I didn’t even try fighting. I was probably strong enough to escape him, but I wouldn’t get much farther. My eyes grazed the rocky ground around us. Old bloodstains darkened the stones from those who thought they could get away. Well, at least my death wouldn’t be boring. It was like I was in one of the stories I told my sisters.
I just wished those stories had been true.
Father continued fumbling at the ropes. “I’m not tying them tight. If you think you can get away, run. Please. I can’t lose someone else. Please.”
Right. Like Samael would allow that. No girl had ever escaped in the history of our village, nor the history of any village up and down the coast, as far as the bards said.
Girls only escaped in my stories.
I faced the rock shelters that hid most of the villagers. Huge stones squatted over low pits, allowing everyone to watch safely. And everyone had to come and watch. It was law. Even my sisters. The girls I’d practically raised since they sacrificed mom, years ago.
And I was always my mother’s daughter.
Samael watched closely. His lips twitched. “You could have been someone important, Alaina. I am sorry that you were chosen in the lottery.”
I glared at him. I felt Father glare at him.
“Gerard,” he continued, tired of waiting. “She’s secured. Get back to the shelters”
Father placed his hand over mine and once more whispered, “I’m sorry,” before obeying. His back came into view as he trudged toward the shelters. The girls watched, their eyes fearful. They were learning the lesson: Don’t be like Alaina. Don’t tell stories like she did. Don’t sing like she did. Like her mother did. Dragons eat girls like that. The lottery might be random, but troublemakers always got what they should get.
I took a deep breath. My eyes burned. I refused to let any tears out.
Samael tilted his head toward me. His cloak fluttered in the slight breeze. His eyes drank me in like they always did. For once I made eye contact with him. I let my distaste wrinkle my nose.
He chuckled. He knew he’d won.
I hated that he was right.
He turned back toward the shelters and began the ritual. “Hear me, people who are safe from claw and wing! Once our parents feared the dragons. Once we trembled at their passing. But then my father found a thing that made the wyrms shrink: stories! Though we could not entirely dispel those evil creatures, we could reshape them. Stories told by a bard, sung from sacred lyrics, could bend them to our will.
“So he wrapped a chain of words around them: No longer would they hunt us all. But once a year they would take one to sate their terrible hatred. And so it was! Every year, a lottery! We have been saved, and now one dies to keep us all free. Behold, Alaina, daughter of Gerard, a maiden who gives herself freely that we all might live!”
Every year the same story. This time I saw the back of his head, though. This time I wasn’t watching from the stone shelters.
This time I saw the fear in every woman’s face. In Pendia and Calla’s faces, my sisters. I taught them how to spin thread, how to use the wheel without hurting themselves too often. I told them stories to pass the time. Stories of brave girls who tamed dragons. Brave girls who sang back to the dragons.
“Why do the dragons always sound so sad when they come?” Pendia asked me one day.
I remember laughing, saying the first thing that came to mind: “You would be sad if you looked like that, too! But you’re so pretty. You’re no dragon!” And I tickled her.
While she giggled, Calla put her hands on her hips. “Why aren’t boys ever sacrificed?”
I shushed her. “That’s a good question. Maybe they’re not brave enough.”
But Samael had been passing through and heard my answer. He struck my forearm with that reed he carried. “The dragons are beasts, and they hunger for beauty. Only women can sate those monsters. And we must sate them. If we ever stopped the sacrifices, their chains of words would break, and we would all be devoured! So we offer the most beautiful among us.”
I think that was the first time I felt his eyes on me.
That night he visited our home. I hid behind our hut, hoping Samael wouldn’t see me. I heard father shout. Samael stalked away, and father said nothing to me that night. I remember his hands shook as we blessed bread together, though.
I clenched my hands into fists. The cords slithered a bit around my wrists. I could run. I could get away. But the dragons would find me. Or if I ran, they would eat Pendia and Calla. Maybe Father, too. If I stayed, I kept them safe for at least another year.
Is this how so many women stayed without fighting? Bound with guilt?
I searched the heavens for the shadows that would mean my death. Two notes rang out, a cross between a hum and a whistle. An unresolved chord of longing. My heart sang too, in mourning, for the women who came here before me, for my friend Daima last year, for Karina before her, for Mother years ago. For Pendia and Calla, who would live in fear of the lottery all their lives.
Samael smiled at me. His eyes ate me little by little, savoring every nibble they took. He knew he had time. The dragons never came near when he was still in sight. He looked just a little sad, but not for me. He turned and trudged to the shelters. The people separated, leaving a large space around him.
The song grew louder. Two more notes joined the chord, deeper, resonant, just as unresolved. The sound crawled into my ears, into my mind.
Every year I had resisted the song. Every year. Mother had told me to stay silent. Father told me to stay silent.Just once, before Pendia was born, I’d hummed the notes, started to sing back at the sky, until Samael struck me on the back of the head, his face like thunder.
This year he could not silence me. I was a troublemaker. I told stories, and sang songs I should not sing. What more could the bard do to me? If I was going to die, if I was going to be a sacrifice, well, I might as well be what I was.
I answered their music. My tone shook, pulsing in time with the roaring in my ears, thin and weak. It could not carry far. I took a deep breath, as deep as I could, and called out again. I matched their unresolved mourning. I heard Samael shout from the shelters. I didn’t understand his words over my own voice. I didn’t try to.
Shapes swooped in from the sky. Dark shadows first, four wings each, then misshapen lizards with asymmetrical heads and scales the color of rotten seaweed, ugly beasts that could never find love.
The chord they sang as they descended wrapped around me, squeezing my heart, and I filled my lungs again. These dragons mourned? Well, so did I. I mourned all the women who came before, all the girls that would follow. And I mourned myself.
Four of the beasts landed near me, looming over me. As soon as they landed, their song began to fade.
But I kept singing. I shifted the note to the one I hummed as a little girl. I completed their chord. It had remained unresolved for years, for decades maybe, but I found the note that had rung inside me for my entire life.
All four dragons sat on their haunches, as if waiting patiently. They didn’t move to attack.
From somewhere beyond them, I heard the bard shouting out the next lines of the story: “And so the dragons return every year, but only once, to take from us our best, so the rest may live! In this way, we remain safe!”
One of the wyrms growled and turned toward the bard.
The other three watched me. They should have been snapping with their beaks, rending with terrible talons, taking me and killing me in the most painful way, the sounds of shattering bones breaking the sounds of my screaming. They should have been tearing me apart and fighting over the pieces. They should have been devouring every sinew.
So I kept singing. I pushed the note of resolution out, as loud as I could, taking short, sharp breaths. My lungs began to ache. My throat joined in. Normally I sang under my breath, just to the girls, just to teach them the songs our mother taught me. But this was loud, so loud it hurt my ears.
The bard was shouting. Again, I lost the words under the sound of my own voice. The dragons shifted, as if uncomfortable. How long could I keep this up? Would they take me as soon as I stopped singing? I didn’t want the girls to see. They shouldn’t have to see any sacrifice. They shouldn’t have to see my death. They shouldn’t have to fear like I did.
As I gulped another breath, Samael’s voice shouted, “Eat her so we can be safe!”
And as my note failed, as the dragons shifted, I suddenly understood. Samael said it every year: Words bound the dragons. They could shape the dragons. They couldn’t break the dragons, couldn’t make them what they weren’t, but they could bend them.
And I could use my words to do the same, couldn’t I? I wasn’t a bard, but I was a storyteller.
I gulped another breath, and with my broken voice cried out, “The dragons came every year for the sacrifice, but for this one, for the one who sang to them, they plucked her up and took her safely away!”
As I finished the sentence, the largest of them had me in a three-and-a-half fingered talon, rough scales gripping me tight through my lumpy brown dress. And then the ground was far away. I screamed, and then my voice was gone, and then there I was, in the sky, my feet dangling below me. One shoe fell off. It fell and fell and fell. I hoped it hit Samael in the head, but it was probably lost in the sea.
The dragon song started again. It crept into my ears, sorrowful, dissonant. Now, though, there was a rhythm to it, a pounding four-sided beat. The notes slipped into my ears, into my mind, calming me.
I had faced the stake below calmly. Now, even as the dragons were about to eat me, I knew my story would remain in the village. Pendia would tell Calla, and Calla would tell others. They would get in trouble, but they would have hope. After all, I wasn’t eaten, at least not where they could see. The first girl ever to escape.
And even when the dragons did eat me, I would know what it was to fly.
Who else could ever say that?
I looked up from my feet to the dragons flying around me. I couldn’t see the one holding me well, but the others, the song beat in time to their wings.
The membranes of their wings vibrated. That’s what caused the song, and now that they weren’t gliding, it wasn’t just one extended note. But their song never resolved, because their wings were deformed in a way that would not let them complete their tune.
The dragons flying nearest watched me with hungry eyes, beaks snapping, talons flexing with each beat of their wings and song, drool streaming into the wind. My fate had been delayed, not changed.
I closed my eyes, sinking into the chord. My heartbeat came back strong, over the sound of the wind, but I shoved it down. If I sang the wrong note, they might fight over me in the sky instead of on the ground. Calm. Think. You were defiant down there. Now be defiant here. You can do this.
The cold clawed at me, tearing at my skin. Be still. Don’t tremble. Just listen. Listen.
I thought I found it. I tried to take a deep breath, but my throat. Oh, my throat. It hurt so much. I found the note, but how could I sing it? How could I stop them from feasting the way I had before?
Maybe I could buy myself some time. Maybe I could tell another story. Another quick story.
If my ruined throat would let me.
The words came out in a sobbing, croaking rush. “The dragons loved the girl’s singing so much, they decided to keep her. They would never eat her!”
The talon that clutched me loosened, just a little. My lungs expanded. Fresh pain choked me, but I could breathe freely again.
The dragons purred their dissonant song. Through gray clouds they sang as they flew. They didn’t snap at me again.
They made no aggressive action. They seemed far more intent on cleaning themselves. The one that had carried me investigated the talon that held me, sniffing at it, picking at it with its beak.
My body was sore, and my throat still ached, but all at once everything relaxed. I couldn’t keep being this scared. I’d been terrified and broken and shown what flying was like. I was a legend now: The Girl Who Wasn’t Eaten. But now what? Try to escape? Try to go home? Should I stay, and try more stories with the dragons?
I turned to the pitiful spring. Green sludge grew along its edges, and I wrinkled my nose at the rancid smell, but I spotted a clear channel of water running through the midst of the little swamp.
I lifted the hem of my dress and stepped over as much of the muck as I could. The center of the stream came to my ankles, but it trickled far more quickly than I expected. I bent with cupped hands and lifted the water to my mouth.
It was cool and crisp on my tongue.
Swallowing was agony, but in a way that felt like I needed more, like when I’d had a fever and my father forced me to drink. My throat needed time to heal, but if water hurt that much, how much would it hurt to actually speak? All I had were questions. I couldn’t stay here, but where would I go? Could I go back to my village? How far was it? And even if I could make the journey, what would Samael do when I arrived?
One of the dragons, the one that had carried me, began to purr. It settled into its nest, closed its eyes, and lifted its beak.
The others joined in, the chords lifting together, a glorious symphony.
The only beautiful thing about the dragons is their song. It had a heart-breaking splendor as they plunged to destroy women from my village, but here, here it was complete. The dragons were content, even though they hadn’t gotten their sacrifice. Even though they hadn’t eaten me. They hadn’t eaten anything.
The dragons kept purring their triumphant melody, and I wished my voice was healed already. I would have joined in.
What was I thinking? These were murderers. These were not creatures to join. They were beasts to annihilate. I should curse them out of existence, not join them in song!
If only. Dragons could be bent by words, but not broken. I slumped. What would it change—Samael still ruled my village, if he couldn’t use the dragons to execute women he branded troublemakers, he would find some other way. I could take away his weapon, but he would still be just as dangerous.
And yet… I had made the creatures who murdered my mother friendly to me. Maybe I would be able to say something. But what? The dragons carried Alaina to her home and left forever? If Samael was to be believed, that would break the dragons. They needed to eat humans.
If Samael was to be believed.
That man had terrorized the village for longer than I was alive. Somehow only the troublemakers were chosen in the lottery, but Samael decided who it was caused trouble—how many of those women, I suddenly wondered, had also turned his advances down? He’d used the dragons to clear the village of women who might oppose him! He’d used the dragons to murder.
I looked again at the dragons around me. They were monstrous, yes. But they had not harmed me.
How far could words bend dragons? Could I turn the dragons against him? Use them, the way he did?
And if I did, wouldn’t that make me just as repulsive as he was?
At that moment, the song stopped. The heads of all four dragons snapped around, their unblinking stares on the entrance of the cave. I saw nothing entering, nothing leaving.
An angry sound uncoiled from the throat of the dragon nearest me. Each dragon vibrated with resentment, hatred, aimed at something out there.
The one that had carried me stepped out of its nest, its long lumpy tail curled under its massive body. It limped toward me and extended a talon, palm up. Its growl turned into a whimper. It stepped closer, talon still proffered.
The other three stood in their nests, still sounding their growls, now mixed with their own whimpers. They struggled toward the entrance of the cave, their muscles straining. What was going on? They didn’t want to leave, it seemed, but something pushed them out. The beasts who devoured my mother. The monsters who terrorized my village.
If they left, I could escape. I could climb out of this cave. I could find my way home.
But this one. It could just take me if it wanted. Instead, it begged, with whimpers and whines.
The story I told made them love me. Was it that simple? I had changed them, wiped away some sludge and added some beauty? Could my words bend them to take me home again?
My throat still burned, but the water had helped significantly. Maybe I could push out another sentence. Maybe two. And this one wouldn’t hurt me. It would protect me.
I climbed into its claw. It cradled me and limped toward the cavern’s entrance, spread its four wings and leaped into the sky, a song with no resolution sounding from misshapen wings.
I woke as a growl again uncoiled from the dragon carrying me. The rhythm of the wingsong had changed: no longer soaring, their wings beat to hold the dragons in place. Four heads bent toward the earth. I saw nothing but the gray clouds. I cupped my hands over my mouth, trying to warm the air before I breathed it in. My throat still ached, but the fire seemed to have gone out. They held position for a few moments, and then plunged. Their mournful song became one long chord of desperation.
The talon holding me tightened ever so slightly, keeping me secure. The wind pressed against my eyes as I strained to see where we were going.
We broke through the clouds above a village, clustered against the shore. A meadow of bare rock, a huddle of stone shelters. A post. Someone tied to the post in a brown dress.
Another sacrifice. Another woman torn apart, another village bard gloating as he got his way, one way or another.
Hate smoldered in my heart. I could bend the dragons again. Just one sentence: The dragons rammed into the ground at full speed! I could slay the beasts with one sentence they would be gone forever, and me with them.
The Girl Who Conquered The Dragons.
Then my thoughts of grim heroism were extinguished. As we descended towards the rooftops, I found I recognised them. Even without an order from me, the dragons had returned to my home, and that could only mean one thing: Samael had commanded it.
Another lottery, another victim. I had changed nothing.
The wingsong ended. The dragons alighted onto the rocky ground, growling at the woman tied to the post.
No. Not woman, child.
Calla, my sister.
I fought against the dragon’s grip and Calla’s eyes flared in sudden recognition, that huge dopey smile of hers spreading across her face. But behind me, Samael’s voice called out, “A sacrifice must be made! Alaina the troublemaker destroyed our chance for peace, and peace must be preserved! So the dragons returned to give the village a second chance!”
Samael’s lies—the dragons had no interest in us, they were happy in their cave until Samael’s lottery called them to him. They didn’t want to be his slaves, they fought against his story.
I had to tell another.
“The dragons weren’t hungry!” I shouted. “They didn’t want another sacrifice!”
Something gave in my throat, sharp and hard. I cried out, coughed, and tasted blood.
But the dragon holding me began to purr.
It set me down on the stony ground. I stumbled, a hand to my throat, and then rushed to the post, to Calla. Tears streamed down her face. “I knew you’d be back! I knew that the dragons didn’t eat you! Samael wouldn’t accept what I said. He told me to be quiet. But your heroes, Alaina! They always spoke up! And so did I!”
I nodded, straining to release her wrists. Whoever tied her was not as kind as my father had been. I looked past Calla to where the villagers stood watching, mouths hanging open, Father among them—and Samael, staring at my sister and I in fury.
“No! The sacrifice must be made or the dragons will attack us all!” Samael’s voice cut through the contented purring. “The dragons must take them both and leave us in peace!”
The purring turned to growling. The dragons’ talons flexed, and they approached—resisting, like they had in the cave, my old story and Samael’s new one in conflict, but coming for us all the same.
“I’ll stop them, Alaina!” And as I struggled with the knots, struggled with what to say that Samael couldn’t just unweave, Calla sang out. The same note I had sung.
She completed the chord.
The dragons stopped growling, stopped closing on us. They sat, listening. Samael shouted from behind, but they paid him no mind.
Calla’s young lungs couldn’t hold enough air, her voice began to waver, and then Pendia was there, singing the same note.
My girls, my sisters, the ones I taught and told stories to. They sang together, loud and true, so much more steady than my note had been. Pure as the clear water running through green sludge in the dragon’s cave.
I stopped pulling at the knot.
All I had to do was clear away the sludge.
One last rasping breath. One last story.
“The old stories were all wrong!” My voice came out raw, like an old woman’s. The pain shook me, my eyes burned. It didn’t matter. “But then a girl discovered the truth, and the dragons were restored to what they were before, never again to be bound!”
Deep inside, my throat burst. I fell to the ground, clawing at my neck. I couldn’t breathe, blood dribbling through my lips, pooling on the stone, joining with the blood of so many women before me.
I thought I’d escaped. I was wrong.
I saw flashes of light at the edges of my vision, , and then the girls were there, lifting me up and pushing me down, and pleading and talking, and singing, there was so much singing, and voices, and I felt warm, and then—
And then silence.
“Alaina, singer, storyteller, troublemaker, rise.” The voice hid a smile. It was warm and feminine.
I struggled to my feet. Calla and Pendia stood beside me on either side. We stared up at the gigantic, shimmering dragons.
Their song wasn’t the only beautiful thing about them anymore. Their scales glowed gentle gold, wings folded gracefully at their sides. One bent her long neck to me. “You have restored us, you and the song you taught your friends.”
The dragon glanced at Samael, who stood trembling nearby. “This one’s father trapped us in words, he and those like him, to strike at any they felt were dangerous. This one continued that crime. But now we are free.”
Calla jumped up and down at my side. “It was your stories, Alaina! Your stories were right!”
I looked down at her and tried to respond. No sound came.
The last dragon bowed, sorrowful. “You gave all you had of your song and your story to us. We were able to save you from death, but we were not able to save your voice. Too much damage had already been done.”
I looked up at the shining dragon. The one who had been forced to devour so many of us. Had been trapped. It wasn’t her fault. Samael, and his father before him. They were the ones.
“We will take care of the bards. Our story will be as you told. No dragon will ever be bound again. And the next time we come, it will be as friends.”
The dragons leapt into the air, the song of their perfect wings transformed from melancholy into a harmonious chorus, its glory spoiled only by Samael’s terrified screams as they carried him with them.
It was over. No more sacrifices. No more terror. It was done.
And so was I. That was my last story. I never spoke another word as long as I lived, and never sang again.
But Calla and Pendia. Ah, they had learned from me. And now they can learn from the dragons themselves. They will be free to have their own stories to tell.
Those are powerful things.
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