Nothing shines quite like gold. The jewels looked tawdry beside it, in the glimpse I took before lashing the bags to the mule's back. It was a small load, but a rich one.
The dragon would be pleased. This time.
I could feel his brand between my shoulder blades, a constant sliver of warmth that would only cool when I started back to his caves. The dragon's mark, the imprint of one flame-heated claw—a reminder not to stray too far.
For perhaps the thousandth time, I considered leaving. Taking the gold and never going back. And like always, I didn't quite dare. Not with him behind me. Not as long as he lived, growing his hoard in the mountain caverns, breathing fire at the fools who came to slay him, like the one who rode out this morning, the last in a line of doomed heroes--
The warmth of the brand flickered, fading.
Hope is a strange feeling when it comes suddenly. I didn't recognize it; it only seemed, in the moments before the mark cooled completely, that the world grew still.
Sound returned first. My yells rose to the sky, startling the mule into motion. We rushed along the path, heading away from the dragon's caves, far, far away, to where the afternoon sun gleamed like gold in the distance.