“For Fear of Dragons” by Carrie Vaughn

“For Fear of Dragons”

original fiction by Carrie Vaughn

IN A CERTAIN kingdom, very young women — still girls — commonly had babies. It proved they were not virgins, and so their names would not go into the lottery that was held every year to choose a sacrifice for the dragon.

Jeannette had asked her mother once why only girls were made to be sacrifices, why her brothers had not faced the lottery.

Her mother, who had been quite young when she bore Jeannette and was still fresh-faced, smiled sadly. “The dragon would probably take a boy virgin as well as a girl. But there’s no way to tell with boys, and the priests won’t take a chance of making a mistake.”

“That isn’t fair.”

“No, it isn’t,” her mother said. “But women go through childbirth while the men sit back happy as you please, and that isn’t fair either.”

The year came when soldiers rode to Jeanette’s family’s holding. Their captain announced that from the sea to the mountains, Jeanette was the only woman over the age of ten known to be a virgin. Only one possible name could be drawn in the lottery.

Jeanette’s mother sobbed, and the soldiers had to tie her father to keep him from doing violence. They held her three brothers off with crossbows. Her family had urged her time and again to marry someone, anyone, a young whelp, an old widower on his deathbed. They had even begged her to find a likely boy to love her for a night and give her a child. But Jeanette had refused, because she knew that this day would come, that one day she would be chosen, and she knew her destiny.

Before the soldiers led her away, Jeanette held her mother’s face in her hands. “It’s all right. I have a plan, I know what to do.”

She kissed her mother’s cheeks, smoothed away the tears, smiled at her father and her brothers, and rode away, seated behind the captain on his horse. She smuggled with her a homemade lock-pick and a dagger.

Jeanette sat by the fire, wrapped in a blanket, eating the bread and dried meat the soldiers had given her. One of the soldiers sat a little ways off, cleaning the sweat from girths and saddles. He watched her with a gaze that burned like molten iron in the firelight.

“You’re a pretty girl. I could help you.”

She ignored him and his hands rubbing the leather with a soiled cloth. She stared at the fire, but felt his gaze on her, heavy, like a calloused fist.

The captain walked past and cuffed the soldier’s head. “Keep your eyes on your work.”

The captain sat between him and Jeanette to finish his own meal. She suspected his job was to protect her, to ensure she reached her destination safely and intact, as much as it was to take her prisoner and ensure she fulfilled her obligation.

“Perhaps this is best for her. She can’t be normal, a virgin at her age.”

Whispering and staring, hundreds lined the road where Jeannette walked, flanked by guards and led by priests. The people believed in destiny as Jeanette did, but the one they believed was different. They looked on her with curiosity and pity.

The procession was something out of a story, happening just the way the stories had told it for generations. Beautiful, in a way. Garbed in white, white flowers woven in her dark hair, she looked ahead, at the back of the brown cloak of the priest who walked in front of her, and tried to be calm. She’d had her chance to avoid this. She could have accepted the soldier’s offer, let him lead her into the dark and raise her skirt for him. The captain and priests might have punished her, but she probably wouldn’t have died. She’d have been sent home in disgrace, perhaps. But alive.

She had known this day would come. She had looked forward to it, because she had a plan. It was all right. It was going to be all right.

“The girls usually cry.”

The dragon lived in a corner of the arid plain in the northern part of the kingdom. Dry brush sprouted on the dusty land, which became more rocky the farther north one traveled on the narrow road. Ravines cut across the plains, crumbling spires of granite rose from windswept outcroppings, and ridges held caves and channels that delved into the earth.

A path led from the road to one of these caves. The mouth of the cave was a dark slit in the rock, a depthless shadow, empty and featureless even in the midday sun. Outside the cave, a platform of rock stood exposed. A tall iron pole had been driven into the granite. A cold wind rattled a set of chains dangling from the pole. Jeanette brushed a strand of hair from her face.

The priests led her to the pole. The soldiers stood near, guarding her in case she panicked and tried to run, as some girls had done in other years, or so Jeanette had heard. Four manacles dangled from chains, two at the base of the pole and two in the middle. The master of the priests guided her to the pole and fastened the bindings himself, one on each wrist, one on each ankle.

The priests recited a blessing, a plea, begging their nemesis to accept the offering, to keep the peace for another year. They lauded the value of virgins, who were most pure. Jeanette knew the truth, though, that no one prized virgins. If virginity were valuable as anything other than a bribe for dragons, why did all the girls want to lose it so quickly?

She wondered how one small virgin could satisfy a dragon for a whole year.

“I’ll be fine,” she told the priest, keeping any tremor out of her voice.

The priest met her gaze suddenly, like he hadn’t meant to. He’d kept his face downcast until that moment. Now he looked at her with a watery, wavering gaze. Jeanette smiled, and he quickly turned away.

The priests and soldiers departed, and the crowd that had come to watch followed them quickly, before the dragon appeared. Jeanette was left alone, tied hand and foot to a post at the mouth of the cave, to await her fate.

She didn’t know how much time she had before the dragon emerged from the cave. She waited until the procession had gone away and she couldn’t hear them anymore, so no one could stop her. She hoped she had time. She only needed a few moments.

The chains weren’t meant to restrict her movement, only to keep her from leaving. She was lucky in that. By leaning down and reaching up, she retrieved the lock-pick she’d woven among the flowers in her hair.

 

Stay calm. She kept her breathing steady. Even so, she let out a sigh when the first shackle around her wrist snapped open.

This was taking too long. She hadn’t yet heard a dragon’s roar or the crunch of massive footfalls on the rocky ground. She didn’t know what she would hear first. The beast must have been near.
Working methodically, keeping her hands steady — she dared not drop the pick — she finally sprang the second lock. She crouched and started work on the bindings around her ankles.

That was when she heard the scrape of claws against stone, felt the ground tremble as some monstrous beast stepped closer. A few pebbles tumbled from the hill above her.

The grime caked into the keyholes and cracks of the shackles was old blood, of course.

The dragon seemed to take forever to climb from its den, along the passage to the mouth of the cave. Jeanette fumbled, cut her hand and dropped the pick. Drawing a sharp breath, she found it and tried again. The scraping footsteps crept closer.

Finally the last shackle snapped open, and with a yelp she clawed it away and sprang from the pole. She climbed the rocks, scrambling to get above the cave entrance. She found a sheltered perch behind a jagged boulder.

It wasn’t enough just to escape. Without its sacrifice, the dragon would break the peace and ravage the countryside. Another girl would be brought here, and the sacrifices would continue. Jeanette had to find a way to destroy the dragon.

She retrieved her dagger. It was a fool’s hope. Perhaps she’d be lucky.

At last the dragon slipped out of the cave and into the light.

It raised itself on a boulder and looked around, snout lifted to the air, nostrils flaring. It was perhaps twice the size of a horse, broad of back, with a long, writhing neck and sinewy limbs.
It was also thin. Its ribs showed above a hollow belly. Its scales were brown, dull. Many were missing; scattered spots of flaking pink skin showed along its length. Its yellow eyes squinted. It pulled back its lips to reveal broken teeth.

When it turned to make a circuit of its realm, it limped, one of its forelegs stumbling under its weight. It stepped, slumped, picked itself up and lurched forward again, making agonizing progress over the rocks. Tattered membranes hung between its forelegs and body, the remnants of wings.

The dragon was old, its skin cracked, its scales stained, its body wasted. It might once have been a terror, but not for many years. It might once have flown over the countryside, devouring every living thing in its path. Now, it might be able to do battle with a young girl. But only if she were tied to a post.

This dragon couldn’t ravage the countryside. A few men on horseback with spears — the soldiers who had brought her from her family’s farm, for instance — could put it out of its misery. Jeanette wondered when was the last time anyone had seen the dragon, or if the priests and soldiers had simply been abandoning the girls to the rocks without a backward glance all these years.

The task before her became much less difficult, though she almost felt sorry for the beast. If she did nothing, it would probably starve. It looked as if it was barely surviving on its one virgin a year. But if she wanted to return home and ensure that no other girls were bound here and left to die, she had to do more. She couldn’t leave the beast alone.

It hadn’t seen her yet. It was sniffing around the rocks, searching slowly and carefully. Perhaps it couldn’t see at all.

Still crouched on an outcropping above it, she inched toward the edge, gripping her knife, preparing herself. It was just a creature, after all, though it may have lived a thousand years and devoured a million men. She had hunted rabbits and helped slaughter pigs. She knew how to kill beasts. She could not be afraid.

She jumped.

Landing on the dragon’s back, she sprawled and almost slipped, tumbling off the animal. Desperate, she scraped her hands against the scales, hoping to reach a handhold. She found a grip on the ridged spine with one hand while supporting herself with the knuckles of the hand that held the knife, which she couldn’t drop or she was lost. A living heat rose off the creature, smelling of peat and dying embers.

The dragon shrieked, a choking, wheezing sound. Not so much as a puff of smoke emerged from its mouth. At least Jeanette didn’t have to worry about fire. The beast lurched, but not very quickly. She kept hold of her perch. She could imagine the dragon at the peak of its strength, its great body pulsing with power, flinging itself one way and another in the blink of an eye, its fierce head whipping around to snap at her with dagger-like fangs.

But its head turned slowly on a neck stiff with age. It hissed, and its chest heaved with labored breathing. It was almost dead already.

Gripping the ridges where its backbone protruded, she crawled up its back, then up its neck, which collapsed under her weight, smashing against the rock. The dragon squealed, snapping uselessly as it tried to reach back for her. The tail lashed against the rock, knocking loose pebbles which clattered around them.

Slumped on its neck, pinning it to the ground, she reached over its head. Its body rolled as it tried to free itself, and the joints along its spine cracked.
She placed her hand between the curled spines that grew out the back of its head, and balancing herself, she drove her knife into its right eye, using her body to force the weapon as far as it would go, until her shoulder rested on the bone of the socket, and the knife lodged deep in its brain.

The dragon shuddered, its death rippling along its entire body. Jeanette held on tightly, closing her eyes and hoping it would end soon.

She lay stretched along the dragon’s neck, her head pillowed on its brow, her arm resting in the wetness of the burst eye socket. The blood was growing cold and thick. It smelled sweet and rotten, much worse than slaughtered pigs. The bones along its neck dug through the fabric of her gown, making an uncomfortable bed.

She scraped the brain and gore off her arm as well as she could, wiping her hands on the hem of her gown. The silky fabric wasn’t much use for that.

She could go home. Though if she wanted them to believe that the dragon was dead, she had to bring back proof. She’d show the priests, and they wouldn’t hold any more lotteries.

She couldn’t carry back the head, as impressive as it would be to see it hanging on a wall. In the end, she cut off a toe and its claw, unmistakably the black, curved claw of a dragon. Once it might have been as sharp as a sword, but now it was dull with age. She left the dragon sprawled among the heaps of stone. Within half an hour of walking, she looked back, and the dragon’s body was only another shadow among the crevices.

A flock of ravens circled overhead.

One would think, having slain a dragon, she could face anything.

She did not find shelter by nightfall, so she lay down in a sandy depression on the lee side of a boulder, hugged herself, and tried to sleep. She also had not found any water, and her throat was swollen, her mouth sticky. Her gown and skin were grimy, itchy.

The desert was painfully cold at night, even in summer. Too cold to let her sleep. She clutched the dragon’s claw and longed for morning, for light. She had killed a dragon, she had the proof here in her hands. She would not let the night kill her.

She’d held the claw for so long, so tightly, that it was warm to the touch. Hot, even. As if it still had life, despite the scabbed stump. The toe still had muscles, it still flexed. It hadn’t stiffened in death.

It gave her warmth, a small and odd companion in the lonely darkness.

They will not thank you for killing me.

The voice came as a whisper, like wind through desert scrub.

She must have fallen asleep; her mind was thick with dreaming, and she couldn’t open her eyes. She imagined that she held the dragon in her hands, she held its life in her hands.

They will fear and curse you.

“No, they won’t. They will thank me. I’ve saved them.”

You have destroyed a tradition that has lasted for centuries. But I must thank you. Dragons cannot die, they can only be killed. I waited a long time.

“You could have been killed anytime, you could have found a warrior anywhere and let him kill you.”

Its chuckle rumbled through the earth. Don’t you think I tried that?

Jeannette curled tighter to herself, shivering, and whimpering.

Hush there. You’re probably right. They’ll cheer for you and throw flowers in your path, and you’ll be safe. Sleep now. Don’t be afraid.

She nestled into what felt like the warm embrace of a friend and fell asleep.

On the second day she found a pool and slow-running stream, enough water to wash and to keep herself from dying of thirst.

On the third day, disheveled and exhausted, she arrived at the door of the abbey at the first town beyond the northern waste, where she had been washed and dressed for the sacrifice.
People stared at her as she passed by. Her white gown, no matter how stained and tattered, made clear who she was, or who she was supposed to be — the sacrifice to the dragon. By the time she reached the abbey, a crowd had gathered to watch what the priests would say about her return.

She pulled the chain at the door of the abbey. It opened, and the priest who appeared there looked at her, eyes wide.

“I killed the dragon,” she said and showed him the claw.

Stammering, he called back into the abbey. Jeanette stayed at the door, unsure of what would happen, of what she expected to happen when she came here. She thought they would be happy. The crowd remained, whispering among themselves and hemming her in.

The dragon’s claw, as long as her forearm, lay in her hands, still warm, as if it were still attached to the dragon’s foot and ready to spring to life. The scales were dull. She ran her finger along the claw. It was smooth, hard as iron.

She wanted to go home.

The priest returned with several of his fellows. They grabbed her, surrounded her, pulled her inside, shut the door behind her. It happened quickly, and they did not seem surprised, or glad, or impressed that she had returned. Instead, they seemed worried, which made her afraid.

In moments, they’d brought her to the room where she’d been prepared as a sacrifice, a bare stone antechamber with a fireplace and washbasin, where a week ago she had been cleaned and anointed. She stood in the middle of the room, a ring of priests surrounding her. The master priest stood before her.

“What have you done?” he said.

“I killed the dragon.” She cradled the claw to her chest.

“Why have you done this?” Horror filled his voice. Inexplicable horror. Was there something about the dragon Jeanette didn’t know?

They will not thank you.

“I didn’t want to die. I thought — I believed I could do this thing.” She hoped she might, eventually, by chance, say the thing that would make this right. “It was old, crippled. Anyone could have done it. I picked the locks on the shackles. I planned it. I — I didn’t understand why no one had done it before. Someone should have killed it a long time ago.”

Harshly, the priest said, “Whether or not the dragon could be killed, whether or not it should have been killed, is not important. The sacrifice is important. The sacrifice is why you were chosen, why the choice is made every year.”

Very quietly she said, “I don’t understand.”

“Fear,” the old priest said, his voice shaking. “We sacrifice so that we will not have to fear. Without the dragon, how will we banish our fear? What we will sacrifice, so that we do not have to be afraid?”
“Nothing,” Jeanette said without thinking. “We can choose not to fear.”

One of the other priests said, “How does a girl kill a dragon?”

“It isn’t natural,” said another.

“It isn’t possible.”

“Not without suspicion.”

“Suspicion of witchcraft.”

Jeanette looked around as the priests talked. She began to understand, and began to fear in a way she hadn’t when she faced the dragon.

“We cannot tolerate a witch among us.”

 

* * *

 

Carrie Vaughn is the author of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty Goes to Washington, Kitty Takes a Holiday, and the forthcoming Kitty and the Silver Bullet, as well as numerous short stories. Though she writes about werewolves, the only monster she has at home is a 15-pound miniature American Eskimo dog named Lily. She has an M.A. in English Literature, is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and lives in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com.