10270 words, novelette, REPRINT
Once, in the fishing village of Saint Mary Under The Hill, in the duchy of Asturias, there lived a girl named Perla. One summer day she sat outside with her sister packing dried fish into casks, to feed them through the winter, and her sister began giving her advice.
“You’re a fool not to marry Ercule, Perla. Heed me. We’re not rich, you aren’t that pretty, and you’re too clever. Take Ercule. Who else wants you?”
Perla set her teeth together, her face rough with embarrassment, and watched her hands shoving dried fish into the salt. Her sister had married the biggest lout in the village, and already had two babies; Perla thought she wanted company, and some hot words to that effect sizzled in her throat. She glanced up, ready to snap back, and saw her sister looking past her toward the road, her face falling open in astonishment.
“Sweet Heaven.” Her sister sprang up and ran through the little circle of huts toward the beach, waving her arms to the men along the shore. Left behind, Perla straightened slowly to her feet, her eyes on the glittering parade of horsemen prancing down the road toward her.
One galloped forward, waving a stick. “Down! Down, you little fool, for the Duke!”
She went to her knees, gaping up at them. There were half a hundred mounted men, but the first few were the ones she stared at. They wore mail, with long coats over them figured in gold and silver thread, spurs on their steel-covered feet, their horses sleek and fine. The one in the middle wore a gold circlet over his helmet. The one with the stick hit her across the shoulders.
“I am down,” she cried, and doubled up, her arms over her head.
“All of you, down,” the crier shouted, and she heard voices behind her and knew the rest of the village had gathered, and she was glad not to be alone. Another of the knights began to shout, talking the way the priest did when he recited something he had by memory.
“You people of the fish and the sea! People of the village you call for the Holy Mother of God! This is to inform you that his Highness the Duke has discovered that you are the best fishermen in his country. This village has taken in more fish in the past years than any other.”
There went up an uncertain cheer. The bull-throated voice went on. “Therefore, the Duke has decided that henceforth you will give him double the amount of taxes. And we are here now to take what you owe.”
The cheer fell into a stunned silence. Perla, still curled up on the ground, looked backward past her feet toward the rest of her people behind her. Most of them had gone to their knees. Now the rest did also, their faces tilted up, pleading.
All except her brother Marco. He stepped forward, past Perla, going out there all alone before the Duke, and said, “Sir, we cannot. Already we give most of our catch to you. We have to live.”
Cautiously Perla lifted her head out of her arms and saw the Duke there before her, his horse’s feet pattering at the ground. His stirrups were covered with chased silver. Fringe hung from his saddlecloth, his reins. Behind him were too many horsemen for her to count. She began to plan how she would run when they charged.
“Then catch more fish,” said the Duke, between his teeth, and waved his arm. His knights jogged forward. For a moment Perla’s brother stood, his feet widespread, his hat in one hand, and the other hand still out, beseeching, and then he hurried backward, and went to his knees. The knights scattered through the village, and the pillaging began. Perla sprinted toward the nearby woods, staying low to the ground.
When they had gone, when they had taken everything, and the girls and women who had been able to escape had crept back to their trampled huts, the villagers gathered as they were accustomed to in the evening, building a fire in the shelter of the cliff and cooking what little remained to eat.
Perla sat with her arms wrapped tight around her sister, who had not gotten away. The Duke’s men had caught her with her babies and in exchange for their lives she had let them rape her. She had saved her children, she kept on saying this, while the two little ones sobbed into her skirts, and her husband would not look at her.
Ercule, whom her sister wanted her to marry, sat there with the other men, behind Perla’s brother Marco. Ercule had done nothing, not even a useless plea like Marco’s. She lowered her eyes, clutching her sister against her.
The night came, and the light of the fire shone on them all. Usually when they gathered they drank, they talked and joked, sang the old songs, and retold the old stories, but this time they huddled somberly together and considered what had happened to them.
“We can’t stay here,” said one, and a few here and there grunted, agreeing.
“Where else should we go? There’s always somebody like the Duke.”
Perla hugged her sister, angry. It was unseemly for a woman to speak up, at least until all the men had spoken, but now they were all calling out stupid ideas, like hiding, or running, or changing who they were. Someone—old Juneo—even said, “We can be pirates.”
Now Marco stood. He was short, square-shouldered, strong as an ox from casting nets and rowing; Perla’s heart leapt for him, brave and sensible. He would have an answer. Everybody quieted, seeing him. Everybody respected Marco.
He said, “We need to make one more great catch, before the winter. The Duke won’t come back this year. He thinks he has it all. If we can pull in one great catch, we can all live through this.”
“The fish are going,” said an old man. “This is the bad time of the year for fish along this coast.”
“Here,” her brother said, his voice steady. “And south of here, where everybody fishes. But in the north, where the coast turns eastward, there are always great schools.”
A general grumble. A sharp voice called out, “That’s too risky.”
“It’s not for nothing called Dragon’s Deep,” someone else said—a woman’s voice, Perla looked around, started, and saw one of the fishwives standing up, her hands in her skirt.
Now Ercule stood. “Most of the other fleets avoid those waters. But I’ve always heard they’re prime fishing waters, just that there are a lot of reefs.”
He gave a look at Perla, to see she saw him doing this; he puffed out his chest a little.
Perla’s sister’s husband called out in a hoarse voice. “Bad storms hit that cape. I’ve heard there’s an eddy under the cliff. Bad currents. Nobody goes there.”
“There’s a reason there isn’t a village for miles off that headland.”
Marco stood, his hands at his sides, waiting for the clamor to die down. In the first lull, he said, “Or we could get all our scaling knives and gaffs together and attack the Duke and his men, and take our fish back from him.” He was smiling; he gave a little shrug.
Nobody said anything. In the firelight, Perla saw them look from side to side and down, one man after another, and the wives also, one to the next, and there was a long silence.
Marco said, “Then we fish Dragon’s Deep.”
Perla’s sister’s husband flung his hands out and stepped back, away from the rest. “Not me. I have a wife and children. I’ll take them into the forest first.”
Marco wheeled, casting his gaze like a net over the other men. “Who else is a coward? Who else is afraid of rumors and gossip?”
No one spoke for a moment; the men were looking at one another, and a few shook their heads, and then Perla jumped to her feet.
“I will go, Marco. I will go with you, if nobody else dares!”
Marco gave her a broad smile, and held out his hand. His voice swelled. “Who else is as brave as a girl? All you men. Will you let a girl go first?”
Ercule cried, “I am going.”
Then, in a rush, others called out. “Yes, me, I will go, I will go,” a jumble of voices, until all but a few had agreed. But then they stood nervously, looking around, their faces fretted.
Marco stood smiling around him, his hands on his hips. “Good. We’ll start tomorrow. It will take us a couple of days to get up there.”
“Beautiful,” she murmured, and shivered.
The bay stretched out before them, dark blue to the north, paler as the water shallowed toward the beach, and the beach an arc of pale brown sand. The wind was driving from the west but the headland behind them blocked most of it and the little combers that ran into the sand were tame and mild. In the shallower, green-blue water, she could see the dark reefs. There was a reef directly below their boat now, the lumpy stone waving green with seaweed and alive with fish.
Yet the broad bay was empty, desolate. No village showed, no smoke, no single hut. From the edge of the beach, the sheer headland stood up like a tower, flanked by steep green slopes, and beyond them the snow caps of the mountains.
All along the clean pale beach, in the high line of driftwood, were the ribs and planks of boats, old wrecks, sunbleached. Some looked burned. And down on the bottom in the clear blue depths she saw a boxy stern and part of a thwart poking out of the sand. Nowhere was there a sign of a living man, except those newly come.
A gull wheeled above them, screeching. She thought, for an instant, she caught a note of warning in its voice.
Marco was giving crisp orders. “Perla, you go ashore, and make us a camp. We should have brought some other women with us, to help you, but we’ll pitch in when we get ashore this afternoon. Ercule, Juneo, shake out the nets.” He put his hands around his mouth, to shout to the other two boats, and Perla grabbed his arm.
“I’m not going ashore! I didn’t come this far to watch you, Marco.”
Around them on the boat the other men laughed and nudged each other. Juneo said, “Marco, I hope you’re handling the lines better than you handle her.”
A general hooting followed that. Perla lowered her eyes, ashamed, thinking she had made a fool of herself, and of Marco. But her brother took her by the chin and turned her face up.
He was smiling. He said, “Yes, you should fish with us.” He glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the crew. The other two boats had drawn closer. He said, “I remember when you were the only brave one in the village.”
That sobered the other men. Ercule and Juneo turned to the barrels that held the fishing nets, and Lucco and the skinny boy Grep sat on the two front rowing benches and ran the oars out. Perla lingered there, in the middle, wondering what to do, and Marco put his hand in hers and drew her back beside him at the tiller.
The other boats rowed in a widespread line across the bay from west to east, the headland behind them looming up above the unbroken stretch of beach. Marco called out for the oarsmen to raise their oars. The warm sun glistened on the bay; looking over the side Perla watched fish as long as her arm, in schools that seemed endless, weaving slowly through the open water. The men had trailed the net out behind them, and Marco let the boat drift slowly along, down the sun from the fish.
The yell from Juneo jerked them all upright. The netsman was hauling on his net, and beside him Ercule bellowed also: “Help! Help!”
With a roar the two rowers bounded to grip the nets, to try to haul in the catch. Marco gave a whoop. He pushed the tiller into Perla’s hands and leapt back there to join them. She gripped the tiller with both hands and looked back, amazed, as they dumped a huge slithering silver avalanche of fish into the back hold of the boat.
Marco came hurrying back, his face ready, his smile abeam. “I knew this would work.” He slid onto the bench beside her and grabbed the tiller away. “Row!” He lifted his voice to shout orders. “Row!”
Perla laid her hand on the gunwale; down the bay she saw the other two boats also hauling in their catches, and the tiny figures waved their hands over their hends and she could hear their thin cheering voices. Marco laid the tiller over.
“Down there! Under the headland, where the water’s sheltered—row!”
The boat felt different now, even Perla could sense it, heavier with the load of fish. The men pulled strongly; Lucco squirmed deftly out of his shirt between strokes. The sun blazed on the water, but as they drew nearer the high stone crag blocked it, and cast a shadow out over the deep.
Marco called, and the men shipped their oars and ran to the nets. The other boats were rowing fast after them. Perla stood up; this time she meant to join them bringing the nets in.
She felt the boat under her quiver slightly.
Marco called, “Juneo, cast the net!”
“I—I—” Juneo was balanced on the stern of the boat, the rolled net gripped in his hands; he turned his white face toward Marco, and then the boat began to slide sideways.
Marco yelled. Perla grabbed hold of the gunwale with both hands. The boat was spinning along at the edge of a whirling circle of water; at the center the water sank down, and down, all spinning, and widening, so that their boat now lurched and swayed, tipped halfway into the vortex. Perla shouted, “Marco, what should I do?”
Then up through the center of the eddy came the dragon.
Its great horned head reared up into the air, its long neck arched, its shoulders thrusting through the whirl of the water. For an instant the men on Perla’s boat stood frozen where they were, their faces lifted up, and then Marco bounded toward the mast, and the gaff tied to it.
“Get back, Perla!”
She took a step back, but the red horned head towering over her was turning toward her, toward the boat, and the long jaws parted and a gust of green flame erupted from its throat. The ball of fire hit the boat by the forward thwart and it exploded into flames. Perla leapt overboard.
She swam away from the boat, but the whirlpool caught her; in spite of her thrashing arms she went skidding down the side of the eddy. The beast loomed over her, enormous, its red scales streaming water. She saw its head dart past her again and rear up, a man clutched in its jaws. She screamed; that was Lucco, from her boat, his arms waving. The dragon flipped him up into the air, so that he fell headfirst, and swallowed him on the way down. The huge head swung around again. Away from her. She struggled in the furious current, trying to swim across the tow, get out of the whirlpool, but it was carrying her swiftly downward, always closer to the dragon. A scream reached her ears, and she saw the wedge-shaped red head rise again, another man in its teeth.
Then the wave of the whirlpool brought her directly against the dragon’s side. Her fingers scraped over the slick red scales, trying to grab hold. Above her the beast’s spines rose like giant barbs, and she lunged up and caught one and held on.
The beast was still rising. Clutching the spine she was borne higher up into the air. All around her, below her, the water tossed, full of men, some screaming and waving their arms and some trying to swim, and the dragon caught another, and another, its head darting here and there at the end of its long neck. She tied her belt to the spine, to stay on. She saw Marco, down there, on the lip of the eddy, and tried to yell, but he disappeared in a gust of steam. The dragon breathed out again, and the last of the boats burst into flame.
She clung to the spine, thick as a tree bough, polished smooth and sleek as gold; she was sick to her stomach, numb with fear, sure that Marco was dead, that they were all dead. The beast whirled and her head struck the spine hard enough to daze her. The sky whirled by her, and then, abruptly, the dragon was plunging down.
She flung her head back, startled alert again, and fought to untie her belt. The wet knot was solid. She fought to pull the belt loose off the spine, while the dragon dove down into the dark green water, but the belt held her, and just as the sea closed over her head she gasped in a deep lungful of air.
The sea rushed past her. They were going down into the darkness. She looked up, saw a body floating limp in the shrinking patch of pale water. Then the dragon was swimming sideways, into an underwater cave, or a tunnel.
The light vanished. In the pitch darkness, surging along on the dragon’s back, she could not imagine an end. She had to breathe. Her lungs hurt. The dark water rippled on her skin. Her fists were clenched around the spine, her body flying along above the strong-swimming beast. She had to breathe. She kept still a moment longer, counting. Surely something would happen. When she got to ten she counted again. Her lungs ached. She could see nothing. Strange lights burst in her eyes, in the dark, and were gone. Nausea rose in her throat. Then the dragon was swimming upward, toward the pale surface.
She held her breath again, counting, and at eight, she burst into the light and the air.
She gasped, clinging to the spine, looking around her. Her whole body shuddered. They were inside the headland; some underwater passage connected it to the sea. Sheltered inside the sheer rock walls lay a lagoon with a little brown beach. The dragon was swimming toward the beach. She gripped her belt; with a leap of relief she saw it had frayed almost apart in the wild ride, and with her fingers she ripped it off just as the dragon reached the shallow water. She plunged down the red scaled side and ran up onto the sand.
The brown cliff there rose impossibly high and steep. But the face was runneled and cleft with caves and seams. She ducked into the nearest of hollows and went back as far as it went, only a few feet of a narrow twisting gorge that pinched together into nothing.
Far enough, she thought. It can’t reach me here. She crept cautiously up nearer the beach, to see out.
The dragon had lain down right in front of her, only about ten feet of sand between her cave and its head. So it knew she was there. But it stretched out, relaxed, well-fed, half-asleep. She leaned against the rock wall behind her and looked it over.
The red, horned head lay half-turned toward her, the eyes closed, rimmed in gold, the wide curled nostrils also gold-trimmed, oddly delicate. The long red neck led back into ridged shoulders with scales as big as a house. At ease, the beast sprawled between its forepaws, their curved claws outstretched. The massive bulk of its body curled away, its tail half in the water still, a net wrapped around one spine.
She watched it until the daylight was gone. Once, in its sleep, its jaws parted and gave a soft greenish burp, and a little round stone rolled out. Still sleeping, the beast’s long red tongue licked over its lips, and it settled deeper on the sand.
The sun went down. In the night, she thought, she could escape, and she edged closer to the beach. Just as she reached the mouth of the crevice the dragon’s near eye opened, shining in the dark, fixed on her. Perla scuttled back into the deep of the crevices, all her hair on end. She thought she heard a low growl behind her.
She wept; she wept for Marco and Lucco and the other men, and for herself, because she knew she was lost. At last she slept a little. When she woke, it was morning, and she was so hungry and thirsty she went back to the mouth of the crevice.
The dragon was still there. It stood looking away from her, the sun blazing on its magnificence, the red scales, darker at the edges, and the shining spines along its backbone. Then the narrow-jawed head swung toward her, high above her on the long arched neck. On the broad space between its eyes was a disk of gold. Its eyes were big as washtubs, brilliant red flecked and edged with gold.
It said, in a voice so deep and huge she imagined she heard it through the bones of her head, not her ears, “Why don’t you come out so I can eat you?”
“Please don’t eat me,” she said.
“Why shouldn’t I? You’ll just die in there anyway.” It gave a cold chuckle. “And by then you’d be too thin to bother digging for. Tell me what you’ll give me, if I don’t eat you. Will someone ransom you?”
She stood at the mouth of the crevice, her hands clammy and her throat thick with fear. No one from her village had anything to ransom her with, if the village even still survived, with all its men gone. She thought desperately of what she herself could do, weave, sew, cook, haul water.
“Can you dance? Sing?”
The dragon said, “Tell me a story.”
A cold tingle went down her spine. “A story,” she said.
“If it’s good enough, I won’t eat you.” The dragon settled himself down, his forepaws curled under him like a cat’s, waiting.
She gulped. The village’s stories were old and worn, which was why the villagers told them, and retold them, like the imperishable favorite about how old Pandun had his eye put out while looking through a knothole in the bathhouse at the women bathing. She knew at once such stories would not satisfy the dragon, much less save her life.
He was waiting, patient, his jeweled eyes on her. She realized since he had begun speaking to her she had thought of him as “he.”
That gave her a wisp of an idea. She sat down in the mouth of the cave, her heart thundering, and began, “Once there was a king. An evil king.” Like the Duke. Her mind sorted through the possibilities. “He stole everything from his people and he killed many. But he did have one thing he loved, his beautiful daughter.”
She spent some time describing the beautiful daughter, so that she could plan the next part. The dragon was utterly silent, his eyes steadily watching her, his long lips slightly smiling.
“He was so jealous of her that he put her in a tower by the sea.” The story was growing stronger in her mind, and she let her voice stride out confidently, telling of the tower, and the wild storms, the sunlight, and the birds that came to sing to her in her window. “There she lived lonely, singing to the birds, and grew even more beautiful, but no man saw her except her father.
“But one day a prince came by.” She made the prince like Marco, solid and honest and brave. Dead now, probably, dead in this dragon’s belly. Her voice trembled but she fought herself back under control. She gave the prince a red charger and red hair, which she saw amused the dragon. “The prince heard her singing, and climbed up the tower wall to her window. They fell in love at once, because she was beautiful and good, and he was handsome and brave and good. But before he could carry her off, the King burst in on them.”
The dragon twitched, and she leaned toward him a little, intent, knowing now she had him. “The King had his sword, and although the prince tried to fight back, he had no weapon. So the King got him down quickly.”
The dragon growled. She kept her voice steady, speaking over the rumble. “But he did not kill him. Instead, he told the prince, since he was such a lizard that he could scale a castle wall, he would become the greatest lizard. And he turned him into a dragon, and cast him into the sea.”
The dragon lifted its head up and roared, not at her, but to the sky, and then quickly sank down again, his eyes blazing.
“But the princess. What happened to her?”
Perla was ready to run for the end of the crevice, if this did not suit. She fixed the dragon eye to eye. “Her heart was broken. She fled from her father—”
“And now she wanders through the world looking for her prince. Only her love can change him back from the dragon. But every day she grows older, and every day, the dragon grows more like a dragon, and less like the prince.”
She was poised to run. But the dragon’s eyes were shining. His long lips drew back from his dagger-teeth, and he nodded his head once. Turning, he plunged into the lagoon.
She went cautiously out onto the open sand. Down the beach, water spilled down the cliff in a long fall, and she went there and quenched her thirst, all the while looking for some other way out of the lagoon. The cliff ran all around it like a wall.
In the lagoon, too soon, the whirling appeared, and the eddy deepened, and the dragon’s head rose through it and he swam to the beach and dragged himself out onto the sand. In his jaws he held a long flopping sea bass, which he flung down on the sand.
“Wait.” The voice like speaking bronze. He reared his head back and shot forth a bolt of flame, which blasted around the fish for several seconds.
She went warily up to it, knelt down, and touched the carcass. It was nicely cooked. She peeled back the skin and ate the hot flaky white meat. It was delicious but it tasted a little sharp.
The dragon was crouched there, head and shoulders settled above its sprawled forepaws, his long neck curved, watching her. When she was done, and sitting there licking her fingers, he lay down around her, his head stretched along his paws, half embrace, half prison. The great red eye blinked once in a flash of gold. “Tell me another story.”
After that the dragon let her roam as she pleased around the lagoon, as long as she told him stories whenever he asked. She made up stories about dragons, about princesses, about evil kings, good and handsome princes, about the brothers of princesses, crisscrossing them, sometimes using the same people in one story after another. She tried to make every one different but to her they seemed to be the same, about wanting to go home, to be with whom she loved, and where she belonged.
She was sitting in the sun one afternoon, longing for home, and tears began to roll down her cheeks. The dragon said, “What’s the matter?”
“You ate my brother,” she said bitterly. “You ate all my people. I hate you.”
He gave one of his throaty chuckles, unperturbed. “You eat the fish. You don’t even care about their brothers.”
She cast off the thought of fish, which she had always eaten. “Do you have no family? No tribe? Where did you come from?”
He looked surprised. His huge eyes blazed red as the heart of a fire. “I was always here.” But his stare shifted, and as much of a look of perplexity as she had ever seen came over his long snake-like face. “There were more of us, once. Not many more.” He turned, and flopped away into the lagoon and disappeared.
During the day he often slept in the sun, or went down into the lagoon and was gone for a long while. She guessed he went out the tunnel to the open sea. She wandered the beach, drinking from the waterfall that tumbled down from the top of the cliff and spread its shining skirts across the sand, eating berries growing down the stone wall, and seaweed, crabs and clams, anything else she could find. She worked out stories as she walked, saving bits and pieces when she could not make them whole, and remembering it all in a big over-story she would never tell him, about a girl taken captive by a dragon, who was rescued in the end by a prince.
When he came back, he always had a fish for her, and cooked it with the fire of his breath; no matter what the fish, bass, bonito, or shark, the meat always had a faintly sharp, spicy taste. If he had fed well he burped up lots of stones, some as big as her fist, most toe-sized, clear lumps of colored crystal, red and blue and green. If he had eaten nothing or little he complained and glowered at her and licked his lips at her, and talked of eating her instead, his red eyes wicked, and his tongue flickering.
“I don’t have to listen to you,” she said, holding herself very straight. She turned back to the crevice, where she could get away from him.
Behind her, the deep rumbling voice said, “If you try to escape I will definitely eat you.”
She spun toward him. “But I want to go home. You should let me go home.”
At that he gave off a burst of furious heat, and exhaled a stream of green fire. She dodged him, and ran toward the crevice.
One huge forepaw came down directly in front of her. When she wheeled, his other paw came down, fencing her in.
“You can’t leave!”
She put her hands over her ears, the roar shaking her whole body. The ground trembled under her. He was lying down, curled around her. She lowered her hands. He was calm again, but his great scaled bulk surrounded her. Only a few feet away the enormous eye shut and opened again. “Tell me a story.”
So she had to escape. During the day, she followed the seams and gullies worn into the cliff, hoping to find another way out, but they all pinched out, or ended in falls of broken rock. Once in the shadows at the back of a defile she found a skeleton, still wearing tattered clothes—a cloak with fur trim, and pretty, rotten shoes, even rings on the fingerbones.
The bones were undisturbed. Whoever this was, however he had gotten here, he had never even left the cave.
She had left the cave. She found herself a little proud of that.
One evening, after she told him a story about the adventures of the prince as a dragon, she turned to go back into the crevice, where she usually slept. Before she could reach the cliff he caught her lightly with his forepaw—the long curved claws like tusks inches from her face—and tossed her backward. She stumbled off across the beach, wondering what she had done wrong. The other paw met her and sent her reeling back. She whirled, frightened, her hands out, and he batted her around again. His head suspended over her watched her with a cold amusement. He was playing, she realized, in a haze of terror, not really hurting her. She caught hold of his scaly paw and held tight, and he stopped.
But he did not let her go. He reached down and took her between his long jaws, gently as a mother with an egg. She lay, rigid. Her breath stopped, between two sets of gigantic teeth, the long tongue curled around her. He lay down, stretched out, and carefully set her on the sand between his forepaws. He put his head down on his paws, so that she lay in the hollow under his throat, and went to sleep.
She lay stiff as a sword under him. Something new had happened and she had no notion what he might mean by this. What he might do next. Yet the cavern under his throat was warm, and she fell asleep after a while.
The next day, he dove into the lagoon and was gone, and she began to search from one end of the cliff to the other for a way out. She went back through every crevice, tried to chimney up the sides, and crawled along the tops of huge mounds of rubble. Always, the space came to an end, the cliff pressed down on her, dark and cold.
She crept back out to the sunlit lagoon again. The beauty of it struck her, as it always did, the water clear and blue and dark at the center, and paler in toward the shore, the tiny ripples of the waves, the cream-colored sand. The sky was cloudless. The cliff vaulted up hundreds of feet high, sheer as glass.
As she stood there, wondering what to do, the blue water began to whirl, eddying around, and the dragon’s great head thrust up through the center of it, a white fish between his long jaws.
He saw her, and came to her, cast down the fish, and breathed on it with the harsh fire of his breath, and then, as usual, stood there watching her eat it. She was hungry and ate all the pale flaky meat. Being close to him made her edgy. She had thought of a good story to tell him, with a long chase through a forest, and the dragon’s escape at the end. She could not look at him, afraid of what she might see brimming in the great red eyes.
He sat quietly throughout the story, as he always did. She had learned to feel the quality of his attention and she knew he was deep into this story. She brought it to an end, and stood.
His head moved, fast as a serpent, and he caught her between his jaws. He laid her down on her back between his forepaws. She lay so stiff her fists were clenched, looking up at the wedge-shaped head above her, and then he began to lick her all over.
His tongue was long and supple, silky smooth, longer than she was tall, so that sometimes he was licking her whole body all at once. She was afraid to move. He licked at her dress until it was bunched up under her armpits. His touch was soft, gentle, even tender; stroking over her breasts he paused an instant, his warm tongue over her, and against her will she gasped.
He said, in his deep harsh voice, “It’s only me, the prince,” and chuckled. He slid his tongue down her side and curled it over her legs.
She clutched her thighs together but the tip of his tongue flicked between them, into the cleft of her body. She shut her eyes. She held her whole body tight, as if she could make an armor of her skin. Her strength was useless against him.
But nothing more happened. He slept, eventually, his head over her. She dozed fitfully, starting up from nightmares.
In the morning he went off as usual, and she searched desperately along the cliff face. At the waterfall she stood in the tumbling water, thinking of his tongue on her, wondering what else he would do.
Behind the streaming water she noticed a narrow crevice.
She stepped into it, behind the water, and saw that the slit in the rock angled back into the dark. She pressed herself into it. Water ran three inches deep along the bottom of the crevice. As she worked her way back, and the dark shut down around her, her hands along the walls on either side passed through sheets of water coming down.
She came to a place where the gorge divided in two, one side running to her left, one to her right. It was totally dark. She stood still a while, her mind blocked with fear, and then she realized that there was water trickling over the toes of her right foot, and other was dry. She followed the water.
The crevice walls came so close together her nose scraped in front and the back of her head scraped behind her. The tunnel twisted, turned. In the dark she fumbled along, her heart thundering. She should have brought water. Food. She should have planned this. Thought ahead. Was it night, now, was it dark out, as it was so dark in here? Blindly she crept forward through the crevice in the rock. She could not go back now. He was back there now, he knew she was gone.
The tunnel narrowed, and kinked. In the kink for an instant she could not move, there buried in the belly of the cliff, caught in the wedge of the stone, and she almost screamed. Instead she made herself ease. There was water running over her ankles. She had only to follow the water. She pushed slowly, gently forward, most of her body stuck fast, but her foot moved, then her thigh, her hip, until she worked her way around the bump in the rock.
The tunnel widened. It began to climb upward, twisting and turning, but always up in the dark, until she was helping herself along with her outstretched hands. Then the climb came to an end in a blank rock wall, with water spilling down its surface.
She felt her way along the rock wall, found a place where she could climb, and went up. Her hands groped ahead of her for holds, and her feet pressed against the rock. If she fell from here she might die. Break her leg. Die slowly. Then, reaching up, she realized she could see her hand.
She followed that grip into brighter light. She could see where to put her hands now, and the stone was warm. Above, beyond the edge of rock, was pink sky: the sun just going down. She pulled herself the last few feet up to the grass beside the pool of water, and lay down, exhausted, and closed her eyes, and slept.
She had nothing to eat, but the spring had come; the meadow was full of mushrooms, and the trees of birds’ nests and eggs. She walked a whole day and much of the night, through a brilliant full moon, before she came at last to the high road where it came down from the mountain passes and veered toward the sea. It was deserted. Even from its crests she could not see the coast. Off toward the ocean, a plume of thick black smoke clotted the air; she wondered if the farmers were burning off their fields for the spring planting.
She walked on, eating whatever she could find—roots, nuts, even flowers and grubs. On the third day she came on some travelers, who gave her some bread.
They were surprised to find her walking alone; they said, “Be careful, there are robbers on the highway. The Duke has gone south to a war and there is no law.”
“And raiders on the sea,” said another. “Be careful.”
So she watched out for strangers, walking along, but she thought that she was near her own village, and looked for the path down to it. She wondered what she would find there—if anything were left there. She wept once, thinking of Marco. But she was still walking along the high road, her feet sore, and every muscle aching, when someone shouted, and a skinny boy bounded down out of the rocks toward her.
It was Grep, who had rowed third oar on Marco’s boat at Dragon’s Deep. She laughed, astonished, her hopes surging.
Grep bounded around her, laughing. “You’re alive! You’re alive—come, hurry—Marco will—”
“Marco,” she cried, running down the steep path beside him. “Marco is alive?”
“Marco, Ercule, Juneo, me,” he said. They slowed to crawl under a fallen tree. “Everybody else went down in the storm.”
“The storm,” she said, startled.
He put his finger to her lips. “But you’re alive!” He laughed again, joyous, as if nothing else mattered. “Come on—” He ran out ahead up a short, steep slope and onto the flat top of the sea cliff, shouting.
“Look here, everybody! Look here!”
She stood there, looking around her. She knew this cliff, which had stood behind her village. Now on its narrow height stood a cluster of huts inside a ditch—half as many huts as the old village, and now from each one, faces peered out.
And she laughed, delighted, and stretched out her arms, and they were running toward her, her sister, all tears, and her friends.
“Perla! Perla! You came back!” She flung herself into their arms and for a while nothing mattered.
“Where are the men?” she asked, in her sister’s hut. Her sister set a piece of fish before her, a slab of bread, and she reached greedily as a child for them.
“They’re out,” her sister said, vaguely. She said, “The few there are. Marco has been the saving of us.”
Perla looked around the hut, smaller than before, stoutly made with stone footings, a withy wall domed overhead, and covered with straw. There was only one bed, and that small. Her eyes went to the doorway, where half a dozen children hung in the opening, watching her wide-eyed.
She turned to her sister. “Are your children—”
“I lost my little girl in the winter. It was hard.”
“Oh, no. Your husband?”
“He’s dead,” her sister said. She picked up the knife again, to cut the bread. “Do you want more? We have plenty of food.”
“But—he didn’t go with us to Dragon’s Deep,” Perla said.
“He died when Marco took the men up to the highway,” her sister said. She laid the loaf down on the board, and hacked off another slab. “That’s how we have lived, Perla, we robbed the highway. And, at last, we have enough.”
Perla gave a shudder, horrified. “Until the Duke comes,” she said, but she remembered she had heard that he had gone away.
“Why should we not?” her sister said. “Have we not been everybody else’s prey?” Her eyes glittered. “When the Duke comes, Marco will have a plan. Marco always has a plan.” She thrust out the piece of bread. “He brought me this bread. The men all follow him, and he makes sure all of us widows are fed. Just obey Marco. Everything will come well.”
Perla took the bread. “I hope you are right.”
Later, when the men came back, they gathered together in the evening. The men saw her and cheered, and Marco came and hugged her, and she endured also the sweaty hugs of Ercule, and they all shouted her name. “How did you get home? Where have you been?”
She sat down in the circle to tell them her story. They had built a bright fire and all their faces shone in the light. She began, “You remember how we set off to the north, to Dragon’s Deep, to fish there. Because the Duke had come and stolen all our food.”
They murmured, agreeing, and looked at one another. Marco, beside her, leaned forward, a little frown on his face. She fought off the feeling he was not liking this.
“And we got there, you remember, and the fish were thick as grass on the meadow, and we hauled in one great catch—”
“And then the storm came,” Marco said.
The listeners gave a louder rumble of agreement, and Ercule called out, “One boat after another foundered.”
Juneo said, “The sky was dark as night, and the lightning flashed—”
“No,” Perla said, astonished.
“I made it to the shore,” Grep said, “I don’t know how, and then I saw Marco trying to carry Ercule in, and Juneo hanging to both of them, and went to help them.”
“No,” Perla said.
“We don’t want to talk about it any more,” Marco said, and the other men loudly agreed with him again, and the women gestured and nodded and agreed, and Perla sat there dumb and amazed.
They sang some songs, which she had known from her babyhood, and she came near tears to hear them. Then someone told the old story about how Pandun had gotten his eye put out, looking through the hole in the bathhouse wall at the women.
After, she saw Marco to one side, and went to him. He wrapped his muscular arms around her again. “I’m glad you’re back. I was sure you were dead.” He kissed her hair.
“Marco,” she said, “what is this about a storm?”
“We were wrecked in a sudden storm,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know how you got through it. I really don’t know how I did.”
“Marco, there was a dragon.”
He laughed. “You don’t say. Aren’t you a little addled, maybe, from all that time alone? That must be it.” He pressed his lips to her forehead. “There. See? Ercule is watching you. Go to him, he’s missed you too.”
“I hate Ercule,” she burst out.
“Well, you’re going to marry him,” said Marco. He was still smiling. Nothing seemed to bother him. She supposed if he had already swallowed the storm story then he was ready for anything.
She said, “What about the Duke?”
“Hah,” he said.
“My sister told me what you’re doing.”
His eyebrows jacked up and down. That at least ruffled him; his face tightened. “I had four men left and a dozen families with children,” he said. “And it was my fault, Perla. I took them there. You were gone. Lucco. All the boats but one. Lost in a storm.” He took a deep breath, drawing back into the shell he had made for himself, the one that smiled all the time. He smiled. “So I did what I had to do. And so will you. Ercule is very handy to me, I want you to marry him.” He leaned over and laid his cheek against hers and walked away.
More like a dragon than a prince, she thought, nearly in tears again. She had not come home after all. She crept back to her sister, to find a place to sleep.
During the following days she drowned herself in work, making her own house, bringing up stones and withies from the deserted village on the beach. The trail up the cliff was steep and hard, but well worn, and the other women helped her. During the day the men went off. She was afraid to ask what they did, but they did not take out the only boat left, which lay always on the beach in the lee of the rock, its nets rotting on the sand. They brought back stories from the highway, gossip, news. At night, when they returned, Ercule came on her.
She held him off for several nights, pushing, shoving, angry, making him shy, but she saw Marco talking to him. After that he was bolder, he forced her to kiss him, and the next night, while he kissed her, he grabbed her breast in his hand. She wrenched away from him, and went inside. It was just past the full moon, and the light shone through the holes in her dome shaped roof, which had not yet been thatched over. She saw him come in, saw his toothy grin, and could not stop him.
The next day he went off with Marco somewhere, and she sat inside the hut and cried. Her sister came and sat by her and patted her shoulder. But when next the men came back they had bread and meat and blankets and a cask of wine, and it was Ercule who sat beside her, and she could not keep him off.
She was afraid to tell stories, and without the constant telling the stories stopped coming to her.
One late afternoon Grep rushed in from the path, leading a stumbling, exhausted stranger. “He was on the sea trail,” he said to Marco. “I thought you should hear him.”
The villagers had all come out to see what was happening, and the stranger staggered into their midst. He was in rags, his face hollow with thirst and grief. One of the women went quickly to him, brought him water, made him sit, and comforted him. The others gathered around him.
He said, “I never saw them—I was asleep—I woke up to find the place burning. Everybody’s gone. Everybody’s gone.”
Marco said, “Where?”
The stranger said the name of the next village up the coast. He was devouring bread and cheese and milk. The widow beside him had already claimed him, whether he knew it or not. His mouth full, he went on, “I hid in the cess pit—the whole village burned to the ground. When I got out in the morning—everybody was gone, or dead.”
Perla thought, Not him, then. Not him. He hunts in the daylight. But her heart leapt.
“You didn’t see them?”
“That’s how I lived. If I’d seen them, they would have seen me.”
Ercule said, “It’s that same bunch who took San Male.”
“Maybe,” Marco said. “When did this happen?”
“Two days ago,” the stranger said. “The night of the full moon.”
Marco gave a short grunt. He turned to Ercule. “I think there was a full moon the night they took San Male. Go up on the high road, ask around.”
“I will,” Ercule said.
Perla thought, he hunts in the daylight. But on his home hunting ground. Off his range, he would be more cautious. Her palms were clammy. If you try to escape I will definitely eat you.
Marco said, “And find out where the Duke is. I heard he was coming back north.”
Ercule said, “I will, Marco.”
Perla swallowed, her hands pressed together at her breast, and looked down at the sea beach below the cliff, where once the village had been—where still a lot of the village remained. A story began to form in her mind, but she had no one to tell it to. If she kept it silent it would go away. She looked out at the broad, rippled sea, burnished in the setting sun.
Ercule said, “What’s got you so pinch-faced? I’ll be back in a couple of days.” He showed his teeth in his ugly grin. “Then we’ll have a good time.”
“I’d rather be eaten,” she said.
Ercule came back with a buzz of news. To her relief, Perla’s courses had begun, and for once she slept untroubled and alone. A few days later, the Duke himself rode down toward the village on the beach.
His charger was black, with reins worked with silver, and silver stirrups. Marco met him at the foot of the trail up the cliff; the villagers all watched from the height.
The Duke’s voice was clear and loud. “I know who you are. Word came to me even in the south, where I was fighting Saracens. Help me defeat these northern sea-raiders, and I’ll make you count of this place. You can go on robbing, unh, taking your tolls on the highway. Just give me half.”
Perla, horrified, saw her brother bow down, agreeing to this. The Duke wheeled his horse and rode away, and Marco came back up the trail to the village.
Perla went to him as soon as she saw him without Ercule. She said, “He is lying. He is lying, Can’t you see that?”
Marco smiled at her. “It’s all right, my darling.” He kissed her. “I was lying too.” More a dragon every day.
Marco said, “They come on the full moon. The Duke says—agrees with me—there have been three attacks this year, all north of here, but moving down the coast. They come in the night of the full moon, burn the village, seize all the people, go before daylight comes. Slavers, obviously. We can figure they’ll come here, if not the next full moon, then the one after. Especially if we all move back to the village on the beach.”
Perla clamped her lips shut. They would be safe on the cliff.
If they stayed on the cliff the dragon would be safe from them. Now Marco was telling the plan. “We’ll dig a ditch just above the high tide line. The Duke will bring archers, who will hide in the ditch, and knights, who will wait in the village. When the raiders come in, we’ll get them between, and we’ll have them.”
Perla bit her knuckle. Ercule swung around toward her. “Well, what do you think of that?” He picked her up and swung her around. “When I am a lord, you’ll be a lady. Hah! Then you’ll like me better.” She clenched her teeth, angry, and thought of getting a knife somewhere, and sticking it up between his ribs.
But the next few weeks all the men worked hard digging the ditch, and Ercule left her largely alone. The moon was waxing. The women went back to living on the beach, in the shells of the old huts; with the summer coming on, these were pleasant in the evening breezes, and close by the water for the children. They talked of taking out the boat to fish, until someone noticed the holes in the nets.
A few days before the next full moon, the Duke rode in, and galloped his black horse on the beach at low tide, all the while staring out to sea. Perla watched him morosely. Talk was his war in the south had not gone well. He needed to defeat someone. Her gaze went to Marco, working hard in the heat to shore up the side of the ditch. Surely he was making a fool out of Marco, who was doing all the work, while the Duke would get all the glory.
The Duke’s handsome young son raced after him. He practiced with his sword, pretending to do battle with hundreds.
Just one, she thought, her heart hammering, and looked out over the sea. Or maybe she had dreamt it. Just a story, after all. Maybe there was nothing but the likes of Ercule, the Duke, and Marco.
Her sister came to her and said, “The moon will be full tonight. We are going into the woods again. Will you come?”
Perla said, “I want to stay.”
“It’s been said—” Her sister’s mouth kinked. “If the Duke can’t have his sea-raiders, he’ll take Marco.”
She said, “I will stay.”
“Ah, you’ve always been a fool, Perla. Now I think you’re a little crazy.”
She knew Marco had spread that word about her, that she was crazy.
She was beginning to wonder, what difference did it make, if everybody else believed something else? Surely they were right?
The sun set, and the round moon rose. She alone of all the women stayed in the beach village, where the Duke’s knights spread out to eat their supper among the huts. Wary of them, she walked down toward the water. She circled the end of the ditch, full of men with bows. Out before everybody else was Marco, with the other villagers.
She climbed up onto the rock at the end of the beach. The moonlight made everything silver and black, glistening sand, the inky pit of the ditch. The sea ran soft and quiet in the windless night, just curling over along the beach. She thought, the knights are ready, either for the attack from the sea, or to attack Marco. Marco had only five men, and the Duke one hundred.
She sat on the rock in the moonlight, dozing, and she dreamt of the great red eye, gold-rimmed, and the deep voice saying, “Tell me a story.”
She opened her eyes. The moon was sinking into the west. Her hair tingled up. Out there, an eddy was forming on the rippled water.
She stiffened, her breath frozen in her lungs. Behind her, a man called out sleepily, “What’s that?”
Marco shouted, “Perla! What are you doing there? Run!”
She twisted to see him running away from the water, dashing for the cliff. The other villagers followed him. So that was his plan. He remembered the dragon after all. Without waiting for her, Ercule and the others at his heels, he raced toward the trail up the cliff, leaving the Duke’s men behind to fight.
The Duke’s men ignored him. To them nothing was happening. A few of the archers in the ditch lifted their bows. One called out, “What are we shooting at?”
The sentry shouted, “Something’s out there.”
Standing in his stirrups to see, the Duke rode to the edge of the ditch, his son behind him, his face stretched in a lopsided yawn. Out on the sea the eddy whirled larger and deeper, sleek and dark in the moonlit water around it. The edge broke hard on the beach. Then the horned head shot up, and the dragon lunged into the air.
Perla leapt down from the rock. “No! Go back—it’s a trap—go back—” Something struck her hard in the back and she fell headlong, almost in the water.
A tremendous brazen roar drowned everything. She felt the waves lapping at her hands, and crawled up toward the dry sand, out of the way. Her back hurt, and blood ran down her side; she twisted her arm around carefully to feel behind her but touched only her sodden dress. Whatever had hit her had glanced off. She sank down, gasping with pain. Then the dragon hurtled up out of the sea past her.
As he went he shot out a green bolt of flame that scorched the ditch from end to end. When the few men who could raised their bows, he swept them up in his jaws. Some he ate, and some cast aside to go after more. He crossed the smoldering ditch with a bound. Perla, crouched by the rock, heard the ping of the arrows striking his scales.
A horn blew. In a long single line the knights charged down the beach. The Duke led them, his sword drawn. They swept in around the dragon like a surging wave, their swords hacking, the horses whirling and struggling against spurs and bits.
Then another green flame sizzled out and knocked the dark wave back, and with a shriek the dragon reared up, his head high, the Duke between his jaws. Even from the side Perla could hear the armor crunch. A wail went up from the Duke’s men, and they scurried back, away.
The son galloped forward. “Rally! Rally—”
The dragon hurled down the Duke’s body and went straight for the son and the boy wheeled his horse and ran. The great jaws snapped shut at the horse’s tail. The knights followed in a stream. The dragon grabbed another as they fled, and ate him, spitting out the coat of mail and the helmet.
Perla rose, stiff with pain, and limped toward him. He was bleeding from a dozen places, a slash on his neck, a deep gash in his breast, arrows sticking into his scales. She held out her arms to him.
“Are you all right?”
The dragon turned to her, and she saw the first dawn light glisten on the golden disk between his eyes. His voice was harsh. He said, “I am sore wounded, my heart’s blood flows on these sands. If not for your warning they would have had me. I swore I would devour you, if I found you. But you saved me, and suffered for it.” He turned, swaying back toward the sea. “And I remember the stories.”
She said, “I want to go with you.”
He stopped, his neck arched, his head hanging down. His wounds dropped thick globs of blood that burned a moment on the sand and then went out in a wisp of smoke. “I remember the stories. I do not know where these wounds and the sea will carry me.”
“Yet I will go with you, whatever happens.”
His head swung toward her. The great red eyes glimmered, brimming. The long tongue flicked out tenderly over her bare feet. She climbed up over his shoulder and onto his back, sitting astride, holding with both hands to the great spine before her. She had only enough time to draw a deep breath before he plunged back into the sea.
Originally published in The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.
Cecelia Holland is one of the world's most highly acclaimed and respected historical novelists, ranked by many alongside other giants in that field such as Mary Renault and Larry McMurtry. Over the span of her thirty year career, she's written almost thirty historical novels, including The Firedrake, Rakessy, Two Ravens, Ghost on the Steppe, Death of Attila, Hammer For Princes, The King's Road, Pillar of the Sky, The Lords of Vaumartin, Pacific Street, Sea Beggars, The Earl, The King in Winter, The Belt of Gold, The Serpent Dreamer, The High City, Kings of the North, and a series of fantasy novels, including The Soul Thief, The Witches Kitchen, The Serpent Dreamer, and Varanger. She also wrote the well-known science fiction novel Floating Worlds, which was nominated for a Locus Award in 1975. Her most recent book is a new fantasy novel, Dragon Heart.