by Lance Schonberg
A tiny echo of breath down one of the small ventilation tunnels pulled Kahruk from sleep. Keeping the cavern from becoming too stuffy in warmer months, the tunnels also had the disadvantage of being large enough to let in anything smaller than two cows walking abreast. But prey didn’t come to him very often so he kept his eyes closed, holding as still as possible. Something itched in the back of his skull.
Soft footsteps joined the breathing near the tunnel’s end. Only one set, but he wished his snack had waited another week.
Kahruk pried open one eye, watching through the tiniest slit he could manage. Something warm stepped into the cavern and took a few careful steps toward him, padding sounds absorbed by the gloom before reaching the dragon’s ears. Then it stopped and stood still for a dozen slow heartbeats before sitting down on the stub of a stalagmite and lowering something to the cavern floor.
Kahruk fought the urge to frown. Usually the only mortals foolish enough to approach so close were brainless young knights trying to make a name for themselves, brainless young thieves looking to get rich quickly, or on rare occasions, brainless young virgins demanding to be sacrificed for the good of their people. The virgins, at least, he was happy to oblige. The knights and thieves, well, he was happy to oblige them in the same way, if not quite how they hoped.
But no one had ever come to stare before. It was almost, well, rude.
Tiny air currents tickled his nostrils with the prey’s scent. Human and probably male. Lying on his side began to put a kink in Kahruk’s neck, so he stretched and rolled onto his stomach. The human’s jump of fright almost made the discomfort worthwhile and he stretched out one leg to try duplicating the reaction.
The third time he moved, the human didn’t jump. Instead, it surprised Kahruk by speaking. “You’re not really asleep, are you?”
He let first one eye and then the other open wide. The small warm body resolved into a more solid figure. “Er, no.” Kahruk raised his head several feet and tilted it to the left, stretching the right side of his neck. Several loud pops rewarded the effort. “What gave it away, if I might ask?” He repeated the action on the left.
The human sighed, slouching a little then straightening again. “You were moving around too much. Restless sleep isn’t unusual in humans but according to all the legends and songs that mention it, dragons sleep ‘a deep and motionless sleep.’ Too much uncontrolled thrashing around could bring the roof down or break a wing, I’d guess.”
He’d never really thought about it before. “Ah. True, I suppose. You see surprisingly well in the dark for a human.”
“I sat about half way up the tunnel for an hour or so to let my eyes adjust. It’s not quite completely dark in here.”
“Ah.” Kahruk arched his back and unfolded his wings. Several vertebrae ground together and the cracks echoed in the cavern. He didn’t feel quite comfortable talking to his food and had exhausted as much mental energy as he cared to for the moment. All things considered, he’d rather go back to sleep. “Well mortal, I suppose I’ll have to eat you now.”
“I’m not.” His snack shook its head.
The dragon blinked and cocked his head to one side. “What?”
“Mortal. I’m not mortal. I’m immortal.”
“Ah. Well, that doesn’t really–”
“And I’d rather you didn’t eat me. I came here to ask a favor of you.” It flinched as if expecting some expression of draconic rage.
Caught with his mouth open, Kahruk closed it again without finding a response. The little human didn’t strike him as a thief, or a knight, or a sacrificial virgin. He understood intellectually that there must be other kinds of humans, but he’d never encountered one at close range before and found himself at a loss for a new category. Each statement the man made seemed to push past the boundaries of Kahruk’s experience. “A favor? Well, um, I suppose I might hear you out as a sort of last request.”
“That’s good of you. Do you mind if I explain a little before I get to the favor itself?”
“Not at all.” Playing for time. Finally something Kahruk understood. Perhaps it would provide some amusement while giving him time to gather his thoughts.
Sighing, the human ran a hand through his short hair and scratched his nose. Kahruk settled back into the mound of coins and a few rolled almost to the prey’s boots. Surprisingly, it ignored the coins in favour of maintaining eye contact. “I don’t know how extensive your knowledge of humans is, but a very tiny number of us are naturally immortal. One out of every ten million births, or something like that. Most humans have no idea and I don’t know which of the myriad gods is responsible for the joke, but there are times I wish they hadn’t bothered. Immortality is dreadfully dull most of the time.” His own eyes now well awake and adjusted, Kahruk saw the human lift one side of his mouth, but couldn’t quite read it as a smile. “If I might ask, how old are you?”
Gold coins made a satisfying rustle under his chin as he pressed his jaw into the comfortable pile and tilted his ears forward. “Nearly fifteen hundred years have passed since my birth.”
The human nodded. “In your middle years then, assuming any accuracy at all in the legends. Would you believe I’m nearly twice your age?”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
“Two thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, give or take. Every time someone changes the calendar I think I lose a few months. I’ve seen empires rise and fall and new ones crawl from the ashes.” He waved an arm in a wide arc and grinned. “Sorry for the cliché. Getting back to the point, people who live forever eventually run into each other. And we congregate, at least a little. Who else do we really have anything in common with? Boredom loves company.”
Something felt wrong with that statement, but the human didn’t pause long enough for Kahruk to consider what or why.
“Six of us agreed to a decade-long scavenger hunt to amuse ourselves. We each have to find one hundred rare items, or as many as we can, and meet on a certain date to determine the winner. Everyone has a different list and every item on those lists was randomly chosen by lot from a larger list we all helped compile. I have one item left and thirty-two days to return to Shandrahar with it.”
Eyes narrow, a low growl rumbled deep Kahruk’s throat. “I do not think I like where this is going.” He snaked out five feet of forked tongue, tasting the air near his prey.
The human looked around the dim cavern, probably for something large and very, very strong to hide behind, but his eyes came back to Kahruk. “A hair from one of your ear tufts.”
Anger burned through Kahruk’s veins and he reared up on his hind legs, wings spread wide. A few coins rained down, bouncing from rocks and the human fell backwards off his seat, hands splayed out behind him.
“But I have an idea I might trade for it and my life!”
Rearing back to strike, Kahruk opened his jaws wide.
“You see, I think I know how to-”
Kahruk’s snarl echoed through the cavern and his jaws sped down and forward, saliva pooling under his tongue.
“-vastly increase the size of your hoard with really very little effort on your part at all!” The words spilled out into the air so fast Kahruk didn’t know if he heard them all, but his jaws snapped shut just short of the target and he exhaled, blowing hot air across the human. He let his wings drift down into a less aggressive position as his eyes focused on a distant, imagined point.
How long since he’d thought about adding to his hoard? Flying out to wreck a castle or a caravan for its gold was fine for a young dragon, but not long after you had enough to make a comfortable bed you came to realize it wasn’t really worth the effort any more. Getting the arrows out of your scales could take days. His mind drifted across those last few raids half a thousand years ago before coming back to the present. He had no idea how long he’d passed in memory and thought. “Explain.” He spat the word but the human’s flinch did nothing for his residual anger.
The human collapsed onto his back and blew a wisp of air across Kahruk’s snout, a tiny, invisible parody of dragon flame. He took a long moment climb back onto the stalacmite, pushing the shreds of Kahruk’s patience aside.
Eyes, wide, the human nodded. “Yes, of course.” He took a deep breath and tried to smile. Kahruk only stared, moving his head back just far enough to properly focus his eyes. “Dragons are extremely magical creatures, aren’t they?”
The question wasn’t worth a response. He continued to stare as the human’s eyes flicked to his jaws and back.
“Ah, yes, well then. Dragons are extremely magical creatures. Gradually, over centuries, some of that native magic leaches into the gold and silver and other items that make up the hoard, giving each piece a store of magic potential energy.” He waved an arm at the mound of precious metals underneath and around Kahruk. “That energy can be used by a wizard to fuel spells instead of using his or her own energy.” His gaze flicked to Kahruk’s teeth again. “Well, the point being, um, do you have any idea of the value of Dragon Gold on the open market?”
Kahruk let the last of his anger go in a sigh. Apparently, to have some chance of finding out what the bargain might be, he would have to participate in the conversation. “I do not.” It had never before occurred to him to think about it. He didn’t know what the market was or how it could be opened. Today seemed unfortunately filled with new ideas.
Hand to his forehead, the human rubbed his right temple with the thumb. “It’s a matter of economics. Supply and Demand. There are a limited number of dragons in the world and you breed very slowly. I mean, how often does a she-dragon rise to mate?”
“Every century or so.”
“And how many eggs will she lay?”
“One. Sometimes two.”
“So even though you live for a long time, your numbers don’t increase quickly. Humans, comparatively, breed like flies. In spite of a variety of wars, disasters, and plagues, there are twice as many today as there were five hundred years ago, which means there are twice as many wizards.”
“So there are only three ways I can think of for Dragon Gold to reach the market. First, a dragon dies and another dragon doesn’t scoop up its treasure right away. Probably doesn’t happen very often.” He grinned, a brief flash of white.
“Second, some brave young knight gets lucky and actually kills the dragon he’s after so lives to haul away some of its treasure before it gets scooped up by another dragon. I suspect that particular event is in the realm of legend. Collective wishful thinking on the part of bards and heroes.
“Last, a reasonably intelligent thief waits till a dragon is out hunting, runs in, stuffs a small sack, and runs out again without getting caught. Still pretty rare, but I’ll bet it happens a lot more often than you’re willing to admit, eh?” A new grin appeared on the human’s face and didn’t quite go away. “It certainly seems the most likely of the three.”
“Perhaps.” It happened to Kahruk just last month while he’d been out for a few cows.
The human waved one hand, palm open, vaguely in Kahruk’s direction. “So not much Dragon Gold gets to the market for sale and since a single coin can fuel a large number of spells, your average wizard will pay a lot for it. Limited supply. High demand. Every piece of gold in this chamber is worth at least twenty five times its own weight.”
Kahruk looked at the human and said nothing for several seconds. Counting was one thing –- he’d counted his entire hoard on more than one occasion to pass the time –- but anything resembling mathematics had never been necessary in his experience. “That’s a lot then, is it?”
Biting his lower lip, the human reached down and picked up one of the coins Kahruk had disturbed earlier. It seemed to pulse in the tiny fingers and his eyes narrowed, tracking the coin, his coin. Body tense, every instinct screaming at him to eat the thief, Kahruk waited for the human to continue.
“Because of the magic they’ve gained from you, selling about one coin out of twenty, would double the size of your hoard.”
Kahruk’s ears strained forward and his nostrils flared. Sliding his tongue across several teeth, he fixed his eyes on the human, not watching the coin as it dropped back to the cavern floor. “Double?” It skittered across the stone to bump against a claw-tip. Kahruk felt his body relax.
“Plus a little. Although, you’d need a broker.”
A vision clinked into Kahruk’s mind of the most comfortable sleeping mound he possibly imagine, gold enough to wallow in, gold enough to fill the cavern. Then the last word reached into his brain to push the vision a little to the side. He wiggled his massive body, burrowing into a pile of gold that suddenly seemed much smaller. “What is a broker?” Gold coins kept dancing in his head and he found it hard to focus.
The human shrugged, still smiling. “An agent who sells the gold for you, taking a small portion as payment for the transaction, usually three or four percent. Um, three or four coins out of a hundred.” The human held up his hands at Kahruk’s narrowed gaze. “Unless, of course, you plan to go to the market and sell it yourself.”
Kahruk considered for a moment. He couldn’t carry more than a very small part of his hoard and would certainly lose some as he did. While gone, he would leave the greater part vulnerable to thieves. And the inevitable panic his appearance would generate could hardly be conducive to any kind of business. “I suppose a broker would be necessary. The difficulty would be in finding someone I could trust.” The word nearly stuck on his lips.
“Yes, I can see how that could be an issue. Still, there are any number of reputable brokers in every major city. I’d be happy to make a few discreet inquiries for you as part of our exchange.”
“Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. I’d hate to have to go through it all over again, especially the bit with the teeth.”
“I have not forgotten, but neither have I agreed.”
“I know. Take your time thinking it over. I’m not really in a hurry.” The human cocked his head to one side as if some strange thought had occurred to him and didn’t quite make sense. “It just struck me that there’s something odd about your speech.”
“How so?” Kahruk thought his speech perfectly fine, cultured even, though he had only other dragons to compare to, and not many of those or very often.
“Well, maybe I’ve heard too many legends and sagas, but they all hold dragon speech as very formal and usually archaic, full of thees and thous and so on.”
Kahruk shook his head twice. “Not that I’ve ever noticed. Storytellers like to dress things up a bit, I expect.”
“Probably. They do it with nearly everything else, but it seems universally accepted. Maybe it’s meant to imply great age and wisdom.”
Or flattery, which never hurt, but Kahruk knew a distraction when he heard one. “You claim twice my age. Is that how you speak?”
“No, but I’m not a dragon and I won’t admit to great wisdom, either.” He spread his arms. “I’m here, after all.”
“Hnh. Safer perhaps, if you’d met your immortal companions one item short of your full list?”
One side of the human’s mouth crept up again. “Perhaps.” A tiny rumbling sound came from its stomach. “While you’re thinking, would you mind if I had lunch?”
“Go right ahead.”
“Thank you.” The human picked up his bag and pulled out several small packages. Kahruk identified most by scent: bread, cheese, salted pork and a tiny flask of some sour smelling liquid. “I suppose it’s impolite of me not to offer to share, but I don’t think I have enough food you’d even notice.”
“Enjoy your meal. I fed several days ago so I’m not exactly hungry.” The human took three quick swallows from the flask and Kahruk wondered if the human understood the thought behind the words. He could find space in his stomach if he had to.
While the human ate, Kahruk relaxed on his hoard and considered the proposition. It would be nice to have a little more gold lying around. Middle aged he might be, but his body grew a little longer each decade. He probably had enough gold, but a little more was always nice. And double? Well, double would be very nice. And if he didn’t have quite enough, by the time he had difficulty sleeping, he’d be too old to do anything about it. With every coin turned into two… the more he considered the idea, the more attractive it became. By the time the human finished re-packing the remains of his lunch, Kahruk had reached his decision. Biting down on a yawn, he met the eyes of his former prey. “I think we have a bargain.”
A bright smile blossomed on his face as the human leapt up. “Excellent!”
“Subject, of course, to one condition.”
The human dropped back down onto his stone seat, not quite losing the smile. “And that would be?”
Kahruk turned his head and leaned forward, spearing the wary human with one eye. “You will act as my broker.”
Seeming to shrink a bit, the human licked his lips, perhaps looking for his voice. “Um, me?”
“Who better?” Coins clinked as Kahruk pulled his head back to a more comfortable viewing position. “I do not know the precise qualifications of a broker, but I am certain that trust is important. You approached me openly and honestly. I do not think that trust would be misplaced.” Though it might be difficult. As his eyes began to droop again, Kahruk wondered why the human couldn’t have waited a few more days. Resting his chin on the stone floor, he pulled his lips up in hopes of mimicking a human smile. “Plus, with nearly three thousand years of life, you have certainly had a great deal of practice in bargaining. Valuable experience. Finally, I do not think you will run from me screaming as would the average mortal. You are the logical choice.” He watched the human, trying to gauge his reaction, but this conversation needed to end and soon. The coins around him seemed to be glowing, hardly an illusion produced by an alert mind. Kahruk needed to sleep.
The human sucked on his lower lip. Did an echo of his own thoughts roll through the small head? Money was nice. A little more couldn’t hurt. It stood and gave a sharp nod. “Four percent.”
Kahruk’s drooping eyes popped open. While he had a hard time visualizing a fraction of anything, he did know four was more than three. “You said between three and four percent. Since you are keeping your life, long and boring as it is, you should be willing to settle for the lower figure.”
“Ah, but since you’ll be receiving the benefit of three millennia of experience, you should allow the higher.” The human grinned and shrugged. “Besides, that experience will get you a better deal every time. You’ll make more because I’ll work harder for that extra percent.”
Kahruk exhaled, blowing warm air across his new business associate. His eyes slid closed and a short yawn slipped past his teeth. “Very well. You will earn it, I think.” The hoard warmed his body as sleep reached out for him. “But we can discuss this later.”
“Of course, there’s plenty of time.”
Was there? Plenty of time for what? Sluggish thoughts rolled away from him. He’d been talking to someone. Something about gold. More gold? How odd. He had plenty of gold, didn’t he? More than enough to be comfortable.
“Sleep well, my friend. I’ll see you next month.”
The soothing tune of clinking coins followed Kahruk into his dreams.
Learning from his children how to follow his dreams again, Lance Shonberg has long since allowed his writing to tip over the border into obsession, and typically has too many writing projects in progress at any given moment. Some of his stories have even seen publication. In between trips to the word processor, Lance is currently conspiring to commit both a podcast and electronic publication. He can be found lurking on Twitter as WritingDad, on Facebook, and even on his own website (where you can also find several wonderful stories he’s serialized).
About the Author
In the early years of grade school, Lance Schonberg crafted science fiction and fantasy epics using his classmates as characters and often casting himself as the hero. By his freshman year of high school, he’d graduated to short novel-length, highly derivative works in the same genres, hand written and on rare occasions even finishing a story, and eventually moving into teenage poetry, some of which actually wasn’t bad, and genre short stories. By university, his creative output had evolved into short bursts of fiction and poetry followed by long periods of nothing.
In his 30s, the short periods began to get longer but so did the long ones until, in the midst of lecturing one of his children on the importance of following your dreams, Lance stopped to wonder why he’d stopped following his. Gathering up the few shreds of unfinished stories he thought might be worthwhile, Lance took several months to build a routine of writing (nearly) every day. On Christmas Day 2007, after the rest of his family had gone to bed, he began writing a novel. Dragon Summer took exactly five months to complete and came in at 108,104 words. Fortunately, no one will ever be allowed to read it.
He’s written several novels, and many shorter works, since, some of which have even seen publication. Lance’s writing habits are eclectic, although most of his stories do fall into the broad buckets of Science Fiction or Fantasy. Mostly, he’s has gotten over casting himself as the hero, but admits there’s a little bit of him in a lot of his characters, good and evil.
His writing long since tipping over the border into obsession, Lance continues to heed the keyboard’s siren call. Between preparing several works for electronic publishing, Lance is currently working on a novel and something that might be another novel, and has several others at various stages of editing. Sometimes there’s short fiction and non-fiction, too.
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.