7. The Brass Dragon
When dawn came the prince and Sand Gorgon lay entangled on the skins. The prince had a number of interesting marks on his body and the disorienting exhaustion that comes after a night of extreme pleasure. The rising sun shone into the cave, gilding Zairbhreena's still form. The prince felt a twinge of guilt when he saw her, remembering how he had behaved the night before, but it was after all for her benefit.
The prince shook the Sand Gorgon awake by her shoulder. "You have a promise to keep, witch."
The Sand Gorgon yawned and ran her tongue over her teeth, enjoying the feeling of having a full set again. "So I do," she said. "Well, prince, the remedy is this. Make love to the princess as you have done to me last night, and if she has any feelings for you they will bring her back to life, and the hard stone of her body revert back to flesh."
The prince could have struck himself on the forehead. It seemed so obvious, in hindsight. Why hadn't he thought of it? He wouldn't have had to bed the crone after all. Not that it hadn't been...enjoyable. "As you and I have what we wanted, I will leave."
"As you wish," the Sand Gorgon said with a studied indifference. Many times her lovers had left her. She bore them no malice; in the clear light of dawn, she didn't want to be around them any more than they wanted to be around her.
The prince dressed and tied the princess back onto the camel, leaving the cave of the witch. Though he was exhausted his heart was light, for he now had the means to rescue his wife-to-be from her stony prison...and it lay not in esoteric rituals or rare ingredients, but in himself. He eyed the lush vegetation that grew in the canyon. In fact, he wouldn't even have to wait until he returned to Carsimbad. A mattress of grass and a pillow of flowers would do just fine for what he intended.
He arranged her on the grass behind a screen of frangipani, by the clear blue waters of a desert pool. She gazed up at him with total adoration, a spindle of gold that would soon form an Y for him, her slim legs parting to lend him access. He took off his clothes and stroked her marble cheek. He kissed her finely carved, passionless mouth. "Zairbhreena..." he whispered.
*I hate you,* Zairbhreena thought. *Why don't you go back to that snake-haired hussy.* She thought of other insults as the prince probed and pawed her. It wasn't hard work on her part, as her stony flesh couldn't feel a thing. The prince mouthed and suckled and humped, trying out a variety of positions that would have made her blush poppy-red, if she were human and not a statue. But she refused to acknowledge him.
The hot sun beat down on the prince's back. Again and again his hard organ bumped the stony junction of her legs. He was getting quite sore. "Move, damn you," he cursed. "Do something!" But the princess remained inert.
He sat up on his knees. Had the Sand Gorgon lied to him? He touched Zairbhreena's thigh. He thought the stone was growing warmer, softening a little, but it could have been the heat of the sun. By the balls of Ahrez, how long could he keep it up?
Without warning a large object passed between the prince and the sun. He looked up.
The head of a dragon looked down on him, a winged senmurv, the terror of the desert. It resembled not a lizard but a long, lithe lion scaled in brass, with fangs as thick as his forearm and the yellow slitted eyes of a snake. Its mane was formed of thin flexible metal plates which it raised around its head like the petals of a sunflower, blinding him with reflected light.
The prince threw his arm up in front of his face and stumbled backward as the light collected in the metal cup, becoming a searing line of fire. *Zairbhreena, forgive me,* he thought, and dove into the pool as the flames raked the grass. As his buttocks were the last part of him to disappear, they were toasted a bright cherry-red.
He stayed under as long as he could, but he knew he could not stay under forever. Cautiously, he raised his head above the water. Before him lay a charred stripe in the grass. The dragon was sitting on its haunches like a cat, holding Zairbhreena in one of its hands, its talons curved cruelly around her slim, helpless form. It flicked its tongue at her, tasting her, then with a leap it took to the air, its brass wings beating up a duststorm. In a blink of an eye it was airborne and out of the canyon, flying toward the south.
The prince staggered out of the water, overcome with frustration and shame. Zairbhreena was gone again, and it might be forever, this time. Why were the gods punishing him? How had he racked up so much misfortune? He looked around for his clothes but they had been charred into ash along with his camel. He would have to walk all the way back to his men naked like this with his hams roasted, to tell them he had failed.
It was too much. He cursed the gods, cursed the Sand Gorgon, cursed everyone who had thwarted him. Last of all, he cursed himself. He beat his fists against the sand. If he hadn't been so cavalier with Jaseloris, she would not have planned a revenge, and none of this would have happened!
The cursing didn't change anything, but it did made him feel better. When it was over, he realized there was little he could do but push on ahead. The dragon had to be tracked to its lair and disposed of, and its prize reclaimed; for a task of that magnitude, he had no room for tantrums.
Meanwhile, the brass dragon carried the princess higher and higher into the air, and further and further away from the prince, until she thought she would faint from the terror of it, if her body had not been made out of stone. Indeed, she tried to faint, to save herself the experience. But as noted before, a body of stone has certain advantages over a body of flesh. She remained conscious.
The great brass wings beat up, down, then up again, slowly revealing and hiding the tawny brown landscape beneath, which was spotted like the hide of a giant jungle cat. The wind whistled past her ears, and the dragon's claws remained steady around her hips and breasts. If she had been a mortal girl they would have pierced her flesh to the bone. If it dropped her, she would shatter into a million pieces on the hard stones below. But if she were human, the damage would be no less.
On and on they flew. The sun slanted towards the west.
They wheeled around a range of spine-tipped mountains, coming at last to the dragon's lair, which was situated on the highest of the peaks. The cave inside was triangular in form, following the inner contours of the mountain's crest, and Zairbhreena would have caught her breath at the sight, had she been able: heaps of coins, chests filled with jewels and ropes of pearls, crowns tossed carelessly here and there, gilded furniture of exotic dark woods, silver urns stuffed with perfume. On the walls were hangings of peacock's feathers and tapestries stitched in copper thread, and on the floor were musical instruments enameled and glazed, and opium pipes, and golden braziers holding cones of costly incense...her mind fairly boggled with the sheer volume of it all. Westering light bathed the cave walls in ruddy sunset, and they glowed a rich gold as if gilded themselves.
The dragon carried her over to the pile of coins. Without ceremony, he poked her into it, feet-first, like a stake thrust into the sand.
A few coins skittered down the heap, coming to rest on the floor. It finally dawned on the princess that she was but one more treasure in this vast, impersonal hoard...where no one would ever find her, or brave her captor to release her.
She began to weep at the irony of it all.
The dragon stared at her, its topaz eyes immense and unfathomable as two giant coins. *Why do you weep?*
Startled, she left off her silent sobs.
*I asked you a question. Why do you weep?*
The dragon stared right at her, and amazingly, belatedly, she realized he had been talking to her within her mind. It was something she had never experienced before, either in or out of statue state, but she realized that, being this creature's prisoner, it was better for her to reply than remain silent. "Because I am alone,* she thought. *You took me away from the one I loved.*
*Love?* the dragon said in its mental speech. *I do not understand.*
*Neither do I,* the princess said, aware her feelings for the prince were more angry than affectionate. She didn't love him; she didn't think she loved anyone. She only wanted to be flesh again, but it seemed there was no cure for that. Fate had sentenced her to be a statue, and she was doomed to stand here forever, as part of a greedy dragon's hoarde!
*You are weeping again,* said the dragon. *You have no reason to. Look around you. Isn't this place beautiful?*
The princess could only look at what was in front of her since she couldn't move her neck. But she agreed. *That is so. But since you have so much, why did you steal me, dragon?*
*Because you are beautiful, too.*
*Stop that,* the dragon said with some concern. *When you weep and wail like that it hurts me. I can feel it, like hundreds of tiny knives.*
She left off her sobbing, feeling sorry for the creature. It even looked contrite, hanging its head, the golden plates around its neck drooping like a wilted daisy. *I'm sorry dragon,* she said. She tried to smile in her mind, wondering if it might feel that.
It immediately perked its head up like a dog. *I like that. I like it when you smile. The others I took, they were not like you. They were soft and they moved, and they hurt themselves easily. After a few days, they died. All of them.*
It must have been horrible for those girls, snatched out of their villages and carried away to starve and thirst to death in this cavern or die from their injuries. But Zairbhreena couldn't blame the dragon for it, for, like a small child, he hadn't understood he was doing harm. *If they always die, why do you take them?*
*Because I was lonely. But I couldn't talk to them the way I talk to you. They had no magic in them.* He flicked his tongue over her body, which she took to mean a kiss. *Will you talk to me? Will you be my companion?*
*Within reason, I guess,* the princess said, realizing she had no alternative. Even if the dragon hadn't kidnapped her, she still had a lonely fate in the world of men. She'd wind up decorating a garden somewhere or, gods forbid, a bordello, where no one would ever talk to her, for who could imagine a statue would listen? At least here she had companionship of a sort. *You can call me Zairbhreena,* she decided. *I will be happy to be your friend. What is your name?*
*Name?* the dragon said. Obviously, it did not understand.
*I will call you dragon,* she said. The sun slipped behind the mountains and the princess realized she was very tired, a mental exhaustion more than a physical one. *Will you put me to bed, dragon?*
The dragon scrabbled out a nest for itself on the heap on coins and snuggled within it like a cat. He cradled Zairbhreena in his arms as if she was a favorite toy, warming her with his breath. And she slept like that, held warm and secure, and it was the first time in many long months that she knew ease of mind.
Over the next six months a warm relationship developed between the princess and the dragon. Unlike his former companions she did not need to eat or drink, and she was immune to the rougher effects of his handling, such as nicks from his talons or the sharp edges of his scales. She was always available for conversation. She did not move about, making it easy for him to find her if he lost her. In return for her companionship he draped her with ropes of gems, crowns stacked one over the other, and heaps of fresh flowers, festooning her until only her head peeped out from all the finery.
He took her with him when he went flying. Secure within the grip of his talons, she saw all the lands from the edges of the desert to the green jungles to the east. They followed the chain of mountains until the air thinned and the dragon could fly no further, though Zairbhreena, not needing to breathe, could have followed it forever into the land of ice and snow; and they flew far to the west, over the dry sea to the kingdoms she had known. From there they turned to the southwest, where there were more barrens and plains, and beyond them she saw at last the blue glimmer of the sea, which seemed to stretch into eternity.
He took her with him when he made his kills. Most of the time it was wild goats or desert antelope. She told him not to eat men. Sometimes he listened.
He always flew during the day, nesting at night. Without the sun he powerless, he said.
They made many raids on merchant caravans. A scream from heaven, a flash of brass claws; that's all they ever saw, before they scattered on their camels. If they looked back, they might have seen the dragon alight clutching the slim figure of a nude maiden carved of stone, which it carefully set it on the ground before digging into its booty. But no one ever did.
The princess enjoyed the change in her life, for the dragon spared no thought for her comfort. She had every kind of treasure she could think of and even mobility of a sort; when she grew bored he told her tales of the old world where djinn and efreet held sway over the world of men, and if she wanted to hear the talk of her own kind he took her to places where nomads came and went, hiding her so she could watch them go about their play and work.
More and more treasure accumulated in the cave. The princess thought nothing of this robbery, and she never thought of Prince Lassok. He was a dream, a relic of a discarded life. In this life, she was a dragon's consort, and she enjoyed it thoroughly.
One day, supposing she was lonely, the dragon brought her a companion, a shepherd lad who shrieked loudly on being dropped into the dragon's cave. He cowered in a corner, his arms over his head, supposing he would summarily be eaten.
*Take him back,* she said.
*But why?* the dragon said. *Aren't you lonely?*
*He looks at me, and he sees only a statue,* the princess said. *He can't hear me when I speak. He won't be happy here, and he will only injure himself. Take him, back dragon. He doesn't belong here.*
*As you wish,* the dragon said, picking up the screaming youth by the seat of his pants. He flew him back to village, dropping him in some gorse bushes by the edge of town, and flew back to the cave. The youth staggered back to his family, where he blurted out the tale of what had happened to him, and two days later, that tale reached the ears of Prince Lassok.
The prince and his men had been searching the mountains for the greater part of a year, asking every nomad, shepherd, or trader they came across if they knew of a cat-dragon the color of brass. But in all cases the answer was no, and not a few looked at him strangely, as if he suffered from strong drink.
Then one day, as they watered their beasts, they heard a trader mention the shepherd's son and the narrow escape he had. The prince set off for the village to see if this was so.
"Ah, the dragon," the headman said. "He lives on that high peak yonder, and has vexed us by carrying off many of our sheep and goats for food. He takes young maidens as well, for like all dragons he hoards that which is precious and beautiful."
The prince looked around the village square. His immediate thought was that the headman was wrong, for he had never seen such a bunch of dirty, ill-kempt, sullen girls. Their teeth were chipped or missing and not a few had twisted limbs.
"As you see," the headman said, "we've had to take certain measures with our girls to make them less of a temptation. It seems to have worked, for the dragon has not carried off any lately. But he did carry off Abrimel the shepherd's son, who, amazingly, lived to tell the tale, though how the dragon mistook him for a beautiful young maiden is beyond me."
"I would speak to the youth," the prince said grimly. "I have an argument with this dragon."
The headman gave him a hard look through his spectacles. He was of a different race than prince's people, small and brown and round, like a nut, with glittering black eyes like raisins. He scratched his scalp through his turban. "Many people have an argument with the dragon," he said carefully. "If they are wise, they keep their grievances to themselves."
"I am not one to simmer in silence," the prince said with determination. "Now I would question the boy."
The headman clucked his tongue and led him to the shepherd's hut. The kidnapee was propped up on a featherbed with his arm in a sling, fussed over by the woman of the family who were pressing teas and possets on him. Aside from his bandaged arm and a few scratches on his face he looked no worse for the ordeal. "I heard a dragon carried you off," the prince said. "Your story is of interest to me, as the same creature also carried off someone I knew."
"That is true," the youth said vehement shake of his head. "I can prove it!" He opened his hand to reveal a shiny gold coin, the like of which had not been minted for centuries. "There were hundreds, thousands more of these in the dragon's cave, and other treasure besides."
The prince breathed deeply. "While you were in there, did you see a statue, perhaps? Of a beautiful maiden carved from gold marble?"
"Yes, sir, I did. It was lying at the very top of his heap, as if the foul beast wished it a place of honor. I only got to look on it briefly before the dragon picked me up again and carried me back. I suppose he changed his mind about eating me, for I am a scrawny sort of fellow. Is this statue yours? Do you intend to take it back?"
"Yes, and yes," the prince said. "Thank you, you've been a great help." Outside the crude hut he conferred with his men, those who had followed him loyally for the past nine months. "It's time to plan our battle," he said. "For a beast of this size, a frontal assault is best. Allidesh, you're the strongest, so you should wield a spear. Sabbin, Wasmin, I want you to flank the beast, so--"
The prince stopped speaking when he realized his men were staring strangely at him. "What is it?" he said impatiently.
"My Prince," said the captain, "For nine months we have selflessly served you, fighting lions and bandits on your behalf, through empty dunes and treacherous badlands; this we have done out of loyalty. But to fight a dragon? My Prince, do you realize the size and power of such a creature? Do you not know they are invincible, that to challenge them is surely death?"
They argued, though that was too crude a word for the heated yet respectful discussion they had. His men would not follow him to the death after all. In his own kingdom, with its known perils, it would have been different. He could strip them of their titles, but as an exile he no means to control them, for they could simply abandon him to find other employment. And this they did.
But the prince was determined to go on alone. He made inquiries in the village about the dragon's habits and flight patterns, then began to make himself a suit of armor from the hide of a cow. He intended to soak it with water before beginning the fight, rendering himself immune, he hoped, from the creature's fire.
He hadn't gotten very far when a group of elders from the village came to see him. They had with them a shiny lozenge-shaped shield and a large sword whose pommel glittered with gems. "We heard you were to fight the dragon, Prince Lassok," the headman said. "Therefore we gift you with this sword and shield. Many years a great warrior spent his final days in this village and bequeathed them to us. We feel you can put them to good use."
The prince was quite touched by the gist. "You have my deepest thanks," he said, and proceeded to practice with the weapons for the rest of the afternoon. Though larger than his own weapon the sword felt much lighter, and its blade was sharper as well, slicing through the thick trunk of a cactus tree as if it had been made out of aspic. He wondered what sorcery had been involved in its making.
As he practiced he felt someone watching his back. Turning, he saw it was Abrimel the shepherd's son. The youth was smothering some amusement in his tunic sleeve, his motley flock behind him.
"Why do you laugh?" the prince said sharply.
"Because they gave you that sword and shield, yet expect you to fail," Abrimel said. "The weapons are marvelous, true; yet the warrior must be even more so, and skilled with his brains besides. No one has even come close to slaying the dragon. The elders expect you to die too, so they can pick the gems off your corpse."
"So they would have the dragon do the murder they cannot," the prince said. He put the sword down. "Well then. What shall I do? Sneak into the dragon's cave like a rat, perhaps, and steal my love away?"
"You are in love with this statue?" the youth said in surprise.
"She is not a statue but a princess, who was put under a spell by a sorceress. If I should but...kiss...her the enchantment would be broken." The prince told him his story.
Abrimel grinned at him when he had done. "You spin a good yarn, prince,
and for that reason I'll help you. Listen well, for we haven't much time."