(Continued from Part V)

Contrary to the confident assertions of ignorant men deep in their dregs, the skull plate is not the only place dragons are vulnerable. While the overlapping scales of their backs are able to prevent wounds from any weapon short of a ballista, like any other animal they have various creases and openings that can be damaged by weapons, especially dragon-bone stilettos. Cutter used his to saw at the sphincter muscle that held Moira’s cloaca tightly shut. Once it had released her excretion into the water, he reached inside the vent, hoping that she was mature enough to have eggs and that they could be recovered.

He felt a number of likely lumps; they were shielded by a membrane that he could not dislodge with his fingers. He sliced at it with his skinning blade – the stiletto was too long for that type of work – and was thereafter able to dislodge some of the eggs. A few had been damaged by the smaller knife and leaked a greenish yolk through their leathery shells.  But he managed to salvage 13 undamaged eggs and placed them into his satchel.  He took the last in case something happened to one on his return trip, hoping at the same time that the thirteenth would not bring him ill fortune.

Cutter was now more frightened of the fighting fish than of anything else.  The water behind him churned with them, and more seemed to be attracted each minute by the dark blood still dripping from Moira’s nose and vent.  He could feel them now inside his trousers, sawing at his legs and snapping bits of skin from the small of his back. Cutter was sure that some of the blood in the water was his, though he did not know how much.  He did know that unless he left the stream soon, he might not escape it at all.

Despite his desire to harvest more dragon flesh than just the eggs, Cutter retreated to the shore. His trousers were but hanging rags, revealing legs that shone with blood and river slime in the failing light.  Drawing another pair from his knapsack, he pulled them on and pressed them hard against his shredded skin, hoping the material would help his blood coagulate before he lost much more.  He knew they would be excruciating to remove in the morning, but considering that the alternative was a tourniquet, that pain was a choice he could live with.

He gathered a few handfuls of the ubiquitous swamp moss that hung about his head and dipped them in the river.  Then he packed moss around each egg in his goat-stomach satchel to keep them moist for the return trip.  Finally, his adrenaline wore off and he lay down, shivering. Cutter quickly fell asleep beside the river, enjoying the sounds of Moira being devoured a few feet away.

The sun shone high over the river when Cutter awoke. He checked his satchel, felt his legs, then looked toward the water to see what, if anything, the fighting fish had left of Moira.  Cutter slid atop the log into the river, searching intently for any evidence that the fighting fish remained in the area. He found none. He fished her skull out of the water, along with some of the hard scales of her back. Even the fighting fish could not eat those, though they had eaten all of the skin and cartilage that had held the dragon together.

Cutter had not brought along tools to dislodge the teeth or to remove the horns, so he set the skull aside. He climbed into the water, digging through the muck with his hands to salvage as many of the small bones as he could, tossing them onto the shore. The fish had done their work: if they had not eaten the entire dragon they had surely scattered her.

Not counting the long bones that he had no intention of carrying for the week’s trip home, his take amounted to four claws, a handful of toe bones and knuckles, and a small golden charm, shaped like a gambler’s die, with inscriptions on each of its six sides. It hung heavily from a golden chain. Cutter did not know if the die had been in the dragon or merely in the river, but no matter. Jewelry always had a use; this one would also come with a story. He looked forward to seeing it around the neck of his beautiful daughter, her face restored.

His week’s travel home was relaxed and uneventful.

As Cutter emerged from the slough and began his ascent to the forest, he felt fully blessed for the first time in his long life. Immediately upon his arrival home, he tied the green roll to the pigeon’s ankle and freed the bird. It departed its cage without a sound, rising toward the east and disappearing quickly in the darkening sky. Cutter gave the charm to Moragan, who seemed as happy to see it as to see him, and lay down in his bed. He had won.

The Red Brother arrived early the next morning, even before Moragan had risen, with his soldier in tow. He looked as if he had traveled all night, perhaps leaving as soon as his pigeon had arrived with the good news.  Cutter counted over the eggs, thirteen of them in all, which the Red Brother placed one by one into a decorated strong box. The soldier placed the box and the empty cage on their flat, two-wheeled cart. Then he returned to the Red Brother’s side.

“I want you to fix her face now, before she awakens,” Cutter told the Red Brother. The magic should not be that difficult, he thought, and it would make a capital surprise for his daughter when she awoke.

“About that, yes…” began the wizard. “I have changed the terms of our bargain.  I shall not dissipate my powers upon your troll of a daughter. Therefore, here is your promised pay: three times the daily wage for a man of your station, multiplied by number of days you served.” He produced a small cloth bag from the folds of his robe and tossed it coolly on the ground near Cutter’s feet. Then he turned to leave.

“You crimson-headed bastard,” Cutter yelled, reaching for his stiletto. His fingers closed upon air as he realized the knife still hung near his bedside. The soldier was faster anyway, as he had apparently expected such a response. His sword sprung into his hand and the point of the blade immediately found the underside of Cutter’s chin. “If you lose your courtesy,” the man growled, “you lose your life.”

The Red Brother laughed as he climbed aboard his cart, crimson-armored soldier in tow. The sounds of their horse cantered off into the distance. As they grew softer, Cutter heard them overtaken by the sound of Moragan’s weeping.

(Continued in Part VII)