art by Melissa Mead
by Alyc Helms
When the Bargain was first made--so the stories went--the leaves on the trees had just turned. The world was dressed in rubies and gold, and autumn rains darkened wood to ebony. But each Bargain lasted a year and a day. As the seasons cycled, the day of sacrifice crept through the winter. This year, a spring ice storm sheathed the sprouting branches and new leaf buds in a silver thaw. From everywhere, crystalline brilliants flashed and winked.
The Sacrifice stood on the approach to the Keep, though neither of them deserved their titles. Enid was just a scared girl, and the keep was less like a dwelling built by men and more like the cocoon of some great larval insect. Brittle, colorless stone dribbled down from an amber-glass dome to grip at the hilltop like the fingers of a keloid scar. The entry causeway stretched before her like the gullet of the great beast she was slated for.
Her floral regalia dripped cold tears down her cheeks, the branch she carried was slick and leaden. It creaked with every step
"You will not falter," she said when her feet refused to carry her further. She was a stranger to courage; when in her life had she ever needed it? "Somehow, you will win free of this. Step forward, Enid. Step lively."
The ascending tunnel was long and twisted. Orbs of green witch light appeared along the walls, herding her toward her demise. The rough floor became polished marble. A sprinkling of water trailed in her wake, and the muddied hem of her gown left a smear on the mirrored stone. She came to a massive door, its smooth surface made of reflective stone. She pushed it open, her shoes slipping on the marble floor.
The room beyond was a wonder. Walls of colorless stone curved up to the high, amber dome. Sunlight, warmed to honey-gold by the glass, dripped heavily into the room, glancing off the motes of dust that had been set to dancing when she opened the door. A low hum cycled in a slow rhythm, rising and falling. It was not loud, but it made her feel uncomfortable in her bones. At its apex, it made her teeth tingle.
In the center of the room was a misshapen mass of amber, half as tall as a man. The floor was covered in richly dyed and woven carpets of every shade and hue. There were sofas and divans in plush velvets, bookcases lined with leather and gilt spines. A sideboard boasted silver-covered dishes, and a table nearby was set for two.
She stilled at that sight. Dread chased away awe as she recalled her purpose. Numbly, she set her dripping regalia onto a small table. She dried her hands in her skirts and smoothed the front of her plain gown.
"Hello?" she called into the emptiness of the chamber. Her voice echoed in the arched recesses of the room.
She cleared her throat and called again, "Hello, Dragon?" There was no answer. What was the etiquette of introducing oneself to one's devourer? A nervous bubble of laughter escaped her throat at the thought; the room laughed back at her.
She ventured inside, her steps leading her past the chairs and bookcases, toward the honey-gold orb. Its glow came from within, light glancing off pockets of air trapped long ago. The lacunae shifted ever so slowly, as though the stone had not fully hardened. She reached forward to test the surface when a voice stilled her hand.
"You are not so pretty as the other ones."
She pulled her hand back. Her eyes flew up to meet those of a strange man. He was tall and stern and hard. Dark hair, colorless in the same way of the doors and walls, framed his face. His eyes shone like the amber between them. She stumbled back a pace at the disdain in them.
"Who are you?" She could hardly speak for breathlessness. There was something about his hardness that made her respond with yielding.
He paused a beat. Then: "Who do you think I am?"
The only possibility seemed ridiculous to her, but she uttered it anyway. "The Dragon."
His lips twisted, "And so I must be. And you are...?"
"I am..." she paused, unsure what to answer. The strangeness of her situation was beyond her. Nothing had prepared her for this. She fumbled for the familiar.
"I am the sacrifice sent to appease your hunger." She gestured toward her abandoned regalia. "So that you will not terrorize our land, according to our ancient Bargain."
Something flickered in his eyes. Their golden glow dimmed and grew as hard as the rest of him. "And so you are." He moved to the table and gestured for her to do the same. "Sit. Eat. We will discuss how things will be, according to the Bargain."