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art by Melissa Mead

A Game of Horse and Dragon

Sarah L. Edwards writes science fiction and fantasy. Her fiction has previously been published in Interzone, Jim Baen's Universe, the Writers of the Future contest anthology, and other fine markets. Her writerly musings may be found at snickelish.livejournal.com

In the center of a library alight by burning oak, a child plays. He has not yet been put to bed, for his mother sits among the others with needle in hand, and she is pleased to rest her eyes upon him. There he is, dashing wooden horse against dragon's linen hide. She smiles to see him so, content, healthy, for dimly she remembers another time when he did not appear so well, before his father returned from the mountains with the gently beating box of stone.
Horse runs against dragon, though its rider has long since fallen, perhaps scorched by the dragon's painted breath. But horse battles dragon still, with the courage of a man and a beast's strength. Narrowly it escapes a plume of dragon fire and dashes forehooves against iron scales, in vain. Out it flees again, turning, awaiting its chance. There--viper-swift it attacks the chest, teeth aiming high, high against the gleaming throat. Savage equine teeth seize glittering skin--and shatter. Horse screams, as much in fury as in pain. Dragon bites its neck with knives of steel, and with a last squeal, horse falls limp.
The boy looks up. No one has noticed the horse's noble, failed attack. No one heard the anguished cry as dragon teeth sliced horseflesh, and not even the boy knows its agony. Still, he can guess, for like the horse he knows the caged futility of a shape not his own. He feels some pity for the horse, once something else--a man, perhaps?--before its dread enchantment. But pity though he might, he had always known the dragon would prevail. Its taut and waiting muscles he remembers well enough, and with the banked embers of its heart he is now intimately familiar.
The nurse comes then. He mustn't be allowed to tire, she reminds, and his mother smiles gentle assent. He clutches horse and dragon tight, but he does not protest. Not now.
He knows the dragon always prevails.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
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