The actual name of the outpost was Valiant Rock. It was named to instill the feelings of bravery that men would need to embody their position as the farthest point of the thin line that had once separated civilization from the monsters of the world. It lay in the peaks of the Iron Mountains that stretched along the coast. This was by far the most remote posting and was originally intended for the most hale and determined of the Trsytian town guard. This posting existed even before the populace had nicknamed the guards “Scarlets” due to their red conical helms. A six-moon posting at Valiant would elevate the worth of any man who survived it. Of course this was during the times when the threat of dragons was a very real one. It is said that there is something about the lay lines that run beneath the mountains that made a straight line towards Tryst. The watchers at Valiant Rock were expected to be the eyes of Tryst, to light the fires that served as warning and to weaken and hopefully dissuade dragons from traveling further south. Of course, dissuading a dragon was a precariously difficult task. Despite Valiant Rock’s fortifications, many were the troops who had met their demise between the jaws of a particularly resilient beast or perhaps dashed on the rocks below, being pushed from the wall by the buffeting air gusting off the muscular wings. The walls were also stained with the char marks and fused metal stains where dragon fire had ended a guard’s watch. To have survived placement at Valiant Rock was a badge of honor, proof of strength and evidence of blessed luck.
That was when dragons still commonly darkened the skies. In the decades of their absence a different breed of guard had been sent to the rock. It was now home to those who had earned the ire of their superiors. It had hosted drunks and incompetents as well as the occasional madmen. For whatever annoyance they had given their leaders, certain guards were given a choice: dismissal or serving for a term at Valiant Rock. Six months or more serving at a bone-chilling platform watching for dragons that would never come could return a guard to the good graces of his commanders. Thus it was that Valiant Rock had slowly been re-branded, at least to the guards, as Penance Rock.
Currently there were four men stationed at Penance Rock. Their sins against the pride of the Scarlets varied. Robert, the newest arrival, had fallen asleep, and what was worse was seen sleeping, in full uniform. It was even said that his sleep had allowed a suspect to escape capture. A Scarlet is not lazy. Ferguson had a viscous temper and had physically expressed his anger against the face of a caught thief. Again, the beating was seen by the public. A Red is not wrathful. Brendan was a drunk. His disheveled appearance, his stupors and his public urination; he had been deemed unfit. A Scarlet is not slovenly. He hadn’t spoken a word in two months and it was suspected that the loss of alcohol had broken his mind. Paul, the youngest, had fallen in love. She was three years younger and to him she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He wooed the young lady and she returned his favor. After a month of courtship they had a night of passion and planned to marry the next day. At first light the door of the room in which they were staying was kicked in. Three more senior guards pulled the still naked Paul from bed and delivered him to a wagon bound for Penance Rock. All he had to warm himself was a rodent-chewed, flea-ridden horse blanket. A Scarlet does not fuck his commander’s daughter.
Each day was the same on Penance Rock. They ate hard biscuits, dry little bitter fruits that seemed aged even when fresh, and salted meat. They did not know what kind of meat and were afraid to ask. Ferguson had suggested horse. Robert had an inkling that maybe, perhaps, it was goat. Brendan just stared out into the distance as glassy-eyed as ever. Paul thought that it was rat, but didn’t want to give voice to the words and give the idea a chance at being accepted as truth. Instead he shrugged and lamely offered that it was pork. “Bullshit,” Ferguson snarled. The three months spent at Penance had done a remarkable job of softening his temper.
Penance Rock consisted of three main stations. There was the House, the only true building. It was a large octagon and had a sloped roof that allowed the snow to slide off. This was where they ate, slept, bathed and lived. It was subdivided like a pie with a circle in the middle. The rooms against the outer wall opened into a main room in the middle. Every ceiling had a space for a large glass window that curved down along the outer wall until eye level. The inner dividing walls did not extend much more than a man’s shoulders so the combined effect of low walls and large window spaces allowed almost full vision of the surrounding areas. Even inside men stationed there could keep watch for a dragon they believed was never going to come. At the very center was a fire pit attached to a metal stove. The metal stove was quite large and had several smaller metal tendrils extending overhead and along the walls of the other rooms. The record books claimed that its design was such that at full burn it would be able to shed warmth throughout the complex. Of course, they seldom had enough heat to even warm the cool metal. What added misery to the situation was that only one thick pane of glass remained. The rest had either cracked and fallen from extreme temperatures, causing surrounding walls to flex and shift and be shattered by the occasional hailstorm. As a result a constant cool breeze, frequently accompanied by snow and ice, swept through the chambers. When petitioned for new glass the Valiant Rock commander, whose office was snugly embedded in Tryst, replied that when the final pane shattered he would take replacing the costly glass under advisement. Countless were the number of rocks that pelted the remaining glass, all to no avail.
The next section was Marksman’s Point. On the edge of their peak were three large siege crossbows. In training they were instructed that the proper term was ballista. Only new arrivals referred to them as such. It only took a few freezing nights to forget any strict training and just start calling the giant weapons crossbows. The bowstring on each was the length of a man and the bolts used were the size of a short spear. The crossbows were said to have served to discourage approaching dragons back when Valiant Rock was fully manned. To operate smoothly each crossbow required four men. One would fetch and place the ammunition and two would crank back the bowstring and handle the swiveling of the platform on which the crossbow sat to face the direction of any dragon. The last man, the shooter, would aim and fire. Twelve men were needed to maintain the minimum acceptable rate of fire. Now there were four. It drove the point home that these men were stationed here not to protect Tryst, but to serve out their own punishments.
The last section was on the opposite side of the House than the Point. Fifty paces away from the House jutted up a rough stone tower. At the top of the Tower was a large mound of stacked wood covered in a protective oiled leather tarp that kept out moisture and snow. Next to the mound were several clay pots filled with fuel. Should the crossbows not serve as enough of a discouragement to dissuade a dragon from advancing along the lay lines, then the tarp was to be removed and the signal fire set ablaze. This would give the next, and far more comfortable station advanced warning that a dragon was journeying south. The stone of the Tower was blackened from fire. Whether the fire was from past signals or past dragons was not asked. After all, the guards could not imagine how the fires at the top of the tower could blacken the stones at the base.
The disgraced Scarlets quickly grew accustomed to the routine at Penance rock. They awoke with the sun and prayed that today would be warm enough to wipe the cold from their bones. It was a prayer that was seldom answered. They ate their fare of hard biscuits, hard meat and hard fruit. Every meal was the same. They used their sparse supply of wood to nurse the embers of the day before into a meager fire. They stared at the abundance of wood underneath the leathers. The carefully stacked wood was measured every time supplies were delivered. To take wood from the tower was to endanger Tryst which would result in a lengthier stay at Penance Rock.
For the rest of the day the only activity the guards were responsible for was to watch the horizon. To combat the monotony they occasionally told stories to each other, but when all they had were stories it was surprising how quickly the stories were exhausted. Eight months ago Paul had discovered he and a fellow guard, Matthew, shared a mutual enjoyment of the table game Kings. They spent the next month playing the game and carving pieces from rocks. Then the next supply wagon brought the news that Matthew’s wife and young daughter had died in a fire. The next morning Matthew walked off the side of the mountain. Paul never learned what had earned Matthew his stay at Penance. Now he would never know. He hadn’t touched the pieces since that morning. Instead he just watched the horizon. He had it memorized.
Looking north and straight ahead the mountains began to shrink. Trees from the valley rushed to overtake the hills that fed into the last of the northern peaks. Looking west the trees extended beyond sight. Roads crisscrossed the lands. Pockets of blue hinted at lakes. Clearings filled with small squares were towns. On the clearest of days he could just make out the beginnings of the plains. Directly west he could make out what he suspected was Hemrose. On the edge of the city, amid the greens and golds of the fields was a pock-mark of blighted black earth where nothing grew. He thought of the stories that were told and shivered, as he always did. Changing his view to just east of the base of the mountains trees quickly faded into rock and rock was suddenly cut off by water. The north eastern coast was jagged and inhospitable. The only safe port was way in the distance at Coal Town, which looked as if the town itself, port included, had been almost carved into the base of the lone mountain. Or at least that was how he remembered it. Today the ash was so thick that he could not make out any of the buildings. It must be a particularly good day for coal.
This is where the last dragon was said to dwell. Paul could never decide which part of that sounded more ridiculous to him. That a dragon would hole up just above a soot stain city like Coal Town or that there could be a single last dragon. How could man hunt out a beast that was at home in air, sand, rock, water and field? Say they killed this last dragon, how long would it be until someone spotted a ship being sundered in the open seas? Or until they discover that it isn’t just sand storms that prevent caravans from completing their trade routes? Paul was sure that it would take more than man to put an end to dragons. He may never see one, but he was sure they were out there.
His eyes returned to Coal Town. As always a haze hung over the city. There was a perpetual fog over the city. The digging and scraping must steep the very air in coal dust. How did someone spend a lifetime breathing that air? He found himself breathing in the chill mountain air. He had to admit, it was fresher than the air of Tryst. Still, it lacked the spice of the Tryst air. The knowing that there was something new around the corner, something undiscovered to be seen or tasted or touched. He thought of Rebecca and resisted the urge to look south towards Tryst. He never looked south.
The air grew colder as the sun began to set. He grit his teeth against the cold. He could grow numb to the mountain nights, but he could not fight away the resentment towards the coming of night. He hoped Robert had finally learned how to build a decent fire. He didn’t want to hear Ferguson’s bitching about it. He watched the sun begin its slow submersion to the west. Another day was ending. Again he wondered if this was all his life would be from now on. The first six months had robbed him of his belief that he would again see Rebecca. He knew she would keep loving him. Distance can’t sever that type of love. He also knew that it was well within her father’s power to keep them apart. He watched the sun set. He hoped that she had moved on; that she was happy.
He looked east. There was the moon, beautiful and white casting its light on the unceasing dance of waves in the ocean. Even here there was beauty to be found. But for some reason tonight it gave him no comfort. He frowned and turned to leave the peak when it hit him. In the north, through all its haze and soot, Coal Town glowed red.
“Ferguson! Robert! Come look at this,” he bellowed, eyes searching the red glow. “Brendan, you too!”
“What is it?” called Ferguson, loath to leave the growing warmth of the fire in the house.
“It’s Coal Town. I think it’s on fire.”
“Just come out here.”
The other three slowly spilled out of the house. The sun had completely disappeared and in the distance Coal Town glowed like a second, terrestrially bound moon.
“What did those dumb ass diggers do now?” Ferguson’s tone suggested the fires of Coal Town were a personal insult.
“Don’t know. Could have been burning all day. Soot was so thick today I could barely see anything.”
“How could you not see a big fucking fireball on the fucking mountain?”
“Shut up. Listen.” It was less the words and rather the speaker that prompted quiet. Brendan’s voice came out as a croak from not being used. “Hear that?”
All four strained their ears. There was something there. Something slow and steady. Some kind of… thrum. It was getting louder. Thrum. It was in the distance but above them. Thrum.
“What the hell is that?”
Understanding landed in Paul’s mind. “Brendan, light the fire. Ferguson, Robert, with me to the point!” He was already running. There was no time to check to see if the others listened.
At Marksman’s point he searched through the giant crossbow bolts. They sat in a barrel. He had never noticed before how rusted their tips had become or how many of the shafts had warped due to exposure. He threw several away before finding one that was hopefully flightworthy.
Thrum. The sound was much louder now
Footsteps told him that Ferguson and Robert had followed. “Start winding the crank!” he barked as he climbed upon one of the platforms and loaded the lot into place. He could hear Ferguson cursing the rusted crank that barely wanted to turn.
Thrum. They could feel the gusts coming off of those wings. How close could it be? Paul’s eyes searched the sky as his arms tested the aim of the crossbow. It felt as if the crank was not the only part to have issues with rust.
Thrum. The blast of wind was a slap in the face. His eyes spotted a blackness swimming in the sky and blotting out glimmering stars. A loud click told him the cable was set. His arms strained to get the point of the arrow in position. It was close now. He hoped too close to miss.
Thrum. It was a drum going off next to him. He pulled the trigger and felt the jolt go through the crossbow. A heartbeat later he felt the impact. He was flying. Around him talons that both burned and froze. He could see the beast’s tail connect with the crossbow and send it crashing away. He couldn’t see Ferguson or Robert.
Thrum. There was a lift. Penance Rock was behind them and growing smaller. Wind ripped at his hair. It was hard to breath. They went higher. He could feel tears on his face. The tower erupted in flames behind them. At least someone would know.
The dragon tilted its wings and they banked towards the ocean. The claw that held him grew loose. He struggled for purchase on the smooth scales and polished glass-like talon. The claw opened and he felt himself slipping free. His mind knew there was nothing that could be done. His panicked body refused to listen and he grasped at the very air for purchase. His last thought was that he was glad he was facing sky so he could see the stars above and not the incoming ground below.
The dragon flew onwards towards Tryst. Towards her child.