Author's note: this is a prelude (or postscript) to my as-yet-unpublished YA fantasy novel The Place Where Magic Begins. It takes place some years before the events of the novel itself and is an introduction to the world, and to two characters who will go on to play significant roles in it. I hope, once you've read it, that you find yourself wanting more... and I'll do my best to oblige by getting The Place Where Magic Begins published!
THE LAST OF DRAGONS BORN
a prelude, or a postscript
He felt her long before he saw her.
She was no dwarf, he knew that immediately. He was not like others of his kind, the gold-hoarders and damsel-snatchers. They all had died long ago, slain by headstrong adventurers and vengeful kings. For his part, he desired neither wealth nor power nor fame, but knowledge. Which, he often had cause to reflect, was itself a kind of power: mightier than armies, sharper than swords, more perilous than fear. So while his long-gone cousins had made bitter enemies of the dwarves, he had reached an uneasy truce with them. He did not trouble them; and in return, they did not trouble him. Beneath the earth in their carven halls, King Loge and his delvers reigned. But above, in the high fells open to the sky where the mountain-snows glittered beneath the moon - that was his domain.
She was not a dwarf. What then? Not a stone-giant, or a hawk of the great northern kindred; this one was human. Not one of the Machine-Lords of Langrod, though she bore in her heart some of that same restlessness. She tasted not of their scientist-priests nor their bold revolutionaries, ever hungry to desecrate shrines and lay waste to legends. Nor yet was she a Paladin of the Archmagus's realm. Foros… he growled, and the mountain shuddered. The very memory of the man was like a thorn. The way he came groveling, the falsity in his voice as he begged for "the wisdom of the ancient ones, the wisdom to rule." His gambit was pathetic in its transparency: he was a petty warlord in a monarch's robes, understanding little and fearing all that he did not. His very ignorance was what made him dangerous. Gods above and below, it had been a long age of the earth since the realm of Dorcoth knew an Archmagus worthy of the title…! He had not even deigned to answer the little king, but sent him away with a firebolt at his back to quicken his step.
So: neither dwarf, nor giant, nor bird, nor Machine-Lord, nor Paladin. Yet there was no doubting she was magic. Strong magic, such as he had seldom sensed in human form, but strange, bearing the imprint of lands he did not know well. Not Aeron… Quaras? No, further north, and far from the sea… he could not place her. Whoever she was, she had traveled far.
So he delayed the departure he had planned, and waited.
At last she came into view, scrambling over the lip of the ridge just across the valley from his resting-place. She was small even for a human, with hair like silver rain. She was quite pretty, though, if you cared for that sort of thing. He did not; but Beorhtnoth the Ravenous would have gladly made her his captive, in the days before his downfall. The old rascal would have had a tough go of her though. Despite her size, she bore a full broadsword at her side, and a long staff was in her hand such as those used by the wandering mages of old. However, she wore no armor upon her slender frame but a simple leather jerkin, mantled in a cloak that shone with many colors like mist at the sun's rising.
She caught her breath, looked up - and saw him watching her.
For a long while, they both were still.
She was the first to break the silence.
"Hail, Grimslade, Last of Dragons Born," she said, lips unmoving as she addressed him with Heartspeech.
At last, he was able to place her. "Hail, woman of Durin," the Dragon replied in the same manner. "What brings you so far from your mountain-home?"
"My Lady the Mountain sends me," said the young woman. How young? Humans were so short-lived - one of their lifetimes was as a day to a Dragon such as he. Yet he guessed she had not seen thirty winters.
"I know your Lady of old," said Grimslade, "though it is long since last we spoke. It was not her wont, in earlier times, to send her Chosen forth into the wide world."
"Nor has it been until my day," said the woman. "But when My Lady called me, She told me that before I could serve my people, I must first travel the face of Terra in search of wisdom."
"A worthy quest," said the Dragon, "though I cannot imagine that your husband suffers gladly your absence."
Her response surprised him: for she smiled, an odd and luminous smile that made her piercing amethyst eyes light up, and relaxed her formal demeanor.
"I don't have a great deal of patience with men," she said, eyebrows arched as though it were a secret joke.
"Ah, yes," he said, remembering. "I have heard that the love between women is not uncommon among your people."
"It is not," she replied, still smiling, "but that is beside my purpose. I have come because My Lady bids me ask you a question."
"Ask," said Grimslade, "and I will tell you if I can answer."
"This is it," said the young woman, "the same one she told me to ask all whom I meet in my travels: What do I need to know?"
Grimslade was silent for a long moment, allowing her question to resonate in the fiery hollow of his chest. Then he said: "Woman of Durin, there is no answer I could give to your question which you could not have discovered in the shelter of your mountain-home."
"Please," she said, out loud this time, and the note of desperation in her voice echoed in that high and lonely place. "I've asked the Langrovians and the Dorcothians, the Rockvales and the Bloodroots, hills and valleys, dwarves and men and beasts and birds. I've sailed to Quaras and back, and prayed in the places where there is nothing but Sea. This is the last stop on my journey; after this, I must return to Durin, I can feel it in my bones. Yet still I haven't found the meaning. Surely there's something more you can tell me? Some insight you have to offer? I can't believe the Mountain would have sent me all this way…"
"Would She not have?" the Dragon asked her. They met each other's gaze; and unlike almost every other human he had ever spoken to, she did not look away. "You saw a vision," he said at last. The way she started told him that he had guessed correctly. "Tell me of it."
For a moment, the young woman hesitated, as though she feared the enchantment of her own words. Then she spoke: "I dreamt of water."
"That is not surprising," said Grimslade, "given your people's history."
She nodded. "I dreamt of water," she went on, "the River in the Valley of Durin. It was in full flood and rising fast. The houses and towers of Old Durin Town… Stonehall, the Hall of Healing… all of it, washed away. Just like in Great-Grandmama's day. The wind was howling, and the sky was dark and cold, and my people were crying out in fear. They were hurting--dying!--and there was nothing I could do to help. So I climbed to the Grove, because that was where Great-Grandmama always went. But with every step I took, the torrent rose behind me, following me all the way to the cave." She was speaking very quickly now, not bothering to explain the details, knowing that he knew or could guess. "I ran inside as fast as my legs would carry me, but the water came rushing in after me. I searched frantically, but the Heart was nowhere to be found, and the water just kept rising: up past my shoulders, my neck, my mouth. I was going to drown, I was sure of it! And then--" She stopped.
"Then what?" the Dragon urged her on.
"I heard a Voice."
"And what did it tell you?"
"It told me, Breathe."
"Breathe," he repeated, wondering.
"Yes. And I said, 'But I can't breathe underwater! And your people, our people! They're dying, and I cannot see the way to help them!' I was panicking - the water was in my throat, I knew that my time had come to die. But the Voice just said…" She had to catch her breath, she was so taken up by her own tale. "It said, You will save us. But first, my child, you must be willing to go under. First, you have to breathe."
"And did you breathe?"
"I don't know," the woman said. "That was the end of the Dream. I awoke, and the very next day She sent me forth. I have been a wanderer ever since."
She fell silent for a long time after that. Grimslade understood her real question now. Indeed, her Dream seemed to confirm something he had already begun to suspect, but which he had not been able to put into words. All throughout her tale he had felt the life-force quickening in his old, heavy limbs, and he knew that it would soon require release.
"You ask me what you need to know," he said at last, drawing himself up to his full magnificence, so that she seemed very small in his shadow. Yet he knew, even as he rose, that she would one day be his equal. "This is my answer: magic is moving. Many winds are blowing; many waters are rising. And you, woman of Durin, are on the crest of the wave."
"But what does it mean?" she asked.
"That you and I are the last of our kind," he replied. "That the world is changing, and we must change with it, or be destroyed. That we may yet be destroyed, whether we change or no." He unfurled his great wings and beat them, as if her coming had revived some fierce youthful strength that lay long dormant in his belly. "Not for naught did the Mountain send you to me, little one. Now go!" He said it not unkindly, though the roar of his huge voice shook the mountainside. "Your people will need you to guide them in the days that are coming. I have other errands."
"But I cannot see the way!" the young woman called back.
"Breathe!" he thundered, and in so doing let fly a plume of red flame from his cavernous jaws. It split the sky far above their heads like a shooting star, like an omen. "Breathe, and the way shall be opened unto you. Now go!" He took wing, leaving the young woman to brace herself against the mountainside in a hurricane of light and swirling snow.
"Farewell, Grimslade, Last of Dragons Born!" her small voice reached him through the din. "Thank you!"
Thank you! Dragons seldom smile, but surely Grimslade did then. When was the last time a human had thanked him? Certainly not King Foros of Dorcoth…
I have unfinished business with that little tyrant, the Dragon said to himself. He must be taught humility. As for the Machine-Lords…
Then he was gone.