Marisol stared into the cave, breathing in the stomach-turning scent of decay that meant a dragon’s den was inside.
I held my handkerchief over my nose and mouth so that I wouldn’t gag. “You’re sure this is the one?”
“Definitely.” She scratched the stub of her left arm where it tucked into the metal hinge, just above where her elbow had once been.
I didn’t mention that she’d been sure the last ten times as well. “Shall I ready the spear-launchers?”
Her cheeks flushed. She never looked so alive as when we were on the hunt. “They’re too inaccurate for a moving target. No, Tonia, we’re going to try something new.”
I glanced toward the sun. We had three hours before the creature was likely to emerge for its nightly hunt. “Now that we know where it is, shouldn’t we come back tomorrow?”
She turned her sharpest brown glare, the one usually reserved for her enemy, onto me. “That’s the dragon that killed my sister. I won’t rest until it’s dead.” Her flesh hand clenched into a fist. The metal hand I had fashioned for her was motionless, still bent at the angle for riding, waiting for something to grasp. The two sides of her were ever at war.
I didn’t argue. Trying to change her mind while she was on the hunt was pointless. I often asked myself why I followed her on this quest.
My life had not been the same since I found her in a pool of blood on the forest floor, her arm severed by the dragon that had killed her sister. But she’d managed to tie her belt around the stump to stem the bleeding and crawl to safety. I nursed her back to health after a fever had nearly claimed her life, although I was no healer, and her recovery had been long and painful.
Since that day, the fierce determination I found so compelling had twisted into a dark and single-minded obsession. We’d killed ten dragons, every one of them different in shape and color and size. Marisol never admitted that she was wrong about a dragon we killed, but she also never admitted that the beast that haunted her nightmares was dead.
There was always a new plan, a new tactic, a new trick to try on the next one. And there was always a next one.
Marisol leapt onto our wagon and examined the cargo. She pried open crates with her metal hand and rummaged through the contents with the other. She tossed a coil of rope to me.
I staggered under the weight. “What’s this for?”
“We’re going to put a net over the opening of the cave. Once the dragon is caught, I’ll stab it with the spears.”
Each strand was as thick as my arm, but somehow they didn’t seem strong enough. “You think these will hold a dragon?”
“The elders in the last village told me a story about a sea serpent that plagued them years ago, stealing their catch and sinking their boats. They came up with a design for a net that they used to trap it as it exited the underwater caves where it slept.” She winked. “I put in an order right away.”
I remembered the village and the story. I didn’t bother saying that to me it had seemed more like a legend than actual history.
We spent the time before dusk arranging the net and anchoring the lines that would hold it fast. It was backbreaking work that kept us from talking much as we hauled and placed the heavy netting. Marisol worked with a fevered cheer I’d rarely seen in her. She actually smiled as she taught me the slip-resistant knots the villagers had shown her. Maybe this would really be the last time? I quashed the small glimmer of hope even as it took shape. I had been disappointed too many times already.
As deepening shadows spread through the forest, the trees around us fell silent. Twilight belonged to the dragons and every animal in the forest respected that. Every animal but us.
I tied off the last line near the cave’s opening and wiped my brow. A hand on my back startled me.
“Just me,” Marisol said in a hushed voice, reaching over my shoulder to offer a filled waterskin.
I took it and quenched my thirst, trying not to let her casual closeness mean too much. It was more likely she had forgotten to move away than that she was showing affection.
She made me regret my uncharitable thought when she wrapped her left arm around my waist. “I know this isn’t easy for you. It’s almost over.”
I clutched her metal hand to my stomach, holding her arm around me as I turned to look at her. Some of her hair had escaped from her braid and had gone a bit wild and I barely restrained the urge to tidy it.
Would she ever admit the hunt was really over? The question hovered on my tongue, but I couldn’t ask because she was looking at me as if she’d just seen me there for the first time and I didn’t want to break whatever spell had been cast on her. Her gaze drifted over my face and settled on my lips.
The moment that might have changed both our lives ended with the bellowing of the beast. The mountain shook under us as Marisol bolted from cover, sprinting for the spears we’d set up near the mouth of the cave. As always, I chased her.
The noise of something huge moving in the darkness grew louder. Falling rocks from the adjacent cliff face crashed down around us. She bent the fingers of her metal hand around a spear and locked it into place at an upward angle. She hefted another spear in her intact hand.
The ropes strained taut as the monster threw itself against them. Unbelievably, the netting held and twisted around its flailing limbs. Deadly talons ripped at the ropes, but failed to tear them loose.
Marisol dashed toward the writhing dragon. With a wordless cry, she plunged the spear in her flesh hand into the monster’s exposed ribs.
The dragon lunged toward her with uncanny speed, despite its entanglement. She was knocked from her feet by the sudden violence of the movement, but the ropes kept her from being crushed.
“Marisol!” I ran forward and pulled her back to a safer position.
She scrambled back to her feet and grabbed another spear.
She turned toward me. Passion lit her face. In that moment she was achingly beautiful. Without a word, she pivoted back toward the dragon.
Hot, black blood poured from the wound. Marisol splashed through it, her teeth bared with feral purpose, and plunged her second spear into the dragon’s neck.
The great body lurched, tearing some of the ropes from their moorings.
Marisol’s shout of triumph was lost in the dragon’s roar of pain. She pressed her advantage, driving the spear in her metal hand into the dragon’s belly.
The tensed ropes on the far side of the cave snapped. Marisol tried to pull away as the behemoth rolled reflexively to protect its underside, but the metal arm I’d built for her wasn’t made for letting go easily.
I cried out as the dragon crushed her. I fell to my knees, saying her name over and over like a litany.
Once the hulking body came to a shuddering stop, only her metal arm, with the broken shaft of the spear still clutched in the vice-like grip, remained exposed. I was sure the arm I had made for her had killed her, and I spent a long time hating myself for it.
I traveled alone for months, destitute and nearly starving, unable to stay close to the place Marisol had died, yet unable to return home where I had met her. I had no taste for revenge, but I had left my life as a blacksmith behind to follow her on this path and now that she was gone I was bereft of purpose.
I began to tell our story in the villages I wandered through, as much to remind myself of her as to make sure that others knew of the brave woman I had fallen in love with; a woman who had saved countless lives. Eventually, people started to pay for my stories. Just a drink at first, then more as word of Marisol the Dragon Hunter spread to places we had never been, and then to places I had never even heard of—places where they didn’t believe in dragons at all.
I don’t know for sure if the dragon that killed Marisol was the same one that killed her sister. But whenever I tell the story, it’s the right dragon.
Spread the word!