It was almost five hours past noon when the fat merchant finally emerged back from the inner city’s gates. He was tired, and breathing heavily in the hot summer air as he pushed his way through the crowd of peasants, and their cows. He rested for a mere moment just outside of the second gate, but continued moving as soon as he realised the time, for he knew that there was a very nervous man waiting for him in the small forest located some distance from the crowded city gates. Of course, it was even later when he finally reached a small stream of water and a horse tied by it. The man was waiting a few meters to the left, in the shadow of a dark, evergreen tree.
‘If I had known’, he said in a low, angry voice, ‘that it would take you more than seven hours to go and get back from there, I would have gone to the city myself.’
‘As if you could’, the merchant answered nervously, wiping away the sweat from his wide brow. ‘We both know that if you ever tried such a thing again, you would be arrested at the mere sight of the city gates. And that is why, in the end, you needed my help.’
The man was silent for a moment. Then, he spoke again, his voice hoarse. ‘Did you at least get it?’, he said, for there was nothing else to be said in the face of the truth.
‘Of course’, the merchant sighed with relief. ‘But, you know, you might’ve as well left it in the bloody lizard’s veins. It was that hard to get it.’
‘For you perhaps’, the man chuckled. ‘Because, I am quite sure I haven’t left it in the ‘bloody lizard’s veins’, but in the small, silver bottle that you are to give me now,’ he orders, holding out his hand. The merchant shivers as he takes the bottle out of his pouch, and giving it to the dark man.
‘Why do you need it anyway?’, he asks, his curiosity getting the better of him. ‘The dragon’s blood?’
‘A friend was hurt’, the man said, untying his horse.
The man rode slowly trough the waters of the creak, making sure his horse avoided the hidden stones, and over the tricky patch of land that followed on the other side of it, and it was because of that that the merchant was able to follow the high, powerful horse in his own pace.
‘You said a friend was hurt’, he asked after they spent almost an hour walking in silence. The path they walked now cleared up long ago, but the man still rode slowly, and the merchant followed some meters behind.
‘Yes’, the man answered quietly, for he did not want to break the silence.
‘I always thought you didn’t have any’, the merchant laughed drily as it got harder and harder to walk, for he wasn’t used to it, and the summer was hot, even in the afternoon and the forest shade.
The man noticed, yet didn’t stop just because of it. His answer was in return just as dry as the merchant’s laugh. ‘That would be’, he said, looking into the distance, ‘because I have only one, and have made him while I was… away.’ He laughs softly at that, but the merchant frowns. ‘So you were indeed banished’, he says worried. ‘Indeed I was’, the man answers bitterly, with a sour smile on his lips as he remembers. Then, suddenly, he starts humming, muttering under his breath the words of an old song from a place he was once born. ‘..to the darkest place known to this earth, over the border, then far away, to the lands of monsters, where there are no men…’
The merchant shivers again, as he often did in the presence of the dark men, saying quietly to himself: ‘And yet, here you are again’. A small smile appears on his lips after it, for he was, in the end, somewhat amused by this fact. ‘And I am so very sure that the king will soon regret all of those wasted efforts…’, he chuckles quietly under his breath. The man said nothing.
They walked through the complete darkness. The man showed no signs of fatigue, or a willingness to rest, even though the Sun has sat almost two hours ago. The merchant was far behind them now, for he had fallen again, for the tenth time during the last hour. The man paid no attention to him, or his troubles. The merchant was sure that he could see just right, even in the dark like this, and even if he couldn’t, he could always rely on his horse’s long legs and good instinct to save him from the branches and patches of mud. Unfortunately, the merchant had neither of those. He stumbled and fell down, just to stumble and fall again after he finally got up. Tired more than before and cold, for the temperature had suddenly fell, he was also covered equally with bruises and dirt, and was really wandering why he had ever agree to help this man.
‘How much longer?’, he asked desperately, still gasping for breath, just as he did before.
‘Not long.’, the man answered. ‘Just over those hills over there.’ The merchant looked up from the ground he was walking, almost tripping on a branch as he did so, and indeed, he saw hills bathing in the moonlight, for they have finally reached the end of the forest.
‘Shouldn’t you hurry?’, he asked, looking at the man’s solemn face. He could not run, not any more, if he ever could, for he was barely standing now, after the hours of walking and wrestling with the traps the man had placed around the single drop of dragon’s blood, which rested in that small, silver bottle. However, the horse was more than rested, and could carry him there in the matter of minutes. But, the man answered: ‘No’, he said, ‘for I have left him in such state that the time I spend getting there makes no difference anymore. He is either still alive, and able to hold on to that life for hours more, or he has already died.’
‘Where is he?’, the merchant asked, confused by what he was seeing. It took them more than a half of an hour to reach the other side of the hills because of his wary legs. As they walked through the silent valley, followed by nothing the chilly wind and the pale Moon, he curiously wandered what kind of person could ever befriend a man such as the one raiding before him. He immediately thought of others like him, those sentenced to the same fate-to live alone forever in those barren lands. But then he had remembered a time of long ago, when the man before him was a soldier, and also hated, much more by those who were like him than by any other. And because of that he changed his mind, thinking that this time situation must be no different. However, after that, his mind failed to provide him with any other man, for who else could live there, in the lands of dragons, but those sentenced to that? Thus, he was left with nothing as an answer to his question, which was also, for some reason, exactly what he was seeing right now. There was no fire to keep the wounded man warm, or at least camp to protect him from the cold, if the fire could have been built in the morning. He saw only the high hollow grass, and nothing more.
Then the man drew his attention to one particular corner of the hills’ shadow, by saying one simple word: ‘Here.’ And then he held out his hands to touch what the merchant suddenly saw as the tick lines of huge green scales that glimmered in the moonlight as the giant dragon moved.
‘That is your friend?!’, after a long day of trying to catch his breath again, the merchant finally lost it. ‘Yes’, the man answered quietly, paying no attention to the merchant panicked voice or act. He knelt down by the giant’s side, searching carefully with his hand for all the wounds that the soldiers’ arrows left on the soft spots on the dragon’s belly and unprotected wings.
‘That is a dragon!’, the merchant was still yelling. ‘A bloody dragon! Look how big it is! It’s a bloody monster! Monster! A flying lizard! Who’s blood you are still carrying in your pocket! Why in the world did I have to go and risk my head to get a mere drop of it, when there are liters and liters of it sitting right in front of you?!’ The man just laughed at all of this, for he could swear he saw the dragon roll his eyes, despite all the pain and blood loss he has suffered.
‘You had to go’, the then said, his face solemn again, as the hand he had withdrawn from the dragon’s body was tainted by the still hot blood, ‘because I need another dragon’s blood, even if it is just a drop of it, to do what must be done.’
‘What must be done?’, the merchant asked, still confused by the dragon, and angry because he was surprised, with a more than just a bit of cold fear running through his veins, and thus losing the track of his thoughts easily.
‘Yes.’, the man answered again patiently. He stood up, taking the bottle into his hand, and then pressing it again to the dragon’s scales. ‘As I already said, he is my friend. And I need another dragon’s blood, even if it is just a drop of it, to save him.’
‘You are going to save him?’, the merchant blinked, his anger calming down as the confusion went away. ‘How?’, he asked.
‘There is a spell’, the man said, gritting his teeth. ‘You should close your eyes now’, he added just before something from his hand suddenly turned a cold night into bright day.
‘Are you alright now?’, the man asked as the dragon got up, starching his wings, and blocking the sky.
‘Yes.’, the dragon answered. ‘Thank you,…’
‘You’re welcome.’, the man whispered, leaning his head on the giant dragon’s leg. As he sighed with relief, tiredness finally washed over him. Suddenly, he could barely stand. The dragon lowered his head, nuzzling the man’s back with a nose bigger then himself. While he did that he also took a closer look at the still dumbfounded merchant.
’And say thank you to your panicked friend over there, if he has calmed down enough to understand something as simple as the words of thanks’, the dragon said in order to make the man move again.
It worked. ’He says thank you’, the man once again turned towards the merchant, who looked at him blankly for a second, before he bursted into laughter. ’Are you serious?’, he somehow managed to say between the laughs. ’Yes.’, the man answered honestly while raising his brow. ’Quite serious, actually.’
The merchant stopped laughing. ’Then, you are very welcomed.’, he said, bowing his head to ’the giant lizard.’ This time the dragon laughed, and his laughter shook the hills.
’Here.’, the man said, giving him the reins of his horse. ’Your payment, as I promised.’ The merchant took in his hand what once used to be the fastest way to get from one corner of the land to another, and then continued to watch solemnly as the man climbed onto the dragon’s back. As he watched the dragon fly, there were two thoughts colliding in his head.
’No wonder I couldn’t think of that.’, he said, amused, as he thought to himself: ’Oh, yes, the king will regret every last steep he has ever made.’