Marcin lay on his back in the tall blood-soaked grass, staring up at the sky. A lifetime of service to his king, and this was how it ended. A part of him had always known that sooner or later his life would end the same way he’d ended so many others.
Death was imminent. There was nothing to do but wait. Thankfully, no one was left to drag him back to Crenalin because the healers wouldn’t be able to save him. All they’d do was prolong his death, which meant more pain. He’d witnessed it happen too many times. It was a horrible way to die. Death on the battlefield was the best that a knight could hope for. And that was what he’d been granted. He was thankful Aliza wouldn’t have to watch him die.
While Marcin waited, he tried to focus on the peacefulness above instead of the pain. A sort of calmness existed in the clouds floating slowly by, occasionally shading him from the sun. He tried to remember what the sun felt like shining on him on a crisp spring morning, but all he felt was pain.
A dragon soared into view. It glided serenely in and out of the clouds, high in the sky, barely discernible. Spotting a dragon wasn’t unusual; they were often seen soaring about. What was unusual was talking to one. As far as he knew, no human had ever interacted with a dragon. They avoided humans like deer avoided wolves. As the beast soared overhead, Marcin reflected on the recent conversation he’d had with a dragon. That he could remember. Who could forget talking with a dragon?
His horse had almost thrown him when they’d rounded a bend and found the dragon blocking his path. It was just lying there, waiting. It was the closest he’d ever been to one. He’d spun his horse to flee, but the dragon spoke. It asked him to stop. So he did. Its deep, sonorous voice was calming. It wanted to know why he killed—why humans killed. The strangest part—stranger than a dragon talking to him; stranger even than the dragon knowing Marcin’s language—was that it admitted to watching Marcin. But what it never said was why. And then it left, leaving Marcin wondering what had just happened.
In the weeks since, Marcin had reflected on that strange meeting. What was the purpose of it? And why him? He was nobody. He’d never told Faran about it, and he never kept secrets from his king—he would never have become First Knight if he had. It didn’t matter now, though. If Faran wasn’t dead yet, he likely would be soon.
And Aliza… poor Aliza. He hoped she was safe. She didn’t deserve to die. He hated that he had brought her into the middle of a war, but their marriage had been vital to a treaty with her father. And it had worked: Varias had sent his knights to help defend Crenalin. But in the end, the treaty had come too late. Barely a week had expired, and Marcin was about to make her a widow. She should be back in her home, safe in her father’s castle. Instead, she was far from anyone she knew or loved, alone in an unfamiliar kingdom. When the enemy sacked Crenalin, she would be killed… or worse. And he wouldn’t be there to stop it, to protect her like he’d promised he would.
The dragon still circled. Strangely, instead of gliding out of his view, it remained overhead. The clouds changed as they drifted by, but the dragon remained stationary, high above. As Marcin watched the dragon, darkness slowly enveloped him. It started at the edges of his vision and moved inward. He’d lost consciousness before, so he knew what was happening—only this time, he wouldn’t wake. The end had come.
Before long, all Marcin could see was a small circle of sky at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Then, in the little window of blue that remained at the far end, the dragon tucked its wings and dove like a hawk diving for prey. The dragon grew in the tunnel until it was all Marcin could see.
He never imagined a dragon would be the last thing he saw when death took him.
But instead of death, he felt warmth—the warmth of the sun. It wasn’t the warmth of a crisp spring morning; this warmth permeated him throughout. It dulled—no, stopped the pain. Marcin’s vision returned. He felt as hale as he ever had. He would have stood and run to Crenalin, to Aliza, were it not for the dragon’s muzzle looming uncomfortably close, its breath incredibly hot.
“In exchange for life eternal,” the dragon boomed, “you will end the wars.”
Pain exploded in Marcin’s chest before he could ask the dragon what it meant.