Tuesday, October 24, 2006
The Dragon Queen
(Disclaimer: This is a story. A fairy tale, if you will. My way of relieving stress because midterms are here. Thanks. )
They begged me to give up my life today.
They came before me, garbed in rich, royal clothing, bejeweled, gems glittering on their fingers, encrusted on their robes.Their shirts were hemmed with golden thread; their belts gleamed of silver. Their boots clanked strongly upon the floor.
And yet they were ashamed.
They entered my chambers hesitantly, their heads bowed, their entire demeanor subservient. They knelt before me, and many of them hid their eyes.
I was in the tower chamber, standing before the window. My white gown whipped closely about me and my head pounded. I was consumed by thought, worrying about my people, about my land. I felt a fierce stab of anger at my inability to be of use. I raised a hand to my forehead and closed my eyes, allowing myself to feel the cold wind on my face, my eyelashes fluttering against my cheek.
It was at this moment that they entered, bearing candles and candelabras. They stopped for a moment in hesitation; I heard a sharp voice berating the others for their callousness. I turned from the window and looked upon them.
“Yes, my people?”
They knelt before me, placing the baskets they bore upon the floor. The contents were pitiful. A few stalks of wheat, an apple, this was all they had left. What use their fine clothes, what use their riches, when none of this could buy them food?
Kiergon rose. “My lady,” he stated, and then looked into my eyes. He was strong; his eyes held my gaze and did not break before me. Strange eyes, his, black and pooling, so that I do not feel like I can truly read him. He wore a heavily embroidered vest of maroon, interwoven with the signs of the zodiac, the constellations. His black curling beard suggests his nature to be warlike and vicious, but I know he is a man of sound judgment, one who may be trusted.
“My lady, we are starving. We have worked the land, tried the various remedies recommended us, have even resorted to asking the local witches and wizards for help. To no avail.” He paused, took a breath and continued. “This,” his hand made a sweeping gesture, taking in the baskets laid upon the floor and their pitiful contents, “is all that remains to us.”
I looked at him with equanimity, waiting to hear his request. Another man shuddered, and muttered something under his breath about my “unblinking amber eyes.”
“We feel, therefore,” Kiergon continued, “that it is up to you to appease the dragon.”
I smoothed a piece of hair behind my ear, and waited in silence.
“I mean,” he said, for the first time betraying a lack of composure, “that…” he gestured with his fingers, then stopped. I noticed that he was looking at me. Truly looking at me. He is assessing me, I thought calmly, and waited to hear his request. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, looked at the other men still kneeling upon the floor, and finally made a sound of disgust. “My lady, if there were any other way…”
“Speak freely,” I said, clasping my hands loosely before me.
“My lady, the dragon has cast this curse upon us. It is the dragon who makes us suffer, who causes this famine, this unnatural hunger that cannot be dispelled. The witches and wizards have made no headway with this. The dragon desires one thing only- blood. Blood of a royal maiden, a virgin. A beautiful maiden.” He met my eyes squarely. “My lady, he desires your blood.”
A little shiver crept up my back. I felt the air around me tense, as the kneeling men looked up at me. All their eyes focused upon me, a maiden of fifteen, who with one breath could order them all killed, executed for their treasonous request. Some of them surreptitiously reached for their swords. Ah. I saw how it was to be. They planned to overpower me and force my acquiescence. They planned to take me in chains if I would not agree.
I calmly looked at Kiergon. “Is there no alternative?”
He wet his lips, then raised a well-formed hand to his beard. “My lady, I do not think there is.”
“Very well,” I said, my amber gaze steady. “I must consider this. I will give you my answer in the morning.”
I sensed a man surge to his feet, anger propelling him forward. My guards instantly caught hold of him. One held a blade to his neck. My other subjects quivered in fear, still abject and kneeling.
“Do not kill him,” I said coldly. “I will excuse him. He is not rational.”
The man looked at me with hatred. He would rather have died, I believe, for in his last moments he would have been able to justify his desire for my blood by claiming I was the cruel one. I denied him this satisfaction.
“You are dismissed,” I said softly. “I must reflect upon your request.”
“My lady,” Kiergon stated, then stepped forward. I raised a brow.
“My lady, I warn you not to trust to the mercy of your subjects. They are moody, starved, and will be led by the evil wishes of one man.” He turned to look at the man who would have killed me. “I will not answer for them. Do not- do not take overly long to reflect upon this.” He turned and strode from the room.
This is amusing, I thought bitterly. When times are good, they laud me, bedeck me in flowers, call me by pretty names and each try to win my respect and good favor. Now that we are cursed, they desire my death.
I retired to my bed-chamber, where I now sit and reflect.
The lights are dim. I look into my fire, and I question myself. Is this my duty? Must I do this for my people? To be consumed by a dragon…to go willingly to this death…do I have the courage for this? I can hide; there are those who would hide me. There are those who are yet loyal to me. Perhaps I can barricade the palace. But of course, all these efforts will simply allow me to avoid my fate, as opposed to solving the problem that exists.
But my life- but my life! I love my life, I love all that I have seen in my fifteen years. I love the sun upon my hair, the moon that dances over my subjects, the stars, the breeze that wafts through my window. I love my hidden pleasures, the dolls I keep still for memory’s sake, for the sake of the time before I became Queen. I even love simple things- the taste of hot chocolate before I go to sleep, the flickering light on my face from the fire. I want to pull a comb through my hair, to feel my hair resting upon my shoulders, to cover myself in warm blankets and seize life as mine.
Why should it be my concern that a dragon desires my blood? I am the Queen! Cannot a Queen override a dragon? Can I not feed my people in any other way? Is there no other choice? Is there truly no other way?
I feel the tears trickling down my face. I am crying because I am doomed, because I know, as I think, that there will be no other way. They will offer me, whether I will or no, and if I must be offered then better to go willingly. I wonder whether they will stay to watch the dragon consume me. Perhaps they will have to assure themselves that I have been thoroughly eaten? A vile thought, that. I am bitter, bitter and cruel toward my subjects, when I know that were I in their place, suffering the deprivation and hunger that consumes them, I too would desire my own death.
It is not that I have eaten well. I have not. I too have suffered hunger. But I am younger, stronger. It is not the same.
But how I resent this duty, this duty that makes the death my own!
A voice. It is Damien. I fly from my bed and open the door, weeping openly now.
“Oh, Damien, Damien!” He hugs me as I cry. He is my brother, only twelve, but he understands the ramifications of what has been decided. He looks up at me with stern eyes, eyes that understand too much. Of course, I think to myself, if I am dead, he will be King. And perhaps one day his subjects will demand his death as well.
“Lina,” he says, and his voice is warm, filled with love. “Lina, do you want me to stay with you?”
“No. No. Let me bid you farewell now, Damien, and I will prepare myself for the morrow.” I gather him into my arms and kiss the top of his head, his soft black curling hair. His eyes are huge with fear and confusion. I chafe his hands. “You are cold, Damien.”
“Lina- if you want- I- I won’t let them.”
My heart almost breaks at his kindness. “No. No. Damien, you must do what they tell you, so that they will not have cause to hurt you, too. Be a good king. A wise king, one who is beloved throughout the land.”
“I shall force the minstrels to sing of you, always.”
I push him out of the room, then, and sob wildly. A song for minstrels? Is this what I have become? Then I choke down my sobs and force calm upon myself. I will be calm. If I must die, I will die with dignity, by my own choice and through my own words.
I gather my clothing, donning my finest gown. It is long and wraps around me softly, white of course, as all my clothing is. I wear a veil that is pinned to my hair with a pearl clip. I have bathed already, anointed myself with my finest oils. I look like a bride.
I slip my feet into the ceremonial white shoes and accept a necklace of opals. Opals are my favorite stone, white but filled with secret fire, with flashes of colors that radiate from its heart. I am the opal, I know. I attach the earrings to my earlobes, shaking my head a little as a last vanity, watching their sparkling colors in the mirror. I have not eaten. I pull my veil forward and exit the door.
“Kiergon!” This is an imperial command, a summons. “Attend me.”
Kiergon has been waiting respectfully outside the castle. He awaits my answer.
“I shall be your wiling sacrifice,” I say coldly. I must be cold; it is the only way I can prevent the tears that threaten to burst forth. I am perilously close to giving way.
He bows his head, relieved. I see the look of fleeting shame that passes through his eyes, and pride gives me nerve. I stand straighter than he does.
“Where are the others?”
“They are coming.”
I see men, coming, attired in armor. They bear weapons, prepared for battle.
“You would brook no resistance,” I say dryly.
He does not make me an answer.
“Let us go, then,” I command. “I shall wait by the sea.”
They accompany me amidst trumpets and fanfare. All my subjects have come to see me off. Once by the sea, they look at the sky fearfully, worrying that the dragon will suddenly swoop down and mistake one of them for me. They try to seem lighthearted and happy, but a bitter awareness tinges the entire affair. I stand, suddenly. I want none of this shadow-truth, no pretense that all is as it should be. “Go!” I roar, almost a madwoman. “Go and let me serve to save you from famine.”
I see Damien look at me with unhappy eyes. “You, especially,” I turn to him. “I do not want you here to see this.”
It is perhaps my last order as Queen. “Yes, my lady,” he says, and walks alongside the villagers, descending as they go back to the town.
That is when the men descend upon me. Men made wild by fear take ropes and bind me to a large boulder by the sea. It has been half-destroyed by the elements so that it almost resembles a gallows, a stony outcropping that meets me in a desperate embrace. The men lash my hands behind me and bind my ankles. They force a rope around my waist. Some of them look at me with hatred, others with pity. Some seize the moment to caress me, unwanted caresses that make me stiffen. I choose to ignore them. Perhaps I should give thanks that the dragon requires a virgin; at least they will not rape me.
When I am so tightly bound that even to move a finger causes pain, they step back and admire their work. The sun has fallen; it is already sunset, descending into dusk. The darkness cools their ardor. They are satisfied with the job they have done. They walk away from me, back to the village, but not before some satisfy themselves by jeering at me. I cannot speak, as a gag has been wedged in my mouth. I watch them with my amber eyes, still evaluating and assessing. Dull thoughts come to mind as I try to distract myself from the pain of the ropes that bind me. The remarks I hear now enlighten me; I know now who among my subjects has never been loyal to me, and who is driven to this simply through desperation.
They move away. They will not stay here for the slaughter; even they are afraid of the darkness that falls across the sky. They will come back tomorrow to retrieve my body, perhaps to bury it…if anything remains to be buried.
At least they have not blindfolded me; one even removed my veil and took joy in trampling it. His face was ugly when he did so, contorted with rage and hate. But I am glad of it now, glad because it means that no obstacle blocks my view, that I can see. I look out at the sea, observing the shining peaks formed by the light upon the water, the moon rippling across the deep unending blackness. I wait, my every nerve listening, the slightest sounds causing an immediate thrill of apprehension and dread to tingle through my body.
I hear a strange piping sound. I cannot help it; I struggle to pull free. I fight the knots and ropes that bind me until they chafe me, until I bleed. Blood trickles through my mouth.
I can make out the figure of a boy. He seems strange, a kind of piper, piping away upon his flute. His clothes shimmer in the moonlight, made of a strange fabric that is simultaneously delicate as grasshopper’s wings and iridescent, glimmering with colors. He is handsome; his features cleverly shaped. He stops a moment to look at me. Bound as I am, it only now occurs to me how strange a sight I must appear. A bride or an offering, what am I? For I am swathed in the traditional garments of the bride, and yet I am covered with ropes that chafe and choke me.
He comes closer. I want to laugh, but cannot, of course, as the gag is in my mouth. I want to wave him away, to somehow motion that a dragon will come for me, and he had best not be here when it does come. But I cannot move, not even a finger. I blink my eyes at him several times, willing him to understand me, but all he does is come closer until he is looking directly at them.
“Amber,” he says, smiling. “You have beautiful eyes.”
He pulls out a knife and proceeds to cut my gag. It takes time before I can form any words to speak. He begins to work on my other bonds but a frantic gesture on my part stops him.
“You…cannot,” I croak, my voice hoarse, my tongue slick with saliva. “I am an offering to a dragon, an offering on behalf of my people. You cannot cut my bonds.”
“Certainly I can!” he replies jauntily. “Surely you don’t want to meet the dragon.”
“What I want doesn’t matter,” I answer. “My people have been cursed. There is a terrible famine, and noting we have tried has availed us. I must do this. It is my duty.”
“Who is to know?” he prodded, turning away from me as he sharpened his knife upon a stone he removed from his pocket. “Your people will assume the dragon has taken you away. Even if the famine does not abate, you have fulfilled your duty. Surely you want to live?” He gave me a sly glance.
“Of course I want to live!” I answer, feeling desperate. “But…I must, I must do this. What kind of Queen would I be if I would deceive my people?”
“Are your people worthy of such loyalty? Surely they couldn’t have been kind when they bound you here today.”
“They were mad!” I answer resolutely. “Mad from fear and hunger. They would not have treated me so otherwise.”
“Are you sure?”
I know that the boy speaks the truth; that it is possible that my subjects would overthrow me even were the circumstances good.
“What is it to you?” I sneer in my best queenly voice. “You are no king. You are a mad boy who wanders the hills at night with his pipe. Surely you ought to go away. Do you want to die, too?”
“Oh, make no mistake,” he answers airily. “Many have died here.”
“All the more reason for you to go!” I turn away from him and look back out at the sea.
“Then you are truly willing to meet your death?” His voice gentles, seems soft and kind. “You know it is not necessary.”
Sweat shines on my forehead. “It is necessary,” I say firmly. “And stop tempting me!”
“If you are sure…” he says, and allows his hand to fall away from the ropes. “Shall I play for you?”
I make no answer and he begins to play, a haunting, soulful tune that disturbs me and ruins what little peace remains to me.
Doubts accumulate in my mind. Here is a boy offering me a chance to escape. He has a knife; he is willing to cut my bonds. No one will know but me, and why should I die? Why must I die? Whence comes this grand posturing where I pretend that I want to die, that I desire to serve my people? I am not that kind of person! I do not want to die!
I begin to struggle against my bonds, then force myself to stand still. I speak, jarring the music. “You had best leave,” I say.
“The dragon will be coming.”
“As you wish.” He bows mockingly to me, sweeping the cap off his head, then replacing it and continuing to play as he disappears into the forest.
That is when the tears come. Great tears that slip down my face, tears at my stupidity, my idiocy, my desire for death. I hear a great beating of wings and strain my ears. It comes nearer and I see the dragon, a huge shape in the sky propelling himself toward me.
I compose myself. I stand straight, the tears still wet on my face. I follow the dragon with my eyes.
He lands before me, a noble and impressive creature. He is huge, and my eyes widen in shock as I try to take in his size. His scales are green and golden, though some appear iridescent, similar to the fabric the piper wore. His claws are silver. His eyes are large, but the darkness prevents me from seeing their color. I wait for him to eat me.
He opens his mouth but uses it to speak, in a surprisingly human voice. The tone is deeply sad, almost dolorous. I am confounded.
“I am sorry that you have come.”
I find my voice. “Sorry? When you forced it, by virtue of your famine?!”
“I am sorry, then, that you believe the famine is of my doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“This famine is not caused by me. It is a curse by a powerful witch, a woman who wanted to end your power, who thought you rivaled her as Queen.”
I am shocked. “I know no such woman! Whom do you speak of?”
I cannot believe it. My sister was said to have died years ago from a tragic illness. “My sister is dead.”
“No, you believe she is dead. In truth she is deformed, victim of a hideous disease that scars the skin. Your parents were appalled by her and hid her from you, giving her to others to raise. She has grown up with great hatred for you and your parents, believing that the throne you hold is hers.”
“But I never knew—“ Protests fly to my lips. How unhappy my sister must be!
“She does not care. She is spiteful, angry, ruled by wickedness. Because life has been unfair to her, she believes that all must suffer. She desires beauty above all else. Were she beautiful, she could rule. I believe she would rule justly. She has tried countless unguents, lotions, potions. None have aided her.”
“What can be done for her?”
“Nothing. You must kill her—“
“Or she will continue to torment your people.”
“Is there no other way?” I looked into the wise eyes of the dragon. How wrong we all had been! This dragon did not desire my flesh, would take no joy in feasting on my blood. He desired only to help me.
“There is one other way.” He paused. “But I fear you will not like it.”
“Tell me what I must do.”
“Beauty- freely given- can cure her.”
“What?” This, a shocked whisper, as I considered myself as a drained, ugly hag. “I must give her my beauty?”
“If you bestow beauty upon her, she can return, and in your image, she may rule.”
“In my image! So others will think her to be me!”
“I cannot bear it.”
“Then you must kill her.”
“I will not kill her.” These words, torn from me, almost a low moan of pain. “Will you take me to her?”
“May I- may I ride upon you?”
For answer, the dragon reached for my bonds, which shivered and fell away at his touch. Free, I rubbed at the angry red marks that covered my skin, especially my wrists. As I stepped forward, I almost swooned.
“What have they done to you?” The dragon’s tone was angry. One claw rested on my hand, prompting me to turn it over. The dragon’s tone darkened as he looked upon the bruises. “I will have to carry you. You cannot ride upon my back like this.” He reached toward me with a gentle paw, then paused as he saw my necklace of opals. "Opals," he mused, his eyes glimmering a bright green, "opals are the stones of tears. Surely you can heal yourself?"
He removed the necklace and placed it in my hand. I looked at it dumbly, confused. "What- what would you like me to do?" My voice was breathy, whispery, edged with confusion and slight fear.
"Heal yourself. Can you not do it?"
"With a necklace?"
He suddenly seemed to understand the reason for my confusion, and perplexingly, simply stepped back and folded his hands. "Opals are the stones of tears," he repeated.
I took the opals and laid them on my skin. Nothing happened. I felt awkward, foolish, glancing at my flesh and the angry marks upon it. Frustrated, I contemplated giving up. Instead, I rubbed the necklace, pushed at it, even breathed on it. When I did that it misted over a little, and I felt a slight amount of relief. Perhaps the opals simply needed water?
"Of course!" I exclaimed suddenly, realizing what the dragon must have meant. "Opals are the stones of tears. Surely I need only shed a tear, and then they will heal me!"
I tried to cry. Ironically, I could not. Before had been my time of weeping, back at the castle, with Damien, when I realized I had no choice in this matter; that I would go to my death whether I would or no. I had bit my lip and remained silent while the men tied me to the boulder, had calmed myself and allowed myself no sign of weakness. I had not cried. Now I was too scared for tears, unable to force them.
"I'm sorry," I said apologetically to the dragon. "I cannot cry."
"Cannot?" he said, and looked at me. It seemed as though he were evaluating me, reading me and my thoughts. I tried to shield myself, to hide myself away, but it did no good. He gave me an odd look, which softened into understanding. "Very well then. Allow me."
I dropped the necklace in his paw. He raised it up and proceeded to shed a tear. A dragon's tear is a beautiful thing, a kind of liquid that is covered over with a sparkling sheen, clear and yet colorful, like a bubble that might float upon the wind. The tear slipped onto the necklace, and then I caught my breath.
The necklace...ignited. Sparks of light flew off of it and began to form around the individual stones, flames and fire in all the colors of the rainbow. He motioned toward me but I hesitated to touch it. "Won't it...burn?" I asked.
"No," he said, and draped it around my neck.
Instantly I felt a stange sensation, as though the necklace were eating away at my skin, burning away all the marks and scars and memories of the day. Its fire consumed my bruises, purpling skin became fresh and clear once more. The aches in my back, the rope burns and marks on my hands, the mottling flesh of my body...all disappeared. All that was evil and unwelcome fed into the necklace, which consumed it in startling sparks of flame. The necklace took away my pain and even refreshed me. When at last I felt recovered, the necklace's fire began to fade away, remerging with the stone so that when I looked at it, all I could see were the secret colors hidden in its depths.
I looked at the dragon. "And all that was needed was a tear?"
"Well," he said, and attempted to appear humble, contrite. "Well. A dragon's tear is different from that of a human's."
It was only then that I realized how great a favor had been bestowed upon me, and I knelt before the dragon in thanks. He coughed and motioned me up.
"I can ride now," I said, and he knelt before me.
I clambered onto his back, glittering with its collection of greeny-gold scales and the iridescent colors of the cloth the piper had worn. I loosely clasped my hands around his neck, so that I was half-lying, half-sitting upon him, cocooned between his wings. He reared upward, as a horse does, and for a moment I was afraid, terribly so. He felt my fear and turned his head, giving me an encouraging smile. I smiled back at him.
And then we were off.
How to describe flying? A rich sensation, a whirlwind of moments. He dipped and soared over castle spires and towers, flirting with clouds, skimming the wind with his wingtips. His skin, initially so rough to my unpracticed hand, grew cooler and became soft. Sometimes he descended and winged his way through caves, showing me mysterious fish that glowed in numerous colors, and elaborate paintings done by creatures I had never heard of. He taught me his ways in that ride, so that even when I slept, curled upon his back (for of course I was very tired) I felt as though I were learning.
At last he alighted before a small house, not a hovel but no palace, quaint and traditional. It was made of black stone, though the steps were of white marble, and beautiful pomegranate trees stood before the door. A sign which I could not understand was engraved upon the door; it gave me a feeling of uneasiness if I looked at it too long.
"Lina," the dragon says, and I turn to him, accepting the fact that he knows my name though I have not told it to him, "this is your sister's house."
I clench my fists and walk toward the door, as the feeling of unease grows stronger. I turn my eyes away from the charm engraved thus and instead slam my hand against the stone three times. There is no answer. I push at the stone, then, and enter the room.
There is a loom in the center of the room, a great loom with an elaborate pattern. The images are skillfully rendered, but they give a feeling of unhappiness, as though the man who is at the center of the tapestry had died a terrible death. Herbs hang from the ceiling. They give no smell and look pleasant enough, but I shudder as I recognize that one of them is a terrible poison. There are shelves at another corner of the room, stacked with wooden bowls and utensils. Everything is clean and neat, a fire is burning in the hearth. My sister sits in the center of the room.
She has very pale skin and long black hair. Her eyes are green, like the dragons, but the green is tinged with yellow. Cat's eyes. Unsettling eyes. She wears a long red robe made of the richest velvet. Her scars are obvious and stand out against her skin. Her disease does not cause putrid sores or half-eaten skin. There is simply a network of scars, raised flesh that is even whiter than her own skin, that crosses her entire face, her hands, her skin. She has been born scarred. It is frightening to look into eyes and realize that even her eyelids bear these scars. It is disturbing in the extreme.
"Hello," I venture, feeling foolish. I am only fifteen; she is obviously older, wiser, a skilled witch.
"Lina." Her voice holds no condemnation but simply quiet, as though she expects me to explain my appearance. I do not hear revulsion, hatred, cruelty. I hear emptiness.
"Yes. I- I did not know of your existence until now. I have come to ask you to remove the famine you cast upon my people."
She waves her hand, a dismissive gesture. "You have come to kill me, as is your right. But know-" and then her green eyes glowed, as though with pleasure, "that my death will not remove the famine."
"I have not come to kill you." I say this with queenly composure, only to remember I am no longer a queen. "I have come to request the removal of the famine."
"Nothing you can give me will induce me to remove it."
"What if I give you a place in my home? You would be treated as royalty, a foreign princess come to join us at court. You would have whatever you wanted- gems, jewels, cloth, suitors..."
"What, then, if I offer you honor? I would honor you beyond all others, and tell the story of how you courageously found the witch who had cast the famine, and forced her to remove the curse."
"No." A wry smile twists her face. "There is nothing you can offer me."
"Perhaps," I say gingerly, "a cure?" I take off my necklace of opals. "If you shed a tear upon this..."
"NO!" she roared then, and rose from her seat, flinging her distaff from her. "Do you think I do not know of opals? Do you think I have not tried? I have tried everything! Opals, the rarest stones, the rarests plants, herbs, even poisons, diluted in small amounts of water, to try to burn away the scars...lotions...everything that exists. It will not work. And you-" here she sneered at me- "you stole my throne, though you did not know it. You are beautiful and did not even realize I existed! You did not care to know-" She caught her breath, then paused. "Well, now you know. Now, when I have you in my power, you know."
I turned, as though to approach the dragon who waited for me outside. At that moment I heard a noise, and the piper I had met earlier in the evening approached through a door. He bowed to my sister, his iridescent clothing still shining. "The herbs you requested, mistress," he said, and placed them before her.
"Foolish Yates," she said, waving him away. "Do not disturb us now."
"Wait!" I cried out. "You- you are the piper!"
My sister looked at me cunningly. "You know him?"
"Certainly! He is a piper, one who plays his instrument with considerable skill.He came-"
"Is this so?" my sister smoothly interrupted. "How interesting for me. How come you never allowed me to enjoy your...skill? Go fetch your pipe and you shall play."
"I have no pipe, mistress."
I started at the lie. My movement betrayed him as my sister, eyes narrowed to slits, said, "Fetch one, then, from my chambers. The engraved one, with the gold filigree."
"Yes, my mistress."
He turned away, but not before I saw the green fire in his eyes. He was angry with me. With good reason- I had had no right to betray him or his secret to my sister. Worse, now that she knew he could play, she would probably force him to play for her pleasure all the time, no matter how tired he was. I bit my lip in thought, then remembered that I had come here to offer her my place as queen.
But could I, in good conscience, give her my beauty? Would she not be a cruel queen, as cruel and bitter as she was a witch now? Possibly not. I would have to send word to Damien that she was not me, regardless of her form, and that he should not trust her.
Unless she was given what she desired, however, she would destroy my subjects, starve them utterly until they all died. Doubtful she would give them a proper burial. She would probably allow them to lie in the snow, frozen into grotesque shapes. They did not deserve such treatment. Or did they? They had been cruel to me, would have allowed me to die, eaten by a dragon. But no. They had not been thinking rationally. I am sure they had not been.
Yates (was that really his name?) returned with the pipe. He set it to his lips and began to play, a haunting, desperate melody that made me feel hurt and vulnerable. I noticed my sister stiffen with the music, as though trying to hold something back. The liquid notes seemed to torture her, until finally she commanded, "Enough!" in a tone that brooked no argument.
"My name is Maeve."
"I have one more thing to offer you."
She eyed me suspiciously. "And what is that?" Regally, she seated herself upon her chair and spread her velvet robes.
"I will give you-" I took a harsh breath, "my beauty."
Her eyes opened wide in shock, then narrowed. "That is an old magic," she murmured to herself, "but yes, it could be done- provided the giver is willing- and then, with her beauty and wearing her form- I could rule! Yes, this is all I have ever wanted. Yes, yes!"
"Very well," she answered then, her red lips curving into a ghastly smile, "you will give me your beauty and I will end your famine."
"It must be signed in blood," the piper nonchalantly observed.
She wheeled on him and raised her hand as if to strike him. "Why, so it must," she then said, her tone considering. "After all, they will be my subjects now- I would not want them to starve."
She plucked a sharp silver knife from atop her black bureau, and held it to me. "Cut yourself with this," she ordered, "and sign your name upon this sheet," she extracted a sheet of vellum from another cabinet, "with this," and extended a peacock quill.
"Do nothing before she does," the piper cautioned.
Her pale face darkened. "You will be silent, Yates," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Still, she saw I made no move to do as she had commanded. "Oh, very well. I will sign the document first."
In a flash she raised her sleeve and cut herself, a fine line across her wrist. She shook a few drops of blood onto the paper, then dipped her quill into the welling wound. She signed her name artistically, "Maeve," elegantly across the page. In ink, she then clarified the terms of her bargain- I was to give her my beauty, and she would lift her curse and end the famine. She handed the knife to me. I wiped it upon my white robe, then, upon instinct, touched it to my necklace, which lit up instantly. The silver of the knife glowed red, then cooled. It had been healed from whatever malignancy Maeve had placed upon it.
I lifted one wrist, cut myself, and wrote my name, Lina. Then I waited.
"Who will do the binding?" Maeve intoned ritualistically.
"I will." The piper stepped forward and caught both our wrists, then placed them against each other. "Do you, Lina, agree to give Maeve your beauty?"
"And do you, Maeve, agree to end the famine you have caused?"
"Then let the binding," the piper intoned, "begin!"
He threw our wrists apart from one another, but they were caught, held together by a magical connection formed of blood. A silvery gleaming string seemed to stretch from her wrist to mine. I felt myself collapse as my beauty was sucked from me, felt myself age, my skin papery and frail. My hair whitened and I writhed on the floor. My body was expelling all that was beautiful within me. I felt myself gasp and retch, and finally, unable to stand any more, I fainted.
I arose with the piper's help. I looked across the room and saw myself- or saw myself as I had been, as I once was. My glowing hair, my countenance, my hands. Maeve looked delighted with herself. She was skipping around the room, dancing with happiness. The red robes she still wore were too large for my small fifteen-year old body; she was engulfed by them but did not seem to care. "I am Lina now," she said, and though her voice remained different than mine, it too had an odd quality of the beautiful within it. "I am Lina, and I am Queen!" She whirled around to look at me. A sneer began to form, but then, puzzled, she stopped, realizing she could not complete it. "I am truly beautiful," she whispered, "I have good inside me as well!"
"Have I given you my soul?" I cried, or tried to cry. My voice was a parched whisper, that of an old crone's, a hag's.
"No," the piper said, steadying me. "You have not given her your soul, only a part of your beauty. She has taken some of your inner beauty as well, but you have enough for both of you." He smiled kindly at me.
I walked to Maeve's mirror and nearly fainted again. My skin was ugly, wrinkled, old and bony. My face was old, my jowls hung down and my lips were coated with spittle. My hair was sparse and white. I was an old crone, a hag. Dismay splayed across my features. I wanted to cry, but would not.
"Come, then," the piper said. "It is time." He walked me outside, as though to look for my dragon. The dragon! He was not there. Frightened, I looked back at the piper. "I shall go look for him," he comforted me, and set out into the forest.
Maeve- or Lina, I suppose, for such is how she would be known- danced outside. "I will be a good ruler, Lina," she told me. "I know I will be because I have some of you inside me. I cannot be cruel without cause, now."
The dragon emerged gracefully from the forest. He motioned to Maeve and I, setting us upon his back. "I will carry you to your kingdom," he told Maeve. "You can tell your people how you came upon a white crone who tamed the dragon for you and prevented him from slaughtering you. She even subdued him so that he would return you to your people. Tell them that she has healed the land from its hunger, has stopped the famine. Warn them that they must act kindly toward one another if they wish these blessings to remain."
Maeve nodded her head in deference. Even she was cowed by my dragon!
"But where is the piper?" I asked.
"He has probably wandered off," the dragon stated.
"Should we not look for him?"
"He would not wish it," the dragon stated firmly.
We rose into the air, the dragon stopping near the sea to set Maeve down. Damien was there, having left the castle to check on me. He had been crying, it was clear, thinking that I had been eaten. His adoring eyes fixed on Maeve, thinking her to be me. He ran to her and threw his arms around her, kissing her all over. Her shocked expression became kinder as she realized who he must be.
"Lina! Lina!" he sobbed, hugging her wildly. "You're alive!"
"Certainly I am," she said laughingly. "Damien, this lady saved me. You may thank her." She motioned to me. I winced, thinking of my ugly, aged body.
"Thank you," he said in wonder, and knelt before me. "Thank you." He turned back to Maeve, inquiring, as though he did not want to know but felt it was his duty to ask, "and the famine?"
"Ended," she said laughingly, tossing her hair. "Come and we will return to the city."
She tooks his hand and the two of them made their way back to my kingdom.
I remained, looking at the sea. It might be better, I thought, than living this way...
"No," said the dragon firmly. His tail lashed around the boulder as he, too, stood facing the sea.
"But-" I said, and then the tears came. Human tears. They fell upon the opal stones, which lit with brilliant fire again. I felt my age melt away. I felt like myself and yet not myself. I felt strange. I looked down upon myself and realized my skin was smooth. Pale, whiter than it had been, completely white, almost. My hair was long, almost to my waist, and pure white. But I was young, with a young woman's body, and my eyes
"Glow amber," the dragon said, and then his body melted away. I watched, astonished, as he transformed himself into my piper. "I am the piper," he said. "I am both piper and dragon and long have I looked for a queen. A queen with courage, a queen who would stand and face her duty. A queen who would not run from a dragon. A queen who would save her kingdom, knowing that she went to her death, a queen who would give away her beauty even though it were her most prized posession. A queen," he said, his green eyes blazing, "like you."
I knelt before him in awe, amazed. "Will you be my Queen?" he asked.
For answer, I kissed him.
It was like no kiss I had ever experienced before. A sweet kind of experience danced within it, a kiss that spoke of the dragon's passion and his forbearance, his kindness and his gentle nature. I leaned toward him and we cried, our tears mingling as they fell upon my opals. They melted into my body and I grew in stature and size. My scales were white but opalescent, shimmering with colors just as his did. My amber eyes remained with me. He extended his wings and shook them, and I did the same, so that we two might fly. As dragons we would fly, as humans we would walk the earth. Together we would experience the world.
I am the Dragon Queen.