Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

And Men Will Mine the Mountain for Our Souls

I. Princess

Always had the sages known that they would come. The first princess, in her bed of jewels and smelted gold, had dreamt of them; dreamt their terrible faces, their terrible claws, their endless hunger that is greater than the mountain and deeper than the deepest-diving seam. She had wept in the night, to have such dreams, and some say that her death—as the deaths of all princesses since her—came hard and early, because she could not know the peace of slumber. No one questioned what she had said of the future, for all loved their princess, and all knew that what a princess dreamt, she must dream true. Always.

After her came my great-uncle, who weakened under his visions, and finally leapt from the mountain’s top, strewing his entrails across the countryside. They hardened in the sunlight into a streak of mercury and silver, and his heart and brain were carried to my aunt, who ate them reluctantly, as a child might eat a poisoned pear. She had been burdened with the dreams since her birth, but always had she prayed that they would name another as our princess, that I would hatch and come of age before great-uncle died. She knew that it was not to be. She ate his heart when she was bid. And she dreamt true.

Her blood was still wet on my lips when the generals brought the crown to me, when they placed it on my brow, when they named my sister “prince” and said that she would lead us in the war to come. When the generals named me princess, and said that I would dream myself to death for the sake of our people. Even the titles that we were to bear—prince, princess—came from them, pearls stolen from the seabed of a princess’s dreams, turned into weapons that we might turn those same weapons against their creators. They will not expect such sophistication from us, or so the sages say.

I think that perhaps they are less concerned with the words we use, and more concerned with the weapons we can bring to bear against them. And oh, our weapons are never going to be enough. I know that, as every princess before me has known it, and still I sleep, and still I dream, and still I see their armies coming, terrible in the sunset, ablaze with the red light of the dying day.

They are coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop them.

II. Prince

The generals tell me that my brother has bad dreams. I tell them that this is not news to me; that my brother has always had bad dreams, ever since we were worms in the rookery, and our nest-mother confused me for he and he for me, remembering only that there were two royal babes, and never which was which. We were prince- and princess-in-waiting interchangeably then, quick to bite and hiss and show our claws to any who disturbed us, survivors by virtue of our size and the speed with which we had eaten our siblings. Worms cannot bear to be alone, but neither can they bear to slither in anything other than pairs. I miss those days, warm in the shards of our eggshells, content in our lack of responsibilities, fluid in our identities and our futures.

Our parents came to us so rarely then, and looked at us with such sorrow. We did not understand. We could not understand. What in the scope of our experience had prepared us for the world that awaited us, the world we would enter when our aunt the princess declared that she had dreamt the deaths of our parents? They died six days after she dreamt their endings, Father with his head severed from his body so that he bled rubies onto the undeserving ground, Mother with her claws covered in the offal of our enemies. They paid dearly for the taking of our parents. They paid with blood and with screaming.

But all the blood and screaming in the world could not bring our parents back. That night, our aunt came to us with the hearts of our father the king and our mother his consort clutched in her talons, gleaming red as garnets and black as obsidian in the dim light of the rookery. She threw them down before us, and said, “Eat. Eat, and become what you will be.”

How I wish I had not taken that first bite. How I wish I had been able to take my brother’s dreams, to lift them from his soul and transform them to my own. But I was young and I was greedy, and his dreams were never intended to be mine.

I ate of my mother, and I became a prince. My wings grew in gold and blazing, bright as flame, filled with embers. My backbone stretched and strengthened, became long and tight with sinew, difficult to hack or harm. My horns became as strong as diamonds, my teeth as cruel as flint, and my eyes as shadowed as the mountain’s heart, where I breathed out the soul of my mother in a gust of flame that could have brightened all the sky.

My brother ate of our father, and became a princess. His horns grew heavy, pulling his head down to the ground. His wings grew vaster than mine could ever be, filled with night-sky darkness and flashes of silver, mercurial and strange. And his dreams, his dreadful dreams, grew stronger with every night that passed.

He killed and ate our aunt as soon as the bones in his legs ceased breaking and reshaping themselves. He feasted on her heart, her lungs and brain, and he breathed her out together with our father, dying embers into the dust. We were prince and princess under the mountain, terrors of the night, and if he never flew, he did not seem to mind; he walked in majesty, his wings wrapped tight around his body, and his dreams grew worse with every day that passed.

Now the generals tell me he has bad dreams, and so I have come to him, my brother, the Princess Below the Mountain, who sleeps and dreams in his bower of gems and precious metals. His handmaids show their throats as I walk among them, hissing deference, their eyes alight with fear. That is good. Princes are meant to be feared, both for what we are and for what we represent. We are the mountain’s burning defense against them. When they come, we will be ready, and the blood will shower down like so many hardening stars.

My brother is waiting for me. He lifts the black cloak of his wing from his head, and looks at me with eyes grown dark from dreaming and despair. “Have your eggs hatched yet?” he asks, and there is genuine yearning there, for he dreams too big to see something so small. He used to dream smaller, before he ate the heart of our father, before he grew too great to see anything but death.

“Not yet, brother,” I reply.

“Ah,” he sighs. “When they mine the mountain for our souls, they will take your children for diamonds greater than any the world has ever known. I have seen those diamonds. I had hoped that they might come from some other clutch. I am sorry, my sister. I am so sorry.” He closes his eyes. He will not look on me.

Fire burns in my breast, hot and heavy with hatred. “What are you saying?”

They are coming, my sister. They march even now, under the banner of their King, who has never set foot beneath our mountain. He will stay at a distance while his soldiers descend upon us. I see death under the mountain. I see nothing after that. There are no wings against the moon, no flames above the snow. There are no others left in all of the world, my sister, because if there were, they would come to carry our bones to somewhere distant, new and safe. We are the last, and they are coming.” He draws his wing across his face, hiding himself from my sight.

“What are we to do?” I whisper.

His chuckle seems to resonate through his entire body. He sounds so tired. When did he become so tired? When did he last sleep through the long, dark tunnel of the night without the dreams coming to shatter his peace, steal his rest away, strand him, shattered and gasping, on the ledge of wakefulness? I do not know. I would have known, once. I would have been there to soothe him when he woke.

I was not a prince then. I was not so powerful, or so helpless.

“What are we to do?” he echoes, and his voice is the voice of the mountain itself, the voice that speaks from the deepest tunnels, from the blackest pits. “Oh, my sister. Oh, my prince. What are we to do?

“We are to do what dragons have always done, when men were marching. We will die, and they will mine this mountain, and we will be forgotten by all except the stones that were our souls. Now go. I am tired.”

And my brother sleeps, and I am alone below the mountain once again.

I kill one of his handmaids on my way out of the chamber, that he might know my displeasure. It is a hollow gesture.

Surely he has seen this in his dreams.

III. Dreaming

The body of my handmaid has hardened into jade and amethysts when I claw my way back into the waking world, mazed and disoriented by the blending of what is and what is yet to be. My dreams have left me weak. I feel like an eggshell on the very verge of breaking, but there is nothing to hatch out of me: I am complete, and so I shall be doomed.

My handmaids swarm around me, cooing and clucking, their claws bristling with sweetmeats and with charcoal as they try to coax me into accepting sustenance. I claw their scales and allow their blood to spill onto the cavern floor, rubies and emeralds and topaz gems the size of my eye. It does not soothe me. They do not cry out, even though I know my slashes pain them. To be in service to the princess is a great honor, and one which each of them has sacrificed much to earn—even down to the great leather panels of their wings, which were cut away entire when my handmaids were confirmed into my service. Those who tend to the princess could never run away or leave their master, and while I have to trust them with my very life, there is no reason to tempt them with their freedom. Each of them is mine, to do with as I will, until the day that they rejoin the mountain.

That day is coming. That day is almost here. I can still see their broken bodies when I close my eyes, even as they cluster and swarm around me. One will be gutted, her internal organs strewn from one end of the cavern to the other, hardening and transforming even as her blood dries into diamonds on the floor. To think that she will become diamonds! She must be of royal descent, even though she does not know it, and I will not tell her. What mercy would there be in telling her that she might have been a prince, might have been a princess, had she but eaten of the right flesh and slept tangled in the right limbs? It would not be fair. I will not do it.

Another will lose her head entire, taken as a trophy by the man who slays her. Her body will be left for carrion, transmuting into common slate, but her eyes . . . ah, her eyes will become opals. They will be the prize possessions of a fortune-teller in one of their courts. That strange, soft woman will never know the origins of her scrying stones, only that they are beautiful, and that they tell her true.

So it will go, one by one, even to the youngest of them, a pretty little thing with scales the color of old amber. She was hatched a full season after my sister and I, and her wings were not even fully grown when they were cut away from her forever. She will die with the rest.

They will die protecting me. It will not make any difference.

“How long was I asleep?” I ask.

“Princess, the moon has risen,” says the oldest of them, who served my aunt before I ate her and took her place. I show her my teeth, and she alone among my handmaids shies away from me. She knows what I am capable of, knows that I have not yet grown into a soft and pampered oracle who will refuse to gut my own food. I mourn that me, who will never get to live beneath this mountain. I do not think I would have liked him, but I would have liked the chance to be him. I am not required to like myself. Being a princess means that there will always be others willing to like me, just for the chance to be well regarded.

The handmaid I inherited from my aunt will die last. She will be driven to the back of the cavern by her own sense of self-preservation after I have fallen; she will press herself against the wall and grovel, trying to make her harmlessness clear to them.

They will look at her great size and take her for a powerful warrior. They will fire arrows into her eyes and slide swords into her gullet. She will not deserve half of what they would do to her, and I do not warn her, because I do not care for her, and because warnings will do her no good—no good at all. What has been dreamt will be, and that is that. That is how it has always been.

If the moon is up, then time has grown shorter than anyone else can know, even my sister, who will be in the chamber with her generals by now, plotting and planning our defense. We have always assumed that they would come in daylight, with the sun high behind them and the world spread open to their flat, terrible gaze. I have seen them marching in daylight, but it was not until this day’s dreaming that I realized I had never seen them reach the mountain that way. Until my most recent slumber, I had been unable to understand why that was, how that could be.

Now that I am awake, I can finally see the truth of it. They march by day, but they will attack by night. They have princesses of their own. They must, else how could we have stolen the word, the concept, the power? Those princesses must dream their own dreams. They must have seen that we fight better in sunlight, that our flame is dangerous even to ourselves when we breathe it out in the tight spaces of our homes.

Those princesses must have gone to their warriors, even as I will now go to my sister. They must have said, “Attack by night,” and because only a fool would ignore a princess when that princess speaks of a dreaming, they will have listened.

They are not coming.

They are here.

“Help me up,” I say, laboring to untangle the vast sails of my wings, which catch and slow me more than I can bear. I envy my handmaids, who move so quickly and so easily, their skeletal wings folded tightly down against their backs. How lovely it would be, to move freely. When I am dead, I will go to the King of All Dragons, and I will ask her why she made me thus; why dreams must come with more burdens than themselves. I would have thought them quite burden enough.

I do not know what she will say. This pleases me; not knowing is a rare gift in these days, with the dreams heavy in my heart and my eyes dim from seeing too much. My handmaids untangle my wings from my limbs. The youngest of them gnaw at my horns, wearing them down just that small bit, lightening my head just enough to let me lift it from the cavern floor. I would be immobile without them, trapped, and I am grateful, even as I know that their service will be the reason for their deaths.

“I will return,” I say, and they do not question me, but step aside as I slither, low as a lizard, toward the door.

I must find my sister.

If ever there has been a dream I have wished to change, it is the dream that I have dreamt today.

IV. Strategy

My generals fill the world beneath the mountain, their scales gleaming emerald and jade and tourmaline in the light from the pits of burning coal that stud our gathering chamber. This is the greatest space below the mountain, large enough to hold all of my people at once, if we packed in close and did not strike at one another for a casual touch, for an accidental scratch. That could never happen, and so there are only the twenty of us here: myself, and the nineteen generals I inherited from my father upon his dying. They served him wisely and well when he was Prince Below the Mountain, before he became King In Ashes.

My brother tells me they do not reserve the titles of King and Queen for their dead; in their world, kings and queens walk among the living. It seems strange, like a refusal to admit that death is a part of life, as much as hatching, as much as flying, as much as fire.

My generals are older and wiser than I, but still, they must come when they are called, and they must listen to me when I speak to them. If they resent me for this, they do not say so, for they did not eat the old prince’s heart; they do not have his blood inside them. “Our princess tells me that they are coming,” I say, and silence answers my proclamation. “He says that soon, they will be here, and that he sees death beneath the mountain.”

“What does he see beyond the battle?” demands the oldest of my generals. His head is the size of my entire body, and his words shake the walls. He would have been a good prince, had he been chosen, and I do not fear him now, for he will not betray me. He has grown too vast for my smallness.

“Our princess sees nothing beyond the battle,” I reply. “He sees darkness. He sees no wings against the moon, no flames above the snow.”

The old general, who has learned to have faith in the words of princesses, says nothing as he turns his face away.

“What are we to do?” asks another, who is younger, and wilder, and more of a danger. He will devour me if I allow him. He will become prince in my place . . . and part of me is tempted to give him that burden, that honor, that doom. But his transformation would not be swift enough, and they would arrive to find the mountain undefended. I love my brother too much for that. I love my eggs, still hardening in the rookery, waiting to hatch and begin their great devouring. I love my consort, who got them upon me, who will be Queen when I am King, secure in death’s throne.

No. I will not die by this general’s claws. I am still their Prince Below the Mountain, and they will heed me, whether they will it or no. “We fight,” I say. “We fly. We preserve the mountain as best we can, and if we die today, we die knowing that we did all we could do to keep ourselves and our people safe. Order the children deep, and order the egg-layers deeper. Roll the eggs into the deepest vents, and pray the hatchlings will crawl their way back to us when their shells grow thin. Tell the sages that they are free to go, that they should be remembered as something more than legends.”

“What if they will not go?” asks another general.

I hesitate. I am a prince, but I am still young, still fresh and untested in my role; I have not known the long seasons of strife and seasoning that had been my father’s, that had taught him all the ways of cruelty and command. I know the order I should give, know it as I knew the curving moons of my own claws. I cannot give it.

I wonder if my brother has seen my weakness. I wonder if this is what condemns us.

“If they will not, then let them stay,” I say. “Let them curl in the depths with the young and the infirm, and should they die there, their souls will sleep in the mountain’s heart, as have all the souls of our precious dead from the beginning of all things until today.”

“As you say, my prince,” says the oldest of the generals, and none of the others will dare to challenge him. With his words, the council of war is convened, and oh, how the mountain groans beneath the weight of such age, such wisdom, such vast and powerful forms. They cling to the walls like the bats we would snap our jaws at when we were children, my brother and I, innocent of the weights and dangers the world would one day set upon our shoulders. We always knew that we were damned to royalty. We did not know what royalty might mean.

We talk of war through the long afternoon and into the dark hours of the night. Servants move amongst us, carrying charcoal and charred meat. We gulp it down without tasting, keeping our bellies full and our minds sharp. We speak of strategies and tactics, of all the ways that flesh can tear and bones can break, and how we can use those ways to our advantage. We speak of the weapons of the enemy, what we know of them and their foul, thieving ways. And all the time that we spend speaking, my brother sleeps in his fine princess’s bed of embers, dreaming what is yet to be, what cannot be turned aside, no matter how deeply we breathe of the mountain’s fire, no matter how fiercely we will fight.

We knew always that we would go to battle, because we are as we are, as the mountain made us: we had no choice.

We never had a choice, not since the very beginnings of the world.

V. Waking

I find my sister in her chambers, sleeping fitfully, the great bulk of her consort beside her. For a moment, I pause, the air in my lungs becoming ashes in the face of envy’s blazing flame. I will never have a consort—would not have, even if this were not the night we died. My hatchlings could have been challengers to my sister’s place, could have confused the lines of succession. How I hate him for lying beside her, bathing his scales in the warmth of her flame! How I hate her, for leaving me behind.

How I love her, for being my sister, and for loving me. It is love that leads me to lower my already heavy head and nudge her, gently, with my snout.

Her eyes are open in an instant. There is no malice there. She is Prince Below the Mountain. She knows that there are only two in all the world that her guards would allow to pass unchallenged, and her consort already lies curled beside her. She lifts her head, and looks on me with love, only love, only ever love.

How I have missed her, since our destinies bent us apart. Is it wrong to be joyful that here, at the end, they are bending back together? “It is time,” I say.

She blinks slowly, shaking away the last traces of her own untroubled sleep. Whatever nightmares she may have suffered, she knows they are not as deep as mine, or as heavy, or as cruel. “What do you mean?” she asks.

Already her wings are unfurling. Already her consort wakes, the armored plates of his back bristling as he calls himself fully into the moment. She believes in me. She trusts that I will not mislead her—and oh, how I wish that I could. How I wish I were here to spin her a terrible lie, to send her out into the world ready for a battle that will never come.

But I am not. I could not. I am her princess, and she is my prince, and I could never lie to her. “They marched by day, and they prepare to strike by night. They are here, my sister. They are at our door. Rally your generals. Call your army. Tell them that the darkness is alive with the shouts and cruel hands of men, and that it is too late to turn this dream aside.”

“Will we win?” My sister’s voice is rough with char. The fire is gathering inside her.

I do not answer. I turn my head away, and say nothing. My sister must fight; there is nothing else that she can do. I have seen her, in my dreams. I will not lie to her, but I will not speak her death into the open air. To do so would be to betray her in the deepest way I know, and so I am silent, and remain silent as she rises from her bed and stalks past me, wings half-mantled, into the long, cold night of her destruction.

I am sorry, my sister. I am sorry, my prince. I could not save you, or myself, or anyone at all.

All I ever did was dream.

VI. War

I leave my brother behind me as I make my way toward the nearest cave connecting to the surface. My consort brushes my tail with his and heads deeper into the mountain, where he will light the signal fires and sound the alarms of the ancients. I roar with every step, sending my voice up into the honeycomb caverns we have chewed and carved through the living stone, waking and rallying my people.

Here am I, your prince.

Here am I, your defender.

Here am I; now come to me, join me, and die fighting by my side.

And they come—how they come! My generals and their armies, my fighting worms and wide-winged soldiers. My people flock out of the mountain as the old and the weak burrow deeper, and we cover the cliff faces and the long slopes with our bodies, roaring domination into the night. Our flame lights up the darkness, and for the first time in my life, I see what my brother has seen every time he closed his eyes since the beginning of forever. I see them.

They are so soft. So small. Their shells are artificial, forged from the bodies of the dragons they have slain. There is nothing to them that I should fear, and that is the most terrible thing of all. They will destroy us. They should not have that power. They should not have that potential. But they do, and there is nothing I can do to take it from them.

“What are your orders?” growls the nearest of my generals.

I close my eyes. For a moment—just a moment—I can tell myself that my brother is wrong: that our parents were wrong. I should have been the princess from the first, and my calm, everyday dreams of dragons, and flying, and feasting under a bright harvest moon, those are the true dreams. Not my brother’s dreaming, no, not at all.

“We fight,” I say. “Show no mercy.”

The screams of the men are terrible to hear.

The screams of the dragons are worse.

VII. Princess

This is my final dream, as I coil in the depths of my bed and wait for the men to come and slay me. It is not a true dream, for I do not sleep; will never sleep again, not before my dying.

I dream myself a hatchling again, strong and lithe and unburdened by the duties of a princess. I dream my sister beside me, full of motion, never still. I dream us safe. I dream us happy. I dream us together for all of time.

The screams reach me even in my chambers. My sister is gone to be King In Ashes, and I will see her soon. We will be together always, even as we are in my dream that is not a dream, and men will mine the mountain for our souls.

I wonder if the princesses of men sleep any easier than those of dragons. I hope so. I would not wish my life on anyone, not even on those who would destroy us. When dragons are but memory and legend, the princesses of men will slumber on, dreaming their cruel dreams.

There was never any end but this.

My handmaids die all around me, and at last, my dream is done.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares her home with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.