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Issue: Issue 1: It Starts As It Ends

It starts as it ends, as it inevitably must: with dragons.

Editor’s Note

It starts as it ends, as it inevitably must: with dragons.

Back in the summer, when I announced this zine’s birth, I had very little agenda and even less of a plan. Ideas I had by the boatload, but I was driven more by motivations than concrete goals. I wanted to publish more, to provide another marketplace for the sorts of poetry and prose I liked to see, to help redress some of the imbalances in publishing, and so on.

When I wrote the submission guidelines, I had a much clearer idea of what I didn’t want to see than what I was looking for. There was nothing premeditated about the fact that our first issue shook out to contain writers from multiple countries and continents and of multiple races and genders, but no men. We simply looked for stories and poems that we like and we bought them.

The end result is a bit more heavily skewed towards higher fantasy than I had planned when I named my outlet Ligature Works, but the heart wants what it wants and so does the editor. We certainly didn’t plan to start this issue out with a dragon, or end it with one, but that was how things fell.

The first must-have submission we received came from Mary Soon Lee, a fragment of epic poetry called “Keng” that stood well enough on its own. The last piece we accepted was “The Twisted Princess” by Sheryl R. Hayes.

Laying out a table of contents is as much art as it is science, but by that token there is an art to it. I appreciated the symmetry of our submissions process beginning with a dragon poem and ending with a dragon story. It appealed to me enough to lay out the issue with those as bookends. Adding to the strange symmetry: we went to a speculative poetry panel at WorldCon 74 in part to meet Mary Soon Lee in person and thank her again for submitting. It was also at WorldCon that we met Sheryl R Hayes and gave her a card, telling her about our zine and the then-open submissions window.

Neither of them are completely what you would call a traditional dragon story. One of the things that grabbed me about Mary Soon Lee’s epic poem is the way it blends the fantastical traditions of different cultures together. On its surface, Sheryl R. Hayes’s tale of a dragon and a maiden might seem to hew a close to the sorts of stories some editors will turn down out of hand for being done to death, but the specifics of her story were like nothing I’ve ever read, and as I said to Jack: if we can’t do a dragon-and-maiden story in our maiden issue, when can we?

Keng

Prince Keng came down the mountain alone,
and they descended upon him:
his father’s advisors,
his father’s guards,
his own guards—

      —“Where is your father?”
      —“Where is the king?”
      —“What happened?”
      —“What happened?!”

And Keng, a boy of eight,
his head full of fire,
of the dragon he’d seen,
the dragon who’d told him
she chewed up princes and spat out kings—
Keng said, “I cannot say.”

Because he could not,
because the dragon
had stopped his tongue
from speaking of her,
but they didn’t know that
and they repeated their questions
until Keng, exhausted, worried,
said, “I cannot say. I’m sorry.
I’d say if I could. I can’t.”

A pause.

Then Captain Li nodded,
said to the others, “Let him be.”

Keng stood,
his stomach hollow,
his father still up the mountain.
With her, the dragon.
And it was all Keng’s fault,
because Papa wouldn’t have gone
up there in the first place
except for Keng’s sake—

“Prince Keng, are you hungry?”
asked Dao, one of his father’s guards,
Dao who knew more riddles than anyone,
Dao who had used one of his free days
to take Keng carp-fishing.

Keng nodded.

Dao led him back
to the mountain fastness,
sat him down in the kitchen,
fetched a bowl of dumpling soup,
said, firmly, “Your father will be fine.”

Which Dao could not have known:
Dao who hadn’t seen the dragon,
how her flame turned snow to steam,
hadn’t smelled the ash of her breath—
the dragon who might as easily
chew up a king
as a prince—

Still, it helped, a little.
And next morning, Keng’s father
came down the mountain.
Unburnt. Unhurt.
Safe.


Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She has won the Rhysling Award and been nominated for the Elgin Award for her poems about King Xau. “Crowned,” the first part of Xau’s story, may be purchased from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/CROWNED-Sign-Dragon-Book-1/dp/1937128741/.

She has an antiquated website at http://www.marysoonlee.com

Signs of Life

Signs of Life

Maybe life
is nothing more
than a burst of bliss
at the magic moment
the permafrost thaws
in the blink of a geological eye

The music of a sphere
awash with anti-entropy,
a stop-motion crescendo
reaching for the sky
and beyond, driven by
the interference from heaven

A self-reference engine
a self-reinforcing preference
a fractal feedback loop
maximising dissipation
chancing upon communication
changing the nature of change

Signals of Life

An emerging property
of a merging prosperity
propelled by emergency
quantum probability cloud
chemical eigenstates
branching evolution incarnate

An interacting meta-interaction
breathing life
into definition, observation and futility
as the indefinite becomes finite
and the observers observed
futility transcends into—

The search for meaning
Or the means for a surge?
The bane of existence
Or the existence of pain?
The meaning of life
Or the life of a meeting with—

Signatures of Life

–fate;
–infinity;
–the ineffable;
–the truly alien;
–multiplicity;
–singularity;

The paradoxical made paradise
the nonsensical made sensual
imbued, palimpsest, superseded
now you see it, now you don’t
insight and outside, bonded
by the Uncertainty Principle of juxtaposition

Enlightenment like self-consciousness:
an emergent property of an emergent property of an emergent property
unprovable by design, like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem
yet persisting against all odds and reason, unreasonably
a beauty beyond understanding
an understanding beyond beauty


About The Author:

Ingrid Garcia tries to sell local wines in a vintage wine shop in Cádiz, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time. For years, she was unpublished. But to her utter surprise—after years of receiving nothing but rejections—she’s sold stories to F&SFHaunted Futures and Futuristica 2. She tweets, very occasionally, @ingridgarcia253.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

I have been told the past is another country.
We acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land
but that has passed, and we will decide
who comes to our country. We will determine
the circumstances in which they come.

Я расскажу вам, как Неруда, все известия.     (I’ll tell you, like Neruda,
    all the news.)

We were the rats from the sinking ship
and countless maps and atlases
crumbled at our heels. We fled
irretrievably. The plane was grey and everybody slept
except the child to whom it meant nothing
that the past is another country. We learned
to do things differently. Their bottomless supply of gadgets
seduced my father. My mother
mastered the language which is now my language,
my stepmother tongue, just well enough
to pass it on to still more rats
abandoning still more lurching wrecks of history.

Now in tall buildings my father’s mother
with the decisive manner of a soviet gynaecologist
dishes out advice and criticism and red soup
and a brown-skinned woman in a dented,
much-vandalised lift tells me about her dog.
A rescue staffy, “she’s my life.
If I didn’t have her I think I’d just
go mad.” An ex-runt, named for her big funny ears
in a language that’s cobbled together from scraps
by whoever survived the past in this country.

My mother’s hobbled mother speaks so little English
that I genuinely do not know if she’s aware
that our new country too, inescapably, inescapably our new country
is a child-stealer also (you know, in the past,
when it was definitely another sort of country).
Between any now and then is continuity enough for apology,
but not enough to give anyone’s life back
any more than the frozen steppe of Magadan
could return my great-grandmother’s teeth to her jaw
while she lived, unsling time’s arrow to undo that daughterless decade
or undisappear her husband. But that was in another country
and besides, the regime is dead.

They all are. What country? Time immemorial
we drew lines in blood and we redrew lines in blood,
like an indecisive tattoo artist
and my people were the needle
and my people were the ink, and so were yours.
When your ancestors lived somewhere everybody wanted a piece of –
and sooner or later that’s everywhere –
your ancestors are also the people who took their piece,
over and over again, back and back.
And you wonder why the rats claw at your door?
Rats are the natural state of humanity. Rats
know which way the wind is blowing
and it is blowing relentlessly out of the past
and into the future. But we live in a short-sighted country.
Our books begin just one short subjugation back
and our maps are crisp new liars.

And sometimes people hear me speak
and want to know where I’m from,
which is the same place they are from
because the past is another country.
And what used to be my country is now reassembling itself
like flecks of glass in a kaleidoscope,
and in the city of my birth
no one is quite sure what to do
about the feral dog problem bequeathed to them
by that power vacuum that nature so abhors, and that same red soup
is eaten by less-freckled children
whose language is almost but not quite intelligible
to me and my grandmothers.


About The Author:

Margarita Tenser is a poet and speculative fiction writer living in Sydney, Australia. They have been published in Meniscus, Liminality and Strange Horizons, among others, and blog at https://thepresenttenser.wordpress.com.

By The Hand Of The Witch

A drought was ruinous by nature, especially to a witch whose power resided in a lake. As the lake shrank, her secrets were exposed for all the world to see. What was the point of putting them there if they weren’t going to stay hidden? They were old secrets, but those were some of the most potent, the ones earned in battle and blood. The best ones were always drowned. It felt like a curse at work, possibly one designed to steal her power. Maybe that was why Sereska hadn’t figured out how to break it yet. Her focus had been on protecting the people and the crops, in the limited way she could manage these past fifteen months without rain.

Whomp, whomp, whomp. The drum beats with precision, even throughout the night. It’s the magick, calling warnings to her, telling her about the things that the world can now see. Begging her to fix this, to make their blithe exposure a thing of the past. Sereska is compelled, and would be even if her own secrets weren’t exposed. There are too many belonging to others  in that lake, needing the cool depths of water that was no longer there. She had other secrets, of course, but her biggest had always been in the lake. It was the only place large enough to hold them. Water had its own power.

“Sereska, please,” a voice pleaded at her door. “We need anything you have. The food stores are running low in the village. It has been too long without rain. We will not make it.” It was the chieftain. He only begged when it suited his whim.

“Go away, Donar, and I will try to make this right. Your words cannot sway what is already decided,” she shouted, but he continued his tiresome pleading.

It was all she thought about these days, consuming all of her energy. Donar did not understand this and so he begged from behind the oak of her door. He continued right up until she opened the door and found him on his knees. That wouldn’t do. She helped him upright and sent him back to the village with a light tap on the rear. She would send word if she needed help that he could provide.

Were she less charitable, she might have found the whole situation funny. Donar hadn’t begged her in the fourth month when she mentioned her growing concern as he rolled out of her bed. He’d laughed at her fears, languid with the calm of the spent, carefree and easy as he dressed. Her fears had been brushed aside that day.

“You can’t do more than all the men who will be taking part in the rain rite. No, stay here and just make your love potions and tend the new babes,” he’d said, casually dismissing her when she suggested that it might take more than an abbreviated version of a  rite to fix the wrongs.

The sun had boiled the land even then, and that was was just after winter. No one but her had looked it with any real concern. The rite had been Donar’s way of acknowledging it without giving in to concern. The winter past had been snowy, hard and freezing. After enduring such, they welcomed the warmth. Welcomed it still until they went three more months without rain, and then the bravest of the farmers began to complain. That felt like such a distant memory.

She would fix the drought. That had always been her plan, but it was taking longer than anticipated to find the source of the curse and difficult with her secrets and power out in the open. The drought was hanging over her head, an unsolvable riddle she needed to answer to save herself. Everything she’d done before had failed and it vexed her that she’d been fooled. It had gone on too long and more people were in danger than herself. She would hold power so long as the secrets in the lake did. Witches were nothing without power, just mortals. Without the full flush of water, her secrets would shrivel and turn to so much dust without a thought for her.

The lake was almost dry. In the middle, at the very center, it held the pearl that cleaned and fed the water. Once there was a mussel, but now it was just the pearl. It acted as a lodestone for her magicks. If the water dried completely, she might just become powerless. Sereska was desperate to avoid that fate.

Witches were nothing new in the area, but they’d faded out of fashion. She wasn’t sure how it happened, but now she needed a village and sponsorship by the chieftain, as if she wasn’t old enough to be his mother twice over. New practitioners were rare, and they almost always came as rivals to power and not apprentices. In the old days, she might have mentored, had a researcher to help her with this crisis.

Her own magicks came from the lake in part, but there was more to it than that. There had to be because she was the only witch around this area. Territory and power were not things given but earned, taken from those that claimed the area in the past. Sereska had been a fighter for much of her life. Power was earned in blood, battle and by cunning and intelligence. Magick was maintained by those same efforts. She had to feed it, as surely as she had to put food in her own belly.

There had to be something she was missing. It felt like an insult to admit it, but her pride was not bigger than the lives of the people around her. These months had her pouring over spellbooks and grimoires, searching for answers that never manifested. It had to be something she was overlooking. She thought more mundanely and still came up empty and exhausted.

Instead of sitting in her house alone, she made a trip to the market square. People, she needed to be around more than just old tomes and speculation. Life breathed the truth from the voice of regular folk. Mostly, Sereska didn’t get out unless there was a good reason, and callers only came for services. Donar was her only regular visitor. There was a chance that the chieftain was holding back from the people, or had missed an observation that they saw. Listening to the murmurs could be advantageous. Information was key, but she also had to do her shopping.

There was a throng clustered in the little square where the pronouncements were made, though the platform stood empty and silent, as did most of the fields where they grew crops. Only melons grew in drought and those died just like everything else without water. Villagers were gossiping in anxious, harried whispers.  Her arrival gave them more fodder, her failures more to speculate about. It wasn’t soon before she was caught up in the middle of their group.

“Could be another one, couldn’t it?” A woman spoke to her, the first to address her directly since she’d gotten caught up in the crowd.

“Another what?” Sereska asked, turning her attention to the woman. She waited as the woman chased a child from her skirt and then resumed her conversation.

“Witch. The rivalries go on pretty long don’t they? Could be that’s what happened, someone come for you and try to catch you unawares or decided to make a play for your town. Maybe one of us made ‘em mad.”

“I don’t have any rivals or even any other witches in the area that I know about,” Sereska mused, more to herself than the woman.

“Well, you’d best be sure because if there is another witch, they’ve got us facing a lean winter after this drought. People will die just like the crops that withered or didn’t grow in all this heat.”

“Too right!” Another voice exclaimed, joining the crowd of people. Other people cheered this statement.

Silently, she agreed with them. People would die. This drought would take a human cost all too soon. She didn’t think there were any witches, rivals or not, around, but it was another thing to check on, Sereska decided.

 

Donar was waiting at her door when she returned. Her shopping bag was only half-full, the haul meager at best. Even wool was running low since the shepherds had too little feed. The village was already rationing their food, but no one had ideas on how to stop the drought, nothing at all. All she’d gotten from the crowd was their general sense of worry aside from the comment about another witch. The poorest of them spoke the loudest, for it was they that would fall first. Each death would stain her hands as much as her failures to discover the reason for the drought had.

Donar was sitting patiently in front of her door, idly knocking on it as she drew closer. His eyes flicked up from under the brim of his hat at the sound of her footsteps on the dusty path. He stood hastily, shaking the dirt and dust from his clothes.

“I thought you were ignoring me,” he shouted, by way of a greeting.

Sereska didn’t know what to say to that, so she kept silent as she closed the distance between them. There were times she did ignore him, but not recently. They were a long-lived people and witches more than most. When Donar had become chieftain ten years back, he’d badgered her often for advice and wisdom. She had begun applying judicious silence to his requests since he’d become chieftain. He had to stand on his own, or he wouldn’t hold his position for long, regardless of what wisdom she may choose to impart. Silence was a better way than constantly saying no.

“Donar, come inside,” she said, her voice soft as she waved away the wards that guarded her door. The door only let him knock because it was told that he could.

“Would another rain rite help?” he asked, but there was no hope in his voice. She could hear that he knew it wouldn’t but wanted to be reassured. Sereska sat her shopping down and sighed before answering.

“I don’t think so, but it might help the people feel better. There is a piece missing and I cannot understand what it is. This drought feels magical but not malicious. But it resists all my attempts at banishing.”

“Are you sure it’s magick if it can’t be banished?” he asked.

“I’m not sure of anything,” Sereska admitted. After a moment of hesitation she added, “Donar, I will grow weaker as the lake dries. I am already losing power. The people think this is the doing of another witch. If I become powerless before I can figure it out, you must slay them for me. My weakness will bring rivals, even if there are none now. My secrets are exposed in the dry lake and that kind of vulnerability could draw the attention of another.”

Donar gave her a somber look. “Will you die?” he asked bluntly. There was sadness in his eyes that tempered the harshness of the question. He cared for her, she knew, but a chieftain was an ill-match for a witch.

“Probably not, but there is a chance. There is always that possibility, but I am old and hard to kill,” she said, giving him a smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but she wasn’t sure if it came out right. They were silent until she spoke again, “Will you do the same rain rite as before, or is there another?”

“My sages have been looking in the books as you suggested. An older one was uncovered. In the writings of my father four times back. He was a mighty witch.”

Sereska perked up. “May I see his writings? Have you read much of them?”

Donar shook his head. “I know almost nothing, as you have pointed out many times. The book is yours, if it will aid you. I hope it does. I will have it brought around.”

Sereska opened her mouth to thank him but stopped herself. Donar was looking his weariness, playing with his straw hat between two calloused fingers. The dark curls of his black hair stood out at all angles and his eyes were shadowed. Instead of standing tall, he stood with shoulders hunched, tired and already defeated. She went over to where he stood in her doorway and put her hand on his heart. When he looked down at it, she stood on tiptoe to kiss the end of his nose.

“I remember your father twice back talking about his grandfather. I never knew he was a witch,” she admitted. “I didn’t know him.”

“Just how old are you?” he asked slyly, giving her an appraising look.

Sereska laughed, but wouldn’t answer. “Get out,” she said, her voice merry for all that weighed on her mind. “I need to think.”

He kissed her cheek and shuffled out, putting on his straw hat to shade him from the relentless sun.

The writings were as dull as they were fragile. The papyrus hadn’t been magicked or bound properly and the brittle pages had to be handled delicately. Donar’s grandfather, however far back he was, wasn’t much of a witch. Donar had called him mighty, but perhaps that was in celebration of deeds and not his prowess. He was more of a healer, so it made sense that he had rain rites and spells for taking the itch of bug bites. Not that it was of much help to her, but Sereska understood it.

Carefully, she paged through the book. There was almost nothing on power and sacrifice in the writings, and too much about how to maintain plants. That could be useful, provided she could cast a spell once the lake dried out. Love spells, remedies, a rite for cleansing the water, another for warm sun — nothing that she needed.

Sereska’s last thought as she lay in bed was that she could try the risky magick of backwards glancing. It would allow her to see back in time, though that power wasn’t normally afforded to her. If she managed to get the timing correct, she might see what or who caused the drought. It was the only option left to her.

There had been so many hunts before the drought began, Donar had been prosperous. It was likely the only reason their village had survived as long as it had before realizing there was a problem. But he had offered proper thanks to their goddesses, she had seen it at every gathering. Maybe it was not that they had not offered respect, but disturbed some old magick in their hunt. That was likely, though not very. There were many old spells still around, things she hadn’t had the time or inclination to seek out and rip from their moorings. But then, why was it so focused on her? She had not been here for that long. Generations perhaps, but not long enough for a very old and powerful spell like this. The more she thought on it, the more it seemed her answers lay in the more recent past.

Then there was the talk of a rival. She would have to do the circuit around the village and the outskirts. Perhaps she could ask the chieftain to lend her some warriors for protection. She hated to be alone when searching out a potential malicious magick. If there was someone, she would call them out properly and not risk the lives of others. Battles were fought between witches on the shadow plains when the moon was high. Sereska was not at full power, but she might still win against an upstart.

That thought was best left until action could be taken and the threat proved in its veracity. Too many variables, too many people that might just like to cause chaos. She focused on the backward glancing potion. It was time-consuming but not difficult, and she knew what was required to brew it. It was known and unlike the imagined rival she was thrashing in her head, she was sure she could make it.

Goddess be, it would take her at least a week to brew the potion, and that was if she had all the agents. Then there was no telling she would get the timing right. The drought seemed to have started fifteen months before, but might have been in the works long before then. It was her last idea, and not a very good one. The realization gave her little comfort as Sereska fell into an uneasy slumber near dawn.

 

The mixing of the backward glancing potion took time, and during that waiting period she went to look for other witches or practitioners. Donar loaned her warriors for her search, though they were more there to keep her safe from anything other than a rival. Their circuit around the village was long, but her area was a large one. When they came upon a cave, she smelled the burnt embers of ill-cast magicks. Unexpected and disturbing to actually find another witch lurking around.

Sereska stepped forward and shouted, drawing on her power to root herself to the ground. It would have been her preference to go further into the cave and explore to see if she knew this person, but she was not so foolish as to enter the lair of an enemy. Plus she didn’t want to get any of Donar’s pretty warriors hurt. Wounds cast by magick could only be healed by the same and she was not sure she could manage both a battle and a healing.

“Rival. This area is of my lands, and I am sanctioned by the chieftain of these people to steward and nurture the ground,” Sereska called. His power smelled thick and unrefined and not talented. There was no breeze to stir it to her nostrils and for that she was glad. Breathing in more might just make her cough.

Sereska waited, but he said nothing. Then she felt the zip of lightning buzzing toward her. Sighing, she reached out and caught the bolt before it could hit her or Donar’s warriors.

“Have you caused the drought?” she asked in a yell. Her impatience was getting the better of her. The answer came in the form of another bolt, and she snatched it before it could cause any harm.

“By root and branch, shadow and light, I call thee rival to the duel for power on the shadow plains. Respond or relinquish your life essence to me now,” Sereska said, shouting out the ancient words. The ground responded by shaking, shadows flickered and the wind picked up before abruptly dying, accepting her challenge.

It was then that she saw the rival, a mousy looking scrap of a man that would have made a better seller of books and antiquities than a witch. Perhaps that was what he had been before and stumbled upon a book of power. It mattered not, because he finally came to face her, the fear she’d imparted printed on his features. He stamped his feet in the dirt to avoid looking her in the eye as he spoke.

“We don’t have to call upon the shadows to witness this do we?” he asked, displaying his ignorance. It was already done, the challenge issued. He stood four meters away from her, shouting in his thin, reedy voice. She didn’t bother to answer.

“I can help,” the man whined. “I know when this went wrong. I can hear it in the trees, on the wind.” The silence had been taken for greed or mulishness, she couldn’t decide to which he was responding. This little wisp of a witch could not help, even if the details of their trouble were written in the wind. If he heard truth in their whispers, it was by accident.

“You cannot,” Sereska said, shaking her head sadly. “And we shall meet on the shadow plain if you insist upon staying here. These lands are mine, by right of bone and blood.”

Sereska hoped he would go without trying to fight, but he didn’t. He pretended to meekness, when he should have tried for cunning.  The shadow plain enveloped them as he launched another bolt of lightning at her and she deflected it as easily as she had the others. Shadows bound them, bade them to duel for life and death and power. There was nothing to do here but win or die.

It was their dimension, that of witches, a flat stretch of land in perpetual night but peppered with a sky full of blood red stars. He tried again to hit her with lightning, vexing Sereska. Did he know no other spells? She brought pain down upon him, hard and fast and furious, crushing his chest.

“No, let me help you, I am strong,” he panted, his words thick with the blood that filled his lungs.

“It was over when you shot lightning in the field. May the goddess accept you, child,” Sereska said and then brought the crushing weight of nothingness down upon him again.

She heard him wheeze his last breath and perish without another word or bluster. Pitiful, and a waste. Whatever life he’d left for power, he should have stayed there. Perhaps if he had, he would not have found death at the first wrong turn. Her mousy rival died there with whimper and the merest hint of her power. Scavenger. He’d come to pick her off when she was weak. His tiny bit of power would ebb away soon, so long as the drought kept on. The mortal realm descended upon her as the shadow plain declared her victorious, her foe slain. The warriors bowed to Sereska as she reappeared in their midst, looking tired. She would still have to tell Donar of him, her would-be rival. He was not responsible for this mess, but there would be more like him soon enough.

 

 

The potion worked, and as was suggested, she found the date by listening to the things that had witnessed the past. For her it was the rocks, the ones embedded in the almost dry river bed. The water had always spoken to her, and its servants were the ones to help her find the time she needed. It was eighteen months before, a change had happened to shift a balance so delicate that its change affected everything.

When she drank the potion, river rock in her hand, Sereska was pulled to the right location. It was like a waking dream, full of indistinct shapes and misty edges. She was like a ghost, visible but not solid, able to hear and speak but forgotten afterwards.

It was here she saw Donar, leaving her home. She followed him to the edge of a cliff, where he took out a scrap of fabric he’d purloined from her. He shouted into the sky, sinking to his knees like a supplicant under the open sky. He spoke words of power that he should not know, and she only recognized them from the old tome he’d given her, the work of his father four times back, the healer.

He was trying to bespell himself to be stronger, to be worthier in her eyes, but he was no witch. He’d done this for her affection, not a curse but a spell that backfired. It was focused on her because he was stupidly using her piece of her belongings, chanting her name as he confessed his love to the wind, the birds, to the goddesses above. This ritual was old, too old to work. Goddesses changed, and as did their people. He must have read it in that old book, the one he gave her to undo all this mess.

“Donar, you should have spoken up!” Sereska shouted, making him turn around.

“I did. I painted your door with the blood of the oxen and sent the five gifts. I did what tradition asked, but you remained silent. So I am here to ask for more. If I am more, stronger, faster, better, the goddesses will grant their favor. You would notice.”

“I knew,” Sereska whispered, but Donar didn’t turn back towards her. She thought he’d been jesting. She was a witch, not a wife to a chieftain.

It was time to put it right, now that she knew how. She returned to her body ending the effects of the potion with the effort of bringing mind back to body.

It took all of her hair, because the thick braids she wore held some of her power. She cut them and then took the razor to her own head until it gleamed. She gave the strands to the wind where Donar had stood and begged their forgiveness. She damned her own pride and did the rain dance. Soaked the ground in her potion of hair and blood and tears, and tried to undo what had been done. Magick pieces of her, offered to the goddesses restore balance so unintentionally upset. Then at the very end, Sereska asked for Donar’s favor, because it was she that should do the asking as a woman. She would propose when the rains came and stopped.

It rained for two days and nights after she ended the spell, crawling on bloodied hands and knees back to her cabin. Rain sprinkled her forehead as she waved the door open. Sereska took to her bed with illness, growing stronger only as the lake began to refill, covering her secrets.

Donar was sitting at her side when she regained consciousness on the third day of rain. Sleepless shadows dogged his eyes, but he was alert. He was wiping at her forehead with a damp cloth. Sereska reached out and stilled his hand, bringing it to her mouth. She kissed his knuckles with chapped lips.

“It was you all along, silly lad.” It was cheek to call the chieftain a lad, but if anyone was to scold him, it was she. “You could have just asked me to marry you,” she chided.

“You would have said no,” Donar said, smiling down at her. “Just like you always do when I ask foolish questions.”

“Probably,” Sereska admitted. “But not now.”

Donar shook his head, slowly, fueling her confusion. “I cannot ask again, not yet. Let me make it up to my people first, and if I am worthy then, I am yours.”

“Let me ask next time,” she said, and watched as his face brightened.

“I am yours,” he said. “Whenever you ask.”

He was a good chieftain, she decided as she drifted back into sleep. Even if he had cursed her, it hadn’t been malicious, just foolhardy. That was a dangerous trait to have in a husband, but she was wise enough to recognize the risk.


About The Author:
EM Beck is the author of Purpose published by Devilfish Review in 2016 and The Four Skilled Sisters, published in the anthology Spellbound and Spindles by Eggplant Productions in 2014. She is an author and artist based in Pittsburgh, PA. When not working, she indulges her love of good stories, saving the world in video games or planning her next photo adventure. Visit her website http://rainsontheplain.com or find her on instagram at instagram.com/emabeck

The Way You Say Good-Night

I moved in with the goddess in spring, after a month and a half of cautious emailing and coffee shop conversations. She had placed an ad in the classifieds: “Seeking housemate: 2br bungalow, countryside, owner occupied. Artists, writers, LGBTQ, introverts welcome. Quiet hours & amiable presence a must; mutual support preferred.” The rent was reasonable, utilities were included, and the explicit mention of queers and introversion intrigued me. Mutual support sounded nice, but I had my reservations.

We emailed, and emailed, and finally in April met. I didn’t notice straightaway. She hadn’t said, in her ad or in her emails, and she wore her strangeness subtly – I’m not sure how I would have responded, either, which I guess is why she didn’t mention. Everything odd about me, on the other hand, is right there on the surface. Even the most sheltered of country-mice could probably recognise my queerness, marked as it is in my name and hair and clothing, even inked into my skin. I don’t hide it and I never have. You can read my disability in my body now, too, without much effort. It was hidden once, camouflaged, but it has accumulated visible accessories: the splints, the sticks, the wheels. And most of the time now, I don’t try to hide the pain. I’m up-front about it. Her bungalow was single-storey, step-free; that had been the first question I asked.

Her name was Arielle – “call me Ari” – and she was a slight, unassuming woman. Dark hair framed her pale face; a tousled sort of look, just beginning to grow out from a short crop, maybe. She cradled her mocha to her chest, and kept her hands around the mug even after it was empty. In her emails her tone had been formal, reserved; in the coffee shop, she looked nervous – her narrow shoulders tensed tight, her eyes not quite finding mine, she’d picked a shadowed corner – but her voice was even, low and velvety. We talked about the vacancy. It sounded perfect.

She asked to meet again. Spring was burgeoning; the sun was out at last, and the pale blue of winter skies had just begun to deepen into one a little more succulent. The sunlight was still watery, but warm enough that the breezes couldn’t steal its heat. Ari was inside, despite the fine weather, and tucked into a corner once again. The sunlight didn’t quite seem to reach her. As she leaned from her niche to hail me, her hair swung forward and I did a double-take. It was past shoulder-length, curling over itself. It had been short, last time, I was sure – or maybe just pulled back, I supposed, some kind of messy and unobtrusive up-do.

“Thanks for meeting me. Sorry for all the runaround, but, I just need to be careful, you know?”

“It’s alright, better safe than sorry, I know.” I settled in.

She drew a deep heavy breath. “I feel pretty good about you. I think we’d do okay living together. But,” and she hesitated, hands tight around a mug she’d emptied before I arrived, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you, there’s something I still need to tell you.”

I felt myself guarding – my belly tensed, my shoulders pulled forward. “Okay…”

“And I guess part of why I think we’d be okay is, I think you might understand. I hope. So – alright. The thing is, what I need you to know is – I’m not quite normal. You know I’m a night person? There’s a reason, I was born with an aspect. Night-aspect, particularly.”

I relaxed. “Is that all?”

She startled, clearly surprised. “…yes?”

“Not so different, I don’t think.” I shrugged. “I’m a mutant of sorts, and queer, and I haven’t found a gender that fits. We aren’t the same shapes, you and I, but we both got made with odd moulds, and we’re living with what that means.” I could see her evaluating this statement,  suspiciously, slowly coming to terms with the fact that someone might say that and mean it. I guess acceptance had been rare for her; that’s people for you. But this wasn’t the first coming-out I’d been privy to, and goodness knows I’m strange enough in my own way. Aspects aren’t that different from mutations, just less well-understood, and carrying baggage of prophecy more so than medicine, though our histories twine some there, too – in visionaries, the possessed, those who spoke in tongues; those who were seen as crazy, malingering, fraudulent. And they’re still so rare, even now. I’d never met one, not knowingly.

“You’re sure? That doesn’t bother you?”

“Does it bother you that some days I can walk and some days I can’t? Or that strangers on any given day might address me alternately as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’?” She shook her head. “Then, no, I’m not bothered. Does it affect what it’s like to live with you? Just to be practical about it. I don’t know much about the everyday life of aspects.”

“I wax and wane, a bit. Night tends to stick to me. I don’t sleep much… Really, it changes, over the course of the year. It’s stronger in winter, when it’s dark so much. Summer’s easy, almost like being normal, I think.”

I shrugged again. “Sounds less eventful than some basic-human roommates I’ve had.”

So I moved in with the goddess – with Arielle, not a goddess, not really, but a woman of night – in May.

* * *

Summer evenings were easy. Ari got a duskiness about her as the sun kissed the horizon each night; not a blush or a glow, but something between the two, a quiet liveliness. It was a good time of day to tackle her unruly shadows, as they lengthened. Our back porch looked out westwards, toward sunset. She sat on the deck to watch the sun go down, a glow in her eyes and darkness streaming behind her, while I sat with her, combing shadows out of her hair. Left ungroomed, they coiled up in the bottom of the bath or balled up in corners, leading to stopped drains and stubbed toes and missteps – dark, tricky little dust bunnies. They stuck to her; it was hard for her to separate her shed shadows from her fingers, but easy for me, with my mundane human hands. I liked the task. It had a simple intimacy, and we chatted or sat in sunset quiet as I worked.

Other than shadow-combing, she was particular about touch; I noticed the care she took to avoid bumping into anyone if we were out and about, and she rarely touched me directly, either. But how much would one touch a housemate, anyway?

Not long after the solstice, I asked her about her hair. Not the shadows – those seemed self-evident, an element of her aspect – but its inconstant length. It had been short again when I moved in, grown down to her low back by late May, and then just – diminished, down to a pixie-cut length, barely there. At the end of June it was long again, full of shadows easily tangled.

“It’s a moon thing,” she said. “The shadows get stronger when the moon’s dark. It’s sort of the same inside, I guess, I feel it more, but you see it in my hair. Less right now, because it’s midsummer. There’s so much light all the time.”

“Will that change? This winter?”

“Yeah, it’s a bit more – dramatic.”

“Well, god help us if our cycles sync, then, huh?” I chuckled. “Do yours match the moon, just sort of – automatically?”

She shifted uneasily, and I cringed inwardly. I’d fucked up; been too cavalier, too intrusive. And presumptive. I forget sometimes that even people raised female get uncomfortable talking about menstrual cycles, and of course not everyone who reads as “female” has one – I know better than that. Or I should. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything, if it’s uncomfortable for you…”

“No, it’s – I’m just, I don’t,” she gestured vaguely around her belly, “I don’t cycle like that. I don’t bleed, I’m not built like you.”

“To be fair, most people aren’t.” I grinned wryly. “I am not exactly factory standard.” That earned a smile, to my relief. “I’m sorry if it’s a sore topic for you, though. It’s a personal thing, I shouldn’t have asked. Or assumed.”

“Oh, it’s a source of embarrassment long past… I just don’t talk about it much, so everyone just assumes. It was hard, as a teenager, but these days I don’t think I miss it.”

“You can have mine, if you like. I’ve often thought I’d give it up happily, to a trans woman or someone else who’d appreciate it.”

Ari chuckled. “No, really, I’m fine. Shadows are enough as it is!”

Conversation moved on, and she relaxed again.

* * *

Sometimes conversation would happen that way. It had something of a pattern to it: I’d bumble into some unique element of her aspect, some difference, without knowing; she’d explain, nervously at first, then more confidently. I shared what I could about myself, in return; sometimes she’d be the accidentally-awkward one. It got easier for us both as time went on. She saw me walk on two legs or three or four or none; she saw me whirling with activity and flattened by fatigue. She heard about ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-queer lovers of all stripes, in triads and quads. She saw me in ties and dresses and heels and faux sideburns. The strange and fluid things about me I had writ large, exaggerated in preemptive self-defense; Ari lived hers close and quiet. Both were paths we’d chosen to keep us safe in a world where we had never quite fit.

We talked about change: both of us seem mercurial to the outside eye, in flux, maybe even unstable. But there’s a constancy to each of us, internally – a familiar, intrinsic pattern, albeit a complex one. I don’t even like change, as a rule. Surprises make me anxious; unexpected alterations to my environment set me on edge. I make my plans in advance, and it takes me ages to learn and remember new things. I was still asking Ari for reminders of our mailing address come July.

We built routines together. She picked up my morning blackberry-sage tea habit; I joined her for sunsets. We read poetry, swapped our favourites. I started noticing the moon. Our conversations and our silences alike grew easier, over the summer months. Brooding dust bunnies and all considered, I’d never had an easier roommate.

* * *

One day in early September I came home cheery, humming to myself. The sun was ripe and golden and the trees were just beginning to turn, punctuating the waves of green with little bursts of autumnal colour. The living room was dim, though. Ari was balled up in the corner of the couch, looking quietly miserable.

“Hey.” I sat down next to her. She barely moved. “You okay?”

“No.” Well. Okay. That had been self-evident.

“What’s wrong? Want to talk about it?”

There was a long pause – I wanted to reach out to her, stroke her back or offer her some sort of comfort, some companionship. But she did not ever touch, and I wasn’t sure if I’d help, or hurt.

Slowly, she spoke. “It’ll be worse soon. The winter, it’ll be dark this year, I can tell, and I hate the change. So cold.”

“But it’s not here yet, right?”

“Soon. Equinox in two weeks, and the moon’s going dark.”

“That’s alright… we’ll figure it out, okay?”

She hunched further. “You won’t want to be here for that. I should just stay away, be alone. Nobody wants the winter-dark.” I could hear tears unshed in her voice, and my heart ached.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, huh? After all, my lease runs til spring!” It was not a good attempt at levity. “We’ll figure it out, okay?” Silence, a tiny nod. “Hey. I don’t know, exactly, but you look like you could use a hug. Would you like a hug? No pressure.”

She started to move toward me, shifting in place, and then froze, eyes wide. I saw her eyes track my shoulders and my arms, bare – I was taking advantage of late summer while it lasted, enjoying the days of tank tops, sun-kissed skin. I heard a tiny whisper, just barely audible. “I can’t.”

“That’s okay. No pressure, alright? But the offer’s good anytime, if you need it.”

She shook, a little, sniffling; I could see the tension in her, trying to pull toward and away all at once. I sat back a little distance, to give her space.

“No – please. Stay?”

“Of course.” So I sat nearby, quietly, trying to exude a grounded calm. “It’s okay, Ari, really it is.” A few quiet breaths. “Would you like me to talk to you?” She shook her head, so I just stayed there near her, quiet together.

She shifted again in a few minutes, just the tiniest fraction of movement. I saw it, and read it; my own body has taught me the importance of little, hard-won movements. She’d moved, barely, but moved, a little bit more upright, a little bit nearer, just the adjustment maybe of one or two vertebra, a twitch of the shoulder. I could hear her breathing shallowly, and swallowing hard.

“I want to,” she said, in that tiny whispering voice.

“Yeah?”

“But I can’t,” and she cried, and it took everything in me not to gather her up into my lap and hold her close.

“Why, honey? What’s wrong?”

“It’ll hurt.”

“You? Or me?”

“You – I can’t hurt you, I can’t hurt anyone, I can’t.” She sobbed.

“Hey. Hey, deep breaths, alright?” I stroked her hair, mid-long now, and her back through her shirt beneath her hair. Just like shadow-combing. Nothing happened to me, and in a few minutes I felt her relax a little, slowly. She breathed a little more evenly, and I breathed with her. “You’re okay. I’m okay, alright? See, nothing bad happened.”

“No, it’s just – skin to skin.”

“What happens? You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want.”

“It burns. That’s what they told me. It burns, and the night comes.”

I managed not to raise an eyebrow, but I was powerfully curious. “The night comes?”

“Around us. My night.”

“And burns?”

“I don’t know, they said it burns. Mustn’t touch.” She curled tighter, fists tucked close to her chest.

Ari was possibly the least threatening person I’d ever known, but she’d not been well-loved. And my life had left me deeply distrustful of any “they” who would castigate or shame. I weighed my risks. Pain was, after all, not unfamiliar to me. “Can I try? You need a hug.”

She shook, stifling sobs, and I stroked her back. She bit her lip and nodded, two tiny, sharp nods – so I reached for her, and gathered her up.

And yes, it burned. It was an electric type of pain, like a static shock that persisted, roaming over my arms; maybe a bit like lightning. But it was a cold pain, like that feeling of meltwater that comes when a nerve is misfiring. Chilled, prickling pain, a freezer-burn. I could feel her skin against mine, where her cheek and ear and wrists rested against my own arms and shoulders, but just barely. The touch of her hardly registered, and she seemed to carry no heat. My skin was stippled with goosebumps; my hair stood on end. I shivered, breath hissing, and heard her sob a helpless apology. But I had known worse pain. I held her, tried to make sure I had her safely encircled, before I went numb, so I would hold her, not drop her –

And then the night came.

The living room faded. I worried I was blacking out, at first – but I could still see Ari, cradled in my arms, shadows gently spooling from her. She seemed to sink into me, as if she weren’t quite solid. All around her, night blossomed. It wasn’t the pitch-black of midnight, but an earlier, gentler time of night, not long after sundown. The ceiling was shrouded with a blanket of indigo, and where the baseboards ought to have been there was just a thin line of pale gold, the last vestiges of daylight. Between gold and indigo was a whole delicious peacock gradient – pale bleached silver, teal, sea-green, cobalt. The floor was carpeted in long, lush shadows. I thought I heard crickets, and I could almost smell the summer-baked earth releasing its heat into the cool sky, could almost feel the soft breezes of evening.

I had not noticed that I was holding my breath. I let it out in a rush. It joined the sighing in the air, the cricket chirps – it became illusory. I could not feel my arms, or my shoulders, spiralled now with shadowstuff. I didn’t care.

But my numbed grip slowly slipped, and Ari shifted away, legs draped over my lap but upper body nestled back into the couch. As her touch faded, so did the night, and the cold. I came to blinking into the late afternoon light, my arms and shoulders prickling all over in cascades of shivering pins-and-needles.

Ari held her face in her hands, slowly trying to part her fingers, to look back at me. Muffled, she said, “I’m sorry – are you ok? I just, I’m sorry, I can’t help, I shouldn’t have let you. I’m sorry.”

I shook my head, still clearing dark spots from my vision. Shadows fell from me. My tongue felt heavy. “No, honey.” I tried again. “Arielle. That was beautiful.”

 “…really?”

I nodded, slowly.

“And you’re – are you okay? You’re not angry?”

“I’m okay. It hurt, but. Not all that badly, and it was – it was like being there.” I tried to shake my fingers out, get the blood moving enough to massage the rest of me back to life. It was slow going, and the reawakening of cold-pinched nerves is never pleasant. “Are you always this cold? How do you keep from freezing?”

“I think so? I don’t know. Oh, you’re cold – I’ll make tea.”

We watched the sun set with tea warm in our hands, blankets wrapped snug around us. The sky was perfect and clear, from golden horizon to indigo vault, sprinkled with stars.

* * *

After the equinox, night fell earlier and earlier, and earlier still inside our house. She didn’t sleep most nights, only napping at midday. Some nights she’d go out, especially the windy ones, the wild ones, and come home around dawn, starry-eyed, shadows writhing. As the days shortened and the air chilled, my body started to constrict into its winter limits. I went out less and less. I walked less, just around the house, and then not at all. Ari would bring me back tales of the evening. She told me about the different ways the nights could feel: the kind that felt wide-open to the void of space, the kind that were closed-in to near claustrophobia. The difference between half- and quarter-moonlight, the taste of the air before dawn, the scent of impending snow. If the night were fine, and I were awake when she came home, sometimes she’d touch me, just briefly, to share the vigour of her aspect as it grew into its winter-dark force.

It hurt – but what didn’t?

We spoke a lot about the nature of pain, its many qualities, its roles and significance. We laid out the poetry of it – the beauty, even, for the right pain from the right source. Not just in a kinky way, but the pleasure of the heartache in a favourite novel’s tragedy, or loving to the point of bursting. We talked about its ugly sides, yes, those too, but also about the way its character changes, if you have it long enough as a bedfellow. It was a relief, to me, to speak freely. And when I did hurt, she was perhaps more prepared.

She shared fewer nights as the winter drew in; her touch bit too sharply. Sweeping the shadows from her hair became nearly impossible around new moons: the shadows were so fierce, and just being near her scalp left my fingers tingling, inept. I lose dexterity anyway, as winter comes. The cold sinks into my knuckles and freezes their motion. We were both cold, swathed constantly in thermals and armwarmers and fuzzy socks and shawls.

The first truly bad day of winter came for me on a new-moon day. Her new moon, and mine; statistics won out, it had been likely enough.

I couldn’t get out of bed. I could barely think. I keep pain meds in my nightstand, for just such occasions, but as is often the case in winter’s vise-grip, they were little help. My tendons were seized with cold, and my bones ached and shivered, slipping between the taut threads of panicked muscles. My gut wrenched. I felt like I was vibrating, subtly and off-key. I had no room for thought. Ari found me that way, in midafternoon, when she realised I hadn’t gone out but hadn’t been seen.

“Why didn’t you call to me? Or text, if you couldn’t shout! I didn’t know you were here!”

I mumbled some sort of excuse. The reality is that pain makes it hard to use logic. It makes it hard to make plans, even plans to make things better. And pain is a lonely experience: it makes it hard to reach out.

She frowned at me. “I’ll be right back.” She vanished, and I could hear puttering from the kitchen, quick crossings of the house. The kettle boiled, and boiled again; the toaster dinged. She came back with a hot water bottle, and a cup of tea, and some toast. “Extra sugar in your tea, and peanut butter for your toast. I bet you haven’t eaten today, have you?”

No, of course I had not. And I could not sit up. I tried, and whimpered, and curled back up again, pulling the hot water bottle close. Ari left.

I sank into further despair, and loneliness, and embarrassment at my own ineptitude – how many people had my pain driven away? But she came back. Beneath her winter layers she’d put on a pair of gloves, dark velvet, ones I’d never seen. She’d pulled her hair back – enormously unruly, shadow-rampant, new-moon hair – into a stark, tight-bundled knot. “I should be safe enough, now. I’ll help you sit up so you can eat, okay?”

And she slid one wool-and-velvet arm beneath my shoulders, slowly, slowly rocked me to her chest, and rolled me far enough to pillow-prop me, supported at knees and back and elbows, just like I would have done. Not a single shadow fell against my skin.

* * *

Winter marched on, and with a little care, we marched with it. We turned up the heating, made cookies, drank oceans of tea. I tried to teach her how to knit; shadows inevitably tangled up with her yarn, to her consternation and our mutual chuckles. I thought we were getting the hang of winter – we had churned through its first two moons, and my first snow-linked flares. The sun dazzled on the snowbanks, and the cottage was well-sited for natural light. The house glowed bright. We stayed warm, and kept our spirits up.

As the days darkened, Ari drifted further into her aspect. Sometime in December she stopped sleeping altogether, and faded around the edges. I don’t mean that metaphorically. She faded, like the light couldn’t quite touch her. If she stood in silhouette against a window at night, she’d be missing entirely. At the height of midday, in snow-glare, she seemed pale and drawn; she could barely focus. But she came alive at night, in the long hours of darkness that just made me want to hibernate. It seemed like a positive thing for her at first. She had energy in her, crackling, though cold. She burned through projects. The house was clean. I envied her energy; winter is a lull time for me.

But it wore on her, and as we sank further into December, I began to worry. Night-aspect she may be, but she still lived in a mostly-human body, and that body couldn’t keep up. She was exhausted, but her body roared at her through the night and kept her up shakily through the day. She barely ate; she shivered, constantly, couldn’t get warm despite her layers. “Just gotta make it through the solstice,” she mumbled to me, when I asked after her. I had to coax her to sit still enough to wrangle her hair, but I couldn’t stay ahead of it, even so. Shadows littered the floor.

Neither of us had family worth celebrating with, so we spent our winter holidays together. It seemed to make sense to observe the solstice. I cooked us a meal, with what help Ari could give. We sat up through the night together, a fire burning in the grate: light would return. In lieu of gifts, we treated ourselves to chocolate and winter-expensive fresh fruit. I breathed a sigh of relief when the sun finally, finally rose. The light was insubstantial, ethereally bare, and Ari’s face was a study in chiaroscuro: a few light-grazed planes sharp against dark hollows. Nonetheless, relief.

But solstice ran straight into a waning moon. Ari’s winter-dark didn’t ebb. She had always been slim and was now painfully thin; the nights were eating away at her. Unprotected bony prominences bruised as she knocked into doorframes and cabinets, rendered as clumsy as I would be on my feet, at this time of year. If I spoke to her she answered slowly, after a long pause, as if from far away. The velvet voice was now ragged, raven-hoarse.

The day before the new moon would rise, I moved through the silent house alone but for the sound of my wheels. The few extra moments of sun earned back since the solstice didn’t do much to offset the overall environment of greys. The snow was dingy, and the sky bleak. Ari was nowhere to be seen. I hoped she’d finally found her way into a nap, but as the sun sank, I still didn’t hear her stir – and she hadn’t slept in sundown hours for weeks and weeks.

I had been in her room only once, maybe twice. She liked it dark, and private. Her door was often shut. I knocked at it, carefully; no response. I was worried enough to try the handle. I found it unlocked, so I cracked the door, just a hair. Darkness billowed out in a wave. It pushed me back, and I grabbed my wheels to fight against it. It rushed like a tide, a great outpouring of night. I couldn’t see in, at all.

“Ari?”

The dark air settled still and cold, puddling around me like the draft from under a door. I could feel the chill tug at my bones and clench around my heart; I almost thought her window must be open, letting in the frigid night air. It had that sharp smell of cold about it, too. I heard nothing.

I felt my way in, trying to remember the layout of her room – bookcase to the right, a desk somewhere, left maybe?, bed under the window at the far side. I found her chair, empty. There were clothes across the floor. I felt each thing carefully as I moved, tried not to roll over anything, hoping she wasn’t collapsed below me. I called again, a little louder, a little more worried. “Ari? Are you in here?” She must be – the night was so concentrated.

I couldn’t see, still, but I could hear: just a little sound, a small sound, shallow. Breathing. With difficulty, but there. I followed it til I ran into her bed, and I walked my fingers across her mattress, looking for her.

She was so cold. My fingers numbed, and I thought for a moment I must have laid my hand on her skin, but no, the texture was wrong, nubbled. A blanket, or a sweater, with a long bony limb inside, an arm’s length from the edge of the bed – probably curled up against the wall, beneath the windowsill. She liked edges, and corners.

I levered myself up and out of my chair onto her bed, feeling for her. “Ari? Ari, I’m here. Can you hear me?” I found her, identified hip and shoulder, head with its tangled mass of hair. Somewhere there should be blankets; I found them. I curled around her, tucking her little bird-boned body to mine, pulling blankets around us, talking the whole time, trying to keep my voice calm. She didn’t stir. I could feel her breathing, just barely, against my chest – and she was so cold. She shook like a leaf. To accidentally graze her skin, this cold in this darkness, made nearly no sensory change; I was lost, lost and numb, just as she was. We were so cold, and it was so dark, so dark and so cold. No moon. No stars. No sun. Lost. Lost, winter-dark.

I startled – had I been dozing? I was too cold even to shiver. We had to get warm. I couldn’t lift her to move her, and I wasn’t sure it would do anything, anyway; her dark stuck to her. And the heating was on: it was working fine in the rest of the house. It just wasn’t enough, here. What had they taught me in first aid, so many years ago, for hypothermia? It seemed so far away. So hard to remember: bright and smiling, trips to the woods, summer hikes. Dark, now. Cold. Hypothermia: right. You had to heat the core. Get the cold things away.

“Ari,” and my voice was raven-ragged now too, cold-constricted. I coughed. “Ari, I don’t know if you can hear me. I’m going to touch you, okay? See if I can get us warm.” It might have been a stupid plan, but it was my only plan. I tried to flex my cold-stiff fingers and found them seized, had to tug claw-handed at the layers between us. I shifted most of my own layers – everything over my core – wriggling awkwardly, wincing at the cold. Hers were harder; I had to lift her a bit, rock, tug, trying to make sense of what I couldn’t see with hands that barely felt. I pulled anything else I could reach, be it blanket or towel or clothes, over the two of us. I did what I could, and when I couldn’t shift anything more, I braced myself, and spooned up to her.

Where her back touched my belly, it burned. I choked and whimpered, trying not to spasm, trying keep my calm. I could feel a deeper cold spread through me, seizing my limbs, spearing them with icy shards. The pain burst in my bones. I was pinioned and perforated with cold; I could barely breathe. I numbed slowly, frozen, deadened.  Any night I saw was indistinguishable from what already surrounded us. I could do nothing but hold her, in silence, for a while; I might have dozed off again, I’m not sure. When I could, I talked to her, teeth chattering, brain as frozen as the rest of me.

Aeons passed.

Her trembling stopped. I didn’t realise immediately. Everything hurt, a deep cold ache, nerves burning, but I could feel most of me again, and could feel her stillness. I panicked, first, thinking I’d lost her, but she was still breathing. “Good,” I said. I hoped. “Good. Still here with me?”

I must have slept a little, then, because when I next opened my eyes, I could tell I had done so. There was light. Not much, hardly anything, but there was light; it wasn’t from the window, just a general sort of diffuse, barely-there glow. Watery, colourless. I looked at Ari. I could see the shapes of her, just barely, dim static against the darker shadows – not so much like seeing where she was, but seeing spaces where darkness was not.

Next time I opened my eyes, I looked for the light. There was enough of it to try to find a source – it wasn’t from any fixture, and there was still no daylight at the window. It seemed to be beneath her, maybe by her belly. It moved as I craned to look over her shoulder, and I realised: it was coming from me. Anywhere my skin touched hers, it seemed to be pricked with the tiniest of lights, the most distant of stars. And I thought I could feel heat, between us, between our skins. Not much, nowhere near blood-heat, but it wasn’t nothing.

She stirred in my arms and I opened my eyes again. The room was dawn-grey; I could see now the windowshade light-limned, and Ari’s sharp, fine features. She blinked slowly, found her hand in mine, my chest at her back, my head at her shoulder. “Wh- what?”

“Shhh. It’s okay, Ari, we’re okay…”

“But you’re – are you?” Her brow furrowed into ridges of light and shadow. “Are you glowing?”

“Uhhh.” I looked. “I would seem to be, yes. I thought I imagined it.” It looked like the warmer light of true dawn had caught the edges of me. The little star-specks were denser where we touched, but had spread a ways, as well.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s nice,” and she fell back asleep. Her steady breathing lulled me, and I slept, too.

When we woke for real, night still played over the ceiling and tangled our hair, but dawn nestled around us. I hurt, everywhere. I always hurt in the morning, but a night cold and frightened and unmoving hurt all the more. I groaned as I moved. I could feel the efforts of the heating system, through our haphazard cocoon of blankets and laundry, though the room was still unpleasantly cold. Ari, by contrast, felt warm.

“Is it morning?” she asked.

“Yes, or gone morning, already, maybe.”

“How long were you here?”

“All night.” She looked at me, her face puzzled. I blushed, and tugged layers back over myself. As soon as I broke skin contact, my stars faded away.  “You didn’t come out at sundown, so I came looking… and you were so dark and cold, I hope I did the right thing.”

“How? How are you here? How did you stay?”

“I – I don’t know?”

“Thank you,” she said, and covered my hand with hers. Shadows swirled, and despite myself I shuddered as a chill swept up my arm. But as her hand moved, tiny stars bloomed and closed in its wake. “I’ve never had stars, before,” she said, sounding shy. “And nobody’s ever – gone into the night with me. Like that. Thank you.”

She made tea, and I laid a fire, and we warmed up slowly in the weak winter sun.

* * *

I stayed with her the next few nights of darkened moon, with a hot water bottle and post-holiday-sale electric blanket for backup. She slept the night through easily. Always, by morning, my touch was dawn-lit. “I don’t know,” she said. “My aspect has never infiltrated somebody else before; I don’t think it’s supposed to work like that.”

“Who knows? You are a mystery.”

“Though nobody ever – nobody else ever tried.”

“I’ll try everything once, and probably twice, in case the first time was a fluke. You know me.”

“I do. And I’m glad.”

* * *

When the next new moon came, she asked for me. It would be an easier one – the days were slowly lengthening, after all, fraction by fraction. I held her, and we were a comfort to each other. A shy one, a quiet one, and admittedly a somewhat dark and chilly one, but a comfort, nonetheless. The cold and my bones grew no friendlier with each other, but kindling stars in my skin seemed to give me a buffer, a little. Or maybe it was just a placebo effect, helped along by its own beauty and that basic human need for touch – either way, it helped. The next moon I volunteered, starting from the waning quarter, and I stayed.

She kissed me for the first time in March, at the equinox. I had asked her if the night she saw – or felt, or showed, I wasn’t sure of the word – with her aspect was always the present night, that current night. She thought it over for a moment.

“I think I can find a night-memory instead? I’ve never tried. Mostly people don’t see them on purpose. Should I try to show you?”

“Sure. How about a nice  summer one, maybe? Mild and warm.” I was jesting, somewhat.

“Alright. I know one that… okay. Ready?” and she leaned over, and in one motion, cupped my cheek and kissed my mouth.

Cold burst on my lips, but not the burning ache of winter-dark; this was a summery cool, just starting to crisp up into autumn, damp and tingling. I recognised the night that stretched across the living room – I’d seen it here, just five months prior. The cobalt sky, the light-limned horizon, the perfect dome of a clear September twilight.

I melted into her kiss – strange, to kiss someone with my eyes wide open, but she opened hers, too, as she felt me lean in, lips parting. I saw her eyes smile, dancing, and then widen in surprise: all across the formless, deep-sea night above us, the stars were coming out.


About The Author:

I’m a queer & disabled artist, author, and teacher based in Burlington, VT. My short stories and poems have previously been published by or are upcoming from venues such as Capricious Magazine, The Future Fire, and Strange Horizons. You can find me online at tobymacnutt.com or on Twitter @tylluan.

The Twisted Princess

Tied to the sacrificial pole, Princess Alana waited for the sun to rise. She dug her nails into the wood and bit her lip to keep from pleading with the peasants to untie her. She scanned the western skyline instead of scolding her parents. For the tenth time she wished her hands were loose to scratch the itch on her shoulder.

The first rays of dawn shot past her, marred by a black dot. Squinting, Alana focused on it. A small figure flew towards them, gathering speed and size as it neared.

The dot grew into the form of a dragon. A forty-foot wingspan generated a gale of wind, blowing back the peasants. Light gleamed on a glossy black belly and a ruby-red hide. The pole shook as clawed feet wider than oak trees slammed against the ground.

A silence fell across the gathered crowd. The long neck snaked upwards. Brown eyes sprinkled with gold flecks surveyed the crowd and focused on the pole. The round pupils contracted as the dragon studied Princess Alana. The gigantic head swung around, gaze narrowing on her father King Theidric the Bold and her mother Queen Poedith the Beautiful. The dragon opened his mouth. The sound of brass gongs rang. Words emerged from the cacophony. “She is the sacrifice?”

Mother spoke in a respectful voice instead of the screech she used to address her servants. “We are here to see that you keep your end of the bargain. In return for our sacrifice, our fields and our livestock will no longer be subject to your predations.”

“I would believe that if it were you and your most loyal retainers here.” The dragon waived a red claw at the cringing crowd. “Are they here to see a sacrifice burnt to a cinder? Devoured before them for their entertainment?”

“No, no, Bright One!” Father squeaked. Princess Alana didn’t think he sounded bold. “They are here to–”

“Liar! Your knights failed to kill me. Now you attempt to bring me down by overwhelming me with numbers, no matter how poorly armed?” The dragon faced the crowd and drew in a deep breath,  jaws opened wide.

Alana had seen drawings of that pose in the treatises on dragons – the position of a wyrm about to spray fire. The mob stampeded, sweeping the royal entourage with the panicking crowd.  Her last sight of her mother and father were them running for their lives without a backwards glance for their daughter.

She stiffened when she felt the ground shake beneath the dragon’s steps. She closed her eyes and shivered since there was no one to be brave for. She did not want her last vision to be the cavernous maw that would swallow her whole.

The steps circled behind her. She squeaked when a sharp claw cut the ropes, nicking her in the process. She reached for her shoulder and scratched, wondering if she was staining her dress. Perhaps the beast would suck her blood out of her like the juice from an pomegranate. “If you are going to eat me, please be quick about it.” She hated the tremor in her words. The voices of princesses in the stories didn’t quiver.

“I’m not going to eat you. Climb on.”

Alana opened her eyes. This wasn’t the fierce gong voice. The inviting words were muted wind chimes. She turned around to look at the dragon.

“Climb on,” the beast repeated. He lay down, belly flat against the earth. “They will be back soon. We best be gone.”

What choice did she have? She wrapped her hand one of the large, black spikes protruding along the dragon’s spine. She slid between two of them, clamping her legs against the scaly side. Her nursemaid would be scandalized that she sat astride. She sat sidesaddle when she was still allowed to ride, as proper princess should. She hated being a proper princess.

“Hold on!” The dragon lurched to his feet. Alana wrapped her arms around the spike to keep from sliding off. She felt her mouth form an ‘O’ of amazement as the pole splintered from one well-placed blow of the dragon’s tail. Alana felt the massive shoulder muscles beneath her coil and spring.

Then they were in the air. The ceremonial pole swiftly became splinters as the dragon flew. Alana squinted into the wind. She was going faster than she could run, than the four horses pulled the parade carriage, than the one time she convinced her old, fat pony to gallop. Trusting the grip of her legs, she let go of the spike and spread her arms wide, laughing in pure exhilaration at the feel of wind rushing through her hair. If the dragon was going to eat her, at least he had given her this joy.

* * *

The sun hung high in sky when they landed. Alana was uncertain how many leagues the dragon’s flight had taken them. For all she knew, the land the dragon set down on belonged to someone other than her father. It no longer mattered. As far as her parents were concerned, she was dead.

The dragon crouched. Without waiting for him to ask, she slid to the ground. Her legs were stiff and sore, muscles cramping in places that would make her nursemaid blush. She wished for the hot bath in her chambers. Alana stifled a giggle. Perhaps the dragon would like some princess soup.

The dragon squinted at her. “Hmmm. You’re older than they usually give me. Nineteen, twenty summers? You’re not wearing the rags of a scullery maid. I haven’t seen silks sewn with pearls like these in almost a century.”

His words stung her wounded pride. “I am no scullery maid.” She drew herself up to her full height. The top of her head barely reached the knee of his foreleg. “I am Princess Alana, daughter of King Theidric the Bold and Queen Poedith the Beautiful, rulers of Dylvia.”

“Oho, a princess.” The corner of the dragon’s mouth curled in what Alana thought might have been amusement. “Forgive me for asking this, your royal highness, but shouldn’t you be married by now?”

Alana ignored his mocking tone. “I have a deformity, my lord.”

“Deformity?”

“Yes.” Bitterness filled her voice. She gathered her courage and turned away from the dragon, exposing her back. “My spine is twisted.”

The rasp of scales rubbing against each other made her blood run cold. Heat blew past her with every bellow of the dragon’s lungs. She gasped as the tip of a claw traced the S-curve from neck to waist. “One would not notice if one did not know to look.”

“Men do not notice my twisted spine, but they do my lack of grace. I was thought to be merely clumsy until my tutors noticed I walk with a limp.”

She turned and found the dragon’s brown and yellow eyes even with hers. His forefeet framed her, leaving her no place to run. One claw the thickness of her thigh tapped the ground behind her. “Is this the reason for your virginity?”

“Yes.” She dropped her gaze to the ground as color flooded her cheeks. “Father and Mother sent for the best healers to cure me.” She endured being laced into corsets so tight it hurt to draw breath. To maintain her posture, she had worn harnesses that reminded her of her father’s carriage horses. One healer had the temerity to suggest she be stretched on the rack until her spine realigned. That healer ended up giving an involuntary demonstration of his prescription.

“The healers halted the curve in my spine before I became a hunchback. None of them cured me.” She heard the words ‘Twisted Princess’ whispered when she passed courtiers in the halls. “I was told  not only was there no cure for my twist, but it would prevent me from bearing children.” When the gossip of her hips being askew and not giving her womanly parts enough room to carry a baby had been confirmed, the betrothal that had been in place from the moment she was born was invalidated. “What use is a princess who cannot provide an heir?”

“What use indeed.” the dragon echoed in funeral bells. He looked down at her and to the mouth of a dark cave, and back to her. “Come with me.” The dragon folded his wings against his back and entered the cave.

She stood, uncertain. For a second she thought about running away. The red tail uncurled from the darkness of the cave. The tip with its triple spike waved in a beckoning gesture. “Come,” the cymbals chimed.

Alana followed the tail into the darkness of the cave. The light faded after a few steps past the threshold. The further into the cave she went, the more unsteady her steps became. She stumbled, bashed her shoulder against the rock wall, and fell. She landed on her hands and knees. She bit her lip to stifle her cry at small, sharp stones cutting into her flesh.

“Are you all right, Princess Alana?”

“No.” The scrapes stung less than her pride. Worse, she could not tell which direction the dragon was heading in, nor the way to the mouth of the cave. The tears that had been threatening since her father announced she would be sacrificed spilled. Princesses didn’t cry, her nursemaid had told her over and over. Hot tears slid down her cheeks. She was the Twisted Princess. Why did she have to play by their rules?

The tip of tail brushed across her hand. “What is the matter?” tinkled harness bells.

Alana grabbed it as if she were a drowning woman thrown a lifeline. Everything, she wanted to wail. Instead she spoke of the most immediate problem. “I cannot see where to put my feet.” Relying on her vision to tell her which direction she was facing and how rugged the ground was the only way she could remain upright sometimes.

“I understand.” The tail she held on to twisted free from her grasp. It curled around her waist, lifting her to her feet as tenderly as a mother would a child. “Lean against me. I will keep you upright. We do not have much further to go.”

Alana placed her hand on the dragon’s hide, expecting her flesh to be torn further by steely scales. Instead the surface felt pebbly-smooth, like the pavers lining the path to the entrance of the Great Hall. The dragon radiated heat, which her body greedily absorbed.

They walked in complete darkness, Alana trusting the dragon to keep her upright. Before long they were in a fire-lit chamber large enough for the dragon to stretch his wings. Round, smooth stones formed a hearth in the center of the room. A cairn of similar stones stood in one corner. Against the wall appeared to be the contents from a farm house – cooking pots, an ax, and a pile of assorted peasant clothing. There was no sign of the fabled hoard, not even a single copper piece.

The dragon uncurled his tail from her waist. He settled between the fire and the pile of stones. “I will offer you a deal, Princess Alana. Normally I eat sacrifices, but I have more need of aid than the pleasure of a delicious morsel.”

Alana eyed the dragon askance. “What aid could you possibly need?”

The dragon jerked his muzzle towards the rough circle of stones. “That fire must be kept burning. You will gather tinder and see that it does not fall low. If it does turn to ash, you will stoke it to flame again. In return, not only will I spare your life, but I will see to your needs. When I have no further need of your aid, I will grant you a quick death.”

Alana shook her head. “Keep your fire? But, my lord, you are a dragon. You are fire!”

“No. I am not fire. Nor am I male.” The dragon rubbed a spot near the base of her throat.

It made no sense, she thought as she looked at the female dragon.  But she dared not to ask too many questions. “So if I have the right of it, I keep the fire, and you keep me until you no longer need me.”

The dragon nodded. “Do we have an accord, Princess Alana?”

Alana stared into the brown-and-gold eyes. Was it a trick of the firelight or was there a hint of desperation in them? She was resigned to her death, but now she saw a way to live and grabbed for it. Chamber maids kept the fires going in her father’s keep nonstop. How hard could it be? “We have an accord….” Alana paused. She couldn’t keep calling the dragon ‘dragon.’ “What is your name?”

“My name is–.” The words disappeared, leaving a delicate, metallic sound. “I doubt your tongue can pronounce it.”

“It is beautiful.” It reminded Alana of the church bells ringing in celebration. Bell was not a proper name for the dragon. She remembered the word for bell in another language. “May I call you Campana?”

“Campana.” The dragon fitted the chime around the word. “Yes, call me Campana.

* * *

Alana realized the chamber maid’s job of tending the fire was not easy.

First was the problem of getting up and down the long tunnel leading into the cave. Campana scraped her sides as she squeezed through the tunnel, but Alana’s arms couldn’t touch both sides.. The side walls were rough and the floor uneven under her feet. After several falls, Alana learned to carry a small pot of coals from the fire with her. She left a handful of sticks smoldering at the mouth of the cave while she searched for wood.

The first day, after changing out of her wedding dress and into the itchy homespun peasant garb, she gathered what she thought would be enough for the night. Half the night had passed when she fed the last of the branches to the fire. Campana chimed worriedly as the flames grew low and turned a dull red. The danger of the forest at night kept her from foraging for more.

When dawn came, she left the cave. Determined not to make the same mistake, she struggled to carry back several large logs. That was also a mistake. Instead of the fire blazing to life, the bulk smothered it. A few half-burnt sticks revived what flame there was until the log caught.

Through trial and error she learned to let sap filled branches dry, oak burnt longer and warmer than pine, and to gather twice as much as she thought she would need to store against rain.

Campana brought her small game, mostly squirrel and rabbit. She seemed amused Alana insisted on removing the fur and cooking the meat. Alana remembered watching the cook dress meat for both the servants and her father’s table. She kept an eye out for wild roots and vegetables while foraging for wood, so on occasion she was able to make a stew of some fashion.

Over time her hands grew callused and the ache in her back, which never went completely away, lessened. The itchiness of the wool never disappeared, but grew less noticeable.  Although she still walked with a limp, she did not fall as often. All the time she wondered about the task Campana had set her to.

Not all her life was wood gathering and fire tending. During the quiet times,  Alana and Campana would exchange stories. Alana didn’t try to sing the bards’s tales, but spoke them the best she remembered. She wasn’t so crass to tell Campana the tales about knights slaying dragons. Campana told her the legends of her people. Alana noted, her mouth twisting in a wry grin, Campana’s stories didn’t mention the princesses who were devoured.

It was one of those nights she learned of why she was charged with taking care of the fire. Alana sat next to Campana in their customary spot for storytelling.  Campana lolled in front of the fire.  Alana sat back to Campana’s stomach, half-tucked under a tree-trunk sized foreleg.  The heat of the fire reflected off red dragon scale, keeping both her front and back warm.

The firelight glittered off of Campana’s scales, making them glimmer like rubies and onyx.  But, above the shoulders where the wings joined, she noticed a ring of missing scales circling the broad neck like a collar. It had the pink shininess of a fresh scar.  “How did you come by that wound, Campana?”

Campana stared at her, the expression in her gold flecked eyes distant.  Her jaw shifted back and forth before she spoke. “My mate and I were attacked by a knight.” The dragon looked at the cairn. “He died protecting the last of our clutch. I killed the egg-breaker, but not before he wounded me.”

Alana gasped. “There’s an egg under those stones?”

The dragon nodded. She touched the scar with her claws. “My wounds left me unable to breathe fire. My egg needs heat to hatch, and I am unable to warm the stones myself. I can manipulate the rocks with ease, and fell large trees, but the wood needed for the fire splinters from the pressure of my teeth.”

Alana leaned her head against the warm hide.  She could hear the deep thrum of the dragon’s heart.  Campana and her mate had fought to protect their child.  Her mother and father had handed her over without any hesitation. So why did they call dragons monsters?  Alana turned that thought over in her head as she fell asleep to the massive heartbeat.

* * *

Her first warning was the clothing Campana provided for her.  One day, Campana returned from her hunt with a fur lined cloak clutched carefully in her claws. The following day, a man’s shirt and trousers were presented to Alana. Part of her protested putting on men’s clothes. A lady, let alone a princess ,most certainly did not wear men’s clothing. Warmth trumped propriety, she decided after donning the breeches. Alana discovered it was much easier to gather wood in. Soon after Campana provided a second set. She didn’t question where the dragon got the clothing and ignored the faint stains of blood soaked into the fabric.

She did not make the connection until the dragon returned from the hunt bearing a whole sheep in her jaws. Alana’s mouth watered at the thought of mutton instead of rabbit, but her fear was sharper than her hunger. “Where did you get this?”

“There is now a flock not two-thousand wingbeats from here,” Campana chimed. “The shepherd has a beautiful plaid cloak I could fetch for you.”

“No! You mustn’t, Campana!” Alana cried. “If he saw you take the sheep, if he saw you at all, he will send word to my father. He will send knights to slay you.”

“Let them come!” Discordant gongs filled Campana’s voice. “They will tremble before my might of my claws. I will beat them back with the hurricane of my wings. I will char them to ash with my fiery breath.”

“You can’t breathe fire,” Alana said in her gentlest voice.

Campana’s head whipped around. From the anger smoldering in those eyes, Alana wasn’t sure Campana would forget her deal and not eat her on the spot. “Your baby will need you,” she said around her heart pounding in her throat.

From belly to head, the dragon thumped hard on the floor. Her whisper was the sound of the bells decorating the horse’s winter harness. “You are right. I will not hunt any more sheep.” The corners of the dragon’s mouth curled in a sly grin. “Goats, however.” She smacked her lips.

Alana laughed and hugged Campana, wrapping her arms as far as she could around the thick neck.

* * *

Alana had returned into the cave with her latest bundle when she heard Campana’s chiming over the sound of stone hitting stone. Grabbing her torch, she hurried down to the end of the tunnel to the chamber.

Campana clawed rocks away from the cairn, revealing the opalescent surface of the egg. As she did so, fine cracks appeared along the surface and widened. Campana made a sound of crystal striking crystal. A softer tinkling answered.

The egg is hatching, Alana thought. Campana would have no more need for her to tend a fire. She swallowed. She should run away before the dragon realized she had returned. Maybe she would get lucky and be able to hide. She stood rooted to the ground as the cracks widened.

Campana shoved the stones aside. The egg shivered, rocked, and split in two, revealing the glistening hindquarters of a dragonet. The feet scrabbled, tiny claws flashing like rubies, until they caught the rim of the broken egg. The forequarters pulled free with a pop. The dragonet chimed, stretched, and unfurling tiny wings. The baby shook off the egg slime.

Campana lowered her head. The baby would barely reach the tip of her mother’s snout to the corner of her mouth, Alana thought. The dragon chimed softly, the sound she had identified as her name. The baby replied. Alana could hear a different pattern in the higher notes.

The dragonet scampered over to her, stumbling as she figured out where to put her feet. She tilted her head, studying her. She reared on her back feet and put large clawed forefeet on Alana’s shoulders and leaned. Alana, unable to handle the shift in her balance and the additional weight, fell to the floor. The dragonet chimed a laugh and lay stomach-on-stomach on top of her.

Alana looked at Campana from under one of the baby’s legs. The mother dragon lowered her head alongside them. “Well, she clearly likes you,” she chimed softly. “What will you call her?”

Alana ran her hands along the soft nubs of spikes down the baby’s spine. Her dragon-name reminded Alana of the tiny instruments played by the scantily-clad dancers whose costumes her mother had pronounced scandalous. “Cymbal”

Campana hummed in pleasure, a cat purr played on a gong. “Yes, that is a fitting name for my daughter.”

* * *

Alana expected for Campana to eat her as soon as her egg hatched. To her surprise, the dragon did not. “She will not be able to breathe fire until her head reaches the top of my back,” she explained. “That will take at least three months. Until then, Cymbal will need the warmth of the fire.”

Alana nodded. The perpetual knot of worry in her stomach untied. Now she knew the span of her life.

One month later while she was gathering wood, she heard the heavy clops of a horse’s hooves. She dropped her bundle of sticks and dashed into the nearby brushes as the sound drew nearer. Alana hoped it was a traveler using an almost forgotten path. To her dismay, the heavy bay horse carried a man wearing a long sword. She had seen enough similarly arrayed men to know a knight when she saw one.

The horse plodded out of sight. She dashed out of the bush. Ranging far and wide had provided her with a familiarity with the woods. Quick as a rabbit, she darted between the trees, praying she made it to the cave before the knight did. She ran over the uneven ground, using her hands to propel her off of tree trunks when she stumbled. When she reached the clearing, there was no sign of the knight. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Cold steel pressed into her neck. An arm snaked around her stomach from behind. “Make not a sound,” whispered a masculine voice. The pressure on her throat grew, forcing her to step backwards into the trees.

She was guided to a where the horse was tethered. The steel retreated from her throat. Alana turned to look at the knight. He wore the finery of one of her father’s vassals, but stained and in need of mending. His hair needed washing and his face bore several days’ worth of unshaven beard. “Who are you?” he grunted.

The lie came to Alana’s mouth without prompting. “I am a woodcutter’s daughter, my lord. He is ill, and sent me to gather wood for the fire.”

The knight barked a laugh. “I know who you are, girl. You are the Twisted Princess. Your father sent me,”

Her heart beat faster.  Had her parents repented and sought her out? “Are you here to rescue me?”

“I’m here to slay the dragon.” She could see him calculating her worth by the gleam in his eye. “You look healthy but for the twist in your spine. Have you been in the dragon’s clutches all this time?”

“There is no dragon here.” She had to convince the knight to go away before Campana came out of the cave or returned from her hunt.

“There is too. I have seen the smoke rising from the ground not half a league from here. No fires burn underground.”

“‘Tis the fire I use to keep myself warm.”

“Show me. If there is no dragon sign, I will return you to your father before resuming my hunt.”

So he can sacrifice me again, Alana thought. That was when she heard the distant cry Campana used to alert her that she was returning.

“Dragon,” the knight whispered. He turned towards the mouth of the cave, raising his sword.

“No!” Alana grabbed his arm, yanking on it to halt him. “There is a harmless dragonet within.”

“All the better to slay it now, before two dragons roam the land.” He shrugged her off with a flick of his arm. Pushed off-balance, Alana stumbled backwards and fell, landing hard on her bottom. The knight turned to face her. “You are enchanted by the dragon’s magic. Once I slay it, your eyes will be opened to the truth of your situation.” He tightened his grip on the sword and walked towards the cave.

All she could picture was the young dragon laying by the fire, bloodied and dead. The thought turned her stomach. Flashes of the nights she and Campana had spent telling stories, how the dragon had presented her with clothes, and how Campana had flown her over the valley rushed through her. She could not repay her friend’s kindness with treachery.

As she pushed herself to her feet, her hands grasped one of the large branches she intended to cut smaller. Brandishing it like a club, she ran for the knight. She ran past him to crouch in front of the cave, brandishing her improvised club.

The knight laughed. “What are you going to do? Poke me with your stick?” He batted the branch out of her hand with the flat of the sword. Knocked off balance, she fell hard on her bottom. The knight laughed. “I am going to take care of the dragon. Then I am going to return you where you belong.”

As the knight disappeared down the cave entrance, Alana rose to her feet and picked up her club. She hurried down the passage without lighting, relying on memory instead of her vision before stumbling into the chamber.

The knight had backed the dragonet into a corner. Cymbal arched her neck and hissed, but no flame shot out of her mouth. The knight laughed and advanced, leveling his sword.

Alana raised her club and ran for the knight. She tripped over an uneven patch of the floor just as she reached the pair. The knight turned towards her, a look of shock on his face. She swung and landed a blow between his eyes, backed by her falling weight. She heard a sickening crack as the knight fell. He landed on her, knocking the wind from her lungs as he pinned her to the ground.

Alana drew a pained breath as Cymbal dragged the knight off of her. Hand on the dragonet for balance, she rose to her feet. Alana turned to the knight laying crumpled on the floor. Cymbal followed, hissing. She prodded him with her toe. Then she kicked his side. He didn’t grunt in pain. He didn’t breathe at all.

She looked at the dragon. A wet sob bubbled up her throat as she slid into a sitting position. Cymbal sounded a worried tinkling. Alana wrapped her arms around Cymbal’s neck, cradling the dragonet close as she cried. She and Cymbal were still in that position when Campana returned.

* * *

Two months passed in the blink of an eye. Alana watched Cymbal grow. She could see the dragonet gain inches in height after each meal. It wasn’t long before Cymbals breath grew warm, and then hot. The same day Cymbal could rest her head on Campana’s shoulders without standing on her hind legs, she lit a tree on fire.

Alana smiled at the dragonet’s accomplishment. Tears of pride and sorrow welled in her eyes, but she did not cry. She looked up at Campana, meeting her friend’s gaze. “I am ready.”

Campana’s head twisted to one side. “For what?”

“I’ve kept my end of the bargain,” Alana said. Cymbal looped her head over Alana’s shoulder. The princess stroked her head without thinking about it. “Cymbal can breathe fire. You have no more need of me.”

Campana scratched behind the webbing of one ear with her massive forefoot. “Ah, yes, I see. The bargain.” She looked from the dragonet to Alana. “Cymbal sees you as her mother also. I will not deprive her of another parent since she will never know her father. Therefore, I propose I not fulfill our bargain her until she reaches full adulthood.”

Alana looked from the dragonet to the dragon. “How long will that be?”

“For dragons, a blink of the eye. In the terms of your people, two hundred years.” The dragon tilted her head. “I know it is a long time for you to wait to be devoured. We can pass the time by telling each other more stories. Do we have an accord?”

Alana smiled through the tears of joy running down her face. “We have an accord.”


About The Author:

Sheryl R Hayes’s three cats graciously allow her and her mother to live in their house in the Silicon Valley, Ca.  In addition to writing her urban fantasy series and short stories, she works full time at a private utility.  She has a short story coming out in the upcoming anthology Alterna-Teas, published by Sky Warrior Books. You can follow her blog at http://www.sherylrhayes.com, on Twitter @sherylrhayes, or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/sherylrhayes