art by Junior McLean
The Beauty Garden
by Damon Shaw
Damon Shaw trained as an actor, his work winning both the Evening Standard and Time Out awards. He slipped into theater design, directing and puppet making and was enjoying carving out a career as a designer when he abruptly fell in love with a Spaniard and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Isles. Since then he has occasionally worked as a puppeteer and theater designer, but his attention has been focused on carpentry, cats, dogs, and running a market stall. There, he sells his more profitable wooden designs to the endless stream of passing tourists. He has invented a lunar tide clock, been commissioned to make a set of six-foot-tall wooden machines in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci, and most recently began to write short speculative fiction.
He has been published in Flash Fiction Online and has stories forthcoming in the Anywhere But Earth anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing and in the Myths and Magic anthology from Dreamspinner Press.
He has been published in Flash Fiction Online and has stories forthcoming in the Anywhere But Earth anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing and in the Myths and Magic anthology from Dreamspinner Press.
The invaders kicked down the gate in the village stockade. Eurwen heard the crowd behind her moan in fear, but did not allow herself to flinch as the flimsy barrier crashed to the ground. She raised her hand, as much to still her own heart as to calm her people.
The soldiers marched into the village in perfect step. They moved like wolves, their weight centered and low. As they neared, Eurwen fought to control her rising dread. The rumors of the dragon's army were true. Each man was inhumanly handsome.
Fifty soldiers, with high cheekbones, eyes of blue or green, lips full and chins determined, came to a synchronized halt in the open space before the gate. Their polished breastplates gleamed. The blood of Eurwen's people left no stain at all.
A soldier stepped forward. Ribbons of rank adorned his chest. "Which is the Dragon's trophy?"
Eurwen met his eyes, but found only coldness. "I am."
The soldier raised an eyebrow and Eurwen felt color rush to her cheeks. Clearly he had been expecting someone younger. Anger swelled under the embarrassment. She glared until the ghost of a smile had faded from his lips and then she turned her back on him and faced her people.
Although the war was lost, she had planned to give a rallying speech, one of fortitude and endurance, but the faith in the villager's eyes left her voiceless. They stood with straight backs, those that could still stand tall. Eurwen saw the carefully placed gaps in the crowd and felt tears prickle behind her eyelids. There should have stood strong Dyffyd with a back like oak, there Huw, with the curly black hair and quicksilver grin, there Gerard, Dylan, and John. All the menfolk, gone. Marched out one sullen morning under a stone-colored sky, never to come back.
And there behind Gethin her son, the biggest gap of all, where might stand the strong-armed, deep-chested husband of a village elder. Although the village had meant to show respect, the space only served to leave Gethin even more alone in the absence of his father. And if her desperate plan succeeded, his mother would abandon him, too.
Eurwen could not see whether he stared back at her. The shadow of his scar darkened his entire face.
She allowed herself a slow nod in his direction and in the end spoke only one word.
"Goddefwch," she said. Endure. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldiers stiffen at the now forbidden Cymru tongue, but knew she alone could speak it freely. Only the dragon would judge her today. If he found her worthy, all the village would be spared. If he did not...
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But Eurwen refused to face the possibility that she could fail. She let the sight of her loyal villagers burn itself into her memory, and then she turned away. Refusing to hurry, she walked with dignity past the ranked invaders.
The white dress the womenfolk had woven flapped around her ankles, threatening to reveal her hidden dagger. While she longed for her old, comfortable robes, she knew the women had made well. Never had she worn such fine, light cloth. She had allowed them to pin her hair, too, and now she was grateful, as it pulled her face into icy lines and helped her outstare the enemy's perfection.
Almost at the gateway, a sharp cry made her pause. She heard quick footsteps, voices shouting in fear and command, and she turned to see a child, beautiful Olwy, black hair streaming out behind her, running over the beaten earth of the village square. Olwy's aunt, face ashen with terror, pushed forward but was beaten back by the dragon guard.
Soldiers lunged and raised their swords but the child ducked and swerved and avoided the blades as if charmed. She barreled into Eurwen's waist, almost knocking her down.
"Don't go," she sobbed. "Eurwen, don't go."
Eurwen glared a warning at the soldiers' raised weapons. The child was headstrong, especially since her parents had been killed, but she did not deserve to die for it. "I must, Olwy," she said gently. "Return to your family." She tried to prise the child's arms from her waist, but Olwy wept and clung and would not be calmed.
The nearest soldiers relaxed and sauntered towards her. Eurwen suddenly didn't want these men with clean fingernails and odorless shirts to touch the girl. She tugged Olwy two steps sideways, and began to walk back towards the villagers, relieved to see a familiar figure detach itself from the crowd.
Again the soldiers barred the way with drawn swords. Gethin did not flinch. Instead, the soldiers themselves moved aside as he limped past. They refused to look at his face.
So the result of your own violence disgusts you, Eurwen thought, and she savored the bitter taste. He is worth ten thousand of you.
Gethin stopped before her. She smiled but felt the corners of her mouth tugged down by sadness. "Gethin," she said. "My brave one."
He did not speak. Fluid leaked from the dark space of his right eye. It wept constantly from the scar that scored his face from mouth to temple. He had got off lightly. The Imperial soldiers killed with no respect for youth. Gethin they had spared to bring the Dragon's demands to the village. A month had passed since he had seen his father butchered. Eurwen's heart broke at the shell her son had built around his pain.
"Can I walk with you, mother?" His one blue eye shone, clear in his dark face.
Eurwen shook her head, unsure of her voice. "Take care of Olwy," she managed. "She needs you now."
"We need you," he said and his voice rose wavering into the silence of the village square. "Send someone else. Send Ol--"
Eurwen cut him off before the girl could hear. "Could you forgive yourself if you sent someone in your stead?" She knew her voice was cold, but this was not fitting of Gethin. He needed to be strong.
"You didn't let us choose," he cried. "We wouldn't have chosen you!"
Eurwen took a deep breath. Beyond the poised soldiers, the villagers shuffled and murmured and shook their heads. Whether they agreed or not, Eurwen did not know.
She lifted her voice and heard it ring back from the slate roofed houses and the surrounding stockade. "It falls to me to decide, and after three nights of prayer I have chosen. I am worthy of the Dragon, and I give myself so you all may live. Goddefwch," she said, but her voice had fallen again, so low that only Gethin and Olwy could have heard. "Endure, my son," she whispered, "and one day you will be free again."
Gethin bit his lip. His one-eyed stare never left her face. "Come, Olwy," he said at last. "Your aunt is waiting."
Olwy loosened her grip around Eurwen's waist and took Gethin's hand. The pair turned and walked back past the Dragon Guard. Eurwen's tears blurred the two figures into one. The crowd swallowed them and they were gone.
She raised her hand for the last time, turned, and without looking back, walked through the gateway into the forest beyond. A faint jingle of armor told her at least two soldiers escorted her.
As soon as she was out of sight of the village, she stopped and rested her forehead against the smooth bark of an ash tree. She ignored the men as they shuffled to a halt behind her. She did not fight her tears, nor feed them. She let them fall unimpeded, and when her chest had stopped heaving and her knees would take her weight once more, she pushed away from the solidity of the tree trunk and continued along the path through birdsong and butterflies, through the ever-thinning trees, and out into the knee-high grass of Brynna's Spur.
The wind threatened to unpin her hair. Sunlit space opened around her, and she turned to see the backs of the guards disappearing into the forest. She was alone.
Ahead, the horizon was cut short by a gnarl of black rock. She saw burnt grass, and smelled a hot metal stench, mixed with long rotted eggs. Taking a slow, deep breath, she adjusted her hair, straightened the white dress, then padded around the rock to where the ground fell away in a tumble of heather and scree.
Three wavering columns of smoke amongst the patchwork of fields below showed the dragon had already judged the villages of Dyffryn, Felindre, and Llionreach. Anger tightened her stomach at the sight of these once proud hamlets now smoking heaps of slates, but she pushed the emotion down. Their time was past. Now Eurwen's own village depended on her discipline. She must stay calm. Anger was ugly. Right now, she needed to be more beautiful than she had ever been in her life.
She turned--and her calm fractured into a hundred shards. The dragon waited for her there, stretched out along the crest of the hill, lithe and sensual as a cat in sunshine.
Magic steamed off its diamond and silver scales. Its presence shook reality, made the ground unstable beneath Eurwen's feet. Her instinct was to run, but she had never fled from anything in her life.
She opened her eyes wide. Her heart pounded, but she rose above her terror to a younger self, a girl for whom fear was still excitement, even joy. She found the innocence and the half-smile. She straightened her back. The breath licked down cool inside her, all the way down to her heels. When she was as beautiful as she had ever been, so concentrated that she felt moonlight shine from under her lashes, she stepped the last few feet, to where the dragon's head lay, itself as long as a pony, metallic scales gleaming and ticking in the heat.
One eye opened.
Eurwen stumbled, seeming about to fall past the yellow iris and into the dark, slitted depth of the pupil itself. She dipped her head, but stood firm, smile in place, her hands clasped before her.
Seven breaths passed before the dragon stretched out a foreleg and t-t-t-tapped the ground with mirrored claws. It yawned and a ribbon of tongue flickered and tasted the air between arched ranks of needle teeth. The smell of rot strengthened although the wind was fresh, there on the spur.
"I hope you are the chaperone," said the Dragon, in a voice that burred deep in Eurwen's chest. It grinned, an animal stretch of teeth, but didn't raise its head to look full on.
"No," she said, raising her chin and stepping closer. "I'm the gift." She grinned back, trying to spice her own expression with the same vicious cheer. "I'm the best we have."
"Then you'd best skip home and hide with the rest of your unfortunate kin," said the dragon. "I'll give you a head start." It levered its body off the shale, clawed elbows reaching high above its knobbed spine. Stones popped and shattered under its weight and it groaned a long, hot huff of breath as it stretched. "And I was enjoying the sunshine."
"There is no hurry," said Eurwen, fear slicing through her fragile calm. If she could not get the dragon to even look at her, to see her, then she had failed before she had begun. "The villagers will still be there tomorrow." She laughed and it almost sounded natural. "They told me singing often works. I learned some songs."
The dragon snorted and a puff of oily smoke rolled out over the slope. "I'm sure. At least you can talk above the stink of your fear. Most gifts simper or scream."
"You haven't heard me sing," said Eurwen and a thrill of hope twisted inside her as the animal chuckled deep in its belly. Suddenly, she faced two steaming nostrils, a lot of teeth and beyond, a stare of such cutting clarity that her smile faltered and froze.
"Born of magic, I see true," said the dragon, and the humor slipped from its voice, like water under ice. "Once you shone. You welcomed the blessings life gave you, because you deserved them. Why not? You opened your eyes, and let the moonlight out, oh yes, and you knew you could pick any man in your village and beyond."
Eurwen wouldn't feel shamed. "I did." She nodded. "And I knew they were blessings, and so I shone all the more." She turned a slow circle, feeling the weight in her hips and knowing it gave her dignity and grace. "I am a worthy trophy. Take me."
The dragon narrowed its eyes. "You are old. Your skin sags and sprouts hairs. The bags under your eyes are almost darker than your irises. How many children have you had? Six?"
"Just one. Healthy and decent, more than I--"
"Don't lie." The dragon's hot breath hissed around her and for a moment Eurwen struggled for air.
She lowered her head. "No," she said. "No more than I expected." An anger rose in her then, outweighing any fear. "I deserved my Gethin. I deserved my loving man, and the good crops and sound land and the faith of my people. Every village has its golden child, and they are often spoiled and shallow, but I knew, and I never abused the power I had. In that lies beauty, too."
"Hmmm," said the dragon. In a metallic rush, it encircled her, trapping her in a loop of its body. "One of your eyes is bigger than the other and your breasts droop. Your beauty has fled."
Neck high in shimmering, steel scales, Eurwen sighed to let the dragon know that listing her virtues was a base task, while inside her chest, her heart thundered at her audacity. "My beauty comes from the fact I know I'm loved and I know I deserve that love. My beauty comes from knowing I have a right to the air I breathe, and to the ground that supports me. I am beautiful. I am a treasure. Take me."
"I fear," said the dragon, lowering its head and blinking at her, "that I find you smug and self-satisfied. Beauty is more than the blind adoration of farmers and shepherds. Beauty is savage. Beauty is terrible."
Eurwen reached down and hitched up her dress. Against her calf, she wore a silver dagger in a leather sheath. "Beauty is bravery," she said. In one smooth motion, she rose and drove the point of the blade at the dragon's left eye.
Faster than a snake, it snapped its head back and slapped her to the ground with a heavy paw. Claws sank into the earth on either side of her head. Eurwen blinked but didn't move. Copper coils writhed and rearranged around her.
The dragon loomed close. "Heroes are indeed glorious..." Hot breath played with her hair. "But rash stupidity is not beauty."
She swallowed. "Beauty is hope," she gasped, as the dragon's paw pressed the air from her lungs, "against all odds."
"Ahh, the foolish irony of it," whispered the dragon. "Every sheep hopes to be saved the slaughter."
"But," said Eurwen with the last of her breath, "some die calm. Beauty is peace." Reaching past the pain, she smiled.
The paw ceased its descent but did not lift. "That might be a beautiful death, if you could keep it up until the end," said the dragon. "But the results would be messy and wet. And not fit for my garden."
Eurwen struggled to breathe. "Beauty is sacrifice," she gasped. "My life... for theirs."
"Sacrifice for a worthless cause is itself worthless." The dragon sank closer until its eye hung above her.
She felt a rib creak. "Not worthless..."
It tilted its head like a hawk. "If you are the best your village can produce, then I'm afraid I will have to disagree." It lifted its foot. Briefly blocking out the sun, it withdrew into a glittering heap of coiled muscle. "You are commonplace, Eurwen of the Valleys," it said, inspecting its claws in the sunlight. "Hear me now."
The dragon's voice lifted and rang off the stone. "The province of the Valleys, from Brynna's Spur to Longland Reach is not worthy of existence and shall be cleansed. You may leave. Remind my soldiers they may not begin without me."
Eurwen picked herself up and retrieved her dagger. Her knees shook, and a numb disbelief rang in her head, like a bell. She had thought so long and hard. Of course she had considered Olwy as the dragon's trophy, but the child was as stupid as she was beautiful, and Eurwen had believed real beauty had to lie deeper than mere innocence. Because of that arrogance, the villagers would die.
"I'll give you until my shadow touches that stone." The dragon yawned. "And then the game shall begin. Run. Shriek. Sharpen your sticks, whatever. Go on."
If she ran, she might just manage to die with the children. She tasted blood in her mouth, the iron tang of despair. Gethin would die, along with all the villagers, toyed with one by one until they stumbled into the dragon's waiting jaws, blind with shock.
"Please--" she began, but the dragon's low growl closed her mouth with a snap. She turned away, a weight on her shoulders, and a bitter laugh trapped between her teeth. The dragon wanted bards or dancers, knights or heroes. Eurwen was a dumpy village elder with dirty-blonde hair and crow's feet at the corner of her eyes, standing on ground no longer solid, and breathing air that it seemed she had never had any particular right to breathe.
She took seven steps around the rock, towards the woods before her feet slowed. "Dragon," she said, her voice thin in her ears. "Dragon," she said, "I am not the best."
The dragon did not reply. It extended long, dark lips and blew a smoke ring into the wind.
Eurwen faced it and ignored the tremble in her voice. "I do not mean to bore you," she said. "I offer another game. One which you can only win."
"Then there is no point in playing," said the dragon, sucking at the gaps between its teeth. It rolled its eyes to the sky and its tail twitched, but it listened.
"Olwy loves me." Something clenched in her chest at that, but she continued. "Her skin is a dark, furred peach. Her eyes are green jewels, her hair a black, flowing river. She will come to me if her love overcomes her fear of you. Imagine the beauty of it; the perfect child, approaching certain death for the sake of love."
"The decision is made," said the dragon. "You have scant time to hide. Run."
"Then play," said Eurwen, hearing the ugly desperation in her voice. "If Olwy does not come to me, then kill us all. But I believe she will rise above the merely..." She struggled for the right concept. "The merely ordinary. She will become myth. Take her. Let the rest live."
A grin began at the edge of the dragon's mouth. "And of course, kill you for presuming to command me," it said. "Slowly."
"My life ended the moment I decided I was worthy of you," said Eurwen. "One way or the other. Shall we walk?"
Rather than walking, the dragon flowed. It wound ahead and behind her, twisting amongst the trees, hardly dislodging a leaf.
Eurwen padded along the path, strangely calm. Shafts of afternoon sun lit the nettles in luminous green. Occasionally the dragon blazed through a sunbeam, sending rainbow glints bouncing off tree trunks all around. The birds were silent.
"What happens to the chosen?" asked Eurwen. "Those beautiful enough for you?"
The dragon flickered gold and white between the tree trunks. "They are frozen," it said, "in a representative pose, and mounted on pedestals to adorn my Beauty Garden. An inspirational monument."
"To what?" Eurwen asked.
The dragon pulled ahead into a clearing and flapped its wings in a sudden cloud of butterflies and fallen leaves. "To the pursuit of beauty," it said. "The undefinable, the untouchable, the eternal." It stretched its neck in the splash of sunlight. "And to myself, of course. Any collection inevitably reflects on the taste of the collector."
A red-tinted rage colored Eurwen's sight. "Dragon, in the name of beauty, you embody a monstrous ugliness." She expected a blow, but the dragon's tail twitched amongst the tree roots, and did not strike.
The woods passed all too quickly after that.
The village was as she had left it. The soldiers raised their swords as she ducked through the open gate in the stockade and Eurwen heard a collective sigh from the villagers. They thought she had failed. The soldiers spun and ran towards the crowd, the ground thundering under their tread. The village was to be slaughtered.
"No!" Eurwen threw herself forward. "Stop!"
A soldier turned to her, perfect teeth bared in an animal grin. He raised his sword.
"No--The dragon-" She tried to duck aside, but slipped and stumbled to one knee. Her palm sank into the mud. Above her, the soldier pulled back to strike.
Eurwen fell to one side and rolled. Mud soaked her back, and she swung up to her feet, ready to duck again when she realized all had stilled.
Coil after plated coil of dragon poured through the gap in the village wall with a sound like a million swords being sheathed as one.
"Hold, my handsome boys," purred the dragon. "Lower your arms."
The soldiers pulled away, leaving the villagers backed up against the nearest houses. Eurwen didn't think anyone had been hurt. She realized her dress was black with mud from hip to ankle.
The dragon coughed. "Captain?"
A soldier stood to attention. Eurwen recognized him as the man who had spoken earlier. "Majesty?"
The Captain swallowed and sheathed his sword. No one else moved as he took his place between the dragon's fore legs. This close, Eurwen saw the man's pale skin and the sweat above his top lip and realized the man was terrified.
The dragon smiled a slow smile. It raised one claw under the man's chin, and lifted his head until their eyes met. "Next time, wait for me, hmm?"
The soldier tried to reply. His eyes bulged, and his good looks dropped away from him. One single drop of blood fell from the captain's chin before the point of the dragon's claw emerged from his forehead like a horn. His body shook. His boots trembled scant inches from the ground. Eurwen could not look away as the dragon smoothly flicked the man into the air, past the tree tops, so far over the village wall that she did not hear him land.
The breeze tumbled an oak leaf past the tiny red stain in the dust. Eurwen tried to swallow, but a hard knot of fear blocked her throat.
"Now," said the dragon. It threw a loop of body high, swung around, rested its chin on its own scaly back and winked at Eurwen. "Dazzle me," it said.
Eurwen bent and brushed the mud from her palms on a tuft of grass, pulling cool air into her lungs, trying to still her heart. It suddenly seemed a ludicrous gamble, another example of her arrogance, trying to bend the world to her will. But if it worked, only two would be lost instead of the entire village. And Gethin would be saved, a voice whispered in the dark of her mind.
She cleared her throat. "Olwy," she called. "Come to me, child."
Somewhere a plank creaked, and a jackdaw shrilled outside the village walls. A movement in the crowd of villagers drew Eurwen's eye. Around Olwy and her aunt, a space grew, vast and shadowed.
"Let her come," Eurwen lifted her voice. "It is the will of the dragon."
After a long pause, Olwy's aunt let her hands fall from the child's shoulders, but Olwy did not move. The late afternoon sun lit her skin in tones of dusk and peach. Her eyes, chips of green ice, flicked from Eurwen to the dragon, and back.
Eurwen swallowed down her disgust at her own actions. "Olwy," she called. "Come to me." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dragon sink forward, rapt.
Olwy took one step forward, then stopped. The crowd tensed behind her. Eurwen nodded at Olwy, but didn't smile. She couldn't stoop so low.
But the girl would not take another step, though Eurwen dropped to one knee and held out her arms. "Olwy, come."
With a rustle of velvet and metal, the dragon unfurled its wings. Eurwen saw the shadows stretch out either side of her. The child's mouth fell open and she stumbled back.
And then, for Eurwen time seemed to slow, as she saw Gethin step into the space around the girl, reach for Olwy's hand and lead her out of the crowd and over the scuffed ground towards her.
She stood, started to cry out, but the dragon growled so low and close behind her neck that her voice fled before it escaped her lips.
She could only watch her son, the scar a livid streak across his face, as he led the perfect child into the shadow of the dragon's wings. His missing eye wept. Eurwen wanted to take the hem of her dress and wipe the fluid away. She wanted to hold his head and bury her nose in the smell of his hair, but he was so nearly a man already. Instead, she nodded, touched Olwy's brow and turned to face the dragon.
It filled the sky. Its grin stretched wide and long. It lowered its head and Eurwen saw Olwy's beautiful, terrified face reflected in its eyes.
The child whimpered.
Gethin did not flinch, even when the dragon's tongue flickered along his scar and lifted his hair. Muscles bunched in his jaw, and his eye never left his mother's face.
Eurwen kept her expression calm, feeling the faintest glimmer of hope as the beast returned to Olwy, peering at her from all sides.
The dragon surged upwards and reared into the air. It threw back its head and roared, so loud it was more sensation than sound.
"Behold!" it cried, and choirs sang behind its words. "The province of the Valleys has brought forth a beauty worthy of my garden. The people are spared to participate in Cymru's glorious future. Lads, regroup two leagues east."
In the following silence, the soldiers slipped from the village, with hardly a clink of armor. Eurwen felt a wave of relief rise from her knees to the top of her head, leaving her trembling and faint. Her village was safe.
"Of course," said the dragon, licking its lips and not quite looking at her, "the question has never been, what is beauty, but where?" It inhaled, and before Eurwen could move or scream, it engulfed her son and Olwy in a jet of roiling flame.
"No!" She tried to reach into the flow, but the scorching heat threw her to the ground. She sobbed and clutched her hand to her breast, as grass charred into sparks and the air filled with the stink of burnt hair and scorched earth.
When the flame died, two statues stood in the village square. Gethin's one eye was wide, his lips slightly parted. His expression of hope brought smarting tears to Eurwen's eyes. Beside him, Olwy glittered, perfect as a doll, wonder shining from her empty face.
"A pretty bauble," said the dragon. It cleared its throat and spat dark-flecked, silver phlegm onto the ground. "Tell me, Eurwen, does her beauty lie in her, or in the eyes of those who watch?"
Eurwen picked herself up. Her cheek burned, and as she brushed her hair back, it came away in her muddy hand in crisp shreds. "Empty questions," she said, and her anger took a step towards freedom. "Why have you frozen my son? If Olwy satisfies you, take her."
The dragon loomed closer until its head filled her sight. "Choose for me," it said. "I'm intrigued. Does beauty lie in the child, or in you, the watcher? Tell me, fair Eurwen, which of these two children is the most beautiful?"
At that, a cold fear grew to war against the anger. "You ask me to decide?"
"Born of magic, I see true," said the dragon. It lifted its head and looked at the thatched roofs. A drool of dark fire dripped from the corner of its mouth. "You only have to convince yourself."
Eurwen looked from one still figure to the other. Rage fought to break free, but she clenched her teeth on the venom inside her. The dragon's question echoed in her head. What did it mean? Where did beauty lie? If it lay in Olwy, then it was an eternal thing, and she should choose the girl. If it lay in her own watching eyes, then beauty was purely subjective, her son was infinitely more beautiful, and she should choose him for the dragon's garden.
Her mind beat against the possibility like a moth. What did it mean if she chose Olwy? If Olwy was more beautiful, then the dragon's garden had some worth, however cruel, for it contained that beauty within it.
Gethin would be saved.
If she chose her son, then the garden was empty. The beauty lay in Eurwen's mind and heart. A child could present a collection of seashore baubles, or sticks and it would be as valid as the Dragon's. The Beauty Garden was based on subjective whim, nothing more.
How easy it had been to sacrifice herself. How easy it would be to choose Olwy. She only had to convince herself.
The glint in the dragon's eye told her it saw her decide.
"Know this, worm," she said, and her voice cut through the afternoon birdsong and froze the flickers of movement in the watching crowd. "Both of these children are worth far more than you can imagine. I will not lend power to this ugliness by giving you Olwy. By choosing my son, I condemn you to know the sole meaning of your existence is to destroy that which you seek."
She stooped and again pulled the dagger from its ankle sheath. "From this moment," she said, and her anger burned, a pure flame in her breast, "I dedicate every Valley breath to killing the white dragon." She spun, swung the dagger through the air and plunged it into the burnt soil at her son's feet. "Now take him and go."
The dragon's grin faded. It opened its mouth and blew a puff of smoke at Olwy, and the statue collapsed into a puddle of skinny limbs and sobs. Then the dragon turned and did the same to Gethin.
Her son didn't fall, but he flinched and stumbled and gasped at his unburned skin. "Mother?"
She looked from her son to the dragon, refusing to feel hope. The beast tilted its head and she was amazed to see coarse, black tears rolling from its eyes.
"Eurwen of the Valleys," said the dragon. "I see true. You will not take up that dagger. I choose you for my garden. I see beauty. I must act."
Eurwen stumbled back, shaking her head. She saw a coil of smoke unwind from the dragon's nostril before it opened its mouth, and red flame roared around her. It boiled the blood from her veins, and left her glittering and dry. When the flames drew back, she saw the sun, sinking behind the trees, and realized she would not be allowed escape. The dragon's statues lived. They thought. They endured.
"I see true," breathed the dragon. "Gethin shall hate you for choosing him. He will love you for the light that he remembers shining from your eyes. He shall seek escape from this conflict in the clean beauty of dedication to a cause. The dragon throne shall tremble at his approach."
Will he win, Eurwen tried to ask, but her lips were frozen in an expression of defiance and love, and they would not move. The dragon took her in one mirror clawed paw, and its wings beat the ash from the earth and whirled straw high into the air. As the village fell away beneath her, shining in the last light from the sun, Eurwen the Golden saw Gethin stoop in one fluid movement and pull her dagger from the soil.
This story was first published on Friday, April 29th, 2011
This is the second part of a trilogy; the first story dealing with the defeat of the Red Dragon, by the White, and the third with Gethin's ascendancy and the "trembling" of the Dragon Throne. The heart of this particular story began in a 90-minute flash fiction challenge at a writer's site called Liberty Hall. I loved the idea of a strong, honest woman in a desperate exchange of quickfire dialogue and action, all exploring beauty. After writing that central section, I began looking at Welsh mythology and came across the story of Lludd and Llefelys. This concerns three plagues, battling dragons, and a mysterious race who can hear everything the wind catches and so are almost invincible. In this epic story, the Red Dragon defeats the White but by turning that around, I could explore a people defeated and occupied, and the imposition of a draconian (hmm) regime. Thanks to SB for the few Welsh words used. Eurwen, by the way, means "fair as gold."
- Damon Shaw
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