A boy traveling alone was beset by bandits on the outskirts of a strange town at sunset. They left him stripped and bloody in a ditch by the side of the road in the deepening dusk, as a bright full moon appeared over the trees. The boy watched it moving across the sky, his pain and shame a kind of trance. For a long time nothing happened.
When he heard footsteps on the road, he was afraid, but something was broken inside him and he dared not disturb it by moving. Still he looked up at the moon, filling himself with its light. He felt a distance growing between himself and his body.
The traveler’s steps paused.
Are you dead, boy? I think not, for I can see your breath; yet you are no longer precisely alive.
With a crackle of dry weeds and a pop of old joints, the traveler settled near the boy. So I will tell you a story, the traveler said. It is the only help I can offer.
The boy said nothing. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the rough cloth of the traveler’s cloak and the end of his stick where it prodded the ground. He reminded himself to breathe even though it hurt. Was the moon still moving?
When I was very young, and dying, you see, someone stopped to tell me a story. To ease my passage. Since then, I have done the same. Sometimes it seems to me that it is all I have ever done. You will protest that I am not dead, or that you are not dying. That’s as may be—yet many changes overtake us in the spaces between our breaths. In extremity truth is revealed. Now I will tell you that story.
Young dragons, like the young of all other hunting animals, challenge themselves. Thoughtless and heedless, they rage against prey, enemies, rivals—the world itself is a proving ground. To a dragon the mountain is an enemy. Do you know why? Because the mountain will not move when the dragon commands, and it will not die of the dragon’s fangs or fires. There is a book about dragons. What that book does not tell is the dragon’s relentless hatred for everything in this world that will not yield.
The boy knew some people like that. A man like that was the reason he was traveling alone.
You may think you know some people like that, the old traveler said. But never make the mistake of thinking we are like dragons. Now. This young dragon. He was not fresh from the egg, nor yet fully scaled. His fires were lit, but they would not burn with a grown dragon’s heat—which, as I have said, is born of hate. This young dragon left his mother’s nest and came to a mountain, on the far side of the desert near the Riven Lands. The sides of the mountain were pocked with caves, and those caves breathed out the scent of what lived within.
Because you are a stripling lying in a ditch, I am sure you know nothing of the creatures that live inside mountains. Once they were human. Over centuries they have become . . . something else, monstrous and greedy, caring only for the veins of ore and the gemstone seams that thread the deep heart-rock of the mountain. The young dragon smelled them, and hated them for not having already submitted to him, and also he hungered, for one way that people and dragons are alike is that their half-grown boys are stupid and always hungry.
The dragon worked his way through the twisting passage and found the upper galleries of a mine. He ate the miners and remained. He ate the other creatures coming up from the lower galleries. They organized and fought, but even a half-grown dragon was too much for them. He suffered wounds, but in the end he fed on them all. When they would no longer come up, the dragon forced his way into the lower galleries and ate them there. Then he clambered back up to the highest gallery. Years had passed. Nothing now lived in the mines except the dragon, and he made to leave—but he had grown, and now he could not pass back the way he had come.
He raged against the walls of the gallery, and they began to collapse. Outside, the mountain shook. Avalanches and rockslides scarred its flanks.
For years there was silent darkness. Possibly decades. Then, a wanderer entered the chamber. Traditionally a boy but I tell you it was a girl. Fifteen or sixteen, with strong legs and capable hands. Eyes that missed nothing and a mind uneducated but quick. Old enough to have seen things she shouldn’t, young enough not to know how long a shadow a child’s suffering may cast.
She had with her a torch. Before the flame guttered and went out she saw the outlines of the once-grand mine . . . and she thought she saw something else. Then the darkness surrounded her. The sound of her breath, of her heartbeat, seemed to echo through the vast gallery. She feared to move, but feared to remain still, because every shift in the air felt like the first sign of Death reaching out to lay a bony finger on the skin of her cheek.
Then, another sound. All around her, as if born of its own echoes, she heard a voice like a hot desert wind.
Free me and live.
Imagine fangs looming out of the darkness, each one as long as your arm, backlit by the fires banked deep in the dragon’s belly as his mouth opened a little wider and his tongue flicked out to sample the girl’s scent.
Free me and live, the dragon said again.
No, she said. If you kill me you will stay here forever. Even a dragon must eventually starve.
The dragon grumbled, a sound like the mountain shifting its weight. Then it bent its head down toward her. Show me your hands, it said.
Can you write?
Which hand do you use?
She raised her left.
The dragon bit it off.
Help me, it said when it had swallowed, and I will give you back your hand. But move quickly.
No, she said. You’ll have to do better than that.
The dragon loomed closer. A flick of my tongue and you die, he said.
Do it, then, she said. I am helpless and you will cheat me in the end no matter what you say now.
The dragon chuckled. You speak as if you know dragons.
All I know are stories. How will you give me my hand back? In the light of the dragon’s banked fire, she saw that her arm was scarred but not bleeding. How did you do that?
The dragon no longer had any interest in speaking. Go. Find a way to free me or live without your writing hand.
The girl found her way out of the cave, climbing by the light of the dragon’s fire and then the countless tiny glowing worms that lined the cave’s ceiling nearer the entrance. She went to the town nearest the mountain, a day’s walk along the river. Or in some tellings, she went to another town because she was fleeing the nearest town to avoid a marriage. In the town she spoke to the elders and told them there was a dragon trapped inside the mountain. The elders were greedy and said they would wait until the dragon died and them make use of its scales and fangs, which could be made into powerful weapons and armor.
What about my hand? the girl asked.
Go and ask the dragon to give it back, the elders said. Stupid girl. They put her out of their minds and set to dreaming of their riches. Every year when the passes cleared, they sent a man up to the mountain, to pass through the cave and learn whether the dragon had starved. The problem was that when the dragon ate those men, it could live a little longer. After a few years of this, the town decided that sending a man once every ten years was enough.
The next spring, the girl—now a young woman—went down again to the dragon to tell it of the elders’ new plan, and to tell it she was sorry she could not help. The dragon asked her to tell him about the sky, for he had been underground so long he had forgotten what it looked like.
She did, and when she was done the dragon said, Soon I will die. Only a few years. When that happens, you must come here before the townsfolk have gathered their courage. You will have your hand.
The woman did not ask how. Her scars gave her magic, and she survived in the village knitting small enchantments for the jealous and fearful. Some of the villagers would have driven her out, but she was useful, and an air of the dragon hung about her, making them reluctant to challenge her. Who knew what she might be capable of?
Every spring when the river grew swollen with snowmelt, the woman traveled up the flank of the mountain to the cave entrance. She traveled down the cave passage until she could hear the dragon’s breathing.
The seventh time the woman did this, she stopped as always at the final bend in the cave passage before the vast gallery. She waited an hour, but no breath disturbed the silence of the ruined gallery just beyond that final bend. When she entered the gallery, there were only bones, and the woman wept out of pity for the creature trapped and knowing no help would come.
Then she saw the eggshells.
The old women of the village, spinning stories as they spun wool, had told her that male dragons could make themselves female, and lay a clutch of eggs. She had never believed it, even though the same was said of frogs and eels. But here was the truth, before her eyes. Still a brutal lonely death, but perhaps in her final moments the dragon had heard the crackle of hatching eggs, the soft scrape of the hatchlings finding their way through invisible passages to sunlight and open air. These pitiable consolations, sometimes they must suffice.
Among the bones something gleamed. The woman went to it and found her hand, covered in a thick, waxy slime. She fitted it to the stump of her left arm and the slime knit it there as if it had never been severed. Its mother-of-pearl color blended into the tone of her own flesh in swirls she found beautiful. The fingers and thumb moved just as they always had. The dragon had not lied to her. And she had left the woman a gift, for her hand was imbued with some of the dragon’s magic. She went forth from the cave and lived her life.
It was not altogether a happy life. She was driven from many places, for the pearly sheen of her hand and for her magic which was different from other magic because it was born of a dragon’s body and not hers. Over time the dragon’s magic began to change her, and she realized that her hand drew power from the dying, just as the dragon’s own dying had made it.
So you see, the traveler said to the boy, I am not just here to ease your passage.
The boy did not answer.
There is another telling in which she frees the dragon, the old man said. What do you think the dragon might have done then?
Still the boy made no sound.
We are all the dragon, said the old man. Or we are all the mountain, holding in the fires that rage within us.
Something about the boy’s insistent skyward gaze drew the old traveler’s gaze in the same direction. Away from the full moon, now drifting down toward its rest, stars dappled the sky, bright as the tiny glowing worms on the ceiling of the cave that led to the dragon’s bones. Maybe I am the dragon, the old man said, because this is a parable, but a parable of what neither you nor I know. I thought of this years ago, but long after I first heard this story from the woman herself as she was dying. She wanted me to hear it, as if by hearing I guided her along the path to her next life, and from her dying I was born. She was pleased to die, and I to be born, and I am grateful to the dragon for its power that transformed us. I carry on her work, shepherding the dying in their last moments, telling a tale in exchange for a small taste of the magic of their final breath.
The moment had come, as it always did, when the old traveler could not tell whether the hour was too soon or too late. He reached out toward the boy, with a hand pearlescent and smooth, gathering the moonlight and glimmering faintly in the dark. Listening, listening for a telltale breath.