For November, it’s stories of saying goodbye, letting things go, and endings that bring about new beginnings.
The hue and cry of the villagers woke Aleag from a sound sleep. Dreams of ice and granite shattered, leaving him with the scent of spring in his nostrils—the elusive and tantalizing hint of violet, the heavy perfume of lily of the valley. He stretched, dug his claws into the earth, and peered down the mountain.
The villagers clambered up the mountainside, pitchforks and handcrafted spears clutched in their fists—as if such things could pierce his scales.
Did they need to do this every spring? At best, it was tedious. At worst?
At worse, something—or more likely someone—would knock the delicate balance between human and dragon off-kilter. Aleag was growing weary of the whole charade. He wouldn’t be responsible for the resulting destruction.
At the center of the crowd, a young woman stumbled. Her wrists were bound, her feet bare and oddly pink. Her gown fluttered around her ankles like sea foam. Every few steps, she glanced over her shoulder as if the threat was behind her instead of straight ahead.
Curious, Aleag emerged from his cave, tail casting a graceful arc once free of its confines. Sun glinted off his scales, its heat warming his blood and clearing the last of the icy dreams from his head.
He could taste his next meal in the air.
The villagers approached, scrambling over the last rocks and boulders to reach the outcropping that held his cave. The lord mayor took the lead. The man’s blood trembled in his veins. Aleag could feel it from where he waited.
Interesting how some men conquered fear with the threat of shame.
Then again, when you were offering up such a tasty morsel, courage had little to do with it.
Aleag deigned to meet them at the stake, the location where—year after year—they secured their sacrificial lamb, where—year after year—they would barter.
Aleag always bartered.
After all, he saw no reason to make this easy for them.
* * *
Someone yanked the rope. Lily stumbled forward, more a dog on a leash than a human being. That someone jerked again. Not Peter. No, never Peter, not in his new role as village lord mayor. Peter wouldn’t soil his hands in all this.
The rope passed from villager to villager—her friends, her neighbors, her patients—until, at last, it was Jack who had the unlucky chore of tying her to the stake.
“I’m sorry, Lily,” he whispered, an anxious glance in Peter’s direction.
“No more than I am.”
She’d known from the start that if it ever came to something like this, Jack would choose Peter over her. He always had, always did, and always with an apology.
At least tethered to the stake, she could see her little cottage in the valley below. Still intact. Still safe. Someday, it might prove useful again, if not to her, then someone very much like her.
The dragon approached, footfalls shaking the ground, pebbles scattering down the slope. A few bounced and came to rest against her bare feet, the feeling of them cool against her skin, like a balm. For the first time in a week, her feet stopped their ceaseless ache.
The dragon snuffled and sniffed, the force of his exhales ruffling her hair.
“And you are?” His voice was impossibly low, a quiet murmur meant for her ears only.
“Lily.” She managed that single word with her own quiet power, surprising herself, if not him.
“Of the valley?”
“If that’s what you wish.”
He snuffled again. “I thought I’d detected spring in the air, but I doubt my wishes have anything to do with this proceeding.”
“Then we have that in common.”
He surveyed her with his large yellow eyes, her startled reflection staring back at her from the dark pupil. It was an astonishing thing to be seen so completely. At that moment, Lily felt her entire being exposed—the secrets she kept in the cottage, the ones buried deep in her heart.
“And you are?” She knew his name; all the villagers did. Every spring, they scaled the mountain. Or rather, most of them did. Lily always remained in her cottage out of protest.
Until this spring, anyway.
Still, it only seemed polite to ask.
The dragon inclined his head. “Aleag.”
Peter stepped onto a nearby boulder, out of grasping range, Lily noted. He wore a sky blue sash of silk about his waist, indicating his rank as lord mayor. He puffed up his chest and began to speak.
“Aleag the Great! As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”
“Are you really?” Lily asked under her breath.
A hint of steam rose from the dragon’s nostrils, almost in question. “Am I what?”
The dragon snorted a stream of fire that sent the villagers scampering down the incline. Even Peter tripped and fell backward, Jack’s outstretched arms breaking his fall.
“It would seem,” Aleag said, humor and heat in his words, “that I’m at least adequate.”
When one was staring down certain death, one generally didn’t laugh. And yet. Lily found herself biting back the smile. “What would you need to do to be great?”
“Oh, the usual, I suppose. Crush a few villages beneath my claws, lay waste to the harvest, incinerate a couple of forests.” A sigh rumbled in his chest, the sensation shaking the earth beneath her feet. “I find I lack the enthusiasm for such things.”
Below, the villagers scrabbled back up the mountain, slower this time, their footfalls wary. Peter glared at Lily as if she were the one responsible for his undignified tumble.
Perhaps he had a point.
Lily turned to Aleag. Oh, but he was a fine creature. If not for her untimely end, she could admire him. Indeed, a creature such as this should be worshiped.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked.
Aleag swiveled his head and stared at her with the force of both eyes. Even without the stake and rope, Lily would’ve been trapped by his gaze alone—prey to his predator.
“My child,” he said. “Have you no idea?”
* * *
Peter clawed his way up the boulder a second time. Sweat had sprouted along his spine the moment they’d left the village. Now it coursed, a river overflowing its banks. The back of his tunic was drenched, the stain spreading into the sash’s heavy silk.
Leave it to Lily to make the creature laugh. Laugh! Of all things.
He brushed his hands against his thighs. His wrists ached from the fall, and the tender flesh of his palms—it had been several seasons since he’d worked the harvest—stung. He pulled himself up straight. He was the lord mayor, after all. As such, he was due a certain amount of respect.
“Aleag the Great!” Peter tried for the second time. “As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”
The dragon scrutinized him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his leather-clad feet. The gaze was unrelenting. Tingling erupted along Peter’s skin, a shower of needles, the sensation both sharp and tantalizing.
This is what these creatures did, of course. They made you crave the pain and welcome your own demise. Peter shook his head, blew out a breath, and cleared his thoughts.
Or tried to.
“An offering.” The words rumbled as if the dragon were bored. “What if I don’t find it … adequate?”
Before Peter could answer, Lily and this … this … this creature exchanged glances. It was as if they both found the situation humorous.
Heat rose in his cheeks. “She is our most treasured asset, our village healer. We do this to honor you.”
“Your healer?” The dragon swiveled his head, that remorseless gaze sweeping over Peter before the creature set its sights on Lily. “Pray tell, why would you sacrifice your healer?”
“To honor you.” Peter puffed out his chest again. He knew, of course, how dragons were, how they wouldn’t accept a sacrifice without some bartering, without knowing what it cost the village. The last lord mayor had told him such. That the most difficult part of the job was selecting a maiden each spring.
Truth be told? This year, it hadn’t been that hard.
“So, when the blacksmith blisters his hand,” Aleag intoned, “the carpenter tumbles from a cottage roof, countless women labor to birth children, are you telling me your healer won’t be missed?”
“There are other healers in this land.”
“Perhaps there are, and perhaps seeing how cavalierly you treat your own, they will decide not to make your village their home.”
“Perhaps, but our village is filled with a number of wise women. We will do without.”
His words sounded tinny, their echo doubling back on him. Behind him, the disgruntled murmur of a dozen of those wise women made his ears burn. Doubt churned in his stomach. He pressed a hand against his belly to steady himself.
Truly, Lily wasn’t that skilled. Truly! Any old fool could coax women through labor and set a broken bone. Yes, Lily had the touch. The mere brush of her fingertips could cool a fever or soothe a colicky infant.
She had brought him back from the brink, certainly. Peter exhaled as if the thickness in his lungs remained. Yes, she’d brought him back; for that, he’d always be grateful. But he could not abide—
“I refused his offer.”
Lily’s words rang clear, loud enough—he swore—to be heard in the valley below.
“Hm?” Aleag’s murmur emerged with a puff of smoke. “What was that, my dear?”
“He proposed,” Lily said. “I refused. Then he threatened me, and I refused again.”
“And now, you’re here.” Aleag swung his head around, that penetrating gaze finding Peter once again. “How interesting.”
* * *
And here Aleag thought this proceeding was going to be a bore. He peered into the crowd. The lord mayor looked, in turns, a putrid, sickly green and flushed to the point of violence. Yes, shame made a man do many things he might later regret.
“We were friends, always had been, since we were children.” Lily twisted, her gaze going from the lord mayor and then to Aleag. “But I had no wish to marry him. I have no wish to marry at all.”
Aleag snorted another stream of smoke. “You are wise beyond your years, my dear.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Women near the back bent their heads together, their whispers low and conspiratorial.
“Perhaps,” Aleag began, and now he addressed those beyond the lord mayor and the few men who remained at his side with pitchforks and spears. “Perhaps you should rethink your sacrifice. It seems to me that a man who could be so vindictive is perhaps not the man you want as lord mayor.”
Oh, and now the lord mayor turned a delightful shade of gray. He wobbled in his stance. Shame. Ambition. These things were never good for the soul.
Aleag blinked. Lily’s voice halted the soliloquy he’d been brewing in the back of his mind. Indeed, there was so much to work with. The defiant damsel, the spurned lover, the innocuous and yet sly third who hovered in the background. A fierce column of women who looked on the verge of toppling the lord mayor. The men, slowly but certainly slinking down the slope.
“Excuse me, my dear?”
“I said, stop it. Stop toying with us. It’s deliberately cruel, and you know it.”
He stared at her, his gaze unflinching. To her credit, she withstood it. “What is it, then, do you suggest I do?”
She tilted her chin in his direction and held up her bound wrists. “Take your sacrifice.”
* * *
Silence settled on the crowd before a ghastly cry went up. The sound was filled with despair and remorse, and so much shame that it shook Lily to her core.
Peter leaped forward, hands scrambling on the smooth surface of the incline. He pawed his way forward, boots skidding against the rock.
“No!” he cried. “No!”
Lily spun away from him, her whole being intent on the dragon. “Do it. Do it now.”
Aleag gave her a slow blink as if he didn’t need to move, as if time wasn’t of the essence.
“Because it will serve him right?” he asked.
“Because every other outcome is worse.”
Worse for Jack, for Peter, certainly for the village. Even if they couldn’t see it.
“Let me be the last sacrifice this village needs to make.”
Something sparked in Aleag’s expression, a glint in those yellow eyes. His lip curled, revealing the teeth that would soon be the end of her.
And yet, Lily felt … nothing.
No, that was hardly true. Her heartbeat thrummed in her throat, the roar of blood in her ears. She stole one last glance at her little cottage below. It had been a good home. Certainly, until a week ago, it had been a good life as well.
“This is what you want?” the dragon asked.
“Very well, then. I’m more than happy to oblige. You are the smaller morsel, but dare I say, bound to be the tastier one.”
“He with the most teeth gets to say what he wants.”
Aleag snorted yet another stream of smoke. “You have a sharp wit, my dear. Pity I have to eat you.”
“I don’t think you’re capable of pity.”
Those were Lily’s last words. For a moment, she saw the world around her in all its colors—the glorious blue sky, the sun painting clouds on the horizon pink, the green and red-roofed cottages in the village below.
And then everything was black.
* * *
Peter fell to his knees. He was late, much too late. The sweat that coursed down his spine washed across his entire body, his skin flashing cold, then hot, and cold yet again. He mouthed words, senseless things, the only coherent syllable that of an ending chant.
“No, no, no, no.”
The men holding pitchforks let them clatter to the ground. They crept away with barely a glance backward.
The women of the village cast him looks so caustic that certainly his skin would erupt in blisters. They, too, departed down the mountainside, in groups of twos and threes, their murmurs rising upward, taunting him.
Murderer … coward.
It was this last that rankled most, although Peter couldn’t say why.
Then, only the three of them remained on the mountaintop: Peter, Jack, and of course, the dragon.
“Was … was she really the last?” Where he found the courage to ask, Peter couldn’t say. His words came out thick and phlegmy. He sounded like a child with a cold, not the lord mayor of a thriving village.
“Indeed. In all the years I have bargained with your village, it’s a wonder no one else ever thought to ask.”
Peter pushed to his feet. He wobbled, only to have Jack steady him by the elbows. He shook off his friend and stumbled forward.
“Are you telling me that all we had to do was ask?”
“Why not? It seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Please stop eating our maidens, if you would, dragon, sir.” Aleag said this last in a singsong, the taunt grating at Peter’s insides.
Peter glanced around, wondering if he might pick up a pitchfork and run this damnable creature through the heart.
“I wouldn’t try if I were you,” Aleag said as if reading his thoughts. “The request would still have required a sacrifice. The previous lord mayor knew as much.”
Peter’s mouth fell open. The air in his lungs grew thin, and his breath came in gasps like he’d never inhale fully and completely again.
“Go,” the dragon ordered. “Leave now. Take this knowledge and become a better leader of your village than he was.”
The creature retreated to his cave. A mist covered the cavern’s opening and settled on Peter’s face like morning dew.
He continued to stand there for a very long time.
At last, Jack plucked his elbow. “She’s gone.”
Peter nodded, his gaze fixed on the cave. He took one long, last shuddering breath and let Jack lead him down the mountainside.
* * *
The aftermath was Aleag’s favorite part. On this side of the mountain, nothing impeded his view—no village, no smoke, no pitchforks—nothing but the endless valley and the river below. He’d take a season—spend time counting the wildflowers in all the nooks and crannies—before deciding where to settle next.
He let his chin rest on his crossed forepaws and waited.
It would be a while before the damsel in distress woke from her slumber.
* * *
What Lily noticed first, she couldn’t say. The sun warming her limbs? The cool stone beneath her back? Or was it the elusive, tantalizing scent of violets washed with fresh pine?
When she opened her eyes, nothing but the dragon filled her view. Sunlight glinted off his scales, and she squinted, raised a hand to her brow until her eyes adjusted.
She was … alive?
“How did you sleep, my dear?” Aleag lifted his head just enough to look at her full on and then settled back down, almost like a hound at the hearth.
She raised herself on one elbow. “What did you do?”
“How did you sleep?” he asked again, not impatient, but certainly implacable.
Lily pushed strands of hair from her cheeks. She sat up and considered how she felt. Refreshed. Renewed. “Very well, actually.”
“I thought as much. A good sign, that.”
“Indeed. The maidens who sleep the best find the most success on the other side.”
Lily glanced about. Yes, she recognized this side of the mountain. Often she’d trek here, searching out herbs and rare mushrooms, gathering up the profusion of wildflowers that grew in the valleys. “Wait … other maidens?”
“My dear, you don’t think I actually eat any of you, do you?” A shudder ran through his form, scales rippling like water. “Credit me with a bit of taste.”
“Then what do you do with them?”
“Chat for a bit and then send them on their way.”
“On their way … then the sacrifice?”
“Is never returning to the village, never letting anyone know they’re alive. Most agree that’s a small price, considering the alternative.”
“So each spring, they simply walk away?”
“As you will do, as well.”
Lily wrapped her arms around her legs and let her chin rest on her knees. “You agreed never to take another.”
“The time had come. I was growing bored with the whole charade.”
“What will you do?”
“Find a new spot to settle, another mountain. I assure you, the world is filled with mountains, with any number of well-appointed caves.”
Lily stood, stretched. Excitement thrummed in her veins. No, she couldn’t return to her cottage—that was clear—but perhaps she could begin a new life elsewhere. She glanced down at her feet, the skin still aglow with pink from their scalding. Before she went anywhere, she’d need to find some shoes.
“My dear, are you willing to make another exchange?” Aleag nodded at her feet.
“I might be,” she said.
“In that case, do you see that clump of violets over there, in the outcropping?”
They were a lovely bunch, lavender and cream-colored, their scent subtle and sweet. Lily nodded.
“Bring them to me?” The dragon kneaded the ground with his claws. “I don’t possess the dexterity for such matters.”
She gathered the bunch and then continued from there until her arms overflowed with blossoms. She returned to the outcropping and placed them gently in front of Aleag.
He plucked one and then another with tongue and lips, movements precise and dainty. He shut his eyes, and a sigh escaped him, the sound of it pure contentment.
“Thank you, my dear.” He caught her in his gaze and nodded at her feet. “How did you come by such a burn?”
“When I … refused Peter—”
“The lord mayor?”
“Yes, when I refused him, he got upset, knocked my cauldron from the hearth. The stew soaked my shoes.” Lily stepped close and raised the hem of her dress. “I’m lucky it was only a bad scalding.”
Aleag blew a stream of smoke across her skin. It was cool like spring, and fresh. It stole the last of the heat from the burn, the pink fading, the scars healing. Now she shut her eyes in pure contentment.
“It was my pleasure. I don’t often partake in such a feast.” Aleag flexed his claws. “I can’t pick them myself, after all.”
The sound of scrabbling caught Lily up short. The noise came from behind her. She spun in time to see Jack scale the lip of the outcropping.
Jack took a few stumbling steps forward and halted. He unslung a knapsack from his shoulders and placed it at Lily’s feet.
“It’s not much,” he said, “but there’s some clothes, good boots, and a few of your books. I hope I chose the right ones, and, of course, your stash of coins from beneath the loose floorboard.”
Lily shook her head. “I … don’t understand.”
“Usually, my grandmother is the one who does this.” Jack peered around her to address Aleag. “I hope you don’t mind, sir.”
“Under the circumstances? Quite understandable.”
“The women in the village? They know?” Really? Then why hadn’t she known?
“Only a few, and I only found out … after everything with Peter.”
Lily took the knapsack and ducked behind a boulder. She emerged dressed and ready for travel.
“Will you come with me?” she asked Jack.
“As far as the crossroads.”
So like Jack, choosing Peter over her. He always had, always did, always would.
“He needs me,” Jack said. “You don’t.”
Yes, perhaps that had always been true.
Lily approached Aleag and placed a kiss against his scaly snout. “You’re a bastard, you know that?”
“Most dragons are, my dear.”
“But thank you.”
“Again, the pleasure was all mine.”
Jack walked with Lily as far as the crossroads. She memorized the feel of his sturdiness next to her, his calloused palm next to her own. She’d miss him.
Even after everything.
* * *
The village prospered under Peter’s reign. The harvest never failed. The forests provided a never-ending supply of game. Every spring, violets covered the mountainside in a blanket of lavender and cream.
The sight always made him think of Lily.
As the years passed into decades, Peter became known as Dragon’s Bane. He never confirmed the rumors—that he had singlehandedly dispatched a dragon from their village.
He never denied them either.
After his third wife died, Peter relinquished his role as lord mayor. He and Jack found a cottage on the outskirts of the village where they tended a few acres of land and spent long evenings in front of the hearth.
It was only then that Jack told Peter the rest of the story.
Aleag the Great is another dragon story written for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.