Focke-Drache

The dragon weighed nearly five tons and stretched ninety-eight feet from nose to tail tip. One hundred and twenty teeth filled her cavernous mouth, serrated and impossibly sharp to help her tear her prey apart. Her curved talons were a foot long, backed by leg muscles that would have made her as strong as a Tyrannosaurus rex, if any had still existed in the world. Her smallest scales were the size of large coins, the biggest the size of motorcycle tires—all of them a dull smoky black, the same color as her saucer-shaped eyes.

Her wings, scalloped like a bat’s, had a span that measured seventy-five feet—more than double that of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190F she flew behind. She critically studied the plane as the wash from its propellers teased the barbels hanging from her jaw.

The plane’s armament consisted of two 13-mm MG 131 cannons in its top decking and two 20-mm MG 151 cannons in its wing roots. It normally toted an eleven hundred-pound bomb on the center line of its fuselage rack, but a wiring problem made that impossible today, and so the dragon maladroitly clutched the bomb in her right claw.

While the dragon admired the plane’s lines and maneuverability, thinking it almost as agile as herself and possibly one of the better aircraft German engineers had produced, she remained disgusted that this particular marvel of the Luftwaffe had a short in its fuselage rack.

The bomb felt awkward and heavy in her grip, and she transferred it to her other claw. Its bulk kept her off-balance, and so she had to compensate and beat her wings faster and harder, tilting herself to the right now so she could fly level.

She’d done this before, carry bombs, but that was in the previous war. The bombs were not so large then, and the planes were slower and more colorfully painted—and therefore more interesting to watch. She remembered liking the red ones the best, the ones with three wings. She’d flown with the most daring of pilots then, a part of the famed Flying Circus. The pilots had to be brave in those decades to trust their lives to the primitive contraptions of wood and canvas. The planes sturdier now, the pilots did not have to be so adventurous or inventive. They, like she, simply had to follow orders.

The three other Focke-Wulf Fws on this mission were miles and miles ahead of her and her wingman, long out of sight because of their incredible speed. She couldn’t match these planes in that respect, but they couldn’t match her size and ferocity, and none of the pilots could match her cunning. Her role in the Luftwaffe, despite the production of ever-faster planes, seemed ensured.

She wondered if her wingman in the imperfect Focke-Wulf railed at the notion of flying at half-speed to accommodate her. A part of her hoped so; she had little respect for men that had not earned at least the Knight’s Cross. Not one of the pilots on this mission had such a medal. In the Great War she flew with several men who had that medal and more, some of them had even won the coveted Blue Max.

When Sturmbahnfuhrer Baron Gerhard von Rolf ordered today’s mission, he asked her name. She told him ‘Max,’ as that is what she’d been going by during this war. He could not have pronounced her dragon name anyway.

Max—she liked the sound of it and what it implied, forty kills. She’d had three times that many during the previous war alone.

She cast her gaze down, finding the landscape more interesting than the smooth lines of the plane. They traveled northeast, mirroring the course of the Psyol River. It was old water, meandering in wide cuts and moving slow, almost doubling back on itself here and there. In the setting sun the water glittered red-orange and made her think of the dying embers in a campfire. The banks looked wrinkled, like the tanned skin on an aging farmer’s face or the thick bark on the white oaks that used to stretch up from this part of the country. They’d all been cut down, the precious trees, used for furniture in the holes men called homes. Pity—she remembered liking the scent the white oaks gave the air.

Now she could smell only the exhaust from the imperfect Focke-Wulf.

At the point where the river narrowed, the other Folke-Wulf Fws returned, circling wide to the sides and coming up behind her, cutting their speed to match hers. She heard them chatter on their tinny radios, her keen hearing picking through the sound of the wind against her wings and the noise of the planes’ exhaust.

The others had been ‘flying observation,’ as one of the pilots reported. High and apparently unobserved, they’d found the targets and noted the absence of troops. The Russians clearly were not expecting them. It had been a brilliant move on the sturmbahnfuhrer’s part to send only four planes. Less noise from the Junkers Jumo engines, less chance of them being heard. They needed surprise on their side, and according to the sturmbahnfurher, they would need each bomb to find the mark.

July 1st. This day would mark the opening salvo of Operation Citadel, and Max intended it to be successful to please Sturmbahnfuhrer Baron Gerhard von Rolf and Adolf Hitler. The happier they were, the richer she would be.

Another loop in the river, and the target came into view. A factory and warehouse complex on the outskirts of a Russian village. The factory consisted of three wood and stone buildings, and the Focke-Wulfs would concentrate on them. Her target was the long, low warehouse sheltered by trees and rusted construction equipment.

Four bombs, four buildings.

The neglected appearance of the site would lead the casual observer to think the buildings abandoned. But spies had reported otherwise, and the dragon’s keen eyes and superb sense of smell caused her to agree. There was a hint of oil in the air, and not the kind used in the Focke-Wulfs’ engines. There was cordite, gasoline, and the sweat of men who had gone too long without proper baths. Through a gap in the metal roof of the warehouse she spied the cab of a truck.

She knew about this part of Russia. The villages supported several small flour mills, tobacco works, hemp-crushing mills, and distilleries. There were tanneries and soapworks, and the factories manufactured iron.

This complex had been an ironworks, she could tell by the detritus along the edges of all the buildings. It was all thoroughly rusted, meaning the place had ceased operation . . . though it likely had a new and deadly purpose as a hidden munitions factory, or a staging area filled with guns and bullets and bombs. The scents of the cordite, fuel, oil, and more fit her guess. Whatever was stored below, the Russians would surely mourn its loss.

And that would make Sturmbahnfuhrer Baron Gerhard von Rolf and Adolf Hitler very happy indeed.

She swooped lower, gliding now and angling toward her warehouse, spotting a camouflage net covering a machinegun nest north of her target, and another one to the west. Her wingman flew cover for her, while the other three planes headed toward the ‘abandoned’ factory buildings and began their assault. She heard the keening whistle of the first bomb dropping, followed by the second and the third, then the thuds they made that sounded almost imperceptible against the blasts that followed.

Deafening.

Hurtful to Max’s ears.

She forced the pain to the back of her mind and continued her downward spiral, watching now the men streaming out of the supposedly empty warehouse beneath her and her wingman, who was laying in a field of suppressing fire to keep them away from the hidden machineguns. Secondary explosions from the three factory buildings rocked the ground and sent some men to their knees, the stored munitions igniting and sending up gouts of flame and great puffs of smoke, all of it punctuated by screaming shards of metal careening in all directions. A siren sounded, drowned out by more small explosions.

Not quite close enough yet, Max thought.

A little more.

It must be perfect.

Max made one more spiral, then released the bomb. It struck the building squarely on the roof, falling through as it detonated. She slammed her eyes shut and beat her wings faster to take her away from the explosion, flexing her claw as she went and glad to be rid of the damned bomb. As secondary explosions sounded behind her, she streaked toward the western machinegun nest. She spied movement under the net and saw two gun-mounts swivel, noted a line of bodies on the ground nearby, courtesy of her wingman.

Inhaling, she craned her neck down and exhaled a stream of fire that incinerated the camouflage net and the men hidden underneath. She could barely hear their cries what with the flames roaring and spreading to boxes of ammunition that exploded, spitting shells in all directions. The cacophony continued as Max turned and banked, spying more men running, these heading pell-mell toward the woods. She slowed and waited until they thrashed into the brush, then she made toward them and breathed again, her furnace-breath setting the trees and the men on fire.

Above and behind her came the rat-a-tat-tat of machinegun fire from the Focke-Wulf Fws working on the other machinegun nest. Lesser explosions continued, and the air grew thicker with fire and smoke, laced with the heavy odors of chemicals and fuels that must have been stored in the buildings.

She rose and circled the blazing complex, spying a few men below and leaving them for the Focke-Wulfs. There wasn’t enough of a concentration to warrant expending her energies on another blast of fiery breath. One of the buildings had folded in upon itself so much that all the dragon saw were twisted metal beams in a blackened pile. Her target had been the largest, and muted blasts continued to sound inside it. Through the roiling gray clouds she saw bright flashes, as if from giant camera bulbs.

The Russians would surely feel this loss.

But if Hitler’s plan succeeded, today’s mission would be but a pinprick in the great bear’s side.

Max had been at the Battle of Stalingrad, which ended in February. More than three hundred thousand German soldiers died or were captured. The Soviets had pushed toward Kharkov, but a German counterattack, in which Max played a pivotal role, stopped them.

Operation Citadel would improve morale throughout Germany, the dragon knew. It would be an opportunity for the Fuhrer to claim a clear victory in Russia and payback the enemy for the failed Battle of Stalingrad. In three or four more days the maneuvers would begin in earnest. The Germans would cut off a nearly one hundred-mile-long bulge in the Eastern Front between Orel and Kharkov. The village of Kursk would be a pivotal point.

It all was to have begun in May, but bickering among the sturmbahnfuhrers and generalstabsoffiziers stalled it. And so—despite months of careful preparations—things had been put off. Until now.

Max gloried in the stench that rose from the melted factory, the odors of the munitions, burned tires, and charred flesh. She drank in the hurtful sounds of screaming men, continuing explosions—so soft compared to everything else, the crackling fire in the woods, two distant sirens keening, the whoosh of the Focke-Wulf Fws as they streaked away. Her wingman flew with them, all of them soon lost from sight.

#     #     #

It was early in the morning of the following day before Max reached her lair. She’d flown there directly after her mission, her claws still tingling from carrying the damnable bomb for so long. She had to admit, however, that it had been an effective weapon, inflicting more destruction than even her furnace-like breath was capable of. Too, she delivered her bomb with more accuracy than the Focke-Wulf Fw pilots had, and took out a larger target. She’d been more daring than they, spiraling in closer and striking at the very center of the warehouse, demonstrating that she was more maneuverable than the planes, and more skilled than the pilots. Certainly more experienced.

She considered herself without a doubt the greatest of the dragons flying in the German Luftwaffe, the oldest and largest and wisest. Not that there were all that many dragons remaining—ten that she knew of. There’d been half again that many four years ago come September when the blessed war began. Two died to Russian tanks last winter. Two more—one of them a clutchmate—were shot down over the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. And one dragon, a young bull with no stomach for war, abandoned Europe for Greenland a few months ago. Max would never abandon Germany. She enjoyed the rush of combat, and she thrived on the danger and excitement, looking forward to each mission. More than that, she loved the spoils.

The light that spilled in through the opening in her lair highlighted one of her favorite pieces—a Cubist landscape by Albert Gleizes. Hitler had presented it to her personally during the first year of the war, and she’d had it hung in this outer chamber. He had pledged her more and more treasure with each successful mission, and he’d been true to his word, a redeeming quality in the dictator. She’d talked to him at length about art that first day, discovering he shared her passion for it. In the ensuing months, and during subsequent conversations and presentations of treasure, she’d learned Hitler was a frustrated artist, who despite his inability to master the techniques, appreciated the works of others, in particular the Old Masters.

Three years ago when he was in Paris, he directed his Third Reich troops to collect the greatest works in the city and bring them to him and Hermann Goering. Many of the paintings and sculptures were displayed in Munich in the Nazi Museum, other pieces he kept in his villa and office and in hidden places such as the castle Neuschwanstein in the Alps near Austria. Still more he gave to Max (and, she suspected, to some of the other Luftwaffe dragons). But she liked to think he gave the best pieces to her.

Her lair was at the edge of Steinberg, Austria, in a salt mine that had been worked in the early 1300s and long since abandoned. At her request, Hitler sent engineers and contractors to build a cavernous, elaborate, wood-paneled vault deep in the mines where Max’s paintings could be safely stored and displayed. She traveled down the shaft to visit the vault now, tucking her wings close to her sides so not to touch the walls, where various pieces by lesser artists hung, including a still life Hitler had painted years ago. Her tail deftly flipped a switch that turned on the lights. Max’s lair stretched so far underground that the treasure repository was invisible to Allied eyes and certainly secure from their bombs. A humidifier, the hum of which she found soothing, kept the climate perfect and constant to ensure the art’s condition.

Among her collection were works by Degas, Renoir, Botticelli, Guardis, Dürer, and Van de Velde. She had an especially fine study done in 1763 by Francois Lagrénée, Portrait of a Young Girl by Edouard Manet, and Moses and the Israelites by Mihaly Munkacsy.

Some of these paintings had been looted by the Nazis from castles throughout Europe, including pieces by Guercina da Cento, Courbet, Rembrandt, Egon Schiele, and Picasso. She had drawings behind glass, including one hundred and thirty nine from the Koenigs Collection. Centerpieces included a group of six apostles rendered by Hans Holbein the Younger, and an elegant, though small, pastoral painting titled Les Jeunes Amourex by Francois Boucher.

Max’s treasures went beyond paintings. She had five pieces of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, and more than one hundred intricate gold sculptures that once belonged to Queen Helen, and reportedly had been excavated from the Troy ruins by Heinrich Schliemann, a noted German archaeologist.

Gold bars stacked a man tall stretched across one chamber wall. Nearby were bins filled with hundreds of thousands of English pounds—which Max had no clue what to do with, but certainly would not give up. Too, she had crates containing plates for counterfeit pounds and American dollars.

In the rearmost chamber were gold and silver crucifixes, a bin filled with diamonds and other precious stones, a silver reliquary festooned with enamels and gems, a stamp collection Hitler told her was worth more than three million gold marks, rock crystal flasks and vases, a liturgical ivory comb too small for her to pick up, and a variety of priceless baubles that supposedly had belonged to German warlords from the ninth and tenth centuries. The pinnacle of her collection, a piece presented by Hermann Goering two weeks past for her part in a raid on a hidden Russian airbase, was an illustrated version of the four gospels from the ninth century, held in a silver and gold binding that was covered with gold filigree and gems.

These two German wars were not her first mercenary assignments. Max dabbled in the Bohemian Revolt and fought throughout the three decades of The Thirty Years War in 1618-1648, which she considered far bloodier and more destructive than this present war or the one before. It was a series of small wars—not one as the name implied, starting in Germany and spreading through the rest of Europe. And though it began with the religious passions of the Reformation, fueled by Protestant and Catholic royalty, dynastic rivalries became involved and Sweden and France tried to limit the power of the German Holy Roman Empire. Max recalled a commander claiming that six million Germans died in those decades. But not a single dragon succumbed.

Max’s oldest treasure came early in those battles. A sculpture from Asia Minor in the year 240, she called it ‘Portrait Head of a Balding Man.’ And though she didn’t consider it overly aesthetically pleasing, she knew it historically significant. Her greatest prize from those years had been named ‘The Imperial Eagle Beaker,’ roughly as tall as one of her talons. Free-blown glass with gold leaf and enamel decorations, it dated to 1599 and was either Bohemian or German. Max didn’t care about its origins, she just admired it. Slightly smaller stood a goblet displaying the arms of Liechtenberg, definitely Bohemian, and likely made between 1500 and 1530—Max had a keen eye for dating baubles. From about the same time came the shield of Henry II of France, likely made in 1555 from designs provided by Étienne Delaune of Paris. The shield was embossed with gold and silver, and when Nazi soldiers brought Max more bits for her collection, she usually had one of them polish the shield so she could see her scaly visage in it.

There had been other conflicts that enriched her horde, including the Franco-German War when Bismarck, the chancellor of Prussia, tried to unify all of Germany under the Prussian flag in 1870. He menaced and infuriated France, and Napoleon III declared war in response. But Napoleon was captured, and in the end, King William I of Prussia was named emperor of Germany. The next four decades was an uneasy time, and Max had hoped for more hostilities. But that didn’t happen until the Great War.

In the Franco-German conflict, Max acquired a goblet etched with the arms of the Holy Roman Empire, crafted in 1711 and displayed in a glass case specially built just to house it. She didn’t risk touching it, so small and fragile. But she admired it every time she came to the lair. Another goblet—Max had so many she found it difficult to recall the histories of each—bore engravings to commemorate the wedding of Frederick II and Princess Christina in 1733.

She wondered what treasure would be added for her performance during yesterday’s bombing mission? She’d told Sturmbahnfuhrer Baron Gerhard von Rolf that there was room for more paintings on the walls and that one room of the vault remained entirely empty. Max hinted about another Rembrandt or a van Gogh, the latter of which was absent from her collection. She had difficulty forcing down her anticipation for the reward, imagining all the possibilities and dwelling again on the notion of a van Gogh, or perhaps a Monet, as she enjoyed the French impressionists. But she already had a half-dozen Monets.

“A van Gogh,” she purred.

Whatever Goering or Hitler had set aside, it wouldn’t arrive for days, certainly not until she was finished with her next mission and would make her request for some jeweled Russian eggs.

Warring on the side of the Germans in the last war and in particular throughout this one had done much to establish her hoard. Indeed, during the previous four centuries she lived in the Alps, she’d only been able to loot merchants and traveling knights. Her take from those four hundred years was a pittance compared to her haul from the wars.

“May the wars go on forever,” she hushed. She stretched on out the floor of the largest vault, closed her eyes, and thought of Vincent’s Starry Night.

#     #     #

Three days later Max flew northeast again, following the Psyol River, this time with a bomb clutched in each of her front claws. The weight of both pained her, and she’d been forced to stop twice, carefully setting the bombs down to rest her wings and talons. Two other dragons were with her, both younger and slightly smaller, each charged with carrying one bomb. They were different than the bombs designed for the Focke-Wulf Fws. Though smaller, they were practically as heavy, and her two wingmates complained about them also.

“Hateful things, these bombs.” The smallest dragon, an inky black with shiny yellow eyes, sat back on his haunches and nudged his with a talon.

Max shuddered, her eyes daggers aimed at him. “Be careful,” she hissed, “lest we never reach our target and be blown to pieces because of your carelessness.”

The dragon let out a sigh, the sound of a dry wind rustling dead leaves. “Such a heavy thing,” he said. “Good that I carry only one. Sorry you must carry two.”

The third dragon silently regarded them, she also black, but with a smattering of gray scales on her shoulders and along the veining in her left wing. She stretched like a cat, picked up the bomb in her right claw and nodded skyward.

Max flexed her talons and picked up her bombs. “Time to go.”

The air was chill and achingly thin as high as they went shortly before dawn. It was misting, and though it was summer, the rain hit Max like slivers of angry ice. Her hide was tough, though, and it only bothered her eyes. The younger dragons flew slightly beneath and behind her, observing Drache-protocol, as Max considered it. She’d prodded them last night about their hordes and rewards, bringing the matter up as casual conversation.

The results were acceptable.

The younger dragons had received herds of goats and cattle for their efforts, plus occasional crates of gold bars. Nothing of the Old Masters and no archeological relics. They wouldn’t lie to her, she being their superior, and they’d not asked her about her own horde. She wouldn’t have lied to them if they had asked. Max understood deception, especially because it was a part of the war. But she felt no need to practice it—deception was a trait that belonged to men.

Still, there were seven other dragons in the Luftwaffe, two as old as she. They wouldn’t settle for meat that they could acquire easily on their own. Perhaps one of them had her coveted van Gogh. She would look into the matter later.

The clouds were thick and heavy, and Max and her wingmen skimmed through the lowest layer as they mirrored the course of the winding old river. This high, sound carried well, and Max picked out the harsh buzz of fighters and bombers, too distant to detect the scent of their fuel. She caught sight of them long minutes later when she passed over the factory complex she’d helped bomb a few days ago.

It was a squad of Messerschmitts flying cover for nearly two-dozen Focke-Wulf Fw bombers. She recognized two of the latter planes from the previous run.

“We join these planes,” Max told her wingmates.

The dragons tucked their wings into their sides, and angled themselves like arrows, plummeting toward a city on a fork of the Psyol. The Focke-Wulfs got there first, dropping their bombs on the buildings, seemingly without discrimination. A school near a factory was struck, and across from that a church was leveled. Children ran in terror, mingling with a scattering of soldiers in the street, all of them cut down by more bombs and by the machineguns of the Messerschmitts. The factory was in flames in a heartbeat, sirens erupting everywhere. More bombs struck a second factory, and beyond it a railway station. Max remembered from the briefing that the train was one of the important targets. The tracks buckled and looked like insect legs reaching crookedly up from the ground.

There were tanks on a wide street on the other side of the burning school. Max thought this odd, given that Operation Citadel was to be a surprise. Why would a city be so guarded? There were no reports of Russian troops in this area. Was the German intelligence faulty? They bombing a few days ago would have alerted them . . . but they would not have had time to bring such support here. Eight tanks, all of them craning their turrets skyward, began firing. Suddenly Russian troops poured out of several buildings and onto the streets, all of them running to the southwest, loaded down with packs, rifles, and machineguns.

“I do not understand—” the youngest dragon howled to Max. “This was to be undefended. In the briefing—”

Max snarled, cutting off the rest of his words. She continued her plunge, but angled now toward the tanks, rather than the hospital and a third factory to the north, which had been the dragons’ original targets. The booming fire of the tanks was hurtful, as were the sounds of the bombs that the Focke-Wulfs continued dropping. In the distance, she heard what she thought was thunder, but realized after a moment it was battle sounds from over the rise, where more German forces fought. Operation Citadel was extensive, certainly not confined to this city or the land that spread away from the Psyol River basin.

A shrill whistle sounded, and she risked a glance over her shoulder, seeing a Focke-Wulf careening down, struck by a shell from one of the tanks.

Closer, she told herself.

Just a little closer.

She passed above one tank, and then another, dropping one of her bombs on the third tank in the line, and streaking over the rest of them, coming up and around in a tight bank. The bomb found its mark, crippling the tank she struck and the ones on either side. Smoke billowed out of the hatches.

The youngest dragon copied her, though he wasn’t as precise in his efforts. His bomb struck the street behind a tank, creating a crater the tank slid into, effectively stopping it. Men spilled out of the hatch, only to be killed by a spray of bullets from a passing Messerschmitt. The young dragon continued following Max, jaws working and obviously asking her for direction. But she couldn’t hear him above the machinegun fire of the Messerschmitts and the ‘booms’ sounding from the four remaining tanks.

Smoke billowed from bombed buildings and two downed Focke-Wulfs, and the scent of charred wood and flesh wafted up from the village. Overhead, lightning flashed, echoed by soft thunder.

Russian troops! More of them! Max gasped. And all those tanks! How could the Russians have known the Germans were coming here this day? Fortunate the Russians had no dragons on their side. Of the enemy, only the British employed dragons, three of them that Max knew of, relegated to defending London and its environs. Save for the young bull who fled to Iceland, dragons were found only in Europe and China in this age, and the ones in China were worshipped and never asked to participate in wars.

The Russian soldiers looked like ants scurrying down the street to meet the charge of the German ground forces. So many of them, they flowed between the buildings in such numbers she couldn’t see the cobblestones beneath their feet. She dipped toward them as she swung back to the tanks, spreading her wings wide and exhaling her fire-breath, catching more than a dozen soldiers who died too quickly to scream. She heard the young dragon breathe behind her, a sense of pride swelling that he mimicked her.

A moment more and she flew over the tanks again, blessedly releasing the other bomb, flexing her sore talons, and destroying two more tanks. Two remained, and she trusted her other Drache wingman would manage those. She looked for the other female, seeing only the young male behind her.

“Where?” Max shouted to the male. “Where is J’shalathar’re?”

He looked as confused as she, then his mouth gaped wide in surprise.

Max followed his gaze as she banked beyond the tanks and the troops, turning south toward the approaching German ground forces. The third dragon stretched broken and twisted between two squat buildings, a hole in her chest from a tank round. Black blood pulsed from it, and though J’shalathar’re still lived, she wouldn’t for long. Her fixed eyes looked skyward, seeing nothing, Max was certain.

Nine dragons left in the Luftwaffe.

Roaring in rage, Max turned back to the remaining tanks. The two turned down a street, rolling over debris from a bombed building, the tank in front raising its turret and swiveling to get a bead on Max.

She inhaled sharply and dove on the lead tank, releasing her furnace-breath and watching it engulf her target. She breathed again on the second one, pulsing her fire down the turret and into the air slits, roasting the men inside. She heard their screams, brief and horrible, heard the young dragon behind her breathing on the tanks, too, then asking what to do next. The bombs gone, the dragons could not effectively go after the hospital and the third factory.

“What?” he shouted to her. “What now?”

Max didn’t answer him, just flapped her wings harder to take her higher. She felt machinegun bullets striking her stomach. They bounced off her scales, feeling like fly bites to a man. She was furious over the death of the female dragon. Not because there was now one fewer dragon in the world . . . when there were so few dragons remaining to begin with . . . but because the dragon had been in her ‘squad’ and was her responsibility. The dragon’s death was a black mark on Max’s otherwise impeccable record.

Max did not mourn J’shalathar’re, nor feel the slightest measure of sadness. Neither did Max mourn the deaths of the Russians in the tanks or on the street, or the ones beneath her now that she incinerated with another blast of her breath. She didn’t mourn the Germans in the downed planes, or the ones dying on the ground to the approaching Soviet troops. She didn’t mourn the innocent children. Grief did not exist for her and her kind. Dragons and men were either ‘here’ or ‘not here,’ dead or living, no emotion attached to either state. Max was not capable of mourning.

She was capable of desire, however, and had a strong desire for success and victory. She understood loss—but only in the material sense of gaining or losing territory or treasure or a wingman that would have helped contribute to her success. She also understood loyalty, and she’d sworn hers to Germany many decades past. In exchange for her service, she was paid in gold and art—wealth she understood above all else.

She thought of van Gogh as she arced over the city toward the oncoming German troops. She would fly cover for them. In the distance she spotted fusiliers, heavy infantry units, entering the city from the south, east, and west roads. They were fahrtruppen, fast troops, those on foot running hard, trucks speeding up the road between their lines. She heard orders barked, sounding like a whisper given the machineguns, rifles, and the thrumming of an anti-aircraft gun from somewhere behind her. She picked through the noise and the droning sound of the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, trying to hear just what the commander was saying. A dozen kettenkrads, tracked motorcycles, raced behind the trucks, adding to the dissonance and keeping her from hearing any distinct words.

She passed over a light truck in the lead that had a granatwerfer mounted on the right side of the hood. The window was knocked out on the passenger side, and a soldier leaned through the open space, fitting a grenade into the mortar’s tube, then firing it. He reached for another. She didn’t have to look to know he was launching them at the Russian soldiers flowing down the street and to the edge of the city. Midway over the mass of German forces, Max turned again, the young male flying at her side now. Wingtip to wingtip, their massive bodies cast a shadow over the soldiers and trucks, making grayer a countryside already gloomy from thick clouds that cut the sun.

Aufklärung?” the young dragon called to Max.

Nein. We are not flying reconnaissance. We are Focke-Drache,” she replied, the strength of her words clearly heard above the racket from the trucks and guns. “Like the Focke-Wulf bombers, we are ground support now.”

The young male nodded his understanding, and the pair escorted the German force into the city.

At the edge of the first residential district, Max opened her maw and reduced the first line of Russians setting up a border defense to ashes. She listened to the sounds of popping flesh as her wingman roasted the ones just behind. She heard cheers from the Germans streaming below and behind her, then all she made out was the harsh spitting sounds of machinegun, the whine of mortar shells, and the explosions from the Focke-Wulfs’ bombs.

The minutes stretched into an hour as the fighting continued. It shouldn’t have been like this, Max knew from the briefing. It should have been strategic bombing, followed by the German soldiers capturing key points in the city and shooting anyone who resisted. They’d expected some Russian soldiers, but not hundreds, not tanks, not anti-aircraft guns mounted on buildings at the corners of the city. They’d not expected to loose any bombers, or Messerschmitts . . . three of which were down to the anti-aircraft. They certainly hadn’t expected to lose a dragon.

They hadn’t expected any of this.

Max strained to pick up any conversations below, but could discern only the occasional shouts and the never-ending screams. She breathed and breathed until there were no more flames in her belly, and she landed atop the hospital to rest. A moment later and she tore at its roof with her impossibly sharp talons, slicing through pebbled tar paper and wood and bricks until she spied people through the hole she’d made and began grabbing and squeezing them.

All around her, the city burned. No more bombs fell; Max knew the Focke-Wulf Fws had dropped everything they had and were now relying on their machineguns. People still screamed, Germans and Russians, interspersed with sounds of breaking glass and falling brickwork, mortars blasting, and the squeals of tires. The intensity of the sounds continued to pain Max, and she was not able to shove it all to the back of her mind. So she ground her massive teeth together in response to the agony, and tore at the hospital more ferociously. She would have continued in her grisly work until the hospital was leveled, but the noise above her grew louder, and she looked up to see what was adding to her misery.

“Yaks.” She spit the word out like it was a rancid cow.

Flying in tight formation overhead were twenty Yakovlev fighters, accompanied by a dozen Lavotchkin-type planes bent on chasing the Germans from the sky.

Max roared to her wingmate and pushed off the hospital, knocking over what was left of one of its walls in the process and burying people running in the street. She focused on her heart and her stomach, stoking the natural furnace inside her and searching for some spark to fuel her fiery breath.

She’d flown against these fighters once before. They were not as well engineered as the Messerschmitts or the Focke-Wulfs, they lacked the speed and armament, though they were maneuverable. She looked for the older Yaks, as she remembered that these were made of wood. Quickly spotting one, she made for it, not bothering to tell her wingmate which targets were better.

The Yaks were elegant in their simplicity. To her eye, the wings looked almost stubby compared to the Messerschmitts’, and the colors were much drabber—mud brown with black and dull yellow bands and splotches, as if a colorblind man with no sense of artistry had been conscripted to paint them. Far worse than the bland colors of the Focke-Wulfs.

Because the Yaks had slowed when they approached the city to engage the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, Max had little trouble catching one. Her talons sunk into its wooden wings, shredding the horrid paint scheme. With a great ‘yank,’ she ripped the wings off and hovered, clutching them, allowing herself a moment to soak up the minor victory as the broken Yak fell onto a mass of Russian soldiers below. Then she dropped the wings and shot toward the next Russian plane. This, too, was one of the older models, the wood splintering before the pilot could react. She craned her neck over the cockpit and gave him a toothy grin, noting the terror on his face as she tore off a wing and then pushed off the craft, sending it down to explode against the cobblestones.

She felt rain falling hard now, and felt the spit of machinegun fire against her hide, one of the Yakovlev fighters headed straight at her, firing as it went. These guns had more power than the ones held by the ground troops, and so some of the bullets penetrated her scales. No serious damage, they stung and put her in a foul mood and helped power her furnace. She opened her maw as wide as possible and breathed at the plane. The fire rushed out to engulf it, steam billowing from contact with the rain, then smoke roiling in all directions as the Yak exploded.

She shot straight up at that moment, avoiding the pieces of metal and wood that spun away, and nearly colliding with a pair of Lavotchkin fighters. Lashing out with her tail, she struck a Lavotchkin’s wing and set it off balance, sending it into the fighter next to it. Higher she went, the rain cleansing her eyes of smoke and grit. She opened her mouth and let it cool her tongue and throat. Still higher, until the sounds below were softer, then she leveled off and glided, relishing the cool summer breeze and the rain. Her chest ached from where the bullets pierced her. She could tell they hadn’t gone deep, but knew they would forever fester and remind her of this day.

One more glance skyward to drink in a bit more rain, then she looked down and took in the battle, pleased to see her wingmate climbing toward her and away from the planes. The sky over the city was full of aircraft, the paint schemes and wing designs making it easy for Max to tell the sides apart. The Messerschmitts were the fastest and were spitting bullets everywhere, taking down one Yak after the next. But the Yaks outnumbered the Germans, and were not without their own victories.

Max couldn’t see just how many planes on either side had crashed. But she’d been responsible for five planes; bringing her total in this war to thirty-eight. Two more, and she’d have the treasured number the pilots aimed for during the previous war. The Great War, she recalled them naming it. The war when the planes were more colorful and the pilots more daring. When they gave out the medal she coveted and should have received.

No matter, she’d get her forty kills and then some today, and she’d demand a van Gogh and a dozen Russian jeweled eggs for her participation. She picked two Yaks on the outskirts of the city, on the edge of the aerial battle where there would be less chance she’d be peppered with bullets. A nod to her wingmate, and they dove toward the targets, catching sight of another Russian squadron streaking in from the north.

She stretched her talons forward and slammed into one, latched onto the wings and let her great weight knock it down. She watched the pilot struggle with the controls, yanking back on the stick with all his strength. When the tallest of the city’s buildings loomed into view, she released the plane, and the Yak plummeted onto what was left of the hospital.

Then Max stoked her furnace breath and went after Russian soldiers on the ground. Time to support the German panzergrenadier, the armored infantry that was fighting its way into the heart of the city.

She and her wingmate gave the battle everything, fighting until their wings ached and threatened to keep them out of the sky. There was no more fire inside her by the time the retreat was sounded, and though she’d never backed down from a battle before . . . she did this time.

In the days to follow she bombed villages and military targets, flew with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts along the Psyol River and deeper into Russia. Always they were driven back. The sound of the retreat cry was more painful to her than all the bombs and machinegun fire.

Ruckzug!” She heard each day. “Retreat!”

#     #     #

She learned in the months following Operation Citadel that because the Germans had delayed in launching the offensive, the Russians had months to prepare, gleaning bits of information from spies. The Russians laid more than four hundred thousand landmines behind the front line, and dug more than five thousand kilometers of trenches. They gathered a massive army, with more than a million men, more than three thousand tanks, more than twenty thousand pieces of artillery. And more than two thousand planes.

The Germans had put so much effort into this strike that Max almost felt sad, almost felt the twinge of grief she knew men often expressed during wartime.

By fall only a half-dozen dragons remained in the German Luftwaffe. Max continued to fly with various squadrons, always carrying bombs now, and always following orders to the best of her ability. She understood loyalty.

She’d retreat to her lair from time to time, admiring her paintings, including a van Gogh, which was hung from a wall in the previously-empty vault. In a case beneath it were four jeweled Russian eggs and a Blue Max medal. It had been Goering’s, and he’d presented it to her.

By the following spring, she knew there’d be no more treasure coming to her lair during whatever remained of this war. Hitler and his officers were spending their efforts on planning, not presenting the dragons gifts.

She stretched out in her deepest vault, admiring the brushstrokes on the van Gogh.

But there would be another war, and she would add to her art collection then. Men could never get along for any extended period of time. Religion, wealth, land . . . they’d find some reason to start fighting. And she would offer her services to help one side, hopefully the German side—for a price.

She would wait. She had patience, and she centuries left to live.

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