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Red Sand

Red Sand
Rachel J. Bailey



The creature writhed, emitting a squeal. Its wings opened, flickering red and gold in the light of the lantern, the pattern of bones visible through the scaly skin. Flapping frantically it rose, desperate to escape the red hot lance pointing towards it, already tipped with blood. Wings met the roof a few feet above and it plummeted back down, squealing then rolling into the corner to escape, its feet scrabbling against the floor to push it into the wall. Timfana’s nose twitched as a new unpleasant scent reached her over the lantern smoke, and her eyes were drawn to a singed bleeding mark on the creature’s white underbelly. That lance had been white hot when the man first pushed it through the bars.

The creature lay on its side, panting, eyes rolling. Timfana was reminded of her pony the first time it had seen a full grown dragon. The pony had bucked, half throwing Timfana from the saddle, and the groom had needed to bring his weight down on the reins. Then her father had been beside her, lifting her out of the saddle onto his own horse, and she had seen her pony snorting with fear, eyes rolling. So that was what it took to make the creatures afraid.

“Timfana!” She heard her father striding down the corridor. “How did you get in there?”

Timfana ignored him, her gaze captured by the creature. It darted its head downwards to lick its wound with a thick triangular tongue, licking like a cat, Timfana thought. The creature brought its head up to watch her, making the chain around its neck clink. She could see the lantern flame reflected in its eyes. It flinched as she reached out and touched the cold, thick, metal cage bars, and she drew back. Large hands grasped Timfana’s shoulders, turning her body towards the door. She kept her eyes on the creature.

“Come away.” The hands on her shoulders pushed her gently but firmly forwards, and Timfana found herself walking towards the door. The creature darted its head down for another lick, then watched her, its yellow eyes following her until the stone door frame hid it from view. “What were you doing in there? I told you to wait for me.”

Timfana reached out a hand to touch the black pockmarked stone of the corridor wall. Green mould dripped down some stones, water from the ground above. They passed two more doorways containing cages before reaching the broad stone steps, Timfana needing to push herself up each step and take two strides to reach the next, half running to keep up, while her father strode up them one by one.

“They have to do it, you know,” Timfana’s father said. “To show the dragons that we are their masters, teach them to follow commands.” Timfana blinked as they emerged into daylight, the harsh sun emphasising the red sand. “These are the dragons you’ll be flying one day. And you don’t want your dragon to be flying into battle, and then decide it’ll do whatever it wants to. It might decide to fight for the other side!” They stopped close to a thick metal pole driven into the ground, curved into a large loop at the top. “No. they need to learn to obey. A bit like someone else I could mention.” He laughed, nudged Timfana’s shoulder.

“Anyway, I’ve asked them to bring new one out, see what she can do. You’ll need to start your training soon, she could be a good match for you. That would be good, wouldn’t it? To have your own dragon?”

“Yes,” Timfana said.

A white cat was sat in the shade of the building, watching her with its yellow eyes. Timfana walked towards it, and held her hand out as her mother had taught her, to let the cat come to her. The cat strolled across the red sand, sniffed her hand, and then rubbed its head against her. She admired cats—so independent, they came and went as they pleased. She crouched on the ground stroking the cat and felt the sun hot on the back of her neck and her bare arms. She rested her other hand on the red sand, counting how many seconds she could hold it there before the heat made her snatch it back up. The cat wandered back to the shade, sat, and started licking its chest.

Timfana thought of the dragon riders she’d seen. Her father had taken her to see a display earlier in the year. The dragons had flown in formation, two green on the outside and one red in the middle. She remembered the red dragon swooping down over their heads, watching its taut bony wings flap majestically to gain height, feeling the wind from its passing. The rider dressed in black, hunched between the wings. Timfana had been surprised to see that the dragons wore reins and blinkers, like her pony—although the dragon reins were much more substantial. “To make sure he stays facing the way he’s meant to,” her father had told her. “Don’t forget that those harnesses can feed the dragon fuel as well. Don’t want to have him breathing fire and then turn his head back towards you!”

Timfana’s father knew a lot about dragons. He’d dreamed of being a dragon rider from being a boy. “But your old man was just too big and strong,” he’d told her. “My father took me to a training fair, they checked my age and height and weight, and shook their heads. Said I didn’t need to ride a dragon. I was big and strong enough to fight off dragons by myself!” At this point into the story, he always put his hands under Timfana’s arms and lifted her up above his head. “Dragon riders need to be small and light, like you.” He swooped her through the air before setting her back down, Timfana shrieking and giggling.

For the finale, the dragons had flow out from the crowd into a cleared area where two of the beasts had thrown out streams of fire. “There’s a special chamber in their chests where they heat the fuel,” her father had said. “Then they expel it out to mix it with the air—and you can see the result.” Two bonfires burst into light, illuminating a third pile of wood. The red dragon flew back around and over again while the greens soared and swooped, and then again.

“Refusing to burn his fuel,” Timfana heard a man in the crowd behind her say. “Difficult buggers, dragons. They’ll have to fly him around for a bit, till he decides to belch it out.” Timfana saw her father grimace at the language, and filed a couple of words away for future use.

Then the fences had been taken down and the crowd rushed forwards towards the fires, Timfana clutching her bag of marshmallows to toast.

The clink of a chain made the cat prick up its ears. Timfana turned to see two men walking backwards out of the passageway which lead to the dragon cages, straining against a chain leading back through the doorway.

“Bloody stubborn, this one,” said the man who had held the lance earlier. “Come on you beast, get up the steps.”

“We’ll have fun when she gets bigger if you don’t manage to tame her a bit,” said the other.

“You want to try with her? These red ones, they’re always the worst.”

With a grunt they moved backwards, and the dragon from the cage came into sight, nostrils flaring. The white cat fled.

“Get those wings down,” one of the men said. “Stupid thing, how are you going to fit through the door?”

Once through the door, Timfana could see why the men were struggling—the dragon dug its claws into the sand at every step, and braced its powerful scaly legs. At one point, it opened its mouth and blew out a steady stream of air.

“Easy, tiger,” one of the men said. “No fire breathing for you today.”

“Could do without the bad breath, mind,” said the other. “What have you been feeding her?”

Finally they reached the metal pole, clipped the chain to the loop with a click, and stood back. The dragon ran forwards and flapped, sending up a dust cloud of red sand. It managed to get airborne, but was held by the chain and reduced to flying round in circles, the chain squealing as metal rubbed on metal.

Timfana tried to walk forwards to get a better look but her father grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.

“Oh, she’s safe enough, as long as she stays out of the dragon’s reach,” one of the men said. “Dragon’s got no fuel.”

“You’ve been regulating her diet?” Timfana’s father asked over the clinking of the chain. “No plants she can extract oil from?”

“Oh no. We wouldn’t want any accidents, would we? And I’m probably not her favourite person at the moment.” He laughed. “We made sure of it.” He addressed Timfana. “Now if the dragon got out into those tress over there,” he pointed to the olive trees grown in steps down the hillside, gnarled and knotted, “Give her a couple of hours to digest the olives and some wood, and we would be in trouble.” He breathed out theatrically.

“So how much are we talking?” asked Timfana’s father.

“Well, you can see she’s in good health,” the man said. “Lots of energy, spirited.”

Timfana’s father laughed. “Spirited? Any price we agree is on the basis you can train her first.”

The two men started discussing prices, bloodlines, training. The other man left them and disappeared down into the passageway. The chain clattered to the ground—the dragon had finally tired of flying round in circles and crouched on the ground, panting. Timfana could see the raw red mark on the side of its belly, and noticed a large black scab on the other side.

“Hello,” Timfana said. The dragon watched her, its yellow eyes rarely blinking. She stepped closer, and then closer as it made no move. I can run if I see her start forwards, Timfana thought. She glanced at the thick chain which ran from a metal collar around the dragon’s neck up to the loop in the metal pole above Timfana’s head, a clip holding it at both ends. It looked strong.

“My father says I could ride you when we’re both a bit bigger,” Timfana told her. “I wouldn’t hurt you, I’d be your friend. Would you like that?” She held out her hand as she would for a cat, and the dragon flinched. Timfana could see the red scaled sides rising and falling as the creature panted.

Timfana’s father was looking through papers, while the other man talked. Neither had noticed how close she’d come. Timfana took another step forwards. The dragon started to raise her wings. “Ssh,” Timfana told her. “You’ll get me in trouble.”

Timfana wrinkled her nose. She was close enough to smell the burnt flesh, could see the red swollen skin. “Ssh,” she murmured again, stepping closer. The red scales reflected the sunlight, patterns glinting across the dragon’s flanks as she walked.

She was within touching distance now. Still nobody had noticed, the men had raised their voices, but were focusing on each other, not her. Timfana reached out her hand, past the dragon’s ears to its neck. She pressed in the clip, surprised by how easily it opened, and slid it back from the collar. The click as it fell shut sounded loud to Timfana, but glancing up she saw that no one had noticed. Gently, quietly, she lowered the empty chain to the ground, flinching at every chink. The dragon still crouched, panting.

Timfana stepped back and the dragon spread out her wings, red scales glittering in the sunlight, and emitted a loud bird-like cry. The creature ran towards her, its wings outstretched, and Timfana threw herself to the side onto the red sand. She felt the wind of its wings, flaying her hair as it passed over her head.

* * *

Rachel J. Bailey lives in Leeds , UK . She has a minor obsession with dragons, and has a purple dragon tattooed on her back. Her ambition is to open a sanctuary for abandoned dragons, but she has so far failed to secure funding for the project. She occasionally updates a writing blog at storyfrog.blogspot.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

It varies – I like to do freewriting starting with random words, opening a book with my eyes closed and using whatever word my finger points to, which can lead to subjects I’d never normally try. But the best stories tend to come from events in my life or scenes I’ve seen. I wrote “Red Sand” while on holiday in Lanzarote, where the volcanic landscape - red sand blowing down the sides of volcanoes lit up by the sunshine and black lava rocks littering the roadside - seemed perfect for dragons. I had no idea where the story would end up when I started it, I just had the image of the dragon caged underground, and took it from there.

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