by John Hertel
My earliest memories are of darkness, damp caves, and of a Monster who sometimes fed me.
Sylvorum Elf-stalker was a flying black cloud of teeth and talons. His mastery of the silent glide made him the terror of the Sentinel Spires Mountain range. That dragon’s reputation was so fell that no intelligent beings would deliberately enter his territory.
This was my father.
I was a disappointment to my father. His habit of tormenting his prey before eating it nauseated me. His treasures—a bed of cold hard stones and bits of metal—were of no interest to me. Causing forest fires for their own sake seemed pointless to me. This, and other things, caused a deepening rift between us as time crawled by.
I was half grown by the time my father summoned me from my favorite waterfall to guard a new treasure he had acquired. It was called a Barbarian Princess, something he intended to trade for its weight in gold. How wonderful.
I soon confronted a strange sight, a little pink biped with a mop of fur atop her head and clutching at scraps of other furs that were obviously not her own. Annarinda was small and dark of hair and eye, but her spirit was strong enough to confront me directly. I was not nearly as terrible as Sylvorum, yet it must have required considerable courage to face me and ask “Are you going to eat me?”
The very idea of eating something that could converse with me was so repulsive and ridiculous that for a moment I was non-plussed. What in all creation would make her ask such a question, I wondered. Being somewhat innocent, I thought about this, and eventually came up with a perfectly reasonable answer; this little talking beast must be close to starving! Why else would she be wondering what I would like to eat?
I foraged about the forest and soon returned with a collection of things that I thought might be edible. I really had no idea what humans were at this point, let alone what they might eat. The collection I placed before her was somewhat… varied. She took a few things, ate a little bit and placed the rest on a rock shelf behind her. Then, she thanked me and complained about nothing, introducing me to the concept of politeness. When she was done, I cleared the mess away (some of the things I had brought were noisesome, even to me) and shooed away something that I had thought was a truffle, but was now leaving the cavern under it’s own power. I then settled down to guard duty, although it was unclear to me what I was supposed to be guarding her from. She told me her name was Annarinda, and engaged me in conversation.
Her people had lived on the northern plateau for many generations. Drought and a series of other natural disasters had driven them south. In the lowlands they had not found the terrible armies that their grandfathers had warned them about, but soft, fat simpletons who fell like wheat before their axes… when they were not running away. The barbarian warriors were so overjoyed at their success that they sent word back for their families to join them. So Annarinda had come south to join her chieftain father, and rejoiced in his prosperity. The bounty of the south would see her people through the winter. For a change, none would starve or freeze to death. I had no objection to any of this; it was nature’s way that the strong would survive, and her people seemed happy enough.
And then Sylvorum had happened along…
The barbarians had not been interested in gold or gemstones, these things being inedible. Now, driven by my father’s ransom demands, they would have to attack strongholds they had earlier bypassed, and take terrible risks for this “treasure”.
I was intrigued by this.
For her part, Annarinda absorbed the details of my rather staid and boring life with rapt fascination. She even commented on my command of her native language, she said she could practically see the meaning of my words in her mind. I was too amazed to speak for a moment. Command of mannish tongues was the first step in learning spell magic, something that my father had continuously postponed. I corrected her, it was her facility with Draconian that allowed us to converse. Annarinda thought about this for a moment, and then smiled in a sly and secretive way.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. I had, of course, but then I realized something, a crucial fact that stopped my heart for a moment.
Her lips had not moved.
A witch! I nearly fled from her; I almost barged out of the cavern and brought Sylvorum down on us both. Before I could move more than a few feet, she explained it all to me in a strobe of mental images and ideas, and made the truth known to me in an instant. I sum it up in one word: Psychic. All creatures are supposed to have this power, although nearly all are latent as stones. Nearly all beings are deaf to the wonders that their own minds are capable of. One in a million can call this power forth in useful forms, and bend it to their will. Annarinda was one such being.
The next few days were a learning experience that was more like an unfolding, a revelation. It is impossible for me to tell you what it is like, this process of discovery. (Spend the first half of your life at the bottom of a well, and then climb out and tell me what the sun, the stars and the world around you looks and feels like. Do that, and you will have taken the first step in understanding me.) Annarinda’s mental energy was far less than my own, yet her power flowed like a mill stream, with every available erg of it available for useful employment. At first, mine was like a rushing flood, crashing about with no purpose. She trained me to bring it forth, and I shall never forget the day that I stacked three rocks on top of each other without touching them.
My father occasionally observed us, but all he noticed was that our conversations had ended, and that we seemed to be just sitting there, staring at each other. He was glad of this, the old fool; he took this to mean that I had finally become bored with her. I knew this because I had taken to reading his mind… what there was of it. Thus, I was instantly aware of the night he drank himself half-mad on an intoxicating mixture of fermented griffon’s milk and pixie blood, and he resolved to send Annarinda back to her people the same way they were delivering her ransom; one little piece at a time.
Annarinda was still half asleep when she found herself perched on my back, my mental directions clamping her hands tight on my scales as we flew off into the night. Our nocturnal escape was exhilarating at first, then confusing, then dreary and ultimately utterly frustrating. Barbarians move, you see, and it was not until dawn that we finally found them. The sight they presented was yet another life-changing experience for me.
My father’s outrageous demands had driven the barbarians to extreme measures. When we arrived, they had just stormed the walled city of Visograd, and sacked it. I say without hesitation that this was a fortress that no dragon ever born could have taken down, and these tiny yet vehement creatures had razed it in a matter of days! It had cost them dearly, but they had learned something about themselves in the process.
Annarinda’s mental shout saved us from a shower of arrows as I swept in and landed in the midst of them, staring about me with the same shock and curiosity that has being directed at mine own self. I had never understood just how many human beings there were in this world. Annarinda dismounted and ran to her father, and soon our story was known to them, as was my name. Soon I was experiencing what no non-psychic can ever understand. I basked in the admiration of the little souls all around me. In that moment, I think I came close to understanding something important… and then the moment was gone.
I sensed him before they saw him. I heard the cries, the wails of despair before I could even turn to face him. Sylvorum scythed his way through the crowd with the sun at his back, his wings making hardly a sound. He was focused on me, and his eyes promised nothing but bloody murder for me and mine. I snatched Annarinda up in my weaker claw and vaulted straight up into the sky.
My father, now determined to be my killer, heaved his wings and his breath started blowing through his nostrils like an ox. He would have caught us eventually, but escape was not my plan. I cast my new-found power over the old monster’s skull, and his thoughts were mine! Then, with one claw burdened and useless, with half his mass and none of his experience, I turned to battle Sylvorum Elf-stalker to the death.
Much has been written of this battle, songs were sung of it. My own recollections are hazy, and cannot do the bard’s tales justice. I was wounded seven times, blows struck by reflex that I could not possibly dodge. Other moves, such as a brilliant snap-roll that should have put him on top of me, were turned against him. Soon he found himself with shredded wings, flying so low that a stall would surely ground him. He attempted to marshal his fiery breath against me. At the moment when a dragon must release his breath, I wrapped my tail around his throat and kicked him in the stomach as hard as I could. I can testify that he felt a taste of the horror he had visited on so many others, as I intended he should.
His throat and chest erupted, and I was swatted out of the air. Sylvorum landed in the forest, where his corpse burned and smoldered for two days. I crash-landed near the place I had taken off from. I was weak and bleeding from half a dozen places, but before I could surrender consciousness, I had to check on my precious passenger.
Historians and apologists have had much to say to excuse me at this point. It is all garbage and nonsense, of course. I looked at the pulped and bloody mess in my claw, and I knew the truth at once, I knew that I had killed her.
Was it quick, too sudden for her to cry out to me? Did she hold herself quiet in some transcendental triumph of willpower over pain, not wanting to distract me from a battle that would determine the fate of her people?
Dragon’s tears are said to have interesting qualities, some of them becoming gemstones. Do not make the mistake of showing me any jewels; I give such baubles away for a reason.
Note: These words come from a never completed, never published autobiography of Emperor Merrin himself, apparently as part of his campaign to create a cult of personality around his throne. After his disappearance 1100 years ago, a memorial stone was erected on the shore of Lake Iztra. His epitaph is a suitable list of his accomplishments;
Merrin the Gray
The Great Gray Dragon of Lista
The Killer of Kali and that Bane of the Streegoi
Founder of the Ulistarii Throne
He is worth remembering, not only because of his impact on history, but because rumors of his return now seem to be more than just rumors…