Last week, my youngest daughter began complaining of leg pain and her left knee swelled up. A couple visits to the doctor later, some talk about juvenile arthritis and lupus, and she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease and is now on a three-week course of antibiotics that will – hopefully! – give this illness the giant, massive kick it deserves.
Because of being distracted by waiting for her diagnosis to come in, I didn’t accomplish much in the way of writing this week. Daughters of Men has sat and collected dust, and aside from the last few edits for An Unpracticed Heart, I wasn’t doing much creatively. And then Monday night, a story began spilling out of me, flooding faster than I could scribble it down on the page, and now it’s Friday and this little 2200 words of something is done.
Writing this pushed me through some massive stress this week, and so here is the result of that stress, a little thing I call… Splintered Teeth.
The creature was not as large as the legends had made it out to be.
The stories had betrayed her, tales told at night and over fires, the hands of the elders casting shadows that dipped and swayed, dipped and swayed, fingers taking on the shape of wings that stretched across the night sky and tugged at the edges of dreams just begun. Wings and fire and claws that scraped the earth, a barbed tail that could curl around a mountain peak and wrench the stone away from its foundations.
So the legends had said. As if the weight of all the world and creation could be carried on its monstrous back. Monstrous. Monster. A thing to taint her imaginings and turn them into nightmares. And there it sat, grey and scarred and blind, and curled in on itself, like a cat dozing in the sun.
It clung to the edge of the cliff, claws hooked over the rocks as if the mountainside offered no more space on which it could sprawl. Its tail – thicker and more blunt than the picture painted in her mind – trailed over the side of the cliff and out of sight. And there were its feet, the ones she could see, bearing their cracked, broken talons. Too large for its body, or what its body had shrunk to with the descent of years on its frame.
But it was the wing that drew her gaze, a span of grey tinged with a dull shade of russet. Perhaps it had once borne a more vivid hue, its scales and skin gleaming like a jewel in the daylight. Perhaps it had once been a beautiful, a terrible, a frightening thing. She had assumed so much about it before setting foot on the trail, when the first warning had reached them that the monster had been sighted, spiralling through the fog, a twist of shadow circling high above them.
The last dragon, the elders said. With a hitch of fear in the voices, a wheeze in their lungs as if the creature’s great claws had already begun to wring the life from them.
The last dragon. The end of it all.
She flexed her fingers, reached for her sword, and stilled. The creature made no move. It should have heard her by now, should have reared up on its legs, set fire to the breath it drew inside itself and blasted her with a heat greater than what the elders threatened would await her in the next life should she fail.
But the thing didn’t stir. And she wondered… she wondered if the task was already done. In the time it had taken her to climb, her feet bloody inside her boots, her lungs fighting to break free from the confines of her rib cage as the air thinned around her… was the monster already dead?
She remained where she was, her gaze tracing the lines of the dragon’s wings, the tattered edges shifting slightly in the rare push of breeze that cut its way around the side of the mountain. The air buffeted her from behind, sending her weight forward onto the balls of her feet, pulling a few strands of hair out from beneath the worn leather of her cap. The breeze turned then, but the dragon’s nostrils opened. Dark slits in a nose she hadn’t yet seen, tucked away beneath the tip of the wing. The nostrils blinked again and a sharp, brief blast of air huffed a small cloud of dust and debris from the ground.
Her scent. It smelled her.
A noise rumbled across the rock, rippling through the earth and setting the smallest of the stones into bouncing, juddering life around her feet. It breathed again, and another rumble shook the trail, this one invading her bones, pulling at her guts until she feared she’d be sick on her boots before she could turn and run the other way.
Because she wanted to run. No matter that the thing before was little larger than a horse, though the tales passed down from parent to child had depicted a creature possessed of the strength to empty a lake of its waters with one sweep of its massive wings. Still, it had teeth to bite and claws to tear and perhaps even enough fire left in its belly to burn and blister her flesh.
And here she stood, with a sword at her hip and a shield across her back, the dampened leather seeming a paltry thing in the face of the dragon she’d been sent to kill.
A twitch of its wing, and she saw its eye again, a better glimpse than before. Pale and milky, she could not tell from where she stood if it merely reflected the swirl of drifting clouds on its surface or if the animal really had lost the power of sight. Whether or not it could see her, its nose lifted several inches off the ground, snuffling again, one cracked tooth jutting out in an underbite before it disappeared again behind the swipe of its thick, swollen tongue.
No, it was not yet dead yet, but it had come here to die. She found her sword again, pulled it out, and tightened her grip on it until her arm ceased its trembling. No ring of steel or gnashing of teeth, no beam of sunlight through the broken clouds to illuminate the moment when she would vanquish the monster and mark her place in the elders’ legends. Only her sweating palms, and the acrid taste of sick in the back of her throat, and a fading dragon whose rumbles still shook the earth as she shuffled slowly forward.
The soles of her boots scraped over the jagged rocks, while the dragon’s nose continued to seek her out. Bulbous and scarred, she tried not to think about what past battles had so damaged its features. Another step, then. The sword felt like nothing in her hand, as insubstantial as a twig that would snap the moment she pressed the tip of it against its thick, scaly hide. And then she would be next, burned or bitten or simply flung off the mountain with one sweep of a claw, her body breaking on the rocks below.
The dragon raised its wing, the skin creaking like leather, stretching out and upwards until she saw tears that had healed over with scar tissue, small holes she could have fit a finger through, if she dared. Its body shuddered as it rolled onto its belly, clambering onto legs that did not want to support its weight, jarring the ground as it collapsed again with a great groan and whoosh of reeking, hot air. It was enough to send her to one knee, her fingers touching the earth, steadying herself until the mountain stilled and the creature ceased its movements.
But it did not quiet, not entirely. The groan from the depths of its gaunt frame became a whine, a plaintive sound that still possessed the power to bring down a shower of stones as it arched its long neck and sent up a wail, the noise swiftly swallowed up by the clouds that shifted around them. If it were still capable of killing her, she realized, it would have already done so. But she made no attempt to stand. The uneven ground dug into her knee, while her fingernails scraped at what little topsoil remained this far up the mountain.
It would be an easy thing, to turn around and leave the creature to its fate. She had seen it now, had witnessed how close it was to its end. And wouldn’t that be enough to spur her heels back towards the path that would take her down, down, down, over the rock and chunks of ice and snow that still cut their way along the mountainside? And there the elders waited for her, for the proof she had not failed them. The only thing that would set her free.
The sword slipped in her hand, her palm still clammy, the skin beneath her arms and between her breasts prickling with heat. But no matter the cold, no matter the fog that froze in her nostrils if she breathed too deep, the warmth radiated from her, as if she carried some measure of fire inside herself as well.
The dragon moved again, another stretch of one wing, while the other was tucked awkwardly beneath its bulk. Again, it struggled to stand, weak and clumsy as it was, its nose always working, making certain, she thought, that she stayed where she was and came no closer.
She shifted back until she sat on her heels, her sword laid across her thighs. Across from her, far enough away yet still close enough that she could hurl a stone towards it and strike its flank, the creature breathed. Even that seemed a laborious thing; the heave of its ribs, visible beneath loose folds of skin, followed by the rattle of air as it escaped from its lungs. It would not be much longer, she knew. And so she sat, and she waited.
The passage of time was a difficult thing to track. The clouds crept in, flooding the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t until the opaque whiteness of the sky above began its fade to grey that she realized the day would soon be over. She watched the dragon, as she had for the last hours, tracing every line in its skin, every scar marring the scales and horned peaks across its head and back. She drew a picture of it in her mind until she trusted that she would be able to recreate it again, with charcoal and ink, before the wisp of memory could slip away from her.
It had ceased moving some time before, just before the sky surrendered to the oncoming night. Shallow, uneven exhalations slipped out of it, the rumble from before becoming a weak hum incapable of displacing a single pebble. Another whine from its throat, almost a whistle, caught her attention, and she stood slowly, stretching muscles that had not moved for too long. One step forward, and the dragon gave no sign that it noticed her. Another step, and another, and still there was only the high keening carried out on the creature’s every breath.
Her fingers ached as she tightened them around her sword. Every part of her ached, but she continued moving towards the dragon, until she could reach out with her free hand, until her trembling fingers touched thick, damaged hide. A dragon’s hide. Something that had always lingered at the edges of her thoughts, as something that might not ever be proved real.
She pressed her palm flat against its side, counting, wondering if it would take another breath. The erratic thrumming of her own pulse seemed like it would choke her, but she forced herself to swallow, just as the dragon’s side pushed outwards, against her hand. The breath was longer, so much deeper than the ones that had come before. One breath. And then it slipped away, the creature’s body seeming to collapse in on itself. And that was all.
She did not remove her hand right away. The dragon was cold beneath her touch, had been since she’d laid her fingers on it, but she could not tell if the chill it emanated now was more pronounced because the heart inside it had gone quiet.
A prayer came to her mind, a few lines taught to her by the elders, words that had meant nothing when forced upon her from childhood. But she spoke them now, a whisper from her lips, the sounds mingling with the far-off rush of wind from another valley, far below. A single step back, and a fleeting thought struck her that the cold had yet to reach her, even though the fog had changed to a drizzle of ice that bit her cheeks and bounced off the dragon’s back.
The elders, she knew, might not believe her. Even after all this, they might not listen to her, might think she had simply hid herself in the hills until enough time had passed for her to return, and with nothing more than a tale of stumbling upon a monster she’d not been forced to kill. Without a wound, with her sword clean, she would remain their thrall, and then she might never be rid of them.
Two words, before she raised her sword and drove it deep into the belly of the dragon. Blood as dark as ink leaked out, staining the blade of her weapon as she drew it out again. Tendrils of vapor curled upwards, combining with the cloud of white from her mouth before it swirled again and disappeared into the oncoming darkness.
She turned then, back towards the path that had brought her here. Still, the sweat formed on her skin, as if she were burning from the inside. But there was no fever, no illness, and as she slipped her bloodstained sword into its sheath, she took her first step down the mountain, back to the camp, to the elders, her heart blazing inside her chest, a fire igniting in her belly, because now… now she could be free.