The midwinter festival was a time for giving gifts and bringing a little light to the long dull winter days. Not least of these gifts was the tribute prepared for the Dragon of Saxonia. The massive red beast typically went into a sort of hibernation during the winter months, eliminating one worry during the leaner times.
Midwinter, however, marked a time when the Dragon would wake ravenous. The people of the city and her surrounding farms and ranches quickly realized that leaving a tribute at the base of the mountain where the Dragon made its home served to keep the beast asleep longer. The easy meal fed the beast and encouraged a swift return to slumber, rather than getting warmed up in the search for food and potentially distracted with destruction.
In the beginning, the cattle and sheep herders had born the brunt of the yearly tribute. Until a rash of disease one year had forced a tribute of crops instead, and had placated the Dragon without ill effect. So, the people had chosen to alternate from then on, sharing the burden equally between livestock, crops and the odd tribute of seafood from the coast when the fishing was good.
This year had been almost ruinous.
A drought had not only made the harvest lean but had restricted the grazing, and resulted in thin, sickly livestock. The fishing boats hadn't managed to bring in enough surplus to create a decent tribute either, hard pressed to keep up with the demand of hungry townsfolk. And since the one year they had attempted to placate the Dragon with tradable goods had ended in disaster, the Lord of the manor, his advisors, and a couple spokesmen for the farms and ranches met to decide what would be done.
"We must give some sort of tribute. I will not have the beast rampaging across my lands, decimating what little food stores we have and leaving a trail of blood behind it." The Lord paced back and forth across the meeting room, brow furrowed and hands clasped behind his back.
"Could we perhaps send for assistance from the King? Surely there are knights capable of taking on the beast."
The Lord grimaced, shaking his head. "Seven knights have attempted to kill the great worm. Some of them with the help of soldiers. None of those brave men have returned."
The assembled men turned to look at the old farmer who had spoken. It was his first contribution to the conversation thus far. He looked up from his study of the wood grain of the table in front of him and found himself the center of attention. He completed his thought.
"There is a girl. In my village. A demon has settled itself in her soul and stolen her voice. All of our attempts to exorcise the evil from her have met with failure thus far. Perhaps dragonfire can cleanse her, where our priests could not?"
The Lord hesitated, contemplating. "You don't think this demon will possess the dragon instead if it consumes the girl?"
An old retired soldier huffed, looking unenthusiastic about the entire affair. But then, he had always been of the opinion that they should simply throw everything they possibly could at the Dragon until it was defeated. "Giving the beast a taste for human flesh will only ensure the next rampage will include peasantry with the counting of the dead."
Sighing, the Lord shook his head and resumed his pacing. "If the seven knights and two score soldiers hasn't given it a taste for human, I imagine one girl won't make much of a difference. Nay, my only concern is if a dragon consuming a demon would kill the demon, or allow it to possess the dragon." He finally came to a decision. "The risk is worth it. Give the Dragon the girl."
The bitter wind whipped across the land, moaning through the fire ravaged husks that had once been a grand forest. The girl shivered and hugged herself a little tighter. She was not dressed for the season and the man behind her was in no mood to share his fur-lined cloak. His breastplate was cold and unforgiving against her back as well, offering not even that small measure of comfort.
Not that she was eager to cozy up to this man. He reeked of suspicion and anger. It made the journey that much more miserable.
The horse carrying them ever closer to the Dragon's mountain shied beneath them, dancing and whickering until the man regained control. She couldn't say she blamed the horse. Fear had long ago settled in her stomach, ever since the news that the year's tribute to the Dragon would be her.
It wasn't really the prospect of dying that frightened her. They told her there was a demon in her, though she wasn't sure she believed it. The priest's attempts to rid her of the evil within her had been getting more and more desperate, and some had begun to suspect her of making a pact with the devil himself if the demon in her refused to be exorcised. They had begun to suspect her of witchcraft.
Witches got burned.
She hadn't really been expecting her pyre to involve a Dragon, but given the destruction she could witness around her... It was a small consolation that burning in Dragon fire would be a far swifter end than burning at the stake. And should the creature decide to eat her rather than burn her, well, she supposed that would still be a quicker death than being forced to watch the flames climb her body.
Another freezing wind whipped across them and the man behind her muttered about foul omens and troublesome wenches.
The man guided the horse into the rough skirts of the mountain. The barest of trails could be found and followed, where previous tributes had been herded or driven over the years. The trail began to switch back and forth to make travel easier as the moutainside steepened and she peered upwards when there was a break in craggy rock and skeleton trees.
A soft flake stung the tip of her nose as gentle snow began to fall. Just tiny flurries. But the dark clouds shrouding the top of the mountain promised a blizzard in no time at all. She stiffened when a thunderous rumble rolled down the mountain. There had been something otherworldly about that sound, that made her believe it wasn't the weather.