(hand-written on parchment, translated from ancient Greek)
I was six years old when the Dragon invaded our valley. It flew in from the East, out of the morning sun on great leathery wings. At first it was only a shadow passing overhead like a giant bird of prey or maybe just a cloud. The shepherds in the meadow paid it no heed that peaceful, ordinary morning as they watched over their flocks.
The day was just like any other—the buzzing of the insects, the chirping of the birds, the gentle bleating of the sheep as they grazed. We were all so innocent, so blind to our fate, oblivious to the dangers of the world in which we lived. How could we have known that our serenity, our very way of life was about to come to a blazing end? That very evening, when the shepherds did not bring in the flocks as they always did at sunset, my mother called out for me. I had been playing dolls with the other girls my age, so sweet and unknowing when I left them to go to the meadow. Something I had been called to do many times before.
I still have nightmares of the carnage that lay strewn about the once peaceful meadow. I ran screaming all the way back to the village, not stopping until my voice gave out. The men in the village went out to the meadow and came back with ashen faces. What could have done this horrible thing, they asked. Bandits? Wolves? No, said the Eldest, whose blind eyes could see what none of the others did with their ordinary sight. This was the work of a ruthless and ravenous Dragon.
A party was organized and armed with what weapons they could find or improvise, then set out to find and slay the wretched beast. Of twenty-two men, none returned. To our horror, that was only the beginning.
Word was sent to the local landowner—a baron or duke or somesuch other noble—that his lands and vassals were being ravaged by a Dragon. A few days later he arrived with a small retinue in tow. It was obvious to all of us, even a child such as myself, that the landowner didn’t believe the stories that had reached him. After all, a Dragon? Such nonsense was the stuff of stories, meant to frighten children and the simple-minded, surely! But because of political pressure from the neighboring lords, he deigned to make an appearance to assess the situation.
The village elders tried to warn the lord not to go himself, but he pish-poshed and off he rode toward the scene of the slaughter. One of the lord’s squires came back only a while after, dragging his lordship’s charred remains behind. None of the others, nor their mounts, had survived the encounter. The squire, once sufficiently recovered for travel, bound his lord’s body, “borrowed” a mule and cart, then took him home. The Eldest shook his head sadly, telling us that the killing was far from over. A few of our number followed the squire’s example and packed their meager belongings to flee the village. Why the rest of us stayed still mystifies and confuses me to this day.
In the weeks, months and years to follow, many came to our village with glorious hopes of slaying the Dragon, stealing its gold and saving the princess. To their short-lived dismay, there was no gold, no princess and the only slaying was their own. It became a new way of life for those of us who stayed in our village—a new trade arose that catered to the “dragon slayers” who came to destroy the beast. For the first time ever, our village began to grow and thrive, basking in the newfound wealth that the influx brought. No longer were we a humble farming village—we were soon becoming a burgeoning town with food, clothing and shelter to sell to any and every-one that came seeking their fortunes. Not long after came the Dragon talismans, the potions, the charms, the meaningless tat. Whatever you could name, if it related in the slightest to a Dragon and could be bought, sold or traded, it could be found in our village. We had found a way to shamelessly exploit our misfortune of being the home of a ravenous killing machine. So what if we were to benefit from the countless deaths of others? But no matter how much wealth we accumulated, it would not remove the mark upon our souls, nor return the loved ones we had lost at the beginning.
Ten years had passed since the Dragon first came to our lands, almost to the day. Even after all that time, I still had not spoken a word. There were many days when I would simply stare out my window in the direction of the meadow, not moving for hours on end. I would not eat or drink and seemed to barely breathe or even blink. My mother worried herself sick, but did not try to move me after the first time. She had been spared the sight that I had seen—all those mangled and burned remains that could scarcely have been called corpses. One had been my own father and others, my brothers. No child should have to ever see such a gruesome thing and so my mother knew a little of my suffering and let me be. And though I had come of marrying age, none of the boys wanted me. The haunted look in my eyes frightened them too much, I suppose. Or reminded them of the danger that hovered over us all.
It was on that day that the Winds of Fortune began to blow in a different direction. I was staring from my window when something caught my attention—it was unusual that anything could distract me once I had settled in. From the edge of my vision, I saw a man standing by the side of the road. A stranger, yes, but there were many come to our town every day. It struck me odd that he stood stock-still and gazed off toward the meadow just as I did. I hurried from my window, rushing outside in hopes of catching him before he moved on. Why I was concerned with this particular stranger, I wasn’t sure in the least, but I was possessed of an unquenchable desire to find out more about him. To my relief, the man was still transfixed to the same spot, still staring out into the distance just as he had mere moments before. But something about him made me stop short before I ran haphazardly to his side. There was something decidedly…not right…about him. Not exactly wrong, mind you, but just not…right.
The man didn’t turn as I cautiously approached, he didn’t even so much as twitch–was he still breathing? It did, however, give me time to size him up. He was a large man–tall, over six feet, and broad of shoulder. His hair was long and black as coal, all matted and tangled with twigs and leaves. And though he was dressed all in rags, he stood proud, almost regal in posture. Something told me this was natural, not a practiced and rehearsed stance. Timidly then, awkwardly, I angled my head as I skirted the edge of his vision. It was only then that he moved. His motion startled me so that I could not keep myself from flinching.
With a tilt of his head, the man turned his face slowly toward me. I instantly froze in my tracks. As soon as his eyes met mine, I was drawn down into their bottomless depths. They were the deepest, most beautiful emerald-green that I had ever beheld. There was power in them too–they nearly crackled with it in their fiery intensity–and something else. Pain. Tremendous, excruciating pain and loss. And though his agony was different from mine, I knew he could see my own pain reflected in my eyes. Plain, ordinary eyes of honey brown. For a long while–I wasn’t certain how long exactly–we simply stood thus, awkwardly gazing into each other’s eyes. Not a single word was exchanged between us, but in those brief moments we shared a bond of sorts, an understanding of one another that went deeper than words. I had not experienced such a thing in my short life, nor have I since then. In that instant, I knew why he had come to our cursed village. Like so many others, this stranger had come seeking the Dragon. Then with the silence still weighing heavily between us, he turned and began walking toward the meadow. Toward the lair of the beast.
I should have gone back to my house. Back to staring out my window. My safe and secure haven from the dangers of the outside world. A world that held only terror and blood, fire and death. I should have gone back and watched the man leave—sat silently and watched as he, like so many others before him, disappeared into the meadow never to be seen or heard from again. But I didn’t.
I don’t know what spirit possessed me that day, but I ran after the mysterious stranger with green fire in his eyes. It was madness, I knew even then—certain death to go seeking out the Dragon. But I didn’t care. I had to see, had to know. Throwing caution to the wind, I followed the man in his determined trek across the meadow to the hills where the terrible monster had taken up residence. The further we walked, the more it became obvious what fate was in store for us.
The changes to the land came slowly at first—the lush green of the sheep meadow giving way bit by bit to barren, scarred and scorched earth. I walked over ground that was devoid of vegetation, only charred and blistered rocks remained on the razed surface. It got worse the closer we came to the hillside, where lay the cavern mouth. Bits of bone and other blackened things lay strewn about the opening where smoke and steam and an unearthly red glow gave it the appearance of the entrance to Hell itself. I shuddered in spite of myself and found my feet frozen to the spot, unwilling to proceed one step further. But the man was undeterred—he walked on, not slowing his stride for even an instant. When he disappeared into the cavern’s hellish jaws, I was able to coerce my feet to move and cautiously picked my way after him.
The air coming out of the hill grew hotter as I approached and when I crossed the threshold into the cave proper, it became a scalding wave that blistered my skin and sought to drive me back into the coolness beyond. Heat rose from the ground, baking my feet within my shoes and threatening to set the hem of my skirts aflame—I had to take care to avoid any outcroppings of rock that might snag and ignite the material. Sweat came out of all my pores, making my clothes stick uncomfortably to my roasting flesh and stinging my eyes, making it harder to see. That in itself was a partial blessing, as I was desperately trying to avert my gaze and not look at what lay about me. I couldn’t even think about what I might be stepping on, crunching and breaking underfoot, lest I lose what little nerve I still possessed and run for home. My progress slowed thus, I fell behind my quarry. Before I caught up with the stranger, a great roar shook the cavern and set me a-tremble. I nearly fainted from fright, but I knew that would be the end of me for certain. So I crept on toward the source of the thunderous cry and the brightening red light that could only have been the Dragon.
As I drew closer, I could see movement in the shadows cast by the eerie light and again came the deafening roar. But that time it sounded like…but couldn’t be…laughter? I crouched down low and carefully peered inside the main chamber, noticing the floor littered with bits of gold, jewels and blackened arms and armour—and then my breath was taken away by the sight of the Dragon that very nearly filled the cavern. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen—at least ten times the size of the largest ox that had come through our village—and covered all over with glittering scales the colour of blood. Its eyes were as big as dinner plates and the cat-like irises were bright emerald green—the same as the stranger’s eyes. To my surprise, the strange man stood before the enormous beast, striking a bold pose. And it was laughing at him. Its sides shook and the horns atop its head scraped the ceiling of the cave as it shook, sending down a rain of rock upon it. And then it stopped laughing and made as if to speak to the man. At first I couldn’t understand the noises that the great beast made from its massive throat, nor the similar sounds that came from the stranger as if in reply. They were odd, guttural, croaking noises that sounded to my ears like nothing resembling speech. But after only a short time, I found that I could understand and that they were indeed talking to each other.
“I STILL CANNOT BELIEVE MY EYES!” the Dragon was saying in its booming, growly voice. “AND YET HERE YOU STAND BEFORE ME! LOOK AT WHAT HAS BECOME OF THE TERRIBLE *@@@*” Even though I could understand their strange language, that word was beyond my comprehension. Was that the man’s name in Dragon-speak?
“Laugh all you will,” returned the man in the same tongue, though with considerably less volume, “but it changes nothing! I am still Kind!” The last word didn’t sound right either, but that was as close as I could make it out to be.
Again the Dragon laughed, shaking loose more rock. “YOU ARE NO LONGER KIND! I CAN SMELL IT ALL OVER YOU—YOU ARE SMALL, PITIFUL…FLESH! WEAK…NO, NOT KIND…A HUMAN!”
“Do you not smell the sorcery about me?” the stranger shouted up at the beast. “Can you not see that I have been cursed to this form?”
The Dragon’s voice rumbled low in its throat and it drew its eyes level with the man’s head. “WHY HAVE YOU COME TO ME, OTHER THAN TO PROVIDE ME WITH A MOMENT’S AMUSEMENT? YOU, WHO WERE SO POWERFUL AMONG US…NOW NO MORE THAN A MAGGOT!” The great beast opened its mouth into a terrible grin, with row upon row of long, razor-sharp fangs. “OR A MEAL!”
The man stood his ground, gazing fearlessly back into the Dragon’s eyes. “I came to you thinking you might help! You will find that I am still strong! And if you test me, you will see that I am not so easily devoured!” The last was spat, as if in challenge.
The Dragon drew a breath and I knew what was coming—I dove behind the largest rock I could just as the torrent of flame erupted from its mouth, blasting down the cave tunnel. I clamped my eyes shut and bit my lip to keep from crying out, tasting my own blood in my mouth. My hair was curling up and singeing away and I could feel my flesh blackening as the rock that sheltered me grew red-hot and began to melt away. And then, when I knew I would be a roasted cinder, the flames were suddenly gone. I pried open my eyes, dried and crackling behind my tender lids and forced myself to look around the stone, which was still aglow. I knew the stranger would be gone, not even ashes after the Dragonfire. To my astonishment, there before the angry beast, he still stood. His clothes were burned away and his flesh was red and peeling, but he lived! What manner of man was this? Was he even a man at all?
The stranger unclenched his fists and the fingers seemed to grow into claws. “Now I have proven to you that I am still Kind!” he bellowed at the Dragon. “Will you not help me? Restore me to my rightful form?”
The Dragon narrowed its eyes and opened its maw again, its long forked tongue flickering over the terrible teeth. “YOU ARE AN ABOMINATION, AN EMBARRASSMENT, O’ CURSED ONE! YOU ARE UNWORTHY OF BEING KIND! I WOULD NOT LOWER MYSELF TO YOUR AID! I REJOICE IN YOUR TORMENT! AND I GROW WEARY OF THIS DISCOURSE—BEGONE MAGGOT! TAKE YOUR SOFT, PINK SKIN FROM MY SIGHT LEST I MAKE A SNACK OF YOU! SCRAWNY AND UNAPPETIZING AS YOU ARE!”
With a roar of his own, the stranger launched himself at the eyes of the Dragon. The man survived the flames, but attacking a Dragon with one’s bare hands was more than madness—it was suicide! I could no longer bear to witness what would most certainly be a slaughter, so I dragged my blistered body from the cavern. I only hoped I could make it to safety before the Dragon finished with the man and came after me. But even as I fled, the sounds of their battle followed me into the open air—roaring and grunting and slashing. The earth shook all around me and I feared the cave would collapse on top of me. Why had I been so foolish to follow? Why had I not stayed safe in my house? The coolness of the open air was a refreshing balm on my parched flesh as I came out of the hillside. But once I had made it to the grassy meadow, I could go no further. I collapsed, heaving for breath onto the soft green earth. It would only be moments before the Dragon would come for me, so I slipped into unconsciousness knowing then it would be painless.
I was surprised to find that I had not died. Some time later I woke up in my own bed in my own home. My skin hurt all over and I was covered from head to toe in balm and linen bandages to help heal my burns. But I was alive. When I asked my mother how I got home, in between the tears she told me that a stranger had brought me back from the meadow. A stranger with burns worse than mine and bleeding from cuts all over his body. One of his eyes was shut with a slash across it, but the other was the brightest green she had ever seen. She said he put me in my bed and left without a word—she had been near hysterical over seeing me that she didn’t notice he was naked until he had gone. In all the fuss, my mother didn’t even have a chance to thank him properly. He had saved me from the Dragon, she said.
I slept most of the day for the next few weeks while I healed. My mother fussed over me until she was certain I was back to normal. Or as normal as I had been. I changed that day. When I heard the Dragon and the stranger speaking, my mind opened and I understood things. I don’t know if it was being that close to their magick or what did it. But I became aware of everything around me—connected somehow to the world in a way I still can’t explain. Where once I was an Idiot, I could suddenly speak to animals and could understand them! I was possessed by a desire to learn and understand, so I would listen with great interest to the stories of travellers that came through our town. I still didn’t talk much, but I didn’t stare out my window across the meadow any more. The Dragon, that terrible, horrible, awful Dragon that had brought death and destruction to our village, was dead. When it didn’t come out of its cave and the smoke had stopped and the rocks had cooled, men gathered their courage and crept inside. They found it dead and rotting with its huge eyes gouged out and its neck broken. No-one knew how it had happened or what had done it.
I knew. But I didn’t tell. No-one would have believed me if I had. In time, the gold was retrieved from the cave and it was all spent. Well, almost—I managed to hide away some of it for myself. The Dragon was forgotten by most—reduced to a tale to frighten children who ventured too far from the meadow with their flocks. I never forgot. No, I never did stare out across the meadow again to where the Dragon had taken my childhood away. When my mother died, I packed up what few belongings mattered and left town. I spent the remainder of my years travelling, learning, watching. And every time I met a tall stranger I looked at his eyes. Looking for those green, magickal eyes that I never saw again.