The wind howled across the mountain valley, raw and biting. Driven by it was an incessant barrage of snowflakes. No mere romantic fluffs of white powder, these snowflakes were the hard, frozen teeth of winter. Where they pitted and compacted themselves against Iver’s armor there formed a sheen of ice, and they stung the unprotected skin on his face.
The storm alone would have been enough to keep any sane man indoors if he could help it. Fewer still would have pressed on had they known what lay at the end of the valley. Iver knew, and still he pressed on. There, across the open fields Iver imagined to be quite picturesque had they not been in the grip of a blizzard, was a dragon’s lair.
It was a beast of the old breed, ancient and fierce. And cunning, too, if the stories told a truthful tale. Few like it remained in the world, and they were not predisposed to company. The reason was simple. Once humans learned where a dragon nested it wasn’t long before hunters like Iver arrived. Sometimes they came alone, and died. Sometimes they came with armies, and the dragon died. Either way the dragon didn’t stay.
A shadow moved amid the snow, large and sinuous. Iver stopped to listen. Ears burning from the cold he strained to hear. Dragons were said to be graceful in the air, but it wouldn’t be flying in weather like this, and such a large beast was far from silent on the ground. It was hard to tell through the howl of the wind, but he thought he could hear the sound of its movement. A deep, menacing growl like the sound of a distant avalanche underscored Iver’s suspicion. The dragon knew he was here. More, it was already sizing him up.
“Ho, dragon!” he called into the wind, shouting as loud as he could to be heard above the storm. “Show yourself!”
There was another avalanche, this one behind him. Iver turned in time to see the dragon oblige his request. It emerged from the storm some distance away, perching atop an isolated rocky outcropping that marred the otherwise meadow-like atmosphere of the valley. Wings outstretched, seemingly unperturbed by the violence of the storm, it regarded him with dark eyes.
Iver met those eyes as best he could with snow blowing in his face. Breaking the crust of ice which joined scabbard to hilt, he pulled his blade free and held it to the side, point angled down. The dragon watched impassively. Perhaps it had fought lone hunters before, and knew that one man was no match for a creature of its age and power.
“I am Iver Valus,” he told it. “And I have not come here to fight you.” The dragon’s only response was a slow, deliberate blink of it’s eyes. “I know you’re not a mindless, ravening animal. I know you can understand me. And I know you can speak. So speak!”
The dragon’s head drew back and lifted somewhat. Great, scaly lips parted to show rows of spear-like teeth, and the dragon’s snout wrinkled. Was it a snarl? A smile? Something altogether different? Iver had no idea. Yet the reaction told him one thing, at least. The dragon had understood him.
“You,” the dragon spoke at last, “Are a strange little thing.” The words were slow and deliberate, oddly accented as they were forced around jagged teeth and between lips not quite flexible enough to make them. “You say you are not here to fight, yet you come armed. You are a hunter. I know your kind. What would you have me speak of? The many ways I could kill you? Strange little thing.”
And yet, despite the threats it made, the dragon remained perched atop its rock.
“I am – was – a hunter of dragons,” Iver admitted. “But no longer.” Things were going far better than he’d hoped so far. But he needed them to go further, and so he decided to take a risk. With one great effort he drew back the sword and flung it out into the snow, where he lost sight of it.
The dragon pounced immediately, as lightning fast as a cat. It knocked Iver to the ground with a beat of its great wings and then pinned him to the ground with one taloned forepaw. He squirmed, helpless, as the dragon lowered its head and tilted one eye so that it looked directly down at him. “Did you come here to die?” it asked.
“I shall eat you anyway.”
“You could,” Iver allowed. “But then you would not hear my offer.”
The dragon snorted and a cloud of hot vapor clung to Iver, where it quickly crystallized into frost the cold. “What would you have to offer me, strange little thing?”
“Justice. Revenge. A greater life than this. You flee from one creche to the next or fight and die. You survive on stolen livestock and wild game, but it was not always so. You were once the stewards of my people, revered and trusted, until we betrayed you.”
“How do you know this?”
“To know my prey I consumed every scrap of lore I could find. I learned truths long buried. The kings of my people, descendants of those who betrayed you, are poised to fall. We have an army, but fear it is not enough. We need more. We need you. In return you would have a place in our kingdoms, provided for and free from being hunted.”
The dragon seemed to consider all Iver had said. “I doubt I alone will be enough to turn the tide,” it said at last.
“You’re not the only dragon. You’re just the first.”
The dragon’s eye narrowed, though it seemed unsurprised he knew of other dragons. “And what is to stop you from betraying us a second time?”
“Well…” Iver stopped, finally run out of answers. “I hadn’t considered that, honestly. Only my word, I suppose. And the knowledge to be wary.”
The dragon snorted again, then was silent for a long time. Iver began to fear he would be eaten after all, after he’d frozen to death. But then, at last, the dragon drew back its talons and folded its wings. “Come back to my lair,” it told him. “Come out of the cold, and tell me more.”