within her earshot he whispered, “Make it look convincing.” Lottie nodded, mounted her horse, and charged at Godric.
True to her word Lottie made it very lifelike, slashing and stabbing like a seasoned knight. Godric did his best to doge the blows but a few of them landed. Lottie’s sword tore through Godric’s skin above his right eye. Blood spurted from the slash and Godric tossed his head away. “Not that convincing,” he hissed.
“Sorry,” Lottie apologized. “Knock me off my horse.”
Not needing to be told twice, Godric snapped his jaws at Lottie. She avoided them and took another swipe at him. This time, Godric ducked and whipped his tail around to throw both Lottie and the horse across the arena. The horse was not having a great day.
Godric was on her before she could stop the world from spinning. He snapped again and again and each time Lottie blocked his teeth with the flat of her sword so as not to cause any further injuries. Thought the battle was fake, Calix had to admire Lottie’s fighting skill. Apparently she’d picked up a few things from all the other princes that had rescued her in the past. She was good. Very good. Almost better than him, though he’d never tell her. Still, there was something about the way the muscles in Lottie’s arms rippled when she hefted his sword over her head that made Calix’s heart bang against his ribs. He crept to the edge of the rock to get a closer look.
Lottie and Godric moved like dancers through an intricate ballet of blood and violence. They lunged, parried, attacked, and withdrew each in turn. Neither gaining an upper hand. It was a beautiful display. Unfortunately the dragons of the Iron Mountain Clan cared little for beauty. They wanted blood, and they were getting restless. “Stop playing with him and finish it, Godric!” Helgarth bellowed.
“Ready for the coup de grace?” Lottie asked so only Godric could hear.
The dragon nodded his green head and Lottie let out a battle cry that would put the hardest warrior to shame and charged. Godric roared, shrugged off her attack, and took off into the sky taking Lottie with him. He flew in an arc around the Crater with Lottie dangling like a rag doll. The dragons roared in delight. Godric’s heart swelled with pride for the first time in his life. He chanced a look at his mother and nearly dropped Lottie when he saw, or imagined, her smiling at him. Well, in the vicinity of him. That heartwarming moment was brought to a crashing halt when Lottie drove the sword into space between Godric’s second and third toe. Pain shot through Godric’s leg and he lost his grip on the princess.
As luck would have it, Godric just so happened to be hovering over Blood Rock when he dropped Lottie, and Calix once again found himself breaking her fall.
“You have got to stop doing that,” Calix said dragging himself out from under Lottie.
Lottie grunted and pulled herself to her feet. “Relax,” she said. “Everything is under control.”
She looked across the rock to where Godric had crashed. He was lying in a twisted mass of wings and limbs. He righted himself and took a cautious step toward Lottie.
“That really hurt, Lottie,” he said wincing at the pain.
“Sorry,” she said humbly. “I’ve never fought a dragon before. I guess I got carried away. It’s very exciting.”
“Hardly the word I would use,” said Calix.
The dragons waited on the edge of their seats. Godric threw them a look and then tore the sword out of his foot. Almost casually he tossed it over the edge. It made a slight ping sound as it struck the arena floor a couple of minutes later. The dragons roared their approval and Lottie wasn’t at all pleased with the sinking feeling she got in her stomach. Godric took out Lottie’s feet with his tail and was pinning her to the stone the minute she touched the ground.
All at once Lottie felt the air being crushed from her lungs as Godric’s claw slammed into her chest like a safe. Godric threw back his head and roared in triumph. The other dragons soon joined.
“Well done, Godric!” said Helgarth silencing the clan. “Now eat him.”
Godric almost snapped Lottie’s ribs. “B-b-but, Mother, I don’t-“ Godric stammered.
“I’ve had enough of your vegetarian nonsense,” Helgarth said. “Now eat the damn prince like a real dragon!”
There was no questioning Helgarth’s tone. Godric looked back and forth from his mother, to Lottie, to Calix, and back to his mother. He shrugged, gave Lottie an apologetic whimper, and then swallowed her whole.
“No!” yelled Calix. He tried to prevent it, but was too late. Helgarth laughed a sinister laugh deep in her dusty throat.
“Dragons of the Iron Mountains Clan,” she began. “My son Godric has completed his Trial and I am pleased to present him as a full member of our community! Godric, have you anything to say?”
Godric opened his mouth to speak, but instead of words, Lottie, and a fair amount of bile, came splattering out.
“I guess he really is a vegetarian,” was all she had to say.
“That is so gross,” Calix elaborated.
“We’re in trouble,” Godric said, still a little queasy.
All three statements were true although, Godric’s proved to be the most pressing.
There was a collective gasp from the clan followed by three minutes of silence as one of the dragons relayed the events to Helgarth, then an ear splitting screech as she threw herself toward Blood Rock.
Godric’s heart was yanked into his throat and his eyes nearly jumped out of his skull as he saw his mother barreling toward him.
“Time to go,” he said. He quickly grabbed Lottie and Calix, opened his wings, and leaped off of Blood Rock seconds before Helgarth slammed into it.
The Crater of Trials vibrated as all of Helgarth’s considerable weight ripped Blood Rock from its foundations. The rock exploded, sending sharp, jagged pieces sailing through the air in every direction. All around them, heavy boulders rained down threatening a very painful death at any moment. Luckily Godric proved to be quite the aerial acrobat and twisted and turned to avoid each fragment if not with ease, then certainly with style. All this was, of course, very impressive until Helgarth clasped Godric’s tail in her jaws and threw him to the ground.
Godric, Lottie, and Calix flew in three separate directions across the crater. Lottie found herself sliding to a halt amidst a clutter of discarded armor and scorched bones. She immediately rolled to her right to avoid a smattering of debris plummeting toward her, stood, and surveyed her surroundings. All around her, rocks bit into the earth like a starving man would bite into a steak. A thick cloud of dust had settled across the arena floor and she could just barely make out Calix’s figure rushing toward her. He’d lost his wig and the dress was in tatters but he seemed to be in one piece.
“Are you okay?” he shouted once he reached her.
“A little scraped up, but all right,” she replied. “You?”
“I’d be better if I didn’t have this thing flapping around my ankles and tripping me up while trying to run for my life,” he said tearing off about three feet of delicate lace from his dress.
“Tell me about it,” Lottie said. “Where’s Godric?”
Calix pointed to the dragon’s unconscious silhouette several hundred yards from them. Lottie didn’t like the look of the purple bruises swelling above Godric’s eye, or the steady stream of blood issuing from his nostrils.
“Come on,” she said grabbing Calix by the arm and tearing across the arena. “We’ve got to help him.”
Calix and Lottie ran through the now settling dust cloud to the sleeping dragon. There was an odd moment just before they reached him when the sky went dark. Providing the same effect as a solar eclipse, Helgarth swooped low over them and dropped to the ground nearly on top of them. The resulting impact knocked both Calix and Lottie off their feet. Calix’s horse, who had somehow managed to survive the destruction of Blood Rock decided that it had had enough excitement for one day and proceeded with haste out of the same gateway it had entered.
Lottie and Calix gingerly rose to their feet.
“Don’t move a muscle,” Lottie told Calix through gritted teeth. “Hopefully, if we don’t make any noise, she won’t know we’re here.”
Lottie’s assumption was true. Helgarth had no idea where they were, or indeed where she was. Her blindness and her face to face meeting with Blood Rock had disoriented her. She was lost, confused, and, worst of all, angry. She tossed her head back and forth, sniffing the air in attempt to catch their scent. Lottie and Calix held their breath. Helgarth could find no trace of them and howled with rage causing Calix and Lottie to clasp their hands over their ears to keep from going deaf.
After a moment, Helgarth ceased her howling, and lowered her head. Taking a deep breath she opened her jaws. A wave of unpleasant odors like those of rotting meat and lamp oil threatened to overwhelm Lottie and Calix swooned at the smell.
“Oh no,” said Lottie, looking for something with which to protect them.
“What?” said Calix.
Lottie’s eyes landed on tarnished shield on which Calix was practically standing.
“Hand me that shield,” she barked at him. Calix did as he was told, though he still didn’t understand why. “What are you doing?” he said.
Lottie wrenched the shield from his grasp and then threw him to the ground.
“Stay behind me” she ordered lugging the heavy piece of wood and metal over her head.
Helgarth exhaled and a jet of white hot fire spewed out of her mouth. The flames slammed into Lottie’s shield and plumed around it like water breaking over a stone. The heat was almost too much to bear. Lottie’s knees buckled and the shield combusted and began to melt. The air around her was smothering and her head swam with lack of oxygen. She could feel the shield liquefying as the molten steel dripped steadily onto the ground. The smell of roasting meat wafted into her nostrils and suddenly, she was all too aware that the skin on her left arm seared and crisped.
Lottie gritted her teeth as she fought back tears of pain, but the dragon fire showed no sign of slowing. She cast a terrified glance to Calix and was not comforted to see her own fear reflected back at her. She was just about to resign herself to her fiery death when she spotted Calix’s sword at her feet. Grabbing the hilt and whispering a prayer to anyone who would listen she hurled the weapon through the flames.
The sword glowed an unseemly red and burst into flames as it sped through the inferno. It struck Helgarth in her craggy face, burying itself deep in her eye socket. There was a loud pop as the sword pierced the dead eye and the dragonfire stopped. Helgarth roared in pain, taking out still more of the Crater’s structure. She clawed at the sword but only succeeded in tracing deep slashes in her own face. Blood mixed with fire and she rolled over the ground which only drove the sword deeper into her eye.
“That was amazing!” Calix said slapping Lottie on the back.
She didn’t have a chance to enjoy his compliment. The pain in her arm grew to be too much. Cradling the ruined limb she dropped into Calix’s arms. Calix did his best to wake her but it was difficult with an angry, blind, and possibly mortally wounded dragon thundering around. He did manage to drag her over to Godric.
“Godric! Godric, you have to wake up,” Calix pleaded. Godric remained unmovable. Calix sighed, took a page from Lottie’s book, and slapped the green dragon.
Godric woke with a start. “What happened? Was I asleep?”
“You were unconscious,” said Calix. “We have to get out of here. Lottie is hurt. Can you fly?”
Godric stood and stretched out his wings. “Yeah, I think I can. Nothing feels broken. Is it hot in here?”
Yes. It was hot. Helgarth had lost control of her breath and was now blowing fire all around the Crater without bias. Liquid fire spilt from her quivering jowls and splashed over the rocks. The Crater was quickly turning into a sea of molten rock. The walls were deteriorating and sliding into the growing pools of lava. The entire bowl was coming apart at the seams. With a great crack the whole structure split in half toppling a few of the dragons with slower reaction times into the boiling soup.
“We’re leaving,” Godric said. He clutched Calix and Lottie to his chest and took off.
The sky was full of glittering dragons and smoke. The dragons were angry. The smoke was indifferent. All around them the dragons bit, clawed, and snapped at Godric and his companions. He rolled, dove, and did his best to fend off his attackers while his mother was buried under crumbling rocks and her own fire far below him.
Godric flew fast and hard with his own clan swarming around him. They were quickly leaving the mountains. Soon the slate grey rock gave way to crashing blue waves of the Southern Sea. Godric’s wings burned from strain and the thousands of minor injuries inflicted by his own clan. Thankfully the sea marked the Clan’s border. They wouldn’t follow him past it. Of course he had had a large hand in the destruction of their home. Not to mention the probable death of their leader which just so happened to be his own mother, so all bets were off.
As it turned out, the dragons didn’t follow him, not that Godric would have known that. He kept flying for an hour before fatigue got the better of him and the three of them fell out of the sky and into the sea.