3140 words, short story
Orm the Beautiful
2007 WSFA Small Press Award Nominee
Orm the Beautiful sang in his sleep, to his brothers and sisters, as the sea sings to itself. He would never die. But neither could he live much longer.
Dreaming on jewels, hearing their ancestor-song, he did not think that he would mind. The men were coming; Orm the Beautiful knew it with the wisdom of his bones. He thought he would not fight them. He thought he would close the mountain and let them scratch outside.
He would die there in the mother-cave, and so stay with the Chord. There was no-one after him to take his place as warden, and Orm the Beautiful was old.
Because he was the last warden of the mother-cave, his hoard was enormous, chromatic in hue and harmony. There was jade and lapis—the bequests of Orm the Exquisite and Orm the Luminous, respectively—and chrysoprase and turquoise and the semiprecious feldspars. There were three cracked sections of an amethyst pipe as massive as a fallen tree, and Orm the Beautiful was careful never to breathe fire upon them; the stones would jaundice to smoke color in the heat.
He lay closest by the jagged heap of beryls—green as emerald, green as poison, green as grass—that were the mortal remains of his sister, Orm the Radiant. And just beyond her was the legacy of her mate, Orm the Magnificent, charcoal-and-silver labradorite overshot with an absinthe shimmer. The Magnificent’s song, in death, was high and sweet, utterly at odds with the aged slithering hulk he had become before he changed.
Orm the Beautiful stretched his long neck among the glorious rubble of his kin and dozed to their songs. Soon he would be with them, returned to their harmony, their many-threaded round. Only his radiance illuminated them now. Only his eye remembered their sheen. And he too would lose the power to shine with more than reflected light before long, and all in the mother-cave would be dark and full of music.
He was pale, palest of his kin, blue-white as skimmed milk and just as translucent. The flash that ran across his scales when he crawled into the light, however, was spectral: green-electric and blue-actinic, and a vermilion so sharp it could burn an afterimage in a human eye.
It had been a long time since he climbed into the light. Perhaps he’d seal the cave now, to be ready.
When he was done, he lay down among his treasures, his beloveds, under the mountain, and his thoughts were dragonish.
But when the men came they came not single spies but in battalions, with dragons of their own. Iron dragons, yellow metal monsters that creaked and hissed as they gnawed the rocks. And they brought, with the dragons, channeled fire.
There was a thump, a tremble, and sifting dust followed. Cold winter air trickling down the shaft woke Orm the Beautiful from his chorale slumber.
He blinked lambent eyes, raising his head from the petrified, singing flank of Orm the Perspicacious. He heard the crunch of stone like the splintering of masticated bones and cocked his head, his ears and tendrils straining forward.
And all the Chord sang astonishment and alarm.
It had happened to others. Slain, captured, taken. Broken apart and carried off, their memories and their dreams lost forever, their songs stripped to exiled fragments to adorn a wrist, a throat, a crown. But it had always been that men could be turned back with stone.
And now they were here at the mother-cave, and undaunted to find it sealed.
This would not do. This threatened them all.
Orm the Beautiful burst from the mountain wreathed in white-yellow flames. The yellow steel dragon was not too much larger than he. It blocked the tunnel mouth; its toothed hand raked and lifted shattered stone. Orm the Beautiful struck it with his claws extended, his wings snapping wide as he cleared the destroyed entrance to the mother-cave.
The cold cut through scale to bone. When fire did not jet from flaring nostrils, his breath swirled mist and froze to rime. Snow lay blackened on the mountainside, rutted and filthy. His wings, far whiter, caught chill carmine sparks from the sun. Fragile steel squealed and rent under his claws.
There was a man in the cage inside the mechanical dragon. He made terrible unharmonious noises as he burned. Orm the Beautiful seized him and ate him quickly, out of pity, head jerking like a stork snatching down a frog.
His throat distended, squeezed, smoothed, contracted. There was no time to eat the contraption, and metal could not suffer in the flames. Orm the Beautiful tore it in half, claw and claw, and soared between the discarded pieces.
Other men screamed and ran. Their machines were potent, but no iron could sting him. Neither their bullets nor the hammer-headed drill on the second steel dragon gave him pause. He stalked them, pounced, gorged on the snap-shaken dead.
He pursued the living as they fled, and what he reached he slew.
When he slithered down the ruined tunnel to the others, they were singing, gathered, worried. He settled among their entwined song, added his notes to the chords, offered harmony. Orm the Beautiful was old; what he brought to the song was rich and layered, subtle and soft.
They will come again, sang Orm the Radiant.
They have found the mother-cave, and they have machines to unearth us, like a badger from its sett, sang Orm the Terrible from his column of black and lavender jade.
We are not safe here anymore , sang Orm the Luminous. We will be scattered and lost. The song will end, will end.
His verse almost silenced them all. Their harmony guttered like a fire when the wind slicks across it, and for a moment Orm the Beautiful felt the quiet like a wire around his throat. It was broken by the discord of voices, a rising dissonance like a tuning orchestra, the Chord all frightened and in argument.
But Orm the Courtly raised her voice, and all listened. She was old in life and old in death, and wise beyond both in her singing. Let the warden decide.
Another agreed, another, voice after voice scaling into harmony.
And Orm the Beautiful sat back on his haunches, his tail flicked across his toes, his belly aching, and tried to pretend he had any idea at all how to protect the Chord from being unearthed and carted to the four corners of the world.
“I’ll think about it when I’ve digested,” he said, and lay down on his side with a sigh.
Around him the Chord sang agreement. They had not forgotten in death the essentialities of life.
With the men and their machines came memory. Orm the Beautiful, belly distended with iron and flesh, nevertheless slept with one eye open. His opalescence lit the mother-cave in hollow violets and crawling greens. The Chord sang around him, thinking while he dreamed. The dead did not rest, or dream.
They only sang and remembered.
The Chord was in harmony when he awoke. They had listened to his song while he slept, and while he stretched—sleek again, and the best part of a yard longer—he heard theirs as well, and learned from them what they had learned from his dinner.
More men would follow. The miners Orm the Beautiful had dined on knew they would not go unavenged. There would be more men, men like ants, with their weapons and their implements. And Orm the Beautiful was strong.
But he was old, and he was only one. And someone, surely, would soon recall that though steel had no power to harm Orm the Beautiful’s race, knapped flint or obsidian could slice him opal hide from opal bone.
The mother-cave was full of the corpses of dragons, a chain of song and memory stretching aeons. The Chord was rich in voices.
Orm the Beautiful had no way to move them all.
Orm the Numinous, who was eldest, was chosen to speak the evil news they all knew already. You must give us away, Orm the Beautiful.
Dragons are not specifically disallowed in the airspace over Washington, D.C., but it must be said that Orm the Beautiful’s presence there was heartily discouraged. Nevertheless, he persevered, holding his flame and the lash of his wings, and succeeded in landing on the National Mall without destroying any of the attacking aircraft.
He touched down lightly in a clear space before the National Museum of Natural History, a helicopter hovering over his head and blowing his tendrils this way and that. There were men all over the grass and pavements. They scattered, screaming, nigh-irresistible prey. Orm the Beautiful’s tail-tip twitched with frustrated instinct, and he was obliged to stand on three legs and elaborately clean his off-side fore talons for several moments before he regained enough self-possession to settle his wings and ignore the scurrying morsels.
It was unlikely that he would set a conducive tone with the museum’s staff by eating a few as a prelude to conversation.
He stood quietly, inspecting his talons foot by foot and, incidentally, admiring the flashes of color that struck off his milk-pale hide in the glaring sun. When he had been still five minutes, he looked up to find a ring of men surrounding him, males and a few females, with bright metal in their hands and flashing on the chests of uniforms that were a black-blue dark as sodalite.
“Hello,” Orm the Beautiful said, in the language of his dinner, raising his voice to be heard over the clatter of the helicopter. “My name is Orm the Beautiful. I should like to speak to the curator, please.”
The helicopter withdrew to circle, and the curator eventually produced was a female man. Orm the Beautiful wondered if that was due to some half-remembered legend about his folk’s preferences. Sopranos, in particular, had been popular among his kin in the days when they associated more freely with men.
She minced from the white-columned entry, down broad shallow steps between exhibits of petrified wood, and paused beyond the barricade of yellow tape and wooden sawhorses the blue-uniformed men had strung around Orm the Beautiful.
He had greatly enjoyed watching them evacuate the Mall.
The curator wore a dull suit and shoes that clicked, and her hair was twisted back on her neck. Little stones glinted in her earlobes: diamonds, cold and common and without song.
“I’m Katherine Samson,” she said, and hesitantly extended her tiny soft hand, half-retracted it, then doggedly thrust it forward again. “You wished to speak to me?”
“I am Orm the Beautiful,” Orm the Beautiful replied, and laid a cautious talon-tip against her palm. “I am here to beg your aid.”
She squinted up and he realized that the sun was behind him. If its own brilliance didn’t blind her pale man’s eyes, surely the light shattering on his scales would do the deed. He spread his wings to shade her, and the ring of blue-clad men flinched back as one—as if they were a Chord, though Orm the Beautiful knew they were not.
The curator, however, stood her ground.
His blue-white wings were translucent, and there was a hole in the leather of the left one, an ancient scar. It cast a ragged bright patch on the curator’s shoe, but the shade covered her face, and she lowered her eye-shading hand.
“Thank you,” she said. And then, contemplating him, she pushed the sawhorses apart. One of the blue men reached for her, but before he caught her arm, the curator was through the gap and standing in Orm the Beautiful’s shadow, her head craned back, her hair pulling free around her temples in soft wisps that reminded Orm the Beautiful of Orm the Radiant’s tawny tendrils. “You need my help? Uh, sir?”
Carefully, he lowered himself to his elbows, keeping the wings high. The curator was close enough to touch him now, and when he tilted his head to see her plainly, he found her staring up at him with the tip of her tongue protruding. He flicked his tongue in answer, tasting her scent.
She was frightened. But far more curious.
“Let me explain,” he said. And told her about the mother-cave, and the precious bones of his Chord, and the men who had come to steal them. He told her that they were dead, but they remembered, and if they were torn apart, carted off, their song and their memories would be shattered.
“It would be the end of my culture,” he said, and then he told her he was dying.
As he was speaking, his head had dipped lower, until he was almost murmuring in her ear. At some point, she’d laid one hand on his skull behind the horns and leaned close, and she seemed startled now to realize that she was touching him. She drew her hand back slowly, and stood staring at the tips of her fingers. “What is that singing?”
She heard it, then, the wreath of music that hung on him, thin and thready though it was in the absence of his Chord. That was well. “It is I.”
“Do all—all your people—does that always happen?”
“I have no people,” he said. “But yes. Even in death we sing. It is why the Chord must be kept together.”
“So when you said it’s only you . . . ”
“I am the last,” said Orm the Beautiful.
She looked down, and he gave her time to think.
“It would be very expensive,” she said, cautiously, rubbing the fingertips together as if they’d lost sensation. “We would have to move quickly, if poachers have already found your . . . mother-cave. And you’re talking about a huge engineering problem, to move them without taking them apart. I don’t know where the money would come from.”
“If the expense were not at issue, would the museum accept the bequest?”
“Without a question.” She touched his eye-ridge again, quickly, furtively. “Dragons,” she said, and shook her head and breathed a laugh. ” Dragons.”
“Money is no object,” he said. “Does your institution employ a solicitor?”
The document was two days in drafting. Orm the Beautiful spent the time fretting and fussed, though he kept his aspect as nearly serene as possible. Katherine—the curator—did not leave his side. Indeed, she brought him within the building—the tall doors and vast lobby could have accommodated a far larger dragon—and had a cot fetched so she could remain near. He could not stay in the lobby itself, because it was a point of man-pride that the museum was open every day, and free to all comers. But they cleared a small exhibit hall, and he stayed there in fair comfort, although silent and alone.
Outside, reporters and soldiers made camp, but within the halls of the Museum of Natural History, it was bright and still, except for the lonely shadow of Orm the Beautiful’s song.
Already, he mourned his Chord. But if his sacrifice meant their salvation, it was a very small thing to give.
When the contracts were written, when the papers were signed, Katherine sat down on the edge of her cot and said, “The personal bequest,” she began. “The one the Museum is meant to sell, to fund the retrieval of your Chord.”
“Yes,” Orm the Beautiful said.
“May I know what it is now, and where we may find it?”
“It is here before you,” said Orm the Beautiful, and tore his heart from his breast with his claws.
He fell with a crash like a breaking bell, an avalanche of skim-milk-white opal threaded with azure and absinthe and vermilion flash. Chunks rolled against Katherine’s legs, bruised her feet and ankles, broke some of her toes in her clicking shoes.
She was too stunned to feel pain. Through his solitary singing, Orm the Beautiful heard her refrain: “Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no.”
Those who came to investigate the crash found Katherine Samson on her knees, hands raking the rubble. Salt water streaked opal powder white as bone dust down her cheeks. She kissed the broken rocks, and the blood on her fingertips was no brighter than the shocked veins of carnelian flash that shot through them.
Orm the Beautiful was broken up and sold, as he had arranged. The paperwork was quite unforgiving; dragons, it seems, may serve as their own attorneys with great dexterity.
The stones went for outrageous prices. When you wore them on your skin, you could hear the dragonsong. Institutions and the insanely wealthy fought over the relics. No price could ever be too high.
Katherine Samson was bequeathed a few chips for her own. She had them polished and drilled and threaded on a chain she wore about her throat, where her blood could warm them as they pressed upon her pulse. The mother-cave was located with the aid of Orm the Beautiful’s maps and directions. Poachers were in the process of excavating it when the team from the Smithsonian arrived.
But the Museum had brought the National Guard. And the poachers were dealt with, though perhaps not with such finality as Orm the Beautiful might have wished.
Each and each, his Chord were brought back to the Museum.
Katherine, stumping on her walking cast, spent long hours in the exhibit hall. She hovered and guarded and warded, and stroked and petted and adjusted Orm the Beautiful’s hoard like a nesting falcon turning her eggs. His song sustained her, his warm bones worn against her skin, his voice half-heard in her ear.
He was broken and scattered. He was not a part of his Chord. He was lost to them, as other dragons had been lost before, and as those others his song would eventually fail, and flicker, and go unremembered.
After a few months, she stopped weeping.
She also stopped eating, sleeping, dreaming.
They came as stragglers, footsore and rain-draggled, noses peeled by the sun. They came alone, in party dresses, in business suits, in outrageously costly T-shirts and jeans. They came draped in opals and platinum, opals and gold. They came with the song of Orm the Beautiful warm against their skin.
They came to see the dragons, to hear their threaded music. When the Museum closed at night, they waited patiently by the steps until morning. They did not freeze. They did not starve.
Eventually, through the sheer wearing force of attrition, the passage of decades, the Museum accepted them. And there they worked, and lived, for all time.
And Orm the Beautiful?
He had been shattered. He died alone.
The Chord could not reclaim him. He was lost in the mortal warders, the warders who had been men.
But as he sang in their ears, so they recalled him, like a seashell remembers the sea.
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of over 25 novels, most recently The Red-Stained Wings (Tor Books) and over a hundred short stories. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner, writer Scott Lynch, three adventurous cats, and an elderly and opinionated dog.