Given that he was bound to a stake about to be burned alive for practicing magic, Jon was fairly certain his day couldn't get any worse.
Then the dragon showed up.
Jon felt the tingle run through his mind while the village elder was waving the torch around screaming about how apparently it was evil to use magic to save drowning toddlers from a flash flood. At first Jon just thought the mental shiver was fear -- there was so much of that coursing through his veins, it would have made sense.
Then the tingle bloomed into anticipation, grim determination, and
"I ought to just kill them all" - "Don't you dare" - "Not even the mean one with the torch" - "NO, I'm serious" - "Spoil my fun"
and then everyone started screaming and scattered just as the huge figure landed in the middle of the village hard enough to make the ground shudder.
It let out a thundering roar and a searing rush of flame that sent all of the villagers who hadn't yet made it into the forest diving for the ground. The thatched roofs of the nearest hovels burst into flame.
Jon stood frozen against the stake; when the dragon swung its head around and leveled a glittering stare on him his mind went blank of all of the magic he knew.
Not that any of his little spells could save him from a dragon. He couldn't even save himself from an angry mob or death by immolation.
The dragon sucked in a breath, the air around its mouth shimmering with heat. Just as it got a lungful, it turned away and blasted another jet of fire around the village. All of the villagers who had looked up or tried to get up and run flung themselves face down again, screaming.
The touch on Jon's arm shocked a terrified squeak out of him.
"Relax," someone said against his ear.
The voice was familiar. It was the "don't you dare" voice Jon had heard moments ago. In his head.
Hyperventilating became suddenly easier as the coils of rope around his chest loosened and fell away. Then his hands were free, and he could twist enough to see the man crouching to cut the rope from around his ankles.
"Okay." The man stood, slotting his hunting knife into its sheath on his thigh. "We need to get into the trees."
He grabbed Jon's arm again -- Jon was still stunned frozen -- and dragged him toward the forest. At the forest edge, the man stopped and turned.
Jon finally found his breath, and his voice.
"What's going on?" he gasped. "Who are you?"
"Hang on a second," the man muttered. He shifted to stand in front of Jon and held a hand out, palm toward the village.
Jon followed his gaze and found the dragon had turned. Its tail lashed, knocking down a few burning hovels, as it faced the stake and piled-up tinder where Jon had been bound moments before.
Where Jon and his rescuer stood now only a handful of feet away.
"No," Jon said.
He heard "Ready" and then the dragon let loose.
The fire incinerated the stake and the tinder and the trees around them went up like torches. Jon braced himself for pain, but it never came. A hot wind rushed over them, but at an invisible point bare inches from the man's outstretched hand the fire parted. It rushed around them, and over them, leaving them in a tenuous bubble of sweltering heat.
The man's sleeve slid up his arm a little from the wind, and Jon saw huge patches of shiny, pink skin -- old burns.
That does not instill confidence -- he thought, but the next thing he knew the dragon stopped roaring.
The burning trees crackled and hissed around them. Jon and the man both held their arms over their heads while they ran, dodging burning underbrush and patches of flame on the ground.
They didn't stop until they made it to the river. It was still swollen from the flood, but had receded enough to leave sprawling puddles along the flat bank.
Jon splashed into one; his shoes were smoking from the burnt ground. The man slid into it next to him, dunking himself entirely. Jon didn't think he'd been on fire, but the dunking didn't look accidental either.
When the man lurched out of the puddle and flopped onto his back on the ground, Jon said, "Are you okay? Did you get burned?"
The man had an arm draped over his face. Jon could see healed burns on that arm too.
Shaking his head without looking at Jon, the man said, "No, just. Fuck. I hate fire. Had to cool off."
A shadow passed over them. Jon glanced up in time to see the dragon swoop low over the trees. Before Jon could yell something obvious and unhelpful like, "OH GOD THE DRAGON" he heard,
Jon looked at his rescuer, who had moved his arm from his face and was glaring up at the dragon.
"So's your mother, lizard brain"
Jon was sitting right there beside him, looking down at him, so when the thought was accompanied by a golden flash in the man's blue eyes Jon saw it clearly.
Although, of course. The man had held off fire, hadn't he?
"You're a sorcerer," Jon said.
Raising his eyebrows, the man said, "No kidding. What tipped you off, the magic or the fact that I have my own personal dragon stalker?"
Gliding down between the trees, the dragon splashed down in the river. The river ran wide, but shallow, so the water only came up to the dragon's chest. It rolled like a bird in dirt, kicking up muddy water and sending waves rippling out all around it.
Jon just stared between the dragon and the man. "But you saved me."
Eyebrows rose higher.
"But," Jon said. "Sorcerers are --"
The man snorted as Jon broke off. "Evil? Like you?"
For a moment Jon could just sit and blink. Of course. He knew that. All his life he'd been taught sorcery was evil, even while using his own small magics to do things like help his family's crops grow, help their cows birth healthy calves. Lift kids out of flooded rivers.
Of course he couldn't be the only one who wasn't evil.
A laugh shuddered out of him and he ran shaking hands through his hair. "Sorry. I didn't mean. Sorry. It's been a long day."
The man sat up, and gave Jon a friendly slap on the shoulder as he rolled to his feet.
"Don't worry about it." He brushed ineffectually at the mud on his clothes before giving up on it with a scowl. Then he held out a hand. "But we should go. The villagers will probably just assume the dragon killed you, but somebody might have half a brain and decide they should search the woods just to be thorough."
Jon clasped the offered hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. He didn't follow immediately when the man started for the dragon.
"Thank you," Jon said. He grimaced weakly. "I wasn't looking forward to dying like that."
The man paused. "Nobody does," he said, not looking at Jon. After another pause, he glanced over his shoulder. A small smiled turned up the corner of his mouth. "So you ever ride a dragon before?"
He laughed when Jon's eyes got big.