"We're going dragon hunting." Axon flopped down the poorly-folded paper and moved from the kitchen table, frowning as he leaned on his cane.
"They've found one?" Trell's spoon hovered over his mint pudding.
"Prepare the air machine," said Axon. A black-clad man in a military pose saluted, turned, and left.
Of course; Trell swallowed his disappointment. Axon wouldn't be addressing him.
Then Trell caught sight of the paper, lying there like a gift. At least, he wouldn't be talking just to me. He grabbed the paper and started reading.
Printed on the yellowish paper, the grainy shot of large animal excrement looked obscene, like a prank from school, not something adults would publish.
GAME PRESERVE REPORTS DRAGON
Authorities at Unalee Game Preserve report finding signs of dragon activity, including dragon scat, trees with rubbed bark, and partially-eaten carcasses.
"It looks like we might have a dragon," said Salaman Keyes, head game keeper. He suspects it is a young male dragon, since they are more likely to roam. The height of the tree rubbings match statistics for a young male.
Officials closed the park temporarily to give the alleged dragon time to settle in.
"This is very exciting for us. We thought they were extinct on the plains. We're doing everything we can to encourage it to stay. This could be the beginning of a whole colony."
Officials are releasing cattle into the park to give the dragon easy prey.
Soldiers are temporarily augmenting the park's security staff to ensure the dragon's safety.
Dragons were hunted nearly to extinction earlier this century for their blood, which holds medically useful properties. Dragons were not thought to remain in the wild in our country, and the last one in captivity, Big George, died six years ago.
Trell put down the paper. So. A dragon, huh? Well, his brother was more important than some teenage dragon.
He found Axon in the sepulchral library, making a voicer call. "—something to keep them busy." Pause. "Yeah. That sounds good."
Axon's gaze rose to Trell's. He slammed the mouth piece down and glared. "What?"
"I—I'm good at shooting, Axon." Inwardly, he grimaced. Wrong approach.
Axon grunted, turning back to his voicer. Trell slid away.
He saw Axon later, leaning on his cane, grim-lipped and surrounded by the men who looked like soldiers. But he left too quickly for Trell to talk to him.
He left his report cards around—Swordsmanship by the voicer, Marksmanship beside Axon's dinner plate. He waited for the response—a servant telling him to pack, a summons to see Axon himself. Axon wouldn't want to make a big deal out of it; he was undemonstrative at best. His admission that Trell was growing up—perhaps could even be let in on the family business—would be brief, brusque.
The day passed without it, and Trell fell asleep waiting.
The next day, Trell's campaign increased by desperation to a direct question.
Flanked by his men, Axon moved with hunched, hurting steps towards the air machine. He scowled. But then, he always did when he had to show weakness.
"Axon." Trell stepped in front of him.
Hard, coal-colored eyes trained on him, fury-filled.
Trell blinked. "L-let me come, Axon."
Axon's cold gaze focused on Trell. Not one of the bodyguards would have dared interrupt him like this.
"I can help. I want to help."
Axon's gaze seemed to measure him. And Axon gave an infinitesimal nod.
Yes! Trell quelled his grin. Axon never seemed to approve of smiling, as though other people's happiness made his misery more acute.
Did Axon envy his brother's youth, the relative freedom of school and vacation time, the mobility of working legs? Well, it would be hard not to. But Trell would have shared if he could have.
When Axon was Trell's age, their parents had died in the accident that caused Axon's leg injuries. It had thrust him into early adulthood, taking over the family business. Compared to Axon, Trell had suffered nothing, just going to boarding school rather young, and only seeing his brother on vacations.
Trell often heard murmured conferences in the library, people coming and going, keeping Axon awake. Axon's face looked tired in the mornings, but somehow strong, too. He wouldn't settle into a wheeled chair to avoid pain. Even in the mansion, he walked. Now, with dragon's blood for medicine, maybe he could walk pain-free.
Trell couldn't wait until he was old enough to share the burden, take some of the pressure off his brother's shoulders.
"You don't have time to pack." Axon frowned, as if begrudging his decision.
"That's all right. I packed—just in case." He ran back for the sack, feeling lanky but powerful, hoping he would not trip under his brother's gaze. Then he wondered if he should have walked, if his speed and ease upset Axon. He saw his brother so rarely, he could not really gauge Axon's feelings.
Maybe this trip will change all that. He grabbed his bag.
The air machine's blades whirred over the city, high because of the smoke from burning buildings. Trell pressed his nose to the glass, trying to see better.
"Knock it off," growled Axon.
Trell sat back. "But what's going on?"
"City's burning. Gang violence." It was a long explanation, from Axon.
Axon glared at him.
Trell shut up.
He had always thought his brother had contracts with the government—all those secret meetings—and he wondered that Axon could leave with trouble below. But maybe the regular soldiers had it under control, and the government didn't need Axon right now.
Towns petered into farms, which stretched into wilderness.
At the park's entrance, they landed in a whir of blades and dust. A man in a uniform ran out to meet them, waving his arms. He wore a green uniform with brown braid.
"Stop. You can't land here!" The man cupped his hands, shouted over the whirring blades.
Axon gestured to his men. Two hopped out and grabbed the guard, yanked him into a nearby building—more a hut really. The grass roof surprised Trell, and the fact that it was only one story tall. He'd thought the park could afford better.
Someone should have told that guy we were coming. Axon's men shouldn't have been so rough, but after all that Axon did for the government, they shouldn't begrudge him a bit of dragon's blood. The soldiers the newspaper had mentioned weren't here, so they must have already known.
Trell slipped out the machine's open door to escape the loud chattering its blades made.
Axon climbed down with help he obviously resented.
Trell didn't try to get involved. He walked in the dust, kicking his feet in the low, prickly weeds. The flat land collected sun, threw heat back up at his face. He looked around at a few trees, a half-broken fence repaired with a shovel handle, and the stretched-out green-and-brownness of the plain. It was a new world where anything seemed possible. Although he didn't see a dragon, just knowing it was out there made his senses feel alive, tingling with the thought of the hunt.
Perhaps the pressures would fall away from Axon. Out here in the flatlands, around a fire, their age difference wouldn't matter. They could become like other brothers, brothers who teased each other, and used nicknames. He could ask what their parents had been like, and maybe Axon would actually remember.
Trell glanced back at the group. The guards stood talking to Axon, without the game warden. They must have explained things, and left him to stew in the hut.
Trell came back as the blade noise died away. He trailed a stickweed on the ground, drawing a long line in the dirt.
Axon's gaze flicked to Trell. He broke off the conversation. "All right, men. Let's move out." He jerked his head to Trell, who fell in line behind him.
They broke into parties. Trell eyed the weapons the men shared out. Some were tranquilizer guns, the rest, old-fashioned, one-shot harpoons. Axon saw him looking, and nodded to the men. They gave him a harpoon gun half his height. "Don't use that unless you have to. We want to leave it alive," instructed Axon.
Most of the men headed off in parties either right or left. Trell stayed by his brother and the last two guards.
Their shadows stretched shorter, then longer. Axon stopped to rest every few minutes. Tight lines decorated his mouth.
"Let's stop and make a fire," Trell suggested.
Axon gave a tight nod.
Trell had excelled at wilderness studies. He heaped dry grasses and sticks in a pyramid, cleared space around it. His hands shook, taking the matches from his sack under Axon's blank gaze. His brother sagged, not even leaning on his stick.
Trell somehow felt if he could just get the fire started, he would be able to help Ax.
The men produced food packs from their sacks and opened them, acting like the fire didn't matter at all.
Flame crackled. "There we go," Trell announced, too loud.
Axon looked up as though just waking, blinked at Trell. He scowled, croaked, "Did you make that near the brush?"
"No—I was careful. See? I left plenty of space." Trell jumped up, moving his shoe back and forth in the dust.
Axon grunted and turned away, his shoulders hunched.
Trell stood staring down at his brother. Axon looked smaller and weaker than usual. Trell felt a cold ache below his breastbone.
Tomorrow, he would find the dragon. He would fix things for his brother.
He woke stiff from the ground. Watery sunlight leaked over the horizon. Mindful of his brother's rest, Trell rose quietly, checked the fire, and looked out over the landscape.
He felt it burning into his brain, a place he would never forget. His chest seemed to itch on the inside. He wanted to fling himself at the landscape, run until he reached the horizon.
He scratched a message in the dirt for Axon, promising to be back by noon and pointing an arrow the way he'd gone. He shouldered his rifle and left.
The sun greeted him like a friend. He grew less chilly and his smile brightened as the sun rose further. He'd have joined the birds in singing, if he hadn't been afraid he'd alert the dragon.
He neared a grove of trees, and crouched. He imagined the dragon, as cheerful this morning as he, rubbing a tree or looking for breakfast, snorting at birds while the grass tickling its underside. He pictured its long, pink tongue flicking out, its eyes almost like Ax's, strong but tireless.
Trell pictured himself and the dragon locked in an immortal struggle. The dragon was his worthy opponent, and he would slay it for his brother. Or at least borrow some of its blood. It would be a fair fight.
Dry weeds rustled heavily among the trees. He crouched lower, grinning, and unslung his gun. Weeds prickled and itched against his knees. He trained his eyes on the grove.
A glimpse of black and white made his heart stutter. Just how big did dragons get? As big as him? Bigger? He remembered reading they could run down bull elephants.
The animal moved, revealing—
Cattle horns, and long legs. Trell sank back into the brush.
Wait. He dimly recalled zoology class. Weren't dragons supposed to like rotting meat? Maybe it could be bait. Yeah; Ax had said not to kill it. He'd shoot the cow, then fetch the others and they would lie in wait.
He wet and lifted a finger to test the breeze, eased down to the sights. Feeling like a great, silent hunter, he lowered his finger and pushed the safety off. The cow's ears flicked in his direction. It whirled and galloped with enough noise for ten cows.
I can't even kill a cow! Sweat broke out on his forehead.
"Trell!" Axon's voice, in an agonized scream. Trell whirled, raising his gun in surprise at having Axon there—and at hearing him afraid.
A dragon crouched ten feet from Trell. Red eyes glinted, trained not on the departed cow but on him. Sunlight gleamed reddish on its green scales. It seemed to have paused at Ax's shout, but now it surged forward, all in one smooth, rushing movement, too fast to seem real.
Trell rejoiced in it, was transfixed by it and terrified of it, all mixed together into one feeling—one feeling that kept him from raising his gun.
The sun glinted on the scales—
The smooth power of its muscles—
Thwack. A harpoon struck its leg.
The dragon roared with a sound like cracking rock. It whirled to bite the harpoon stuck in its flank.
Trell shook his head to clear it. The dragon's attention snapped back to him. Its eyes narrowed.
"Shoot it, you idiot!" Axon shouted, waving his now-empty gun.
The dragon erupted towards Trell.
Everything converged in the moment. The dragon plunged towards him. Ax shouted. Trell's finger tightened on the trigger.
The harpoon flew true, clefting into the head. His aim had been better than Axon's.
The dragon thumped forward, writhed with a high, awful cry. Twitched, clawed, and lay as big as a dead cow. Trell stared at it with a strange, hurting buzz in his head.
The dragon lay still. Axon stood behind it, staring. The sun shone on its dead body. Wind whipped the grass around them. Trell knew he would never forget the scene.
Axon hobbled up, leaning on his empty gun. His eyes locked on Trell. "You idiot, you could have died!"
Trell caught sight of his brother's face, paler than he'd ever seen it. "You saved my life, Ax."
Axon turned back to the dragon. "Don't be ridiculous." He still looked shaken.
The guards arrived; they must have split up to look for him, and come at the sound of shots. Axon whirled on them. "You idiots! Where were you?"
Trell felt enclosed in a curious silence. He squatted by the dragon, wanting and not wanting to touch it. He forced himself to reach out. Its warm, tight shoulder showed how strong it had been. The baby scales near the snout felt soft, smooth.
Its eyes already looked different, as if the life had seeped out of them. He'd had to kill it. But it had been so alive. He tried to catch its eye, apologize somehow. But it was already beyond him, the red of its eye turned glassy and lifeless in the bronze light.
Tears gathered in his own eyes. He looked up and saw his brother limping back towards him. Saw the guards weren't really at all like soldiers.
Two of them stood by the dragon now, one bending, trying to catch its dripping blood in a glass jar, another leaning over the dragon, wrapping his hand with a rag.
The rag was made of green cloth with brown braid. It was bloody even though it hadn't touched the dragon yet. With it, the man pulled Axon's harpoon from the dragon's leg.
Trell remembered the conferences, the snatch of voicer communication he'd overheard—something about keeping someone busy. Burning the city would have kept the soldiers busy—lured them away from guarding the dragon.
Only one man had remained as guard. Trell focused on the bloody, ripped shirt, and his vision blurred.
He stood to meet his brother.
Axon sent his men away with an irritated gesture and stared at Trell. "What? You're hurt?" he rasped, his face tight.
Trell faced him. Seeing his brother for the first time. Seeing what he hadn't let himself notice before. He spoke with an ache in his voice. "We're gangsters, aren't we, Ax?"
His brother stared at him, his lips tight and colorless. "Yes."
Trell had gotten his wish. His brother finally noticed him, saw him as more than a child, saw him for who he was. But Trell also saw who his brother was.
The dragon's blood seeped into the ground between them. They stared at each other over the dragon.
We're strangers, aren't we, Ax?
A rumble filled the plain. For a moment, Trell thought the dragon had come back to life and started growling.
Black air machines chattered their blades overhead. Axon's distraction in town hadn't worked. Not for long enough.
Axon whirled to look at them, this way and that, panic crossing his face.
Trell swallowed. "I killed it. It was coming after me. We'll tell them I—had to kill it."
Axon turned back to him, eyes burning with dark humor. "And tell them we just happened to be here?" He snorted. "No, Trell, this is my fault." He leaned heavily on his gun, his hair whipped by the artificial wind.
He had to shout to be heard over the landing machines. "Maybe you can carry on the family name better than I did. Even better than our parents did." He laid a hand briefly on Trell's shoulder, then turned to face his fate.
Soldiers disembarked, armed and running towards them.
Trell didn't know what would happen, to Axon or to him.
He looked back at the poor, dead dragon. He was crying again, for his brother, himself, and the dragon—for all of them. But mostly because the dragon had died for nothing. Whatever they did to Axon, he knew they would never let him use the dragon's blood to fix his pain.
Trell swiped at his eyes and moved to stand by his brother's side. He stood as tall as he could.
© 2008 by Alice M. Roelke
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Alice M. Roelke has been previously published in Young Salvationist, Ray Gun Revival, GateWay SF, Tower of Light Fantasy, Wayfarer's Journal, and Haruah: Breath of Heaven. She currently volunteers as a slush reader at Ray Gun Revival. For more, visit her website.
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