The Solitary Sorceress
A dragon is no idle fancy.
“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”
“I smell a dragon,” Neti heard herself say as she woke from a nightmare.
That sorceress scanned the small underground room where she had lived for well over half a millennium, but could find no dragon. But the vision remained as real for her then as it had been when she slept.
Only once before in her long life had she dreamed of such a fire-breathing monster. And that dream had soon become real. Not long thereafter, a dragon arrived from the north, ravishing the land and devouring her younger sister Zirijana. It would meet its end at the hand of a sword-wielding man. Neti had learned much since then. She knew that a dragon dream was like no other: such a creature, such a force, could only manifest itself in dreams—at least to those with her blood—if it were awake.
An awakened dragon was a threat to her as few living beings were or could be. She had gained power over so many things, from men and animals to trees and plants. But dragons were something else altogether, beasts of the ancient world, demonic spirits of air and fire, which, like Giants, their kin of the earth, and Nicerías, their cousins of the ocean depths, had been put to sleep thousands of years ago, long before her father was even born, in the oldest recorded battle when the Messengers defeated Kaksma, their renegade sibling. That cataclysmic conflict consumed—and nearly destroyed—the entire Earth.
Neti knew of only two men who had discovered the secret to rousing a dragon.
One lacked the ability to use it; the other, while possessing the ability, lacked the means, languishing as he did in her father’s dungeons. Who, she wondered, had awakened the dragon? Or could the dream have just been a dream—a shadow cast by her own deepest fears?
Perhaps, the solitary sorceress thought, trying to comfort herself, it had just been a dream, a dark visitation of the night that would pass with the dawn. But that hope barely flickered through her mind before fading. She knew too much to dismiss this dream. Dragons were no idle fancy. They could not awake, whether in the flesh or to a sorceress in her slumber, unless summoned.
She knew one was awake. And she knew that it would soon find a way to break free from its icy prison in the far north. With that knowledge in her head, she sat up, her disordered hair grazing the great tree root out of which she had carved her bed.
She could hear the sound of her breath, its cadence not that of a woman who was just rising from her bed, but of one fleeing from a foe. She could see her hands trembling—and could still feel the dampness of her white shift, pressed against her cold flesh. She touched the pillow; it too was drenched.
To try to calm her spirits, she surveyed her surroundings, seeking comfort in the familiar. Everything was as it was supposed to be, as it had been for six hundred years. She saw the books, the herbs, the vials, the chair where she sat and thought, the table where she ate and worked, the cabinet where she kept her clothes, the trunk where she hid what sacred objects she had: each box, each drawer secured with spells she had cast when old women’s great-grandfathers’ great-grandmothers played on their fathers’ knees.
The spells served little purpose. Only two men had made their way to this secret grove in the centuries she had lived there. And neither had even looked for this chamber’s entrance, nor could either have found it if he tried.
Still, the visual reassurance that all was undisturbed did not slow the rapid beating of her heart. Her chest continued to rise and fall as if her internal organs anticipated a peril that she could not perceive with her waking senses.
She scanned the arboreal roof, the first rays of morning light filtering in through tiny cracks between the roots of the tree and the stone of the earth. She rose from her bed, brushing aside the long strands of elf-hair suspended from a peg just above her. They seemed to spill out from the living wood, flowing into the room like water from a hidden spring. The hair was as brown now as it had been when she had cut it from the maiden’s corpse nearly seven centuries previously. Shivering as she felt an unexpected chill, she ran up the encircling staircase, its steps built into the earth itself, enclosing the entire room. Reaching the top, she emerged from a fold in the tree and joined the dawn. Everything was as it had been when she had turned in the night before. Only the light was different. She could no longer see the stars.
Her animals did not come to her, asleep as they were in their secret places. The wind waited. For a moment, hers was the only motion.
She walked around the tree, her eyes scanning the horizon. She could see little more than the spindling branches of the oak, sycamore, and yew trees she had enchanted to hide her home. Three ash trees stood in front of her, like sisters seeking support from one other. A hazel leaned over the brook where she drew water. She looked in vain for any signs of the coming spring, but found only a coating of frost on the brown bark.
All of a sudden, a gentle breeze, a warming, came from the West. A pair of icicles that had been dangling motionless from a narrow branch started dancing in the wind, as if beckoning her. One broke off and fell, hitting the hard ground with such force it shattered into a multitude of miniscule fragments, each soon to dissolve into the earth.
She saw the naked branches before her. She listened to the wind around her. She turned slightly and felt the bark of her tree behind her. She tasted the cold winter air. She drew in a long breath and sniffed.
“The smell is still there,” she sighed, her words breaking the morning silence.
And as she again sensed the beast’s scent, she knew it was coming for her. The sorcery in her blood would draw it. And that very sorcery could neither hurt nor hinder it. No enchantment could injure a demon of the ancient world. Any spell she used against it would only serve to increase its strength. She could no more harm a dragon with her great gifts than a little girl could tame a rabid mastiff with her sweet smile.
She well knew Zirijana’s fate. Her sister had become a skilled sorceress in her own right—and had dared face the dragon alone. But, as all witnesses reported, the very moment she cast her first—and only—spell, the beast began to grow, its skin shimmering. When she lifted her wand a second time, the dragon descended and then swallowed her whole. Her sister hadn’t had time to scream.
To save herself and avoid her sister’s fate, Neti would have to change her course. Drawing in a breath of cold air, she considered what she could accomplish with the resources available to her. She exhaled, and watched the warm mist rise from her mouth and dissipate into the sky. Hers was not the only blood which could draw a dragon.
She stepped forward and turned to the northeast, toward the City of Nah-nathas. Two there were in that city, one a sister sixteen hundred years her junior, whom she had never met. The other, as best she could guess, was unknown to her father, at least not for what he truly was. She could not travel to that city, could not cross the high ridge of the Brenlen Hills, hemmed in as she was by her father’s spells. But she might be able to direct the dragon that way.
That, however, would only slow the beast. After it had consumed all that it desired in that city, it would head west. It would come to her. She might be able to delay it, but she could not destroy it.
The only way she could fight the fire-breather was to accept an offer made forty years previously. She would have to reach out to the son of the first man to visit her in the past six centuries. Should she ask for his assistance, she would owe that man’s family a favor. She was reluctant to grant favors. She had not granted any in a thousand years. Nor had she asked for any. In the uncounted moons that had passed since then, she had managed on her own. She hadn’t needed anyone’s assistance.
But a dragon was coming.
She could not fight a dragon on her own.
As she turned her mind to the lessons learned when the last dragon had come, killing her sister and thousands of others, she recalled the sword that son had shown her. It could bring down such a beast.
But she had yet to meet the one man alive who could wield that weapon.