The rock was harsh and scraped his hands, but with a cliff-face this rough and jagged there was no shortage of footholds. Joey muttered under his breath as he fought his way up. It was hot, it was hard work, and his hands hurt, even though he had leather strapped across his palms. But he had to get there. Before the dragon.
It seemed to take for ever, and the sun was sinking fast beyond the horizon by the time he hauled himself painfully onto the ledge, and lay there, panting.
"What in the name of all the stars are you doing?"
Joey looked up, and did his best to smile. "I came to rescue you."
There could be years of tranquillity. Years without the disruption and fear, years of pretending life was always calm and orderly. Nobody ever knew when the dragon would turn up, but when it did, darkening the sky with its tattered black wings and making the ground tremble with its roar, it was the signal for an outbreak of debauchery. Everybody knew that the dragon would be back to claim its tribute, a month and a day after it flew across the sky. And everybody knew that the dragon's tribute was a virgin of marriageable age, and that the only certain proof of non-virginity was a child.
Joey was in the clear. His girl Kelly had gone to the city on the coast, last spring, with her family, but there were plenty of witnesses here in Firidore to attest that they had produced a child together, a little girl, gone with her mother now, to the coast where dragons didn't fly.
Joey's friend Justin had been vacillating. There was a pretty lass in town, big brown eyes and creamy skin, sweet little bit of a thing, they'd been walking out for a while but Justin hadn't been sure—until the shadow of the dragon darkened the sky, then all of a sudden the two of them had pledged to one another and spoken to the wedding woman, had their trothplight solemnised, and agreed on a propitious wedding date before next year's harvest. They'd not waited for the wedding night, though, nobody did when there was a dragon, for the usual rules of decorum didn't apply. And now Britney had taken to swanning about the marketplace with a mysterious smile and one hand resting proudly on her perfectly flat belly, and Justin strutting beside her. It was too soon to tell, he was sure. But the elders who had to choose the tribute would certainly have a hard time convincing themselves that either of those two was eligible.
It didn't seem like a very good idea to Joey, getting trothplighted in order to avoid being dragontribute. A man was a long time wed. And there were plenty of folk in Firidore, and quite a few of them must be virgins (at least officially) of suitable age, plenty of strangers who might be chosen. But as the days went by, he noticed more and more of his friends pairing up, often with the unlikeliest people, and parents smiling benignly as they 'admitted' to misbehaviour and were written down on the wedding woman's list and crossed off the tribute roll.
"It's ridiculous," Joshua grumbled. "All these years I've done my best not to beget children, and now it seems I should have been a careless idiot like you! I can't believe I'm on the virgins roster."
"It doesn't seem very appropriate," Lance agreed, sipping indifferently at his ale. "You'll just have to get one of the girls to attest for you."
"Um." Joshua looked moodily into his drink. "They're all pledged, far as I can tell. And none of them wants to admit that she was less than spotless before she found herself a husband. They've no reason to attest for me."
"Find yourself a friendly widow," Joey suggested. "There must be a few who'd welcome someone to warm their beds awhile."
Joshua brightened. "I could do that!" he said, hopefully. "Do you think it would work?"
"I think," said Joey, "that it'd be a very stupid tribute committee that put you up to the dragon as a virgin."
Joshua grinned at him, and even had the grace to blush, just a little.
"But you, you are a different story." Joey frowned at his other friend, who looked up at him with perfect calm. "You need to get something sorted, and fast."
"So you keep saying."
"Seriously, Joey, I am not going to start having relations with some desperate girl I hardly know just to stop myself ending up as dragon tribute."
"Why in the name of all the stars not?" Joey was exasperated. Lance just didn't seem to understand the risk he was running. People were being crossed off the virgins list every day—every hour, with only a week to go.
"You really should think about it," Joshua advised. "There are some very sweet girls who haven't, perhaps they're a bit young, but—"
"No," said Lance.
And despite all the arguments, the pleas, the outright orders Joey threw at him, Lance kept on saying no. Right up to the last minute. Right up to the horrible moment, perhaps the worst moment of Joey's life, when the name of the dragon tribute was announced, and it was Lance.
"What possessed you to do such a stupid thing?" said Lance.
"It's not stupid," said Joey, a little aggrieved by this chilly reception. "I stole a horse, it's tied up down there in the woods with a load of supplies. We climb down now, we can be away from this ledge when the dragon gets here, and we go north, or south, doesn't matter. You'll be alive."
"Yes, and? Then what?"
"What do you—you'll be alive!" Joey couldn't believe it. "Don't you want to escape? Don't you want to live?"
Lance sighed, and sat down. "Of course I want to live. We don't always get what we want, that's all." Absently, he shook off the remnants of the rope from his wrists. Joey had brought a knife with him, thanking all the gods he could name that they didn't use chains to keep the tribute from escaping.
"I told you, I have a horse—"
"Yes, yes, you climbed up here to cut me loose, and we could go down the cliff together and ride off north, or south, doesn't matter. But what happens to everyone else? What happens to Firidore?"
"Well, they—they just have to find someone else to be dragon tribute," Joey said, weakly.
"You sure of that? What happens when the dragon gets here at sunset and finds there isn't a tribute for it? Do you think it's going to shrug its wings and go away?"
"See, I don't think it'd be that easy. I think there'd be all kinds of trouble in store for Firidore, for our families, if I don't stay here. You've heard your histories, same as I have, you know why the tribute is levied. I don't mind, Joe, I honestly... I think I knew it was going to be me."
"I mind, Lance. I really... I mind." Joey's throat constricted on the words he wanted to say, the words he had never quite got clear, the words which had set him to stealing a horse, and packing food and blankets for a journey, and strapping leather round his hands, and scaling a cliff.
"I know." Lance's beautiful green eyes were huge as he looked at Joey. "And I, well. I do mind, of course I do, and I wish... but somebody has to do this, Joe, it has to be somebody, one person instead of the whole town, and my sister has a baby now, you know, and I just have to do this."
Everything blurred, and Joey realised his eyes were full of water, that tears were overflowing down his cheeks. "Why couldn't you just be like everyone else?" he blurted. "Why couldn't you just find a girl, why, why?"
An arm went round his shoulders. "Hey. Come on. Here." There was a handkerchief. Joey pressed it to his face. "Joe. You know why."
He did know why. "I just... you—we could've, something, I don't know."
"Don't think it would count, unless you've a womb hidden in here somewhere you haven't told me about." Lance poked into the soft flesh of Joey's belly.
Joey choked. "Not fair. Not fair to make me laugh."
"I can't stand seeing you cry."
They stared at one another. Lance looked patient, resigned, and so loving, Joey couldn't help himself. He flung his arms around his friend and hung on, and when the sobs came back he made no attempt to stop them. Lance clung, and sniffled against his neck.
Eventually, the sobs slowed down. Lance patted him on the back and offered the handkerchief again. "You should go, you know. Sun's getting low."
"I'm staying," he said firmly. At least he could do that, at least he could have these last few minutes with Lance.
"Promise me—promise me you'll go to the back of the ledge when it gets here. Hide. Promise?"
"All right, then." Lance sat back. "It is... it is good to have company. It's been a long day." He'd been here since sunrise, escorted in a ceremonial parade and lowered in the cage thing from the top of the cliff. Tethered there on a yard of rope to the large ring bolted at the very front of the ledge, and left alone as the two elders rode back up in the cage and everyone went home.
It had been quite easy to steal a horse, in the circumstances.
"Do you want some wine? Or something to eat?"
"They left me lots to eat, but I haven't been very hungry. You'll need something inside you, to climb back down again, after."
Somehow, Joey didn't feel hungry either, but Lance offered him a bowl of fruit, bread and sweetmeats, and he took something. After chewing it for a few minutes, he realised it was marzipan. He didn't like marzipan. However, Lance was nibbling at something, and seeing him eat made Joey feel ever so slightly better. "Did you say wine?"
They shared the flagon, and after that, it seemed natural enough to twine together, shuffling until arms and legs were meshed, and to kiss. Lance's lips were as soft and sweet as any girl's, and his mouth tasted of wine and hazelnuts.
The light was fading. Sun was low, a dull sunset, no brilliant colours, just sad pale streaks in the leached sky. In the distance, something dark moved above the hills.
"Joe? Go back now. Don't let it see you. Please."
A last embrace, fierce, desperate, and Joey struggled to keep the tears back. How could he bear it, how could he bear this moment? He moved back hard against the cliff face, found a jut of rock, slid in behind it. It wasn't protection, wouldn't have hidden a tethered sacrifice, but it would be enough to conceal him from a dragon that wouldn't be looking.
Sudden darkness, and a fearsome rustling of wings, and he could not bear it. Joey rushed out from his hiding place and hauled Lance back from the edge. The vast hovering shape blotted out the setting sun, and there was a powerful smell of rancid meat. "Take me," Joey said, hoarsely. "Take me instead."
The huge, blood-coloured head swayed back, and a black eye glittered at him from far too close.
"No! Not him. Me!" Lance, shouting, beside him.
The dragon's gaze switched between them.
"Joey! Are you insane? Get back there!"
"No! You can't do this! I won't let you."
The dragon settled matters by grasping each of them in a mighty, clawed embrace, and heading straight upwards.
Joey had no idea how long they flew. He lost all sense of time along with the contents of his stomach in that lurching, interminable flight. At first, he tried shouting to Lance, but the wind rushing past his face carried his voice away, and all he could do was slit his eyes against the onrush and pray that the dragon would not open its claws and let him fall. Or close them. The creature's talons were as long as his arms, and gleamed like steel in the last flashes of sunlight.
Stars were out and a bright sliver of moon high in the sky by the time the dragon began to descend. There was some kind of dwelling on the hilltop where it landed, a small, thatched house. Joey thought irrelevantly that he would have expected a dragon to incinerate a thatched house. The histories all talked of dragons breathing fire and burning towns.
They landed, however, and the house remained unsinged. The great beast set its two captives down with unexpected care. Joey's legs wobbled, and he could hear the quavering of his voice as he called out to Lance.
Lance's voice did not quaver. "You are the biggest idiot who ever lived! What do you think you were doing? I can't believe you! You promised me!"
"Yes, well." Joey wasn't going to apologise. It seemed a bit pointless, anyway. Presumably they were about to be eaten.
The dragon coughed, reared up, spread its enormous wings and shook itself, then folded back down, smaller, smaller, improbably smaller, until it was no longer a dragon but a man, a perfectly ordinary man, pale of skin, dark of hair and beard, not even very tall. Certainly not as tall as Joey, who stared, and grabbed Lance's hand for reassurance.
The man cleared his throat. "Welcome," he said.
Joey and Lance gaped at one another, and edged closer together. A mere man was not more terrifying than a dragon, Joey thought, but somehow the abrupt change in their circumstances completely unnerved him. He'd been bracing himself to be devoured—but now, what?
"Er," Lance ventured. "What happened to the dragon?"
"Ah, that was me." The stranger looked at them, apparently realised that the explanation he'd offered wasn't really adequate, and went on. "You released me."
Joey decided it was his turn to speak, and that he could probably manage to. "What did we do?"
"You came willingly. You said, take me, and you, you said, no, not him, me."
"And... that released you?" said Lance.
"Yes." He nodded at them, bright-eyed. "Oh—uh. Thank you. Sorry, I haven't been able to speak for a long time. Not really used to it yet."
"Are you saying..." Joey worked it out, but couldn't quite believe what he was thinking, "that you were the dragon? And now, you're not a dragon any more?"
"Because we were willing?" Lance said.
"Yes. That was the magic, you see, that someone had to want me to take them, not be tied up and screaming. Which, obviously, wasn't ever supposed to happen, magicians are sick, sick people. Hey, I'm getting used to the talking thing!"
"So," said Lance, cautiously, "what happened to the ones who weren't willing?"
The stranger looked at him in a very pointed way. "Are you sure you want to know?"
Joey thought, not.
But the stranger sniffed, rubbed at his nose, grinned, and explained. "I took them a bit further into the hills and dropped them off. There should be quite a colony of them now. If they've managed to figure out how to reproduce, that is. Why is everyone so intent on sacrificing virgins? You'd have thought if the townsfolk had any sense, they'd offer up the fattest people they had. Aldermen, and such. I mean, it was obvious they all expected me to eat them, and there's no meat on those skinny little kids, seriously." He looked at Lance and Joey with distinct approval. "I like them with a bit of meat on them," he added.
"He's got a point," Lance murmured. "I always wondered how a dragon was supposed to know the tribute was a virgin."
"And why it would care," Joey whispered back, "because seriously, they really don't taste better than the other kind."
Lance gave him the kind of look usually reserved for people who farted at funerals. "And what happens to us now?" he asked the dragon-man.
"I—huh. I don't know. I can't take you back where you came from, well, it's a really long walk, and besides, there's this river, and anyway, I think it's probably against the rules to let the folk back there—" he waved airily—" know that being sacrificed to a dragon isn't, you know. Death." He paused. "You could always, I mean, it's not so bad here." He looked so hopeful, Joey couldn't help but be drawn to him, this stranger who'd lived as a dragon.
Apparently, Lance felt the same way. "We could definitely stay for breakfast," he said firmly, and the stranger's face lit up with a smile. "My name is Lance," he added, "and this is Joey."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance."
Tentatively, they shook hands. The stranger's felt soft, smooth, unused. Joey's life had never been so bizarre, he thought. "So what's your name?"
"I don't remember. It's been so long since anyone... What do you want to call me?"
Joey considered. "Christopher," he decided. "It's a good name for a traveller."
"Christopher." He seemed to be tasting the word. "Christopher. I like that. Come, come." Christopher turned, beckoning them towards the thatched house. "Not that I plan on doing much travelling now that I don't have to. You know the worst thing about being turned into a dragon? Having to fly. I never liked being up high. Going to keep my feet right here on the ground from now on." He babbled as though he'd saved all his words for years and had to let them out at once. "It's a whole new life!"
As they followed Christopher into the house, Lance took Joey's hand again, and Joey smiled.