After the last battle--after the failure of his mission, with everything going down in flames--the winter dragon fled from his former masters, from the smoke of battle and the scent of blood.
He managed to shed most of his armor, but the gauntlet covering his left foreleg had long since fused to the damaged limb beneath, and would not come free. Soot-darkened as it was, the star gem covered in ashes and blood, it was barely distinguishable from his shadow-dark scales. It didn't make it any harder for him to hide himself in rocky shadows or the night sky.
He was not one of the great dragons, after all. He had long been a ghost, sent to do his masters' bidding where no dragon must be seen. He knew how to keep himself out of sight.
It was almost the only thing he knew.
He fled for days and nights, on and on, out of the country of his masters, away from every place he knew. Every place where he had ever done anyone harm. He would not be his masters' creature anymore, not ever again. He would not be owned. He would belong to himself alone.
He could not cease to be a dragon, but he had no wish to spread flame and fear everywhere he went.
If he had known that he was looking for a safe place to hide, he would have despaired the first night. It was only when he found the cave, long since abandoned by some dragon of old, that he knew he had found what he needed, and could rest at last. He crawled deep into the lair's hidden chambers, curled up on the hoard that would be his now, if he could keep it, and slept for days.
When everyone in town became convinced that a dragon really had come again to the Old Lair, and that the town would have to offer it tribute, they all looked at Steve.
Honestly, he was relieved.
He had never quite belonged in Brooklyn, for all that he had been born and raised there. He had too many ideas, too many big dreams, too much interest in making beautiful things instead of useful ones. It was the natural result of being a sickly child who had grown into a man too slight and small for farm work or the other heavy labors that a fatherless man might do to make his way.
Steve's mother had been a healer in the town, which was half the reason Steve had survived to this useless adulthood. The other half, his mother had often said, was pure stubbornness. But his mother had died, and it had been other women who learned her trade and took her place. Steve, left behind alone, lived now in a rented room above the tavern--though his rent consisted of a few pennies paid to the landlady on the rare occasions when he could scrape them together.
He did what little jobs people in the town found for him: a bit of scribing, a half-day's mending or painting. He lent a hand when and where he was needed, minding the apothecary's shop or washing dishes in the tavern, but often he was left with nothing to do at all. He made his own paper from bits of rag and wild reeds he collected, and now and then he sold a sheet or two.
Once he had even sold one of the pictures he drew on his paper, to a stranger passing through.
After that, he had dreamed of going to the city, where he might sell paper and drawings all the time, perhaps even learn to paint or sculpt. But the dreams faltered in the light of day.
He had no money and few supplies to make such a trip. Outside of Brooklyn he would be a stranger, whom no one would feed or house simply because he was one of their own. He could more or less bear to be looked after by the town as things were, in the hope that someday he might find a way to repay every debt he owed, but he could not ask anyone to give him the things he would need to leave Brooklyn behind and make a new life far away.
Even if he could reach the city, he knew what he would find there: artists and artisans who had trained from childhood, apprenticed to masters who taught them all the secrets of their craft. It would be the same as the way the apothecary and smith taught their apprentices in Brooklyn, and every farmer taught his sons to tend the land.
Steve, fatherless and friendless, would be nothing in the city, even more than he was in his own town.
So he had stayed, and had done what he could to pull his weight in Brooklyn, slight as it was. And then the signs of the dragon were seen and tracked to the Old Lair. That raised the question of offering tribute, and finally Steve knew what he was good for, and how he might repay all that had ever been given to him.
He stood up from the corner of the tavern, where he had been sitting in his customary spot out of the way, listening to the leaders of the town discuss the problem of the dragon.
"I'll do it. I volunteer. No one else should have to--to lay down--"
Words failed him as he thought of exactly what he was volunteering for. He could only nod sharply to the faces of people who had always seen him as the fatherless Rogers boy, Sarah's son. He waited until some of them nodded back, and then, knowing his offer had been accepted, he turned and walked out.
He didn't slow down until he was out on the edge of town, at the bridge over the brook--small river, really--that gave the town its name.
Steve leaned on the edge of the bridge and looked down into the water, letting the reality of it catch up with him.
It had been something like a hundred years since there was a dragon in Brooklyn, but everyone knew how this worked. No one went near the Old Lair--even kids didn't play on that rocky outcrop up above the town.
Everyone kept a little something set aside for tribute, for when the dragon comes to call. Steve kept a couple of silver pennies tucked away for that, the same ones his mother had kept for that purpose. No matter how poor he was, no matter how much it galled him to accept help, he kept those silver pennies of his mother's, just in case. So that when the dragon came to call, he'd be able to do his part the same as anyone.
But a dragon wouldn't only be given silver and gold. A dragon would be given a person, too. Sacrifice, they were called sometimes, but they weren't given to the dragon to kill.
They were for the dragon to use.
That was why whoever it was had to be a virgin. You couldn't give a dragon used goods.
Everyone in town knew Steve had never caught a woman's eye for so much as a dance on the green or in the tavern while the fiddler played. They knew he had never had a master or patron who might have taught him how to please a man, as well as a more public trade.
Steve was untouched, and everyone knew it. The handful of others who were of age and in the same state were all someone's daughter or son, respectable and with prospects for marriage someday. But there was no family to mourn the loss of Steve, no future he would be throwing away. He was the right choice, the obvious choice--and anyway he'd volunteered.
"Don't worry." Steve didn't bother to look back, just waited for Sam to come over beside him. "I'm not gonna jump."
It had been two summers back that fourteen-year-old Ellen, a farmer's daughter breaking her heart over a neighbor girl, had tried that. She'd been tumbled down nearly to the lake and sprained her wrist before she clambered out of the brook in front of a group of women gathering reeds. No one ever teased her about it to her face, but the absurdity of jumping from this particular bridge for anything but a bracing splash was well established.
"Really, though," Sam said softly. "You sure about this?"
Sam didn't come from Brooklyn--he'd been born clear up in Harlem and gone away to war, where he'd become fast friends with a Brooklyn boy--the smith's son, Riley. Sam had brought home the news of Riley's death to his family, and when they learned that Sam was an orphan himself and in no hurry to return to Harlem, they took Sam in and began teaching him their trade.
Things were different in Harlem, maybe. It was a bigger town, nearer the city. Maybe it wasn't so clear there that if somebody shirked a duty, one of his neighbors would have to take it up.
Steve just shook his head. "There's no one else, Sam. And even if there were--I can't stand aside and ask that someone be sent unwilling, not when I'm..."
Sam stood beside him in silence for a while and then said in a lighter tone, "I was just thinking maybe we oughta send someone sturdier. If that dragon wears you out before the summer ends, we'll be sending someone else up the hill anyway."
Steve snorted. Sam had a mothering sort of soul, despite his smith's size, but he'd learned the limits of what Steve would accept in the way of coddling. "I'm tougher than I look. I'll last long enough."
Sam's hand found his shoulder and squeezed. "You ever need a little doctoring, you send up a signal, huh? I learned a few things in the war, and saw more."
Steve nodded, swallowing hard against the thought of what Sam might see if Steve needed help badly enough to call him there.
Sam shook him gently by that grip on his shoulder and added, "Just don't go thinking it's gotta be you because no one will miss you, man. Because that's not true."
Steve closed his eyes and nodded, and let Sam draw him into a hug.