The severed head of the last black dragon looked miserable to Artemis.
It was not at all the ferocious, merciless, wicked beast she had been told to imagine. It was hardly the reflection of evil that her father had woven into her bedtime stories to get her to behave. At least… it didn't seem that way to her as she stood in the dining hall and gazed up at it. She wasn’t to speak these thoughts aloud.
The dragon's once brilliant, green eyes were now pale and glazed over with a white film, the pupils barely visible. The sagging jaw hung a little to the right, giving the head a sort of silly expression. She supposed most strong men would have laughed if they saw the beast in such a pathetic way, but to Artemis, the picture made her uncomfortable. Perhaps she was more scared of it than she was consciously admitting, but reducing the once fearsome entity to such a humiliating state didn't sit well in her gut. What if it cursed them? She was sure she had heard that somewhere before.
To further her discomfort, she was sure the dead dragon was female. The horn on the sagging side had been broken off at the root during the battle that was ultimately the dragon's demise, but the horn that remained pointed backwards along the skull had numerous twists like a screw. Only female dragons had horns that could twist like that, along with only one horn on the ridge of their nose instead of the male's customary two. Female dragons were by no means weaker; they could be even more savage than the males but usually they had calmer dispositions, more adapt with strategy than that of male dragons.
Artemis often thought that if she ever had a dragon, she would have liked for it to be female. An image came to her mind then, of her riding the rare and hated black dragon in front of her – her hair as dark as its scales, flying out behind her, her robes torn without care.
She didn't allow the thoughts to linger more than a few seconds though. Shame stabbed them down.
"Ah, sister, are you admiring my prize?"
It was a voice she felt like she hadn’t heard in so long. Artemis turned around and smiled widely at her brother as he approached. The first thing she noticed was how tired he looked, his face gaunt from malnutrition, his shaggy black and possibly permanently wind-blown hair looked like it might have been singed a bit. His back was still straight though, his dark eyes – so similar to her own – were sincere.
When he was almost at her side she dipped into a small, mocking bow. "Black dragon slayer, Lane," she said formally. He laughed and shoved her lightly back.
"Stop it. I can't even take you seriously when you do that."
Artemis straightened, still smiling. "And I can't believe you actually hunted this dragon down. Did you lose your mind? It could have killed you."
He gave her a slightly puzzled look. "Anyone would have done the same. I am just lucky enough to ride and fight beside a dragon who isn't scared of a little blood."
Artemis shook her head, doubtful. "No one in their right mind would go looking for a black dragon, Lane... and Razorit should be trying to curb his battle lust, shouldn’t he?"
"Well, he's made a name for himself so I think it was worth it," he said dismissively. "He's Razorit the Nightbreaker now."
Her heart lifted a little in panic. "So he can take a mate now?" she couldn’t help but ask. It was not exactly written in stone, but Artemis knew it was frowned upon for a dragon to take a mate without first earning a title of some kind. Something to demonstrate their worthiness to breed.
Lane shrugged at the question, but Artemis knew this was simply because he didn't know how uncomfortable his dragon made her feel when they were alone. His orange eyes stalked her like a hound stalking a sheep. But this was no mere hound; this was a dragon who could twist himself into human form. If Razorit had finally earned himself a title among his kin by slaying the last black dragon, she had no doubt he would be granted the highest of honors and the greatest respect. He could have whatever he wanted.
The thought made her stomach churn. What if he asked for her? Her feelings for him were not mutual. He was far too impulsive… and if the black dragon's death had proved anything more, it was that he was also too violent.
"Where is he now?" she found herself asking, attempting to remain casual.
"Sleeping off the last of his battle wounds before the celebration. He should wake up soon."
The comment surprised her. "He's injured?"
Lane ran a hand through his curtain of black hair. "We had a dog fight with the last black dragon in the world, Arty. She was fighting for survival. He'll have a few mean looking scars for the rest of his life."
She tried to feel sympathy for Razorit, but in truth she knew the scars would only enhance the recognition he was about to get in the coming months. If anything, he would wear them proudly, as a reminder to others of what he had faced. If only the she-dragon had wounded his ego a bit more, Artemis found herself thinking, instead of just his body.
They stood in silence for many moments, just staring at the skewered dragon head that loomed over the oak table. On top of avoiding Razorit, she was sure she wasn't going to enjoy eating with those pale, dead eyes hovering over her.
A long and tiresome night was ahead, but with her brother finally returned home safe and sound after months of fruitless searching, she decided it was best to straighten her shoulders, lift her chin and not ruin his night.
"Do you think father would be proud?" Lane suddenly asked, his voice quiet. Artemis just laid a gentle hand on his back. It was only because of this did she truly realize how thin he had gotten from his time away. The shoulder blade beneath her palm was pointy.
"Why would you ask that? I’m sure he is."
Lane let out a mixture of a shrug and a sigh, his frame drooping further. "It never feels like enough. I’ll never top this, you know?"
Artemis could only nod. Boy, did she know that feeling. Certainly even more than Lane could have known it. He was the favorite. He had the dragon. She had little to provide for the family in the ways of honor.
Kendric, her betrothed, was a kind boy though. Well… he was once a boy. She supposed he was much more of a man now but she hadn't seen him in years. Trying to be discrete, she counted backwards with the fingers laid against Lane's tunic.
One...two...three... she thought, furrowing her eyebrows. It’s really been three whole years since I've seen him. I wonder how he is?
It was an embarrassing fact, but Kendric had said he would wait until she was ready to be wedded. At the time she was relieved. Now she wondered if they both had agreed to the delay due to ulterior motives.
Certainly, at fifteen, she’d felt that she was too young – that marriage would have trapped her and stolen her childhood. But three years later her thoughts were completely different. He would be a lord and she would’ve been his lady. She liked his beautiful white dragon well enough, and if they had been married then she wouldn't have had to deal with Razorit now.
Now Lane’s green dragon could have anything he wanted, and she knew she would have to be careful that he did not straight up demand that her betrothal be extinguished... or worse.
Artemis shook the thoughts away. "Don't worry about Father. You know he's proud. So am I."
He let out one last sigh, but she could tell he was just shaking off the thought for now.
"Thanks, Arty," he said before turning playfully to ruffle her hair. It was his way of lightening the mood, and she was grateful for that. "But you better not just be trying to worm your way out of the celebration tonight. People want to meet you."
"You caught me," she joked, rolling her eyes.
"I know I did. Your skin is so translucent I can see right through you."
"Truth now, you're just scared of dealing with Razorit's obnoxious ego all by yourself."
"Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad."
"It's bad..." she said honestly, and brought her hands up to cover her smile, hoping he’d see some of the desperate truth behind her words. “He’s so bad these days!”
Her brother nudged her. "Alright, alright," he allowed. They turned finally away from the drooping head and began their departure from the dining hall. "Just don’t mention it. Tonight he’s king of the castle, and he’ll burn us all if we don’t play along.”
Artemis knew who the butt of his joke was referencing, but didn’t laugh this time. Eques, the most powerful of all black dragons, the Greatfather, who was said to hate humans so much that he burned his kingdom in the west lands to the ground rather than partner with humanity as the other Great Ones did.
"Don't worry," Artemis said after one last look back at the head before the gap in the wooden doors sealed, "I won't mention a thing."