The city slept when the dark shadow passed overhead.
I awoke from a nightmare, sweating, eyes half-blurred with dream images. Opening the window, I anticipated a gulp of fresh air. An unhealthy downdraft made me cough: sulfur, ash, and rancid meat. Silent wings and a body the size of a cottage passed above. I froze, hand clutching the window frame.
The dragon had returned.
Next day, I worked in the marketplace. Pleasant spring sunshine shone down. But the image of the dark shadow had imprinted on my mind — my nightmares took back seat for once. Apples and pears were piled high on my stall, and I bagged up fruits for customers, money clinking into the wooden bowl. I sorted oranges mechanically.
A fearsome roar shook the air, jarring every limb in my body. Passersby dived under market stalls. Guards brandishing swords rushed out of the nearby town hall. The dragon’s pale underbelly came in sight over the housetops and he snarled down at the guards. He threw his head back and then shot a jet of searing heat at the clock tower.
The tower burst into flames. Glass shattered and bricks plummeted to the ground. A wave of heat swam over me, making me stagger back. My eyes streamed from the blaze.
With a thud, the dragon landed in the market square. Its tail swept around the cobbled roads, scattering stalls and goods. China cups smashed, and household implements rolled.
The chief guard led a charge, aiming his sword at the dragon’s chest. The dragon coughed, and a thick plume of ashy smoke hit the guards full in the face. Disoriented, their ranks fell apart.
“Stay back, or it’ll be flame next time.” The dragon’s gruff bass echoed off every building. “You know why I’m here. Why have you not sent my yearly tribute? I see no cattle awaiting.”
Around the square, people cowered. No one stood. The chief guard had fallen over, clutching his stomach, and the cowardly mayor was nowhere to be seen.
I wiped my eyes and crept around my table. Why could none of them see the beauty behind the stormy facade? The dragon’s blue scales shone in the sunlight. His majestic neck stretched tall and noble as his golden eyes fiercely challenged us.
The mayor had assured the villagers that his guards would see the dragon off, but from the state of their filthy armor and fearful faces, I knew this was a vain hope.
I would swap my sleeping nightmares for a waking one. It may be short-lived, but at least I would know I’d dared to make a difference.
I stepped forward. The ash no longer burned my throat. Azure scales mesmerised me. Heatwaves fluttered around, and the air shimmered as I faced those golden eyes.
“Take me.” My voice sounded weak. I forced the words out, projected further. “Take me. And let this be a lifetime tribute. I offer myself once and for all.”
A gasp whispered around the square. My heart thumped in my chest as the enormity of what I’d said sank in.
The dragon snarled and lowered his head. His eyes were hypnotizing pools. I swallowed hard. No one spoke while he tilted his head and considered.
“I accept,” he snarled.
Before I could take it in, he grasped me in his scaly claw and flapped his massive wings. My stomach leapt into my throat as the village disappeared beneath me.
I’d leapt into the darkness … but it felt like freedom.