Waiting in Carthagena
by Mindy Hartings
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The sun rose in the east and began to dry the frost from the tents and plants. Often, the clouds would be absent, but today there would be no such luck. Clouds filled the sky, obliterating any sign of blue. Mang’s scales warmed slowly as she lumbered from the hayloft. Her wingspan was as wide as she was long, and a large shadow was cast below her as she stretched her wings wide.
Soldiers hustled from tent to tent gathering and exchanging supplies. Although most people would be frightened by her size, these soldiers were immune to her appearance. Mang enjoyed the look of fear on adults’ faces and awe on children’s faces when they first saw her. It has been years since she made an impression on anyone.
Mang wanted to check on Matilda. The bond between them had naturally strengthened in the last two years, but Mang wasn’t all too pleased with being forced into it. Sergeant Briggs had his hand in a lot of her business for far too long.
Matilda was a nice partner, always eager to learn tactics and skills, but she wasn’t a born fighter. Mang would never have picked a girl with such thin wrists or curvy hips to be her rider. In two years, she had mentally developed from what Mang could tell, being bonded and all, but the physical strength had progressed little.
It’s almost humorous to think of a time when Mang felt weak. It would have been shortly after she was shot clean through her right wing while soaring over the desert. She floundered helplessly on the ground much like she’d seen Matilda do on the sparring filed. Unlike when Matilda accepted help after losing a duel, when Mang accepted Brigg’s helping hand she signed her life away.
“Mang, where have you been?”
Speaking of that devilish growl.
I’ve been resting. I haven’t received my cows today, Chief Briggs.
“We can’t spare soldiers to fill a dragon’s personal needs. Find Matilda and review the rebel’s history,” he said.
I was just on my way. I’d be there if it weren’t for your interruption.
Mang trailed to the armory where Matilda was likely gearing up. When she found her, Matilda was holding up a long bow, nearly as tall as her. The string was notched but the arrow was missing. She grabbed the string with her index and middle finger and pulled the taut string to her cheek.
Good morn, youngling.
The string snapped back into place as Matilda let go with her fingers and a small gasp from her lips accompanied the buzzing of the string.
“You startled me. I was just testing the strength of my bow. I prefer it to my sword. My calves don’t feel sore even though they were hit a few times yesterday. I’m ready. Like you said, lead. I can—”
Slow down, Mang soothed. Speak to me and not the world.
Matilda inhaled through her nose and let out all the air through her mouth. Her shoulder hunched slightly forward from this movement. I’m nervous. And scared.
You’ve practiced for many years, long before I was here. Isn’t this what you’ve always dreamed of? Haba was only recently hatched. His rider is experienced. It’s never a good alliance to have an old warrior paired with a young dragon. The bond won’t hold if it comes to a battle.
Matilda looked up at this:
I know we are strong enough to beat them, but I can’t believe this day is finally here. When we get back, I’m sure Briggs will promote me. I’ll show him that I have what it takes to bring down that dragon pair. Are you excited?
Well, the last dragon I’ve seen was my mother, but she left me, like all mothers, to learn alone in the wild. The world is different now. Haba is likely inexperienced because of his isolation with the enemy. Haba learned inside a prison. He probably doesn’t know the ways of the land like I do. He’s only part dragon without this knowledge. That gives me condolence.
Matilda reached down to grab the chest plate, sword, and rope saddle. Mang lowered her right wing to the front of Matilda’s black boots. Her boots followed a straight line up Mang’s wing bones to the base of her neck. Throwing down the rope to either side, Matilda sat down on the smoothest scales and tied herself in.
Let’s go to battle.
Together, they walked to the camp and approached Sergeant Briggs.
“You both look splendid. Matilda, I know you haven’t trained with shin guards, but I had these steel ones made especially for you. Hopefully, you won’t need them, but just to ease your mind.”
He followed Matilda’s same path up Mang’s wing and attached a plate to both of her legs. The steel was polished and glistened in the sun’s rays.
“Thanks, Sergeant Briggs. They fit great.”
“They’re engraved with Baal lyrics meant to help the wearer think clearly. The smith believes in Lord Baal apparently.”
Are we still headed to Carthagena on this cold day? Mang said, interrupting this sentimental moment.
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “They have finally entered the Carthagena mountain range early this morning. We have a few scouts running messages to us. So far, the pair is just exploring, so they should be an easy target. It’s been a long two-year wait Project 3. Don’t mess it up.”
That went from pleasant to rude, Matilda thought through their open connection.
Consistently horrible, I always say. A grumbling laugh grew in Mang’s chest until it spread to Matilda as well. The power of the moment made the situation seem ridiculously funny. She was off to kill a young dragon, the newest weapon to the fighting world.
“Remember: twenty degrees east, you’ll be there before sunset. Fly fast, fly hard.”
Mang didn’t need another word. The first two beats of her wings didn’t do anything but stir the dust around the Sergeant’s feet. With the third, she levitated and emphasized her strength with a roar. The air was cooler and lighter up here. Her wings easily cut through the moist air.
Hold on to the ropes, youngling. I don’t plan on stopping. These wings wanna fly!
The freedom was palpable. Mang let out another long, high-pitched note, which was easily understood as pleasure.
“I love this!” Matilda yelled over the wind. She reached her hands high overhead and smiled.
Enjoy it now, Matilda. This great flight will be over too soon. She wished that she could allow Matilda a moment to relax, but killing took a lot of mental rigidity. Breaking a dragon’s bond will leave even the toughest people broken. It was no time to be childish. Calm your thoughts. Remember to control your emotions and direct your perspective. We’re here to fight the rebels and that is all.
Thank you, Mang. We’ll fight Haba and his rider today.
* * *
They arrived upon the east mountains of Carthagena with the sun casting their shadow in front them. Down below, enemy dragon and rider were found, but not together. Haba was fast asleep with the last rays of light bouncing from his red scales. The rider was off in the distance, climbing towards the top of a peak.
With Matilda firmly placed in the nook of her neck, Mang felt sorrow for the enemy.
Haba had been captured like Mang and at a much younger age. Both were weapons used to keep the other side at bay. By attacking Haba, Mang would be breaking the four-year stalemate that had begun before her “recruitment.” Still, she must imagine Haba as only part dragon. He hadn’t been raised like her, so ultimately she could kill him. She could kill one of her own, since he wasn’t the same.
Before Mang could relay these new concerns to Matilda, an arrow arched over her shoulder and closed the gap between them and the climbing rider. Mang thought the arrow would be forever suspended in the air between the bow and its target. Then, it landed in the middle of his back. It seemed as though the era of relative peace ended with that arrow.
He’s down, Mang. Just as planned. Let’s go for Haba! Matilda urged on Mang with a little thrust with her hips. The saddle slid forward, but Mang’s eyes and mind were focused elsewhere. The nudge did nothing to spur her on.
Mang knew the man was dead. Blood was leaking from his mouth and wounded shoulder. He hit the ground face down without lifting his arms to protect himself from the jagged rocks. The dread of Haba’s sorrowful cry left Mang planted on the mountain above him. Yet, the sorrowful song dragons sang when their rider died didn’t come.
Haba’s cry was one of joy. Mang remembered a similar cry when she was hatched. She had been so happy to be released from the egg that she sang for joy. A song that wholesome couldn’t be taught. It was a natural song.
Haba extended his wings and gave two downward pumps.
Mang! He’s taking flight. We must hurry. Remember our mission!
Haba was in the air and turning toward the south; his natural direction to warmer weather was accurate. The red scales were only slightly visible in the dusk. The higher he reached the quieter his song became, but Mang could still hear it. It embraced everything she had lost since Briggs claimed her as his weapon.
The melody beat between life and balance. It spoke of sunny days and sandy ground. The melody soared through the clouds and dove into cold lakes. Haba summersaulted through the air, and his song never faltered. The song captured the feeling of freedom.
Matilda slid off the back of Mang and fired a hopeless arrow into the sky. It clattered to the rocky ground below.
“No! This is all wrong! Let’s kill him.” Matilda shoved Mang’s foreleg in a helpless attempt to move her.
Youngling, can’t you see he is free? After being raised by tyrant hands, he instinctually knows the dragon’s heart song. It’s a miracle, by Baal.
“Briggs will not allow us back. I won’t be sent on another mission. He trusted me and now... now, I’ve failed.” She turned to Mang. “You’ve made me fail. I did my part! I trained on the field, and I took down the rider. Haba was yours, you lazy dragon.”
Mang wasn’t lazy, just alternatively motivated. Motivated to make a life of her own. Motivated to leave Briggs’ grasp. She turned to the angry girl beside her. I’m sorry child. I must make a new alliance.
Mang had played all the games for two years in fear of breaking the ancestral bond she shared with Matilda. Her instincts had told her that leaving Matilda behind would be worse than the shot through her wing. Yet, Haba’s heart song was vibrant and welcoming; she dared to hope.
Mang unsheathed her talons. The pointed tips grazed soil between the rocky ground. It would be difficult after learning Matilda’s fears of living an unsuccessful life and dreams of rising in the ranks, but the time was now. It was something Mang had to do for herself.
Matilda’s eyes were staring into the distance when Mang pulled back her right paw. She didn’t need much force for the blow, but precision would make it faster for Matilda.
Her sentence was silenced by a swipe of Mang’s large paw. The talon ruptured her brain and the force knocked her down. The double attack left Matilda instantly immobile. Her body fell lifeless to the ground.
The blood began to pool around her feet, and Haba’s song was fading. She was loosing time. Her wings flapped down in union. The only noticeable difference was the scarred circle in the middle of her right wing. It wouldn’t slow her down today.
Instead, she took off from the mountain perch and set her bearings south. She flew hard and fast, adrenaline coursed within her. Then, like the hormonal release, a hum built in her chest. It grew into a song. The images and feelings of nature and balance restored her peace of mind. She’d never felt better.
She flew faster toward Haba and their heart songs blended together. Each unique and yet the same. They were free.
Copyright © 2016 by Mindy Hartings