Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

The Plausibility of Dragons

Of course it would rain. Hungry and footsore after three days of walking, his back and shoulders aching from carrying his heavy pack, all Malik needed now was to be soaked in water that barely resisted becoming ice.

His first thought, though, was for his books, which wouldn’t be long protected by the pack. He didn’t always need books to be hired, but the better sort of customer liked to see them as proof of his learning and investment in knowledge. He moaned, pulled off the pack, and hugged it to his chest, shrugging so that his cloak would cover it.

After an hour, Malik was shivering and nearly unable to see, and he felt almost transformed by a coating of mud; only his hat was still untouched by it. If the directions he’d been given were good, then there ought to be a village somewhere near here, but he saw no sign of it; the road seemed to stretch forever through this forest. Maybe if he found a sufficiently broad tree, he could shelter under it.

So faintly that it might have been a trick of the rain on the leaves ahead of him, Malik thought he heard the whinny of a horse. After another hundred paces he heard it again, louder. Yet another hundred, and the mist before his eyes parted to reveal a mighty brown charger, tethered to just such a sheltering tree as Malik had hoped for. But most welcome in his sight, the horse stood next to a tent. It was small but well-crafted and sat beneath the overlapping branches of three trees, on the driest ground he had seen for five miles. He sneezed, and the horse turned to look at him; he heard a rustling from the tent.

“Ho there,” he called in the language of the Franks, his voice sounding thin and plaintive in the rain. “I come in peace.”

The tent flap opened, and a knight stepped out. She was nearly a foot taller than Malik, hair so blonde it was like frost, pale eyes watchful, her hand on the long knife in her belt. She wore a shirt of fine mail marked with strange arms: a foot trampling a lizard. She regarded him for a long moment, eyes moving from his feet to his arms to his own eyes.

Then she nodded judiciously. “You look drowned,” she said in Frankish.

“Well observed,” he replied.

Her eyebrows lifted. “And here I thought you were about to ask for my help. Care to try again?”

Malik shivered. “Apologies, lady knight. The weather has put me in a bad temper. Would you let me shelter here until I dry out? I won’t be any inconvenience, and I could even do a few chores if you have food to share.”

“I do my own chores,” she said, “and you’ve already inconvenienced me. Still—” She glanced down at her knife. “If you try anything foolish you won’t live to finish it, and I’ll worry about how to clean up the mess later.”

Malik shifted his pack in his arms, feeling pain in every joint. “I am unarmed but for this little knife—” He pointed to his sleeve. “And not a fighting man in any case.” He bowed. “Malik ibn Ali of Cordoba is in your debt.”

She put her hand to her waist and gave a slight bow herself. “Fara of Hallstatt, daughter of Odger.” She stood aside and let him enter the tent. He set down his pack on the dryish ground next to it. With her gear, there was barely enough room in the tent for the two of them to sit. He lowered himself carefully, and she sat beside him. Reaching into her own pack she grabbed a hunk of hard bread, which he gratefully took.

As he was chewing, she observed, “I’ve not met many Moors in this part of the country. Cordoba’s in Iberia, isn’t it?” Malik nodded. “I thought you had a strange accent. You’re a long way from home.”

He swallowed. “Truly. For my part, it’s been a long time since I last met a woman of the sword.”

She laughed. “Then you haven’t been around much in this land, Malik of Cordoba. I have four sisters, all of whom took the sword.”

“Is this the custom in Hallstatt? Is it full of woman warriors?”

She laughed again. “No, not full of warriors of any kind. But we learned sword skills at a young age, and my father said that a horse and armor were better investments than a dowry. He and my mother are armorers, and could make the weapons and mail themselves, you see. What brings you so far from the warm lands of the west?”

“I’m a teacher,” he said, gesturing in the direction of his pack outside the tent. “I give lessons in reading and writing Latin and Arabic, the heavens, and natural philosophy.”

“I can imagine there are some here who’d welcome new lore about plants and beasts,” said Fara. “And a few of the artisans with ambitions for their children might want you to teach them the Latin writing.”

“That’s mostly been it.”

“I’ll wager you don’t get much call for the Arabic, though.”

“I don’t.”

“Are you a Mohammedan?”

“I submit to the will of God.”

She rotated her head as if getting the kinks out of her neck. “You’ve studied the lore of many lands?”

“Very many. The Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, the men of India, the sages of Persia.”

She was silent for a minute, glancing around the inside of the tent. Then she said in a low voice, “Do you know anything about dragons?”

“Dragons?”

“Aye.”

Malik shifted uncomfortably. His clothes were beginning to dry, but they still clung to him, and he felt a new cold spot every time he moved. Slowly he replied, “I’ve never seen one, if that’s what you mean.”

Fara grimaced. “You know that’s not what I mean. In your books, your lore, what do they tell you of dragons?”

He paused for a moment. Then he said, “There are many tales, but no eyewitness accounts. The Greeks speak of Ladon, slain by Heracles, Pytho of Delphi, and the Lernaean Hydra. Aeilian writes of the Drakons who kill Elephants in India, though no Indian writer says this. They write of the Nāgas, the enemies of the eagle king Garuda. According to Hakim Abu ʾl-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi, the evil king Zahāk was transformed into a three-headed monster. The Jews say, and the followers of the Prophet and your Pope agree, that the Evil One took the form of a serpent to deceive our father Adam out of paradise. I once read an old scroll that claimed that dragons corrupt the hearts of men.”

She nodded. “Many people speak of them.”

He said, “None of these stories very closely resembles the others. I am inclined to think that we are all simply afraid of snakes.”

Fara looked at the ground. “You don’t think they exist, then?”

Malik put his hands together. “If dragons walk the earth now, breathing fire and eating men, if they fly through the air and crush whole villages, then why does no witness or writer speak of seeing them in person? Why is it always a distant legend, or a tale told by someone who told it to someone else who told it to the writer’s grandfather?”

Fara did not look up. “The world is wide.”

Malik shrugged. “So one might say about any fanciful creature. The world is wide, and so we cannot prove that it does not exist. But that is not evidence. I do not think dragons are plausible, unless they lived centuries ago. I think we build palaces in our minds, populated with monsters made of our own fears and desires. If I ever see a dragon, I suspect that I will have crossed into another world than this.”

For a long time, neither of them said anything. Fara leaned on her pack. Malik shivered the kind of shiver after which one feels warmer.

Then Fara looked up at him and said, “I am searching for the dragon that may have killed my sister.”

Malik swallowed and licked his lips. “I am sorry for the death of your sister. May God’s mercy and compassion comfort you and your family. But—” He swallowed again. “With the greatest respect, Fara of Hallstatt, why do you think it was a dragon that killed her?”

Fara’s eyes did not waver from Malik’s face. “My sister Basina hired herself out to burgraves and other minor lords, and took the occasional commission from villages. She tracked down outlaws, she rode to war against the burgraves’ enemies, sometimes she slew a wolf or other beast that beset the herds.”

“As you have done?” asked Malik.

“Yes. Two years ago, a village many leagues east of here paid her in the black money to hunt for a dragon they had heard was marauding in those parts. Though they had never seen it, they feared what it might do. For a year she followed its rumor, and she sent back word to us when she could; always the stories were of a beast in the next county or over the next river. Some said the monster ate virgins; others that it destroyed homes. Then she vanished, and no word of her has come to us or to anyone.”

“Vanished?” he said.

“I have followed her footsteps from the town where she was hired, asking every person I meet. Until I came within five leagues of this spot, everyone remembered Basina and her quest, though all they knew of the dragon was its reputation. Then, all at once, there is no trace of Basina at all.”

“And the dragon?”

“So far, only the rumors.”

“But your sister’s disappearance does not mean she’s dead, does it? She could still live, but have gone along a different path. She might have given up her search, or found other employment . . .” Fara shook her head. “You don’t know Basina. Her deeds are bold; her words are loud; her movements are broad. She does not give up on a quest, and certainly not without explaining herself to those who hired her. And she would not have failed to send word to her family for a whole year.”

Malik listened to the rain hissing on the tent. “When you find this dragon, do you mean to kill it?”

She nodded. “First I mean to find Basina, or her body. But yes, if it has killed her, I will destroy it—if it doesn’t kill me first.”

“But you’ve never met a dragon; you don’t know how to kill one.”

“It’s never met me, either.”

• • • •

It turned out that Fara was headed to the same village as Malik. In the cool sunshine the day after they met, they both walked alongside the great horse that carried all their gear.

Near sunset, they came to a turn in the road that was shadowed by many tall trees. Around the bend, in those shadows, two men blocked their way. Both carried knives.

Fara’s hand went to her own knife. “Good evening, sirs,” she said. “We are headed north on this road.”

“We are headed nowhere in particular,” said the paler of the two men. “But wherever we go, we will need money and transportation, witch.” He nodded towards the horse. “Your horse would be very helpful.” A third man stepped out of the woods behind Fara and Malik.

“I cannot let you take it,” she said. Her sword and shield were both strapped to the horse, and there was no way she could reach them before the men attacked.

“We would like to solve this peaceably,” said the pale man.

“That can be accomplished by your stepping aside and letting us pass,” said Fara, drawing her long knife.

“Let us have the horse, witch, and whatever coins you may be carrying, and that will be speedily accomplished.”

Fara snorted. “Such a promise isn’t very credible.”

The pale man shrugged. “What choice do you have?”

Fara sighed and shook her head. Then she stepped in front of the horse. “If you want the beast, you’ll need to take him.”

The pale man lunged forward with his knife. Fara stepped aside, kicking the man in the knee while she parried the thrust of his companion’s knife. The moment Fara moved, Malik reached into his sleeve for his own small knife, but the robber behind him was bigger and faster—and besides, as he’d told Fara, Malik was no fighter. Within a few seconds the man had him pinned by the arms, a knife at his throat.

Fara’s two opponents were on the ground. One was open-eyed and unmoving with a hole in his neck, the other curled on the ground, moaning and bleeding from his gut.

Fara stepped toward Malik. His captor said, “Stay there! One more move and I cut your demon’s throat.”

Fara shook her head, slowly stepped back to her horse, and drew her sword from its scabbard.

“I said I’ll kill him!” said the thief.

“I heard you the first time,” said Fara, holding her sword in one hand and her knife in the other.

“Don’t you value your demon’s life?”

“Certainly I do. If you harm him, it will grieve me mightily and I will have to avenge him. Vengeance will start about ten seconds after he dies. I will cut off your prick, stuff it down your throat, then cut off your nose and send that after your prick, then gouge out each eye, then remove your entrails. It will take you twenty minutes or so to die, if I do it properly, and you’ll be in agony.” Her voice was calm, even pleasant, but Malik had no doubt she’d do exactly what she said.

The man trembled. Fara continued, “On the other hand, you haven’t harmed him yet. This morning there were three of you; within a few minutes you’ll be the only one. If you let him go, I will let you go with your life. I’ll even let you keep your knife.”

“Why—” The thief stammered. “Why should I trust you?”

“I haven’t lied yet. You were the ones who accosted us.”

The thief’s grip loosened. Malik stepped away and turned to face the man, who had a big stupid face and now looked terrified.

“Start walking south,” said Fara. “If I see you again on this road, I will kill you.”

Fara and Malik watched the thief until he was out of sight. Then she looked down at the two bodies on the ground, shaking her head.

“Stupid waste,” she said. Then she crossed herself and recited a rote-memorized De Profundis. Malik thought it unlikely that the dead thieves were believers, but decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and intoned the prayers to God to cause men to die in faith, and to cleanse them after death.

After a moment, looking at the bodies, he said, “Did he call you, ‘witch’?”

She answered, “Yes. That’s new. And the other said ‘demon.’”

“About me, yes. Have you any idea what they meant?”

“None.”

Malik looked at the sun setting through the trees. “Do we bury them here? It wouldn’t be proper to leave them out like this.”

Fara sighed. “I know, but I’ve nothing to bury them with. It’s not far to the village. We’ll have to take the baggage off of the horse, and then I’ll need your help to secure the bodies on his back.”

It took only a few hours more to reach the village. The villagers weren’t surprised to hear of their battle with the footpads and didn’t question it; such men were not uncommon in the region, and these two in particular were known to them, though they hadn’t been seen in several months. Two of the locals helped bury the bodies.

Malik and Fara stayed in the town for a night, but they were both disappointed in their respective hopes. No one had any use for traveling teachers just then, though some asked about buying one or two of Malik’s books. So far as he could tell, they couldn’t read, and he wondered what use they’d make of them. Neither had any of the villagers seen the dragon Fara sought, nor heard of her sister Basina the Swift, although they had heard rumors of a strange beast in Eihinheim, fifty miles to the north. There too, they said, a teacher might find work.

Scholar and warrior covered the distance in two days. Eihinheim was the biggest settlement Malik had seen for many months, set near dark green mountains and a wide plain. They approached it at mid-day after easy travel. They found farmers cultivating cabbages a mile out from the edge of the village and greeted them cheerfully, but received no greeting in return. The men and women with soil covering their hands scowled at Fara and Malik; some looked frightened; others muttered.

“Not the friendliest place,” said Malik.

“That’s odd,” said Fara. “I’ve been traveling this region for years, one way or another. They’re pleasant folk, and have always had a kind word and a cheery hello.”

When they approached the edge of town, three large men with axes and scythes walked swiftly to them, blocking their path.

“We’ll have no witches here, nor demons,” said the tallest man, holding his axe before him.

“Demons?” said Fara. “What demons?”

“That one,” said the man, pointing at Malik. “Look at his skin! It’s the mark of the devil, surely.”

“But—” Fara said in confusion. “There are Moorish merchants and travelers all up and down these parts. A town like this one, surely you’ve seen—”

“You lie, witch!”

Fara stared at him. “By what right do you call me witch? I’m Fara of Hallstatt, a knight and soldier of—”

“There are no female knights,” said the man. “You are an abomination wearing man’s garb and carrying men’s weapons. You should be burned.”

Fara looked like she wanted to laugh, then thought the better of it. “There are dozens of female knights. My sisters alone—”

“Again you lie!” roared the man with the axe. At the loud noise, the horse stirred. Fara stroked its neck.

“We have no wish to intrude where we’re not wanted,” she said. “But I am searching for my sister and wonder if you may have seen her. Her name is Basina, and she rides a grey charger. She wears gear like mine—”

The man with the axe interrupted. “I have never seen a woman so attired, nor any who looks like you. Had any such appeared, I assure you I would have heard.”

Fara nodded. “One more question, then, before we go. Have you seen the dragon we’ve heard is in these parts?”

To Malik’s surprise, all three men nodded. Looking somewhat mollified that these strangers would not pollute Eihinheim, the tall man said, “Aye, the dragon. It came through a fortnight ago, tore a great gash in the land just east of the town and frightened all the children.” He gestured. “Hurt no one, though.”

The man spoke as if describing a thunderstorm or a wolf. Confused, Malik asked, “Wasn’t it strange to see a dragon?”

The man shrugged. “There are many strange things in the world, and it hurt nothing but a field of cabbages.”

“Can you describe it?”

One of the shorter men spoke up. “I saw it myself. It was two rods long and half-a-rod high, the color of pine needles. There were wings on its back, but I didn’t see it fly. Stank like a sulfur pit, I could smell it at a furlong.”

“How fast did it move?” asked Fara.

“About the speed of a horse at a trot,” said the smaller man. “Looked like it could go faster if it wanted to, though.”

“Claws? Teeth?”

He thought about it. “It didn’t open its mouth, so I didn’t see teeth. It did have claws: looked like each one was the size of one of my fingers. Maybe five, six, could be seven on each foot. They dug up the turf some.”

Malik persisted. “Two rods long and ten feet high? Have you ever seen another beast so big?”

The man shrugged. “Not as I can remember.”

“Have any of your neighbors?”

“No. Saw what I saw, though.”

Malik grimaced. “It didn’t breathe fire, did it?”

The man looked angry. “What are you getting at?”

“Nothing, I just asked.”

“Are you calling me a liar, you unnatural thing?” The man stepped forward with his scythe.

The tall man put a hand on his companion’s shoulder and turned to Fara. “You’ve been here long enough. Go back as you came.”

“We’d like to follow the dragon,” said Fara. “Which way did it go?”

“North,” said the man with the scythe, glaring at Malik. “It followed the river.”

“We’ll go around the town,” said Fara calmly.

After Eihinheim was out of sight behind them and they were in the woods again, Fara said, “There are your eyewitnesses, scholar. But that was the strangest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“I agree. It’s not believable that a creature that size could be living in the region and not have been spotted before.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Fara. “These people have never seen a woman wielding a sword, and apparently they’ve never seen a Moor of any description. They called us witch and demon, just like—”

“I noticed.”

“If they were isolated from the rest of the world, maybe I could understand it. But this is the road from Mulhouse to Bischoffshein; Strazburg’s not far off! The area’s a crossroad for all sorts of people, has been for hundreds of years.”

Malik rubbed his nose. “They’ve seen what they couldn’t have seen, and they haven’t seen what they must have seen,” he said. “It’s some sort of puzzle.”

Fara turned to him. “Malik, you needn’t accompany me in my search for this dragon.”

He shrugged. “I might be useful to you.”

“You said yourself that you’re not a fighting man.”

“You saved my life on the road.”

“That’s no reason for you to give it up.”

He pondered. “I want to untangle this mystery. I want to understand how so many impossible things can be true. It may be that I’ll recognize or remember something that will aid you. In any case, I promise that I won’t hamper you, and I certainly won’t get between you and a dragon.”

“See that you don’t,” she said.

• • • •

At Bischoffshein the reaction was the same as in Eihinheim: bewilderment and hostility when the townspeople saw Malik and Fara, with no admission that anyone like them had ever been seen anywhere near the town before, and no recognition of Basina’s name or description. And as before, there were a few among these folk who remembered seeing a dragon with great clarity and precision, although they remembered seeing no one near it.

“This can’t be right,” said Fara as they trudged on. “I know the names of some of those people. My sister Clothild was in Bischoffshein five years ago; she met them! She described it in detail.”

Malik said nothing. As they followed the road north, they found a rough line of four gashes in the turf, places where the ground had been scored as if by three ploughs together—or one giant foot with claws. It looked like what they’d seen in Eihinheim.

Fara pointed. “The trail crosses the road and goes northeast into the woods.”

“Fara,” said Malik. “Just the two of us—or mostly just you—against a beast like this? I admire your courage, but what’s the point of just letting it kill us?”

“I have sworn vengeance against it for Basina.”

“You don’t even know that she’s dead, and you won’t achieve vengeance by dying yourself. You could bring reinforcements.”

“Not in time. I think we can reach the dragon if we follow it now. But to bring together a party of warriors, first I have to find them. And as you’ve noticed, we haven’t run across people who are even willing to talk to me, much less join me in a quest against this monster. We’d need to go to Strazburg, or perhaps even further, to gather a squad. By that time, who knows where the dragon would be?” Malik chewed his lip. She continued, “I told you that you needn’t come.”

But when she turned her horse off the road and toward the woods, Malik followed behind.

For another day they kept to the trail. Malik went over in his mind all the things he had seen and heard, and tried to piece them together. Nothing in the stories he had read about dragons explained the weird phenomena they were seeing, but then again, he didn’t trust those stories. There were some that said that dragons could fascinate their prey before killing it, like cats or snakes. It hadn’t killed anyone in either Eihinheim or Bischoffshein, but what if . . .

“I think we’re getting close,” Fara said. They’d come to a grove where the markings on the ground were very fresh, and where they could actually smell the openings on the trees and the earth.

“Stop for a moment,” Malik said.

“What is it?”

“I’ve had an idea. There is something strange going on with memory, or maybe with the senses. Whatever it is, it’s connected to the dragon, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we found ourselves—well, enchanted, for want of a better word.”

Fara bit her lip. “I can’t fight enchantment with a sword.”

“I’m not sure how you’re going to fight a forty-foot lizard with a sword either,” said Malik. “But I think we can take a precaution against the other problem. Can you write?”

“A little Latin, not much. I read more than I write. But if writing will help, why don’t you write it? You’re the scholar.”

“For what I have in mind, I think it needs to be in your own hand.” He got out his pack for his parchments and writing tools. “I’ll help you with the spelling, if need be.”

• • • •

They found the dragon three hours later. They smelled it before they saw it, the sulfuric odor they’d been told to expect. Fara mounted her horse and took out her sword and shield, guiding her steed with her legs. She held the scrap of parchment in the fist of her shield arm. Malik, with the gear the horse had been carrying, dropped back a few paces. As they came around a stand of trees, they saw it.

Its dark green hide was perfect camouflage in the forest; it might have been a pair of fallen trees. At the moment it was turned mostly away from them, scratching the bark off a birch tree with one of its forelimbs.

The man with the scythe in Eihinheim hadn’t exaggerated. The creature was every bit of two rods long. Its hide was like worked leather, with patterns that might have been runes or letters rather than the separation between scales. Malik almost thought he recognized Latin letters, but when he stared at them, they changed into something else. Its head was strangely pale and rounder than Malik had expected; in the right light, it might even be the enormous head of a man, although again, when he stared at it more carefully, it more closely resembled a lizard’s head, or perhaps a horse’s. Fara’s own horse whinnied, and the monster turned towards them.

The man with the scythe hadn’t described the dragon’s eyes. They were huge and burned with a silver flame that was nearly impossible to break away from. Malik took several deep breaths, cursing himself. Wasn’t this what he knew, what everyone knew about dragons? That they could freeze you until they devoured you? Why was he such a fool as to court a danger any farm boy would have known to avoid?

When he finally tore his eyes from the dragon’s, Malik saw the woman on the horse ahead of him. A Frankish woman, huge and pale, and she wore armor! What sort of an unnatural abomination was this? Did not the Prophet, peace be on him, speak of the proper dress for women? And she wore a sword, as well! Never in his life had he seen something so awful.

 

The woman is Fara of Hallstatt, your protector and companion. She and many women like her wield the sword. If you have forgotten this, it is the dragon’s doing. I am Malik ibn Ali of Cordoba, whose favorite flower is the orange blossom.

 

The signature was his, unquestionably. It included the orange blossom glyph he put at the end of all documents.

He stared at it, stumbling backwards away from the woman and the dragon. Fara of Hallstatt? The name called something like the echo of an echo of a memory.

The dragon roared, an enormous but melodic sound, like the bells of all the Frankish churches at the same time. Malik almost looked up into its eyes again, but forced his gaze down to the paper. Fara of Hallstatt, my protector. A vision of three footpads, a knife at his throat, two bodies on the ground—.

It came back to him in a rush; he remembered Fara, their meeting, their conversations. As that happened, the dragon seemed to wince as if jabbed by a painful weapon.

Fara was visibly gathering herself, preparing to charge at the enormous beast. Malik shouted: “Fara! Wait!”

She startled, as if she had forgotten he was there. When she saw him, her eyes widened under her helmet. She cried, “A demon! Are you in league with this hideous creature? I shall finish you both!” She raised the sword but didn’t turn the horse, as if undecided which enemy to attack first.

“Wait, Fara, wait please! I am Malik! We have travelled together!”

“I have never traveled with a creature like you.”

“Your hand, Fara! Is there a parchment in your hand?”

“Do not try to trick me, demon. It will make your death worse.”

“Please look!”

She glanced down at her left hand and found the parchment, then opened it and began to read. Her brow furrowed and she shook her head as if to clear it. “Malik,” she said.

Malik seized the opportunity. “You see, Fara? You wrote it yourself, your own hand proclaims it! Remember me!”

She stared. Slowly she said, “I remember. I remember you.” The dragon, rather than charging when Fara’s back was turned, sank down on its haunches and flicked its spiked tail irritably, hissing.

Malik asked, “Do you remember your warrior sisters? Do you remember Basina?”

Fara nodded again. The dragon’s hide seemed to take on a greyish tint, as if a cloud had passed between it and the sun. It lowered its head and began to twitch and growl, a pained tone overlying its voice.

Malik said, “Keep your eyes on me! Am I the first African you have seen?” Fara squinted her eyes in confusion. He continued. “Do you remember other Moors you have met, the merchants and travelers, scholars and soldiers, men of God and godless men?”

That took longer. Eventually she nodded again, her face a mask of confusion. The dragon’s twitching took on the intensity of a seizure. Red, glowing foam came out of its mouth as it lay on its side and kicked its legs, howling in agony.

“And you have seen,” Malik shouted over the dragon’s roars. “You have seen these men and women all of your life?”

“Yes!” she shouted back.

There was a flash and a blast like a thunderbolt. Fara was knocked clean off her horse, which stumbled and almost fell. Malik was blown backwards and hit his head on the earth.

Fara picked herself up first, coughing. Then she pulled Malik to his feet. It seemed that they were uninjured except for a few bruises, but their ears rang and they saw spots before their eyes for the rest of the day. The horse needed considerable calming, and for several minutes would not let either of them touch it, as if they were strangers.

The dragon was gone, and so were most of the signs that it had ever been there. There were no scrape marks on the nearby trees, nor gouges in the turf. When they went back over their trail, they could not find the dragon’s.

But when they returned to Bischoffshein, things were mostly unchanged. People remembered seeing the dragon, and they still treated Fara and Malik as if they were inexplicable oddities. Yet they were no longer so hostile; and let tired pair stay the night in the town. The next day, they decided to head for Strazburg.

“I have a theory,” said Malik during their easy walk up the road.

“Another theory.” Fara rolled her eyes. “Continue to think, Malik of Cordoba. You excel at it.”

Malik smiled. “Have you heard of the Paradox of the Stone?” Fara shook her head. “It is a metaphysical puzzle: Can an omnipotent being make a stone so heavy that even He could not lift it? Some simple-minded folk treat it as a refutation of omnipotence, but in fact it is a demonstration of exclusive definitions. If omnipotence does not include changing logical relationships, then God could not make such a stone, because then God would be willing Himself not to be God, which is tautologically ridiculous. But if omnipotence includes the ability to change the definitions of words, then God could easily create a stone too heavy for Him to lift—and then lift it.”

“Mm,” said Fara. “I see, I think. So what?”

“Well, the Paradox of the Stone demonstrates that, under certain conditions, two things cannot both exist within the same logical system. If there is such a thing as omnipotence, then there is no such thing as an impossible feat. The existence of one cancels out the other.”

“Yes?”

“When the dragon was in front of us, I could not remember that any person like you or any of your sisters existed, and you could remember no such person as me. When the dragon visited a village, the villagers forgot any Moors or women of the sword they had ever seen. But when you and I persevered in our efforts to remember each other and ourselves, the dragon vanished.”

“And if we hadn’t—”

“I see two possibilities: either we wouldn’t exist at all, exploding like the dragon or fading into nothingness, or else we’d forget ourselves as we forgot each other, becoming even in our own minds the oddities and abominations we were accused of being.” He gave a dry laugh. “I wonder how it feels to believe oneself a demon.”

She thought about it. “But if you’re right, then why do we remember the dragon at all? If we remember each other, we shouldn’t be able to remember it.”

Malik frowned. “Do we remember it? What color were its eyes? What sound did it make?”

Fara opened her mouth, then closed it again. “My god.” She looked down. “So then, what has become of Basina? If she met the dragon . . .”

Malik reached up and put his hand briefly on Fara’s shoulder. “If it was the same dragon, then I fear, Fara my friend and comrade, that your sister was unmade.”

I remember her. You remember me telling you about her.”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe she still lives! Maybe she didn’t meet the dragon at all.”

“Perhaps not.”

• • • •

They continued on to Strazburg, a huge city gathering souls from many leagues in all directions. For the first two days, to their relief, no one treated Malik or Fara with anything but the respect and courtesy to which they had been accustomed before this adventure began. To have some warmth and decent food was a comfort, and Malik inquired about the private libraries of some local scholars as Fara began again to ask after Basina.

In an inn on the third day, they ran across a portly, red-haired seller of cloth who had heard of a dragon killed near Bischoffshien. They asked him the details. The date and location made it clear that it was the pine-green dragon they’d destroyed themselves, but in this man’s telling it was killed by a knight’s spear piercing its eye.

“And the knight?” asked Fara.

“A very brave man, from what I’ve heard,” said the man. “And his pale young squire never left his side.”

Fara and Malik looked into each other’s eyes. They knew what they knew; they remembered what they remembered. Or at least they thought they did.

“What’s more,” the cloth seller said. “I’ve heard there are more dragons further to the north. In Merkingen, in Mainz, in Erphesfurt.”

Over the next few days, they questioned travelers from the north and elsewhere to gather more rumors of these dragons. At least five sightings were reported, though none of their informants had seen one themselves. All these dragons sounded similar to the one they’d killed—as well as they could remember it now.

But although Fara and Malik did not encounter a single person who had seen one of the beasts first-hand, there were three who looked on them with horror and suspicion and would not venture more than a few words. Malik heard one of them mutter the word “witch.”

As they sat alone at a table with cups of the aromatic white wine for which the region was famous, he told Fara, “The dragons don’t need to see people to destroy their memory of us. Apparently it’s enough that they exist at all. If we’re not to forget our own names or wink out of existence, we’re going to have to hunt them all down.”

“Even if we didn’t,” said Fara. “There’s a chance that Basina is still alive, chasing one of them. If we get to her before she gets to the dragon, we can save her.”

“I hope we can.”

So began their long quest to find and destroy the dragons of Europe, to save Fara’s sisters of the sword and Malik’s friends and family from the oblivion these creatures wrought. They never did find Basina, but Fara and Malik had many adventures and touched many lives; always there was another dragon to fight, and always they fought it with their belief in each other.

No tales are told of them nowadays, and this one is probably a lie.

Kenneth Schneyer

Kenneth Schneyer by Alexander Jablokov

Kenneth Schneyer is a writer, professor, lawyer, actor, project manager, bicyclist, amateur astronomer, feminist, and Jew. He was nominated for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon awards in 2014; that same year, Stillpoint Digital Press released his first collection, The Law & the Heart. His 30+ published short stories appear in such venues as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, and Podcastle. He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 2009, and now works with both the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop and Codex Writers. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something with fangs. He plays a fair game of stud poker, excels at presidential trivia, reads Tarot, actually understands the stock market, and cooks better than you do. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at ken-schneyer.livejournal.com.