Waking the Dragon Ch. 01byBelle_in_south©
The warrior marched across the Desert, the blazing sun bearing down on broad shoulders. Beside the warrior, its head bowed beneath the dry heat, a gray wolf trotted through the thick sand. The warrior did not stumble, never breaking stride. Over head, an eagle circling the duo cried into the wind. The bird's broad wingspan cast a shadow on the shifting sand, but the warrior still did not falter.
The warrior was dressed in soft, hand molded black leather. The clothing moved easily with the confident stride. Black boots came to the warrior's knees. A sword was encased in a sling on the warrior's back, along with the black shield with the multi-colored dragon. The warrior wore dark glasses to protect eyes from the bright star in the sky. A braid hung down the middle of the warrior's back, a braid so black it absorbed all the light from the sun.
The warrior had lost track of how long the wolf had been the only companion. They had spent hours and days and weeks and months in silent conversation. The wolf had fought at the warrior's side and during one long, painful night nursed the warrior's wounds. They had been trekking across the Desert for three days. They had sipped carefully from the warrior's canteen and ate sparingly from the warrior's supply of jerky stored in the gunny sack hanging across the warrior's chest and resting against the warrior's thigh.
Ahead of them, the warrior could see the welcome shade of the Forest. The Forest meant a supply of water and something to kill for dinner other than snakes and scorpions, plus a supply of wood to start a fire. Judging from the position of the sun, they would need to take shelter soon and continue toward the Forest after the star began its slow descent to the western sky. They should reach the edge of the Forest by night fall and could camp just inside the trees. Tomorrow they could walk without stopping since they would be protected by the gloom of the foliage. They would soon reach the cliffs that loomed on the other side of the Forest. The warrior was not certain of the final destination but knew without doubt the direction to travel.
Dragon's Bane to those who lived in fear of the dark warrior, The Dragon to those who fell under the warrior's protection, and Bane to the few who called the warrior a friend, the lone solider had been shunned from the royal service. Unable to deny the calling, the warrior had started an individual war against oppression. The wolf had joined the warrior's battle soon afterward. Bane had not questioned the wolf's presence, as the spiritual world knew much more than the warrior. The wolf led their journey now. The wolf would know when to stop.
They found an outcropping of rocks that would be in the shade as the sun reached its zenith. A snake was curled on the top of a rock and the warrior quickly shredded the animal's skin, laying out the strips of meat to dry as the temperature increased. Together, the wolf and Bane slid beneath the rock. Bane sipped from the canteen, then poured some water into cupped hands for the animal. They both ate some jerky before Bane made a pillow out of the gunny sack and lay back in the sand to rest. The wolf would protect Bane.
A cool hand touched Bane's brow, transporting the warrior to childhood and youth. Nyte lay beside Bane, mopping the fevered brow as Nyte had done so many years ago when death had crept into Bane's room. Even now, Bane could hear Nyte's soothing voice. It did not take Bane much effort to conjure up Nyte's presence. Nyte was Bane's only comfort other than the wolf. Nyte was always there to care for Bane when the sun burned too hot or the wind whipped too cold or the knives of the enemy were too sharp. Nyte soothed Bane as the warrior rested and woke the Dragon when the evening air began to cool.
With the smell of the Forest tickling their nostrils, they made good time to the edge of the trees. Nyte's ministrations had given them energy. When they reached the creek that fed the Forest, they both bent and drank heavily of the fresh water. Bane set a trap and quickly caught a rabbit. The meat smelled good, reminding Bane how long it had been since a good meal. Perhaps they had been in the Desert more than three days, but they both devoured the fresh kill. Bane prepared what little was left for the tucker bag and they both slept peacefully by the creek.
Bane dreamed of Nyte again. Nyte's recurring presence must mean that they were nearing their destination. Nyte always appeared more frequently when it was time for Bane to prepare for battle. Bane knew the time had come to be more alert, though the warrior's reflexes never sank too deep. Bane could wake from a deep sleep and be instantly ready to fight. It was part of the warrior's training, the warrior's instinct.
The soft moss of the Forest slept much softer than the rock and sand of the Desert. Bane woke well-rested and the wolf was already eager to be on their way. Bane carefully covered all signs of their camp and followed the wolf through the trees. While the Forest offered protection from the hot sun, the trees provided more shadows for dangers to lurk. No one could plan a sneak attack in the Desert, unless they counted on their victim being delusional from the heat. Armies could hide inches away in the Forest with the unwitting traveler totally unaware. Bane's deep green dragon eyes constantly peered into the dimness, searching for potential trouble. The wolf seemed to sense the unease created by the Forest and constantly turned its head this way and that, hoping to catch any threat that Bane might miss.
Just after the midday meal, they came upon the edge of a farmer's field. Bane did not hesitate to pluck a few cobs of corn from the stalks as they walked through the rows. Corn would taste good roasted over the fire with whatever wildlife they captured that evening. Bane peeled back the silk husks of one of the cobs, brushing the strings away before sampling the raw seed. Bane was enjoying the fresh snack so much that the wolf was the one that sensed the peril first. Bane knelt next to the agitated canine, rubbing the animal's sides as vigilant eyes searched the surrounding area.
Voices floated across the unharvested field as Bane focused on the atmosphere. "You have not offered your sacrifice, Roane."
"Sacrifice?" a trembling voice that Bane assumed belonged to Roane replied with false bravado. "A sacrifice is given willingly. This is blood money that you demand."
"Call it what you will," a new voice said. "The law says that you must give a portion of your income to the royal family. You have broken the law because you have not brought your gift to the palace. How do you answer?"
"I have but one son," Roane continued, "and no sons-in-law, yet. I have many acres to harvest."
"Excuses!" the second voice yelled.
"I know, I know."
Bane had crept close enough now that the figures were visible through the stalks of corn. Bane secured the warrior's helmet and drew the sword from the sling, watching the scene carefully. Roane, the farmer, had white hair. He held his hat in his hand, his head bowed. Two soldiers sat on their horses, glaring down at the farmer. A teenage boy stood behind the farmer, defiance in his eyes.
"The cost for failure to obey the law is your life," the higher ranking soldier announced, nodding at the private beside him.
The private drew his sword and swung it toward Roane. The boy screamed, leaping in front of his father. Bane burst out of the corn stalks, the wolf at the side of the warrior. Bane's sword clashed with the private's weapon only inches from the boy's throat. The boy and Roane stumbled backward as Bane edged in front of them. Swords swung and clanged as Bane fought the mounted soldier. Bane's shield protected the warrior from the higher ranking officer's blows. Bane fought in a circle until the only immediate opponent was the private.
"Run, Jem!" Roane ordered in a booming voice, reaching for his sickle. He used it to knock the officer from his mount. The disadvantage in height had Bane backing slowly, until the warrior's back was against the wall of the barn. Bane climbed to the top of the wood pile and leapt onto the horse, knocking the private to the ground. Bane did not give the private an opportunity to fight back, running the sword through the exposed throat of the oppressor.
Bane then turned to the officer. Roane was fighting the officer with his fists and the blunt end of the sickle. The officer was making his way to where his own sword had fallen. Bane closed the distance as quickly as possible, reaching the battle site just as the officer curled his fist around the sword. The officer swung toward Roane, who moved with surprising quickness. Bane did a somersault and the officer's sword struck the Dragon on the shield. Bane rolled left and then right as the officer's sword came down. The officer faked to the left and nicked Bane's right arm. Bane rolled back and kicked upward, feet landing squarely in the center of the officer's chest. The air rushed from the officer's chest as he stumbled backward. Bane did not hesitate to leap to a standing position and deliver a second death blow.
Gasping for air, Bane turned to look at Roane. "Please," Roane begged. "I don't know who you are, and we'll give you what you want, but there are three more inside with my wife and daughters."
Bane nodded silently. The warrior crept to the house, staying low to the ground with the wolf. Bane crouched beneath a window, using the shiny silver inside of the shield as a mirror to look into the room. Confident the room was empty, Bane pulled on the window ledge to enter the house. The warrior's feet landed without making a noise or stirring any dust. Bane sheathed the sword, pulling a smaller knife from the leather boot. Bane did not hear voices but could hear crying.
Again using the reflection from the shield, Bane looked into the front room. Roane's wife was gagged and tied to a chair. Her blouse had been ripped and her ample bosom poured out of the opening of the material. Both of the teenage daughters were completely naked. One of the soldiers had one daughter bent over the arm of the couch. Bane watched, feeling anger rise in the warrior's noble heart, as the soldier thrust in and out of the child's tender opening. A second soldier was leaning back in a chair, his hand wrapped in the other daughter's hair while he forced his manhood into her mouth. All three women were crying. The soldiers were laughing.
The wolf did not want to wait for Bane to formulate a plan of action. The canine ripped into the room, teeth bared as the sleek animal raced across the room to bite the standing soldier in the rump. With a primal roar, Bane followed the wolf, gripping the blade of the knife between slender fingers. Bane released the knife with a flick of the wrist, sending it twirling end over end until it landed squarely in the chest of the seated soldier.
The standing soldier had pulled out of the young girl when the wolf had sunk sharp teeth into doughy flesh. Bane withdrew the sword, never stopping the forward motion of the warrior's body, and twirled, slicing into the attacker's throat. The attacker's blood spurted from the open vein and he dropped to his knees. Bane's green eyes took in the scene. Three. Roane had said there were three.
The thought had barely registered in Bane's mind when a sharp pain flashed through the warrior's side. The wolf charged to the other entrance of the room as Bane wrenched an arrow out of the thick leather. Bane turned in a crouch, knowing the wolf would do everything possible to protect the warrior. The soldier in the doorway was drawing another bow, taking aim at Bane. Bane threw the shield into position as the soldier snapped the string, the arrow flying across the room but blocked by the dragon on the shield. The wolf again bared its teeth and bit into the soldier's crotch. The soldier howled in pain. Before Bane could take advantage of the soldier's distraction, the sickle swung and the soldier's head rolled into the room. Young Jem stood at the other end of the curved instrument.
Bane collapsed to knees, the adrenaline rush of battle seeping from the warrior's body. The wolf came to Bane's side to offer comfort. Noise replaced the silence of war, deafening Bane. Roane's wife was screaming and both of the daughters were sobbing, clinging to their mother. Roane charged into the room, not looking at his heroic son. He touched each of his daughters and untied his wife.
"We cannot repay you," Roane said to Bane as he helped his wife cover her breasts. "If anyone ever discovers that five of the Royal Guard were killed here, it might be better if we were all dead."
Bane grunted, disgusted at their ungratefulness. Jem still stood in the doorway, his skin pale despite the dark tan from working days in the field next to his father. He suddenly dropped the bloody weapon, throwing it as far away from him as he could. He did not come into the house.
"Our savior is hurt, Poppa," one of the daughter's said. Bane was uncertain who the girl meant. Jem did not look injured. After a heartbeat, during which blood pulsed out of the open wound in Bane's back, a small, cool hand pressed against the abrasion. "Come, let me clean it."
The girl had draped a blanket over her shoulders and helped Bane to rise. She led Bane out the door and helped the warrior lean against the trough beside the pump. The wolf followed inches behind them. "I am Gwen," the girl said softly as she primed the pump. She filled a bowl with cool, clear water and sat it before the wolf. She filled another bowl and dipped a towel into it. Her fingers lifted the leather from the warrior's back, revealing the open wound from the arrow. She deftly washed it clean, applying pressure until the bleeding stopped.
Jem stepped into the back yard, gripping Bane's shield in his still trembling hands. He extended the black shield with the multi-colored dragon on it toward the warrior, his eyes wide with awe. "You are The Dragon?"
"Aye," Bane said, lifting eyes to the small audience that had gathered around them. Bane heard the family gasp and also saw the hopefulness cross their face. Their hope was wasted, though. Bane did not believe this was their final destination. They had much farther to go before the journey would end.
"We cannot repay you," Roane repeated. "We have no money. The guards will return to extract their blood money. Jem has killed a captain. He cannot stay here. I can offer you no material rewards, but I do offer either of my daughters to you."
Bane reached back, stilling Gwen's healing hands. Bane then lifted the helmet, revealing a round face, full lips, and long eye lashes. Bane sat the helmet to the side, shaking hair away from the beautiful, soft face. "I don't want your daughters," Bane answered in a lilting voice. "That would make me no better than the soldiers." Bane squatted next to the wolf, rubbing hands over the silken fur. Everyone noticed the way the warrior winced. "I ask for a hot meal and a warm bed."
The family exchanged looks of fear, knowing if the soldiers were missed their homestead would be searched. If the Dragon was found on their property, their home would be burned and every member of the family killed. Bane sighed, seeing the truth on their faces. "A hot meal and a hot bath, then, and we will be on our way."
Bane was still met with silence. The warrior stood slowly, resigned to go on. A warrior did not help others in order to receive rewards but because that was what a warrior's heart was designed to do. Bane lifted the shield, but Gwen's voice stopped the warrior's departure. "I will draw your bath," she whispered, going into the house.
Bane looked at the other members of the family, setting the shield aside. The warrior sat down, again wincing as pain shot through the pierced side. Roane mumbled something about bodies and walked away. Jem, hero worship glowing in his young eyes, reluctantly followed his father, his eyes lingering on the Dragon. Roane's wife shooed the younger daughter back into the house. Bane's shoulder's slumped once alone. The wolf laid its head in Bane's lap. "Where are we going?" Bane asked, rubbing the wolf's muzzle and ears. Bane's eyes closed. "Speak to me, Nyte. Show me where we are going."
The wolf offered no answer and Nyte did not appear. Bane had not expected Nyte to appear; the spirit only came in sleep. Wearily, the days in the Desert finally taking their toll, the warrior stood and walked into the house. The wolf followed, Bane's sack clenched in its jaws. Roane's wife and younger daughter stood in the kitchen. Their eyes followed Bane. Bane cast a questioning look at them. "The bath will be upstairs," Roane's wife finally said.
Bane nodded and walked up the narrow steps. Gwen was in one of the bedrooms. Bane watched the teenager as she prepared the bath. The steam wafting from the porcelain tub as Gwen poured the water looked more inviting than anything Bane could recall. Gwen had tied her hair back. She wore a simple smock, covering the too young curves that the soldiers had exposed and used. She lifted blue eyes to Bane, sensing the warrior in the doorway. A soft blush crept to her cheeks as she crossed the room to the warrior. She pulled Bane into the room. Light filtered through the lace curtains and dust mites filtered in the rays that fell on the floor. A large bed topped with a handmade quilt was the centerpiece of the room. The bed was also a welcome sight. Bane had been sleeping on the hard ground for a long time. Gwen pulled the door to a close, holding Bane's hand.
A strand of Gwen's brown hair had fallen against her face and Bane reached over to push it behind the girl's ear. It was the warrior's silent thank you. Gwen ducked her head shyly. Her hands went to Bane's tunic, helping the warrior pull the heavy leather away. Gwen examined the tear the arrow and the knife had made as Bane crossed to the tub, testing the water. Bane sat on the edge of the basin, trailing fingers through the steam. Gwen crossed to the warrior, kneeling in front of Bane. The teenager tugged the boots from the warrior's legs. Bane watched through half-closed eyes as Gwen's worker's fingers untied the laces at the waist of the trousers.
Gwen lifted her eyes to examine the warrior's body. Bane's skin was pale with sinewy muscles rippling beneath the flesh. Small breasts protruded from the warrior's chest. They were the size of ripe apples and had dark brown areolas with thick nipples. Bane's stomach was hard and rippled. Gwen tugged the pants over Bane's slim hips, her eyes lingering on the smooth lips at the apex of Bane's strong thighs. Gwen had to peel the leather off of the powerful legs. Bane stepped out of them, breathe even as Gwen's palms caressed the muscular calves.
Bane slipped into the hot water, allowing the heat to seep away the aches of the journey and the battle. Gwen loosed the binding from the long braid of Bane's thick black hair, unweaving the long strands. Bane's eyes were closed. The two perfect breasts were rising and falling in a steady rhythm, the warrior's repose barely disturbing the water. Gwen gathered the leather armor and took it to her mother to repair the tears and air the material. When the teenager returned to the bedroom, she knelt at the head of the tub with a fresh bucket of water. She poured the water over Bane's hair, soaping the thick strands and combing the tangles. Bane's lips were slightly parted, air whistling in and out. The thick eyelashes cast fan shadows on the ruddy cheeks.
Finished with the warrior's hair, Gwen moved to the side, adding more hot water to the basin. She hesitated, afraid to disturb the sleeping hero. Her eyes moved over the warrior's body, this time seeing beyond the rose-colored glow the rescue had created and seeing instead the scars from past battles that crossed Bane's stomach and a puckered burn brand that marked the side of the Dragon's breast. Gwen's fingers reached to the blemish, yearning to touch it and make the hero human.