Sometimes the end is just the beginning.
The knock on my door comes before sunrise. Three quick raps that sound sharp and official. When I answer and see Mayor Simos on my stoop, the words sharp and official sear my thoughts.
“It’s time,” she says.
Her face is creased from sleep and the weight of her office. A breeze rustles loose strands of her hair, wisps escaping the coronet braids.
I want to ask time for what, but her expression is cold and foreboding. I know I don’t want the answer.
“Bring your tools,” she adds, and then, almost as an afterthought, “and the book.”
Ah, yes. The book. A simple word that answers all my questions.
I know where it is, of course, locked in the trunk at the foot of my bed. The key, heavy cast iron, weighs down the cord looped around my neck. The cast iron flashes cold, then hot, against my skin.
I’m not certain I remember how to insert the key into the lock, not certain I can lift the lid. I haven’t done so since my grandmother passed the book to me before she passed on herself.
“Miri,” the mayor prompts, and she is all sharp edges with a razor-like gaze.
“Yes, sorry. Just a minute.”
I don’t invite her in. Instead, I shut the door against the protest that’s forming on her lips. I sag against the wood. There are few privileges to being me, but this is one of them.
The trunk at the foot of my bed is ancient and solid. The wood is reinforced with iron bands, the lock larger than both my fists. The key slips into the lock easier than I think it should. The tumblers click with far more assurance than I feel.
When I lift the lid, a fine layer of dust bursts into the air, filling my mouth, grit stinging my eyes. My nose twitches, but I hold in the sneeze.
I stare at the inside of the trunk, at the items I thought I’d never need to use. The saw with its serrated edge. The plane and the awl. The long, elegant pick with the hook at its tip. I pack these into a canvas bag. Next comes the book.
No one has touched it since my grandmother wrapped it in linen and placed it here. The trunk itself hasn’t moved in decades. I now sleep in the bed she slept in, the bed she died in.
The second my fingertips brush the linen, I’m afraid the soft material will crumble in my hands. The book must remain wrapped, at least for the trip to the caves. After that? Well, after that, I guess we’ll see what’s inside.
I open the door on Mayor Simos, her fist poised to knock. The reprimand is sharp in her eyes until her gaze lands on the bundle in my arms.
Even Mayor Simos respects the book.
The sun casts a glow on the horizon. There’s enough light to paint the sky indigo. And enough that I can see the playground where the village children gallop and run with the hatchlings, the earth bare and packed from feet, claws, and the swish and thump of tails.
When I was younger, I sat far back from the playground, up in the tree that shades the house my grandmother—and now I—live in. With my belly flush against a thick branch, my arms wrapped tight, I’d watch, envy fizzing inside me.
I wanted a hatchling of my own. I wanted to be chosen.
I am, of course. Chosen, that is. The book in my arms is proof of that. But I would never choose this path for myself. I would never choose it for anyone else, either.
Mayor Simos leads the way. Her coat, trimmed with gold braid, sways as we trudge toward the foothills north of the village. Cottages give way to pastures until we reach the foothills. The sun crests the horizon. Its warmth touches the back of my neck, almost like it’s urging me forward.
Tendrils of smoke issue from the caves. These caves, the ones closest to the village, are not our destination. This is where the hatchlings sleep. Their gentle snoring makes me think of puppies dozing by the fire. Somewhere, deep down, that envy fizzes once again.
Mayor Simos casts a glare over her shoulder as if my longing is both tangible and unseemly. I will my expression to remain placid, and we continue our trek up the mountain.
The snoring grows deeper, more sonorous the farther up we go. The cave openings are larger. If you were to wander inside, you might be lost for days—or forever. It would all depend on the humor of the occupant.
At last, we reach the final cave on this branch of the path. Dragon’s End, we call it. Nothing but blackness pours from the entrance. Worse is the silence. I strain my ears, hoping for a muted snore, but hear nothing.
“How long?” I ask.
“Five days, we think,” Mayor Simos says. “It’s hard to tell. They don’t need much in their retirement, so the shepherds seldom visit more than once a week.”
I nod as if this is vital information I can use. It isn’t. I have no idea what will greet me when I enter the cave.
We stand at the entrance for so long it becomes clear that Mayor Simos is waiting on something. Profound words? A dismissal? I don’t know. But there is one thing I’m sure of.
I go in alone.
I turn to do just that, but the mayor takes my arm.
“Miri, I’m sorry.”
“It may have been more than five days.”
“Has no one come around to check?”
I see the answer in her gaze. No, no one has, perhaps not for a very long time.
Instead of envy, anger bursts to life inside me. How could no one check? You could send a child of five up the slope. It isn’t dangerous. They care for our own in the way we do their hatchlings. They would never harm a child.
I clutch the book to my chest, the linen rustling in my hands.
“I’m sorry,” Mayor Simos says again. “I should’ve sent someone around. I simply didn’t think…”
I shake my head and shake away her apology. Maybe it’s her fault. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure it matters. No one in living memory has performed this task. Even my grandmother was a small girl when her own grandmother told her of the last dragon tended to in this manner. That tale has been lost over time. No one knows, for certain, what happened.
This is not supposed to be happening. I was never meant to take this trek up the path. I was supposed to live my quiet life. At some point, I’d give birth to a girl, who in time, would birth one of her own. I would pass the tools and the book onto my granddaughter. This undertaking is one that skips a generation.
Dragons live for such a long time. Chances of any of them needing our services are inestimably small. None of us ever thinks we’ll be the one to journey up the mountain, enter a dark and foreboding cave, crack open the book, and read the words inside.
After that? Here’s where the oral instructions become vague. My grandmother wouldn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—tell me.
I go in alone. Without Mayor Simos. Without any counsel. Without any hope of coming out again.
I draw in a breath. The sun has touched the valley below us. If I listen hard, the delicate snoring of the hatchlings fills my ears. I step forward, the cool air of the cave washing over me. Before I can dive in, before I can fully commit, Mayor Simos touches my arm.
“The book,” she says.
Ah, yes. The book. I consider it now, still clutched against my chest.
“In a week,” I say. “Send someone in for it. A child would be best.”
Her grip on my arm tightens.
“They would never harm a child,” I add. No matter what mess is left in my wake, this mountain possesses enough residual enchantment for a child to navigate into and back out of the cave. “A hatchling, perhaps, could go with them.”
Her grasp lessens, but I still feel her fingers against my skin. I don’t know what else she can tell me, but I want to enter the cave before she delivers any additional bad news.
So I wrench free, my arm and then sleeve slipping from her hold. I dive into the cave, committing fully. This is one rule I know, the one rule my grandmother insisted I follow.
Once past the threshold, do not hesitate.
* * *
But I do. I halt several steps inside the cave. Behind me, the entrance is barely a flicker of light. Before me? The cave splits in two, no four, no six directions.
“Which do I choose?” I say these words aloud as if there’s something else in the cave with me, something sentient and far cleverer than I am.
Nothing answers my plea except for the echo of my own voice, tiny and forlorn. I peer down each tunnel, but nothing distinguishes one from the other. Perhaps they all lead to where I need to go. Perhaps that’s why there’s no need to hesitate.
I pick the fourth tunnel, simply because I like the number four, and stride forward. The moment I do, a rumbling sounds behind me.
Rocks tumble and slide down the sides of the cave. I dash forward, pebbles and stones chasing after me. The walls of the cave shake. The earthen floor trembles, my feet skidding on the unstable surface. At last, a final boulder fills the path and blocks the entrance completely.
Yes. Of course. Do not hesitate.
I take quick, shallow breaths in the dust-laden air. The taste of earth fills my mouth. My heart thunders, much like the rocks and stones did. I wait until the dust and my breathing settle.
I peer toward the entrance. “How will they retrieve the book now?” I’m not sure who—or what—I’m asking. The rocks that block the path? Whatever force sent them tumbling in the first place?
As if in answer, a hint of sulfur rides the air.
“I guess that’s their problem, not mine.”
A rumble reaches me. I want to say it sounds like a laugh or, at the very least, a snort. More likely, the rocks are merely settling.
It’s not dark. At least, not as dark as it should be. A thin sliver of light emanates from the depths of the mountain. I’ve already hesitated enough.
I follow the only path open to me.
* * *
The strap of my canvas sack bites into the flesh of my shoulder. My arms ache from clutching the book. My fingers cramp from where I’ve gripped the sides. I can feel the hours I’ve trekked in my legs. My mouth is parched.
The muted light guides me. It’s barely there, this sliver of illumination. I don’t question it. To question it is to lose it, and I can ill afford to lose this one small advantage.
I have no provisions, didn’t think to bring any. Slowly, over the past hours, my anger at the shepherds has simmered into sympathy. How do you care for something can’t find?
And if I can’t find the dragon? What then?
The thought makes me stumble. I reach out a hand, my aim the cave wall, or really anything to keep me from falling, breaking an arm—or worse, a leg. The moment my fingers brush against the cave’s surface, a golden glow fills the space.
I remain there, palm flush with the cave wall, the stone cool beneath my touch. The glow around me, however? That looks warm and inviting. My eyes adjust, and I step closer to inspect the source.
Embedded in the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are coins, layer after layer of them. Gold and silver shine forth. The coin of our realm, yes, that’s expected, but it’s more than that. I trace my fingers along the bumps and edges, trying to discern the languages written there. They are either from places too far away or too long ago for me to recognize.
I continue forward.
Other hues join the gold and silver of the coins, the walls now studded with gems—rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Some fall as I pass, as if the slight breeze from my movements is enough to dislodge them from their perch in the cave wall.
I wonder at this. Did the shepherds never wander this deep into the cave? A single gem could keep a family fed for generations. Certainly, the dragons allow this sort of barter—a small token in exchange for care.
A wave of dizziness strikes me. The air is, perhaps, a bit thin back here. Still, it would be worth the journey, even without the lure of riches. I don’t understand why no one has ventured this far into the cave. I would gladly tend to a dragon, were I to have one.
The dizziness crashes over me again, forcing me to my knees. Before me, the path is pristine. Behind me, my footsteps are sharp outlines in the dust. No one has been this way for ages. My chest tightens until pain radiates along my breastbone. I’m not truly dizzy. I’m not deprived of air. This is something else, something that’s simmered and fizzed for a long time.
All I ever wanted was a hatchling of my own.
What I have now is someone’s loyal and neglected companion, a creature who, while not dead, is not that far away from death.
Dragons can be killed, certainly. In battle. With the sharp edge of a sword angled just so or with boulders flung with catapults. But they can’t die naturally, not as humans do. As part of our alliance, we offer them this one, final service.
It falls to one family, generation after generation. This family is forbidden any other contact with dragons, from hatchlings to elders. It’s said to contaminate the pact. Often we’re never called upon to complete this final task.
Until we are.
* * *
I find my breath. A few moments later, I muster the strength to stand and for the journey still ahead of me. The cave glows blood-red now from the gemstones in the walls. Perhaps this is intentional, meant as a warning, and my pulse beats in my throat.
I round a bend in the cave. And there, just like that—blocking my way forward—is a dragon. Its girth at midsection blocks my view of its tail and the cave beyond. I can only assume there’s a cave beyond, at any rate. Perhaps the cave ends here, and the dragon, grown so vast in old age, can no longer crawl free.
The claws on its forelimbs shine like mother of pearl. Its eyes are closed, mouth as well. If the creature breathes, I cannot detect it. Perhaps someone—a shepherd, maybe—has already done my job.
But there is no stench of death, of decay. The cave is dry, the air scented with a strange mix of brimstone and pine. It is not unpleasant.
I ease the canvas sack from my shoulder. The tools jangle, and I freeze, afraid the noise will wake the dragon.
It doesn’t move.
I place the book, still in its linen wrap, on the floor as well.
I don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the answers are in the book. That’s why it’s been passed down from generation to generation, cared for, but never read. I’ve never even been tempted before. I only ever wanted a dragon, never to kill one.
With careful fingers, I unwrap the linen. The leather cover is worn, the gold embossed title barely legible. I turn to the first page and find …
I flip to another page, and then another. I tear through the book, unconcerned with its age or condition. Nothing but yellowed parchment greets me. No words, not even barely legible ones in faded ink. All the pages are blank. At last, I stand and shake the book, hoping for a loose page or a note or something to flutter to the cave floor.
“I don’t understand.”
I whisper the words. They swirl in the space around me, their echo soft yet insistent before the sensation of being scrutinized washes over me.
I glance up and find myself staring into the golden eye of an ancient dragon.
* * *
Everything I thought I knew about my task has vanished. I’m to take my tools, the book. I am to perform what amounts to last rites for an ancient dragon. It will be in such a deep sleep that the steps I must perform to end its life won’t disturb it. This, my grandmother assured me.
Now that ancient dragon is gazing at me. A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils. Again, that odor of brimstone and pine surrounds me. I can taste the smoke against my tongue. The book slips from my fingers and crashes to the cave floor.
“I see they’ve sent me a child.”
The voice is deep and sonorous. It rolls through the space and shakes my bones.
“I’m no child.” My voice quavers, but the words come stronger than I expect. I lift my chin. “I live on my own,” I insist, as if this is proof of my maturation.
The dragon snorts a spurt of smoke. “Little more than a hatchling.”
“What am I to do?” I point to the book. “It doesn’t say.”
“Doesn’t it? Are you quite certain?”
Oh, spare me mind games with an ancient dragon. I’m ill-equipped for this sort of sparring. Besides, it must know even if I don’t. But it will no doubt make me work for that knowledge.
“Am I to kill you?” I see no reason not to be blunt.
“Are you? That seems rather rude. We’ve only just met, after all.”
“Then am I your…?” I trail off, a wholly different thought occurring to me.
“Sacrificial lamb, the morsel meant to appease me?” It tilts its head so both glowing yellow eyes can survey me, from the top of my head to the tips of my dusty boots. “You’re rather small for that.”
“Then, what am I?”
Its claws retract and then rake the earthen floor in front of me. “What you are, my child, is very much stuck.”
* * *
I very much am. Stuck, that is. Had the shepherds performed their assigned tasks, there would be provisions in here, a cistern of water at least.
“Why am I here?”
“Have you consulted your book?”
I spear it with a glare. Without water, I won’t live out the week. So I will be fierce in my dealings with the dragon.
The creature snorts another laugh. “Humans, always so inquisitive, and yet, so oddly obedient. Did it never occur to you to have a peek inside? Gird your loins for your one task in life?”
Well, no, it hadn’t. I spent my time gazing at the hatchlings. “I never wanted this.”
“Well, it seems to me you have it.” A sigh rumbles in its throat, dual streams of smoke rising from its nostrils. “A child, and an incurious one at that. What a disappointment.”
“At least it’s mutual.”
“Oh, perhaps this child has some fire, after all.”
The dragon looks not at me, but past me with so much concentration, I must resist the urge to glance over my shoulder. That’s what it wants, of course. But no one shares this space with us.
“We seem to have reached an impasse,” the dragon says. “You have no idea how to complete your task—”
The dragon regards me with narrowed eyes before continuing. “It’s any guess who will succumb first. I will be reduced to some nether-slumber while you.” Once again, it surveys me from head to foot. “Will eventually shrivel up. Will I be conscious long enough to blow the dust of your bones from this spot? Who’s to say? Shall we place bets? Winner take all?”
My heart thuds heavily in my chest, a slow, painful sort of beat. Perhaps this is why elder dragons are banished to the upper caves. All I ever wanted was a hatchling, a dragon of my own. But this one? It’s an old, bitter, cruel thing, and I want nothing to do with it.
There’s no escaping its girth, but I find an outcropping of rocks on the side farthest from the dragon. I take my tools and the book.
Yes, even the book. The leather is soft enough, and so are the pages. It will make an adequate pillow. Perhaps that’s all it was ever meant to be.
“Ah, yes, and now the poor thing pouts.” Its words are a mere whisper, although clearly, it wants me to hear them. “I abhor tears,” the dragon adds, louder now. “So, if at all possible, refrain from crying.”
This last is the only thing we agree upon.
* * *
In my dream, I am a warrior, a dragon as my mount. In my dream, we soar through the air, dodging arrows alight with flame. In my dream, the roar of battle shakes my bones.
My eyes fly open. The roar continues even as my dream fades. The world is dark, my bed like stone, nothing but the scent of brimstone and pine.
Then I remember.
The roaring grows ever louder. In the middle of the cave, the dragon thrashes its head. Its eyes are shut tight. It must be dreaming. The same sort of dream? Of battlefields and fire? Or is this something more, something worse?
It thrashes again. The agony in its cry races up my legs, my spine, settles at the base of my skull. I don’t think. I do not hesitate.
I rush forward, dodging its swinging head, nearly eclipsed by its jaw. I’ve never touched a dragon before. But from my perch in the tree, I’ve watched the village children do this so many times.
I leap and wrap my arms around the dragon’s neck. I hold on with all my strength even as my legs swing beneath me. One foot connects with the dragon’s chest, although I doubt it feels the impact.
“Shh.” I keep my voice low and soothing. There’s a trick to this, to the hushing of dragons. To say I have no training is true. But I listened; I practiced using that same tree branch. “Shh.”
Its head continues to swing, but slower now. My arms ache, but I clutch its neck, my feet scraping the cave floor.
“Evelynne … Evelynne.”
The cry rips through me. I’ve been so consumed with wanting a dragon of my own that I never considered what happens when the human a hatchling first bonds with is killed or dies.
How many humans does a dragon lose during its lifespan?
It could make you bitter. It could make you cruel. Perhaps this is why, at a dragon’s end, they are banished to the upper caves.
The dragon’s swaying comes to an abrupt halt. I dangle from its neck. I cannot see its face, but I suspect those great golden eyes are now open.
I let go and drop to the cave floor.
It takes one look at me and then collapses as if its head is too heavy for its neck.
* * *
I am a bitter disappointment. The yellow gaze the dragon casts tells me that. I remain immobile on the cave floor, palms against the dusty surface.
“You should not know how to do that,” it says.
No, I shouldn’t.
“Lace your hands,” it commands.
So I do. True, it took years to learn the correct placement, of which finger goes where. Incorrect placement of fingers, of hands against a dragon’s neck will enrage rather than soothe. It’s a skill even those with hatchlings find difficult to perfect. Indeed, I had no idea if I was performing it correctly at all.
“How do you come by this knowledge, child?” A fiery edge laces the dragon’s words, and its displeasure tastes like sulfur.
“My house overlooks the village playground.” My voice comes out steady and dull. “I would watch the hatchlings and the children. I would practice on a tree branch.”
“There’s more to it than that.” The dragon shakes its enormous head, its jaw whooshing mere feet above me. “There’s the bonding, the spellcasting. You should not … we should not.”
Because it’s forbidden, this contact. No thrill of fear courses through me, no regret. I would gladly calm this creature once again, given half a chance. I would gladly do it even if it meant my death. To prove it, I push to stand and anchor my hands on my hips.
Those great amber eyes blink, a shuttering of its gaze. When the dragon opens its eyes once again, something has shifted in its expression.
“What have they done to you, child?”
I shake my head, uncertain what it means.
“Why sequester the most talented humans like that?” The dragon murmurs the words, the question meant for its own pondering rather than for me.
Despite that, I decide on my own question. “Why do they banish the old ones to the caves?”
The dragon swings its head around so quickly that I’m nearly flattened against the floor. It regards me for a moment before speaking again.
“Forgive me, child.”
“My temper, my rash judgment. Undoubtedly I’ve lived long enough not to give in to either.”
“Or maybe it’s because you have lived so long you gave into both.”
Something sparks in that golden gaze. Its lip curls, revealing sharp and gleaming teeth. “Yes. Precisely. Do you suppose they count on that?”
Do they? I glance back at the way I came. Even if I had strength and time on my side, digging through the debris would be impossible. I peer into the darkness behind the dragon’s girth.
“What is at the other end?” I ask.
“Other than my tail?”
“Yes.” I laugh because its tone is sly and full of humor. “Other than that.”
“A dead end, appropriately enough.”
I turn my gaze upward and follow the trajectory of the smoke that rises from the dragon’s nostrils.
“That is merely a thin layer of rock,” I say.
“Oh, my child, I am old.”
“So old as that? Truly?”
“My wings. I—”
The walls around us groan, and the dragon trembles with the effort to spread its wings.
“You see,” it adds. “I have tried.”
“But, they have given me tools.” I race to the alcove and weigh each tool in my palm, judging the merits of each. I return with the awl.
I hold it up so the dragon can see.
“Indeed,” it intones. “That was their mistake.”
The dragon lowers its head. A thousand times, I have seen the children and their hatchlings perform this maneuver. I step carefully, only lighting a foot on its forehead before settling between its horns.
Something washes over me, that scent of pine and brimstone again, along with something more—the feeling that I belong here.
The dragon raises its head, so my own nearly brushes the cave’s ceiling.
“Close your eyes,” I whisper.
With my first strike, dust rains down, followed by a stream of sunlight. It touches my cheeks and makes the dragon’s scales glow a fiery red. Its power, its strength, rushes through me.
This is why they confine the ancient ones to Dragon’s End. Or perhaps it’s why we’re both here. Together, we are something more, something powerful.
With a final chip at the thin crust, the earth that blocks the way out tumbles down.
“You’re free,” I say.
“No, my child, we are.” A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils, and this dragon reminds me of an old man with a pipe, contemplating a riddle. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a flying lesson, have you?”
“I don’t suppose I have.”
“But you’ve seen how it’s done.”
“A thousand times.”
“Then you should be adequate. But first things first. Go get the book.”
The book? I peer to where it still remains on the floor, leather cracked from where my cheek rested against the cover.
“Don’t you need to return it?”
The slyness in the dragon’s voice has me sliding down its neck, scooping up the book, and then returning to that spot of honor.
“I have no saddle,” it says, “and no reins. You’ll have to hold on.”
“I have years of practice.”
The dragon’s wings tremble and shake. Its hind legs quiver. With a mighty leap, it clears the edge of the cave and unfurls its wings.
“What is your name, child?” The question reaches not my ears, but my mind. Its thoughts touch mine, and the sensation is as intimate as a kiss.
“I am Mercurial.”
“Of course you are.”
The dragon snorts a laugh and sends sparks into the air. “It is also my name.”
Mercurial swoops toward the village, wings shadowing the earth below. We are close enough now that I can see the chaos erupt on the playground. At the sight of Mercurial, a dozen hatchlings scamper and fling themselves in the air, wings beating furiously until they tumble and land once again. Their children race after them, laughing and crying out.
Work at the mill halts. The village elders emerge from what must have been a meeting, Mayor Simos among them.
“Now, my dear.”
I toss the book into the air. When it’s halfway to the ground, Mercurial shoots a stream of fire at it. The book lands at the mayor’s feet, flames chewing through the parchment.
“What a shame,” I say.
“Yes. All that knowledge, forever lost.” Mercurial circles the village a final time. “Where to, my sweet?”
“The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Dragon’s End.”
“Then hang on. We have the entire world before us.”
So I do. I entwine my arms around Mercurial’s neck. I don’t look back.
Not even once.
Dragon’s End was written specifically for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.