Dragón, Dragon. . . . – Azhdarchid. Largest pterosaurs (furred fliers); can stand over five meters high. Predatory. Pose substantial threat to smaller livestock and humans.
– The Book of True Names
The Empire of Nuevaropa, Francia, Archiduché du Haut-Pays, Comté Providence:
The herd of plump brown four-legged dinosaurs grazed peacefully, cropping spring-green grass with their beaks and chewing it with the broad teeth behind. Their contented crunching, and the rising-falling hum of bees working the meadow’s white and blue wildflowers, conspired to put the herd-boy to sleep despite his responsibility to his charges. It was mischievously abetted by the growing warmth of the sun, rolling up the western sky behind its perpetual daytime screen of cloud.
The boy had laid aside his broad straw hat and green feather yoke to soak in the sunlight. Clad only in a cotton loincloth and sturdy sandals he lay in the granite elbow of a low boulder jumble at the foot of limestone cliffs. He had his head pillowed on interlaced fingers. Lying down added to his risk of dozing. But he told himself he had a reason to scan the sky: the winged shape wheeling high up, black against the dove’s breast overcast.
It was a Dragon. A giant crested flier, kiting on warm air rising from the ridgetops, seeking prey. Which it might definitely consider to include his several score of Fatties, complacent, hornless relatives of the hornface dinosaurs. To say nothing of a boy just his size.
He’d heard tales of the monsters swooping down to carry victims off with beats of its furred twenty-meter wings. Nobody he knew had seen one do any such thing. What Dragons could do was land, to stalk, tall as houses, on wing-knuckles and short hind legs, stabbing prey with sword-like beaks. So he had to keep a close eye on this one, he assured himself, and scare it off if it tried to land. . . .
His eyelids drooped. Below him the land shrugged into brush-dotted foothills, then sloped and smoothed away down to the southwest into broad green plains, interrupted by the darker greens of forested ridges and stream-courses. Behind him, up beyond the sheer white cliffs, rose blue peaks silver-capped in snow despite the advent of spring. Throughout most years snow would never entirely flee the great Shield Mountains that walled the Empire of Nuevaropa from Grand Turan on the high Ovda Plateau. The breeze that whispered lullingly to him from higher valleys was pine-tart, and rich with the smells of fresh growth and new flowers.
His eyes snapped wide open. Something had changed in the meadows’ soft sounds. Some of the Fatties had stopped grazing and lifted their heavy frill-backed heads to peer dubiously at the small herd of Plate-back dinosaurs that swayed into view in the meadow below. Shaped like capital D’s on their backs, their bulky, high-arched bodies were topped by double rows of spade-shaped plates, and tapered to dog-sized heads at one end and tails tipped with four wicked spikes of bone at the other.
The herd bull’s russet sides shaded through tan to yellow on his belly. He stood four meters to the tips of yellow plates with rusty splotches, and went a good nine meters longs. His tail-spikes were at least half as long as the herd-boy was tall.
From fifty meters the boy felt more than heard the seismic rumble of the monsters’ gizzard-stones. His Fatties nervously switched thick tails, spilling bits of brush and grass from their beaks as they bleated distress. They knew as well as he that while the Plate-backs were placid, they were also near-sighted. They tended to lash out with their tails at anything that startled them.
Those spikes could tear the guts out of a Matador. The biggest Fatties stood just over a meter tall; none weighed more than three hundred kilograms. A Plate-back could make short work of one – and shorter of the herd-boy, should he stray too near.
He bounced up to hop from foot to foot in frustrated fear, sandals flapping against his soles. His best course was to stay put and hope the intruders went away on their own. If they didn’t, he’d have to chuck rocks at them with his sling. If that didn’t work he’d be forced to run at them hollering and waving his arms. He really didn’t want to do that.
Looking urgently around for some alternative, however unlikely, he saw something far worse than plate-backed Stegosaurus. Or even a Matador.
It strode from the cliff fully-formed, emerging from white stone in a single great stride. Two and a half meters tall it loomed, gaunt past the point of emaciation, grey. It lacked skin; its flesh appeared to have dried, cracked, and eroded like the Ovdan badlands the caravaneers described.
The apparition stopped. It turned its terrible wasted face directly toward the herd-boy. Eyes like iron marbles nestled deep in the sockets. Their gaze struck him like hammers.
I’m dead, he knew. He fell face down into pungent weeds at the base of his rock and lay trying to weep without making noise.
After a drum-roll of heartbeats he heard frightened Fatties whine. The acid sound penetrated white-out terror and kicked alive his duty-reflex: My flock! In danger!
Realizing he was somehow not dead – yet – he tentatively raised his head. His Fatties loped away down the valley, tails high. The grey apparition walked downslope at a different angle with inhumanly long strides. Unwieldy Plate-backs bolted from it like Leapers. It paid no attention to Dragon, dinosaurs, nor boy.
The herd-boy pushed himself up to hands and knees. Terror beyond anything he had ever known grabbed him and twisted. He vomited his breakfast porridge onto the grass.
I’m alive, he thought without comprehension.
“I’m alive,” he said aloud. He still didn’t get it.
He had seen a Grey Angel. Up close. And lived.
It was a thing unheard-of.
He ripped up a handful of ferns and wiped his mouth. The enormous skeletal being had vanished. He might almost have dreamt it.
Except he wouldn’t even dare dream about Grey Angels. The Seven, the Creators’ own servitors – and executioners – transcended hope and nightmare alike.
He made his way to his feet. His knees wobbled. He must, he knew, be exceptionally blessed.
Or damned. With tears drying stickily on his cheeks, he set off stumbling in pursuit of his flocks. Since his life miraculously continued, life must go on.
Copyright ©2011 by Victor Milán
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