art by Billy Sagulo
The Dragon and the Bond
by Mari Ness
Mari Ness has penned several stories for Daily Science Fiction, which you can search on the website. Her work has, of course, appeared many other places as well.
She married the dragon when she was only twenty.
She kept her hand on his head throughout the ceremonies, holding it absolutely still in fear that his sharp scales would cut through her skin. A human priest, then a dragon officiant--did dragons have priests? She would have to find out--performed the twin ceremonies beneath the moons, first human, then dragon, then the signing of the bond, dragon and human. The dragon let the village tavern keeper feed her the traditional honey bread and wine. She gave him the tiny garnet, all that the village could afford, smaller, she knew, than the great gems the dragons exchanged when they wed, dragon to dragon. She knelt as he blew flames across her head. He stayed still as she placed the gentlest of kisses on his scaly nose. She tasted blood as she stepped away. The villagers applauded politely; the dragons blew flames against the wind.
"I am afraid that I do not know how to be a wife," she told him.
His red and gold eyes swirled slowly as he watched her. "I am not entirely sure I know how to be a dragon," he told her.
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The village had a feast, although no one ate much, and no one sang. Her hands stayed drenched in sweat, and she was almost grateful when it came time to leave. Almost. She followed the dragon as he walked slowly up the hills to the edges of the mountain, lighting the pathway with his breath, and tried to think of what to say.
His flames outlined the edges of the entrance to the small cave that the village had set aside for them, just at first, until they were ready to go to his cave in more distant mountains. If they were ever ready.
"Home," she said, stepping into the cave's coolness.
"Home," the dragon echoed, after a moment.
He was a small dragon still, so he could not carry her on his back and fly her through the skies, although that would come, he told her. That would come. That night she clutched the stones of the cave in relief.
She liked the cave. It had several queer little chambers, and a small pool that she and the dragon could use for bathing. Someone--probably one of the villagers--had dragged up a small traveler's stove, placing it in one chamber near the entrance, and some chests and boxes to store her things in another chamber. The rocks of the cave glowed soft, sullen colors in the firelight. One of the back chambers was very dark; she put her bedroll there, and planned to bring more blankets to make a softer bed over the rough stones.
"I should know your name," he told her.
"Tara," she said, and after a moment, "Yours?"
"You could not pronounce it."
A string of sounds and hisses blended in fire.
She looked down at her hands. "I always thought I would know my husband's name."
"And I always thought I would marry a dragon."
"Should I cook you something?"
"You should sleep." Flames danced around his mouth. "As should I."
She moved towards a small chamber in the back of the cave and into the darkness.
The cave was cool, but never truly cold, even in winter. The dragon sometimes cleared a pathway through the snow for her, so she could feel the wind on her face and see the sun, but more often she hid in a back cavern, watching a fire, while the dragon breathed fire at the snow and wind. Delightful in summer, when she returned from a trip to the village, or a scramble among the mountains to gather berries and herbs or simply watch the sun. He touched her gravely with his claw when she returned, stinging, but never drawing blood.
Her friends from the village sometimes came to visit, although they did not stay very long. Tara did not have to ask why; she felt the same way, although she had agreed to this. More often, she went down to them, to gossip and laugh, to remind herself that she was still human, still Tara. The dragon had brought a small pile of gems and gold to the cave, urging her to use them at need. She bought dresses, silks, ribbons from traders and made gifts for her friends. She bought a blanket for the dragon. He thanked her gravely, and apologized when it burned to ashes months later. She listened carefully to every tale told in the tavern, every hint of murder and fire.
Sometimes he flew away for a few days. Where, she did not know, although she guessed it was to see other dragons. Sometimes, on those trips, he returned clutching something in his claws: A new bedroll. Some delicacy from a distant land. Gems. New blankets. A harp, badly battered on the trip, which a traveling minstrel was able to repair. She thanked him gravely for the gifts. His eyes whirled.
Sometimes other dragons came to visit them. She hated these visits, although she tried not to show it, tried to curtsey the way princesses did in tales. She played the battered harp for them, singing in a sweet voice, and they listened silently, spreading their wings beneath the moons, before leaving just as silently before the sun rose.
He told her tales of dragons, of wars, of gardens, of fires. She told him tales of kings and queens, of wars, of music. Sometimes she fell asleep, listening to his voice; sometimes she thought he fell asleep, listening to hers.
Once, after she returned from wandering in the mountains, her heart pounding from the exertion, she caught the dragon staring at the cleft of her chest. She swallowed, pulling her cloak around herself more tightly.
"You know what I need," he said. "What the dragons need."
"Yes," she said. "But I thought you would give me more time."
His tongue reached out to flick against her cheek. She shivered. "I will give you all the time that you need." He paused. "That we need."
"And my people."
"And your people," he agreed.
Each heartbeat hit her chest, so hard that she would have cried out, if she could breathe. She could not breathe. She put a hand against the cave wall. It was not the right time. It was never the right time. She had to breathe.
"Then--may I take a lover--a human lover?"
His head swung away from her. That did not stop the painful beating. "You do not need my permission."
Perhaps not, but--"May I take a human lover?"
For a moment she feared that he would never answer her at all. "Yes," he said. A long pause, another flicker of flame. "More than one, if you wish. If you need."
They needed to live further down, closer to the village, where the air was less thin and clear. "I need."
The flicker of flame was larger this time; she could feel its heat. "You can even bring them here, if you wish."
She managed to shake her head. "I don't think-–"
"Probably not," he agreed.
She had to breathe.
"This changes nothing."
She slept outside their cave that night, beneath the moons and stars, and tried not to remember her dreams.
She did not take her lovers from the village. She had known the men and women there her entire life; they had married her to the dragon without a protest. But the village had the occasional traveler: a peddler, or merchant, or someone curious to hear tales of the dragon, perhaps even see the dragon, or at least confirm that the tales of the marriage and the bond were true. She did not invite them to her cave. But she did go with them, at least some of them, to the small rooms on the second floor of the tavern, and asked for tales of blood and death.
She spent her other nights with the dragon, working to still the beating of her heart.
"I'm not really a princess," she blurted out one night. Damn. She had promised not to tell, only--but he would hear the truth, sometime, from someone in their village, or another village. It was only a secret to dragons. And they could hear everything, she had heard. Even heartbeats. Especially heartbeats. "It's just--no one knew, no one knows, who my father is, although he was finely dressed, and maybe he was a king, or something else--"
The eyes whirled again. "I knew."
"And you still--agreed to this?"
His long, forked tongue came out to touch her hand. "Is your heart so different from that of a princess?"
She found herself wandering more and more in the evenings. The dragon noted that the hilly paths were more dangerous in the darkness, which was true, but otherwise did nothing to stop her. She liked to see the stars slowly appearing in the sky, liked to imagine that they moved closer as she climbed up the paths, thinking of blood and gold and dragons. Each night, when she returned from these wanderings, he touched her with his claw, and she shivered beneath the sting.
She should stay inside the cavern, she thought. And yet she never did.
One night, while her skin was still stinging from his claw, she came to the chamber where he slept, curled up beneath his own wings, and watched him. After a moment, his eyes opened, and swirled.
"Is there something you desire?"
"I am very alone," she said. "And we are wed."
The cave suddenly felt very cold.
"The scales here will not cut you," he said, pointing his tongue beneath his great wings, and then towards the underside of his tail.
She took a step forward. He raised a wing still higher. She crawled beneath it, wrapping herself in a little ball, feeling the warm wing of the dragon fall on her.
"Do you ever think of other dragons?" she asked him.
"From time to time." The wing pressed down on her a little harder. "Do you?"
"When they are here." She reached up. The underside of his wing was surprisingly soft to touch, covered in some soft substance almost but not quite like feathers. "The villagers say that no one south of here has seen a dragon since our wedding."
"No," he said. "They wouldn't."
She left her hand on his wing for a long time, listening to his flames and his breath.
"No more humans for me," she told him the next day. "I mean--"
A green flame, that she now knew was as close to laughter as dragons could get. "And no dragons for me," he said, placing a claw on her shoulder. "At least, not yet."
"This changes nothing," she told him.
He grew larger. She grew older. They moved to a larger cave, further from her village, closer to his dragons. He flew back and forth, to bring all their things from the old cave. This time, she worked with him to place everything just so, to have a place where she could curl up protected within his tail, another place where he could watch her cook or start a winter fire, a third place where she could play the harp for him. She watched him soar into the sky, bright against the clouds and sky, and felt her heart come close to breaking.
And each night, she crept to him, to hear his tales, or to tell hers.
"I do love you, you know," she told him one night, surprising even herself.
His tongue came out to touch her cheek and her neck. "I know."
"I didn't think-–"
She began to write down his tales, and hers, and the ones they wrote together, on thick sheets of parchment. She placed them carefully in a wooden chest covered with silver and gems. He promised her that it would be among his greatest treasures, that someday, her stories would be shared with the world. She laughed at him. His flames did not turn green.
She grew tired. It began to hurt to walk, to move. She stopped even thinking of going far from the cave, though sometimes she had the dragon send letters to her friends in the village, and bring letters back.
"Do you ever miss them?" he asked.
"Of course," she said. "I spent half a life with them."
"I meant your lovers."
She shook her head. "None of them," she said, "were dragons."
And one day, when she was very tired, and her hands ached in the cold, he left her for several hours, returning to drop a ruby the size of a pigeon's egg into her hands. She exclaimed in delight.
"I didn't know," he said.
She gave him a side glance. "That I love gifts as red as blood?" She smiled, an expression she knew the dragon had learned to recognize by now. "And after all of these years."
She moved her eyes away from him.
"It was supposed to be only a marriage, a bargain, a bond. And now-–"
Fire shot from his nostrils.
She stood very still.
"It's time," she told him.
"The sun sets."
It was a ritual of theirs now, to watch the sun slide behind the mountains, while she sipped tea and he chewed on rocks. She did not move to make the tea. "Time," she repeated.
"This changes nothing," she told him. "Time."
For a moment, she thought time had stopped, and then--
"Put on your gloves," the dragon said to her.
She went back into the cave, to search out the clothing the dragons had brought her so long ago. Thick leather gloves, and heavy leather pants with an added layer of wool beneath them, and two thick shirts made of some substance she had never been able to identify. The dragon watched her as she slowly dressed, not offering or able to help. She put on an additional woolen cloak, something he had found for her so many years ago. She was sweating once she finished, but he did not stop her, and she knew she would be grateful.
Then, for the first time, she scrambled upon his back.
The leather pants protected her somewhat, but the scales still hurt. She bit her lip. She would not cry out. She would not.
"Ready?" the dragon asked. She touched a sharp scale on his neck.
Her stomach lurched, twisted, lurched again. She was falling. She was not falling. The dragon had her, his great wings pumping beneath her. She leaned against his neck, looked down on the spinning earth below, and laughed, hearing his echoing rumble.
"We should have done this part years ago," she said, curling her arms around his neck and leaning her head against his neck.
"Yes," he said, and soared still higher.
It grew cold, so cold, and dark, so dark.
And for a moment, before his claw reached into her chest, pulling out the heart she had promised him so long ago, she thought she touched the stars.
This story was first published on Friday, December 27th, 2013
Sometimes sentences come to me in the bathtub, as here: "She married the dragon when she was only twenty." I decided I wanted to find out what happened after this.
- Mari Ness
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