A Proud and Noble Race
by Chris Ewels

It was an idyllic summer afternoon when they reached the woodland clearing. The air was humid and thick with pollen, and the gentle buzz of insects hummed quietly in the background. Large leaves from the surrounding foliage hung heavily in the windless air, making passage through the jungle slow and heavy going. In the canopy above they heard the occasional macaw screech, or the rustle of branches as a monkey clambered from one tree to the next. However most of the wildlife seemed to be sleeping through the afternoon and waiting for the evening.

As they reached the last of the shrubs and bushes, they lowered themselves quietly to the forest floor, They crawled the last few metres, and carefully parted the bushes to survey the clearing.

The clearing itself was about fifteen metres across. The sunlight streamed through from above,allowing them to pick out every detail. The grass and plants were flattened and trampled, and any jungle noises seemed strangely subdued. Strewn around on the floor were a few animal bones and splintered branches. And lying in the middle of the clearing was the largest dragon they had ever seen.

About twenty metres long, the dragon lay curled up in the centre of the clearing. Its scales glinted polished bronze in the sunlight, and they could see its majestic flanks rising and falling in slow rhythum. Its tail curled round underneath its head, and they could see by the size of its limbs that it was enormously strong. Its snout was tucked under one of the folded wings, and small puffs of smoke could be seen periodically rising up from the slumbering form.

Slowly the party rose to their feet and stepped forwards. The fighter turned to the others, and with one last look of trepidation, drew his sword.

At the rasp of steel, the dragon snapped open a single eye. It surveyed the small party without moving a muscle. The fighter stepped forward with the sword, and behind him the mage staded the low mumbling of a spell in preparation. "Though we do not fight you from choice, we nonetheless stand here today to fight. Prepare to defend yourself." This slightly puzzled the dragon. Small parties of adventurers were fun afternoon entertainment, but they were generally less polite. And unless he was mistaken, the dragon was sure he could see conflicting emotion in the eye of the fighter. Not the usual fear or greed, but something else; guilt maybe? He breathed in deeply, and removed his head from under his wing. Lowering his face to the fighter's level, he spoke. "Then prepare to die, puny human".

Oh, he knew it was stereotyped, but he did like playing the humans down. They amused him in their strange little ways, always so intense and determined. He estimated that the mage would be near the end of the spell soon, so raised himself onto his legs and extended his wings. To his surprise he saw tears in the mages eyes as she raised her hands. She could hardly finish the last words of the incantation, such was her sorrow.

Extremely confused, the dragon batted at the fighter with one of his front legs while he prepared to take to the air The fighter stepped backwards, and with an expert sweep of his blade, parried the blow away, "Wade in!" thought the dragon . "Start trying to hack at me with your puny blade!" But the fighter continued to parry the beast's blows with grim determination. From the back of the clearing there was an electrical crackle as the spell reached its climax. With a sobbing wail the mage flung the electrical bolt at the dragon, who took it full in the flank.

This was more like it! A real fight! And that had hurt him quite enough for one afternoon, Deciding it was time to finish them off, he took to the air to release his deadly firey breath down into the clearing. He saw the fighter drop his sword, fall to his knees, the mage look up at him then turn away, but then he was above the tree canopy, the wind rushing under his membranous wings as he inhaled...

In another clearing a few hundred metres away, Sir Charles was busy pressing the cartridges into the barrel when he heard Lord Fartigorn's call. "Blighty, what a big one! There's the devil!" He shut the barrel with a click, and swung the gun up to follow Lord Fartigorn's pointing arm. Rising above the vegetation, he saw the great bronze beast beating its fearsome wings. He slowed his breathing, rested the butt against his shoulder, and pulled the trigger. There was a crash, recoil, and he saw the beast turning in the air. There was blood dripping down onto the forest, he could even see that at this range. Rearing in the air, the dragon was circling, desperately trying to spot this new antagonist. He pulled the trigger again, and the smoke temporarily obscured his vision. When he could see again, the beast was diving towards them with all the speed it could muster. Suddenly he heard the spluttered bangs of many guns going off together as the rest of the hunting party took shots. With a strangled roar the dragon twisted in flight and plunged into the jungle canopy, ripping trees out of the ground in its final plunge. "Great shot Sir Charles!" cried Lord Fartigorn. "I think you deserve the head for that one. What a monster eh?" "Monster indeed!" Sir Charles agreed, "I think we should pay the beaters double for bringing out that beast!"