The Duke's daughter pulled herself onto the high stone ledge and collapsed, feeling the warmth ebb from her flushed cheeks.
She and her team of mountaineers had travelled six days in carriages, rattling down pitted roads. Three days on horseback, picking their way across the stony badlands till they left their horses at the base of the mountain and began their ascent. Stage by stage, the men climbed and sent down ropes to haul up the maiden. She wore a crimson dress shot through with gold thread and was wrapped in furs. Her leather-booted feet dangled.
She looked up the sheer mountain face with apprehension.
She was rising to meet the dragon's challenge. It had sent a message to each of the five kingdoms, that if a maiden, pure of heart, could endure the dragon's trial, she would receive a treasure greater than gold.
And so, Elladora, daughter of a duke, sweet-tempered with a sense of adventure she often hid, answered the call and made the journey. She had grown disillusioned of the world of men, of suitors who pretended love but actually sought her wealth. Of having power and privilege, but nothing of deep value.
Elladora lifted her head from the ledge.
Her men hauled up her baggage on ropes — a leather case and a large brass-rimmed trunk — and left her. She felt a heavy sense of loss as they descended. She was alone.
Standing with effort, she walked up to the entrance of the cave. It arched high above, making her feel small. Her footsteps echoed. As she stepped into the shadows, a large shape loomed towards her.
Her heart beat fast but she willed herself to be still.
A golden flame burst upwards as if from the bowels of the earth. She saw a flash of silver scales, an upraised neck, a long sleek body stretching into the shadows.
He lowered his head to her. His eyes shone like star sapphires, and a voice deep but clear sounded like a bell in her mind.
Why are you here?
“I'm here to seek the prize you promised.”
Are you ready to leave behind your illusions and learn something far beyond what you know?
Her voice quivered when she spoke. “I don't have any illusions.”
She heard a deep rumble and realised it was the dragon's laughter. Of course you do. I can see them writhing all around you like strands of spider-silk. I will burn them away with my fire.
“No,” she said, “I'm not ready to die.”
The dragon cocked his head at her and faced her with one luminous eye. Then it's clear you don't know about the magical properties of dragon fire.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Tell me, then."
Dragon fire cannot burn you, if you are pure of heart. But you must surrender completely and allow it to cleanse you.
She stood, gazing up, breathing rapidly.
“I don't want to surrender.”
The dragon's eyes flashed silver. Then get out! he roared. The voice rang so loudly in her mind she leapt back, but that did not decrease the sound.
Elladora walked rapidly out of the cave. At the edge of the stone ledge she stopped. She could not go any further. It was a sheer drop. The climb up had been excruciating and could only be accomplished with ropes.
Trembling, she unwound her furs, spread them along the outer wall of the cave, and lay down. She huddled against the wall as gusts of wind blew over her. Far in the distance, she saw a sprinkling of lanterns. Her city. Unreachable.
Shadows lightened to grey with the dawn. Elladora stretched her stiff limbs. She was sore but determined.
The dragon was crouched in the mouth of the cave. He regarded her.
She crossed her arms and tilted her head at him.
“Tell me then. How can I gain a treasure greater than gold?”
He narrowed his eyes at her, and at last he spoke. It goes beyond what you can see or touch. You have to feel it.
“How?” She demanded.
He reached out a silver claw and traced it from her neck to her chest. Any closer, and he would have sliced into her flesh. Here, with the heart.
“You mean fall in love? Anyone who promised me love has only given me lies.”
You don't know love! said the dragon with force. Those were just games with foolish courtiers! I mean love that takes over you completely, that becomes your sole purpose of existence.
Elladora frowned. "I don't believe such a love can exist."
The dragon regarded her. For you, perhaps not. Are you ready to pass through the trial of fire?
"No," she said, stiffening.
Then why are you here, you foolish girl! He lunged forward, beat his wings and launched into the sky. As he rushed past her, a powerful wind nearly knocked her off her feet.
Elladora caught her breath. Morning sun lit the dragon's scales to a luminous silver and the membrane between his wings was a blue brighter than the sky. He shrank to a speck and was gone.
Elladora paced the rock ledge. She looked down. The sheer drop below was more dizzying by daylight.
She ventured into the cave. Shadows lay heavy as solid things. As her eyes adjusted, she made out a faint light ahead. Curiosity drew her deeper.
High above, a shaft of light shone down. It illuminated a chamber that took her breath away.
She found herself surrounded by the composed faces and exquisite features of statues, all feminine, more goddesses than women. They were carved from marble, limestone and brass, in the clothing of faraway lands.
She stepped forward and realised the ground had become soft. Looking down, she saw she was standing on a carpet woven with interlocking triangles that grew smaller till what seemed like infinity.
Along the far wall she saw a row of dim figures — no, suits of armour. She recognized Kralian armour through the ages, all the way down to ancient constructions that must have been thousands of years old.
On the stone walls were paintings of vistas more beautiful than she had ever seen — of livid orange deserts and fields of purple flowers.
A table bore a collection of golden insects inlaid with jewels for their eyes and wings.
She reached for one.
Don't touch that, rang a stern voice in her mind. Elladora wheeled. The dragon was right behind her, so close she could feel his hot breath on her neck.
She pulled her hands away. "Sorry, I … I didn't know," she stammered.
"That you appreciate beauty, that you collect the very same things I would..."
Do you think that dragons can't appreciate beauty?
"No, I just... never considered..."
Perhaps I may seem harsh to you but that is my direct nature. He drew up beside her. I've gathered these from across the five kingdoms. I want you to know me. To trust me, he said. And in time, the treasure will be revealed. Are you open to trying?
Elladora looked into the dragon's eyes. She saw a softness she'd not noticed. A new appreciation dawned in her. "Yes," she said. "I am."
The dragon's lip curled back, displaying teeth like rows of swords, and she realised he was smiling.
Elladora's heart opened petal by petal.
The dragon became her companion. He taught her to see into the heart of things. He swooped down from the mountain and returned with food in his claws — loaves of bread, vegetables, whole sheep. Evenings in the firelight, she curled against his smooth scales. He nuzzled against her. She grew fond of his spicy breath. Of the deep, soothing voice that sounded in her mind. Of knowing she was not alone. She discovered the dragon was easily irked and often moody, but if she was persistent in loving him, the dark clouds of his mood would clear and his heart would shine back at her.
She could not pinpoint exactly when it happened, but something in her shifted. Like a stone wall exposed to the crashing waves, her defences crumbled. She softened.
She learned to love the dragon. To navigate his moods. Predict his actions. Know when to stroke his scaly hide and when to leave him.
When trust filled her heart like a beam of light, leaving no room for doubt, she said, “I'm ready.”
It seemed that the stars in the dragon's eyes glowed brighter.
Kneeling on the ledge of stone, Elladora bent her head. Archimiros opened his mouth and loosed a golden flame. She felt a silvery coldness. Then clarity like a dark cloud lifting as her illusions were seared away. Her misconceptions of love and what it could be. The petty manoeuvring that had dominated her life and shrunken her world.
She felt strength pouring into her, a golden power reaching to her core. Her own golden fire rising upwards in response. Strangest of all, she felt her body shifting, growing, watched her hands morph into claws, her skin turn silver and wings emerge from her shoulder blades. Her neck lengthened, her face extended; her mouth swelled with teeth. She breathed and golden flames emerged. Stretched her wings, felt a rippling power. Looked to Archimiros with admiration and even love — love that filled her being, that set her silver scales glowing. She flapped her wings — once, twice; felt her body lifting off the ledge.
Two silver dragons shot out of the mouth of the cave, wheeled and dove and circled each other. She ceased to notice the tiny specks of towers far below that had once made up her whole world. Side by side they flew, beyond the clouds, towards the dazzling sun.
It is said that their love creates the lightning. That the sound of thunder is their hearts cracking open to let more love in. That if you see a glint of silver high in the sky, it is them, soaring together, ageless.
Text copyright © 2021 by the authors. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Authors:
Malina Douglas weaves stories to light the fires of inspiration and immerse the reader in vivid worlds. She has published in Wyldblood, Flash Fiction Magazine, Metamorphose V2, and Indigo: A Western Australian Journal of Writing and was nominated as the Gold Writer of the ArtAscent Bliss issue. Other publications include Foilate Oak, Consequence Magazine, Rhythm & Bone, the Antipodean, Secret Attic and Sobotka Literary Magazine. Two of her stories were highly commended in the Michael Terence Summer Short Story Competition and published in their anthologies, “When it is Time” and “All Those Things You Thought Never Mattered”. She has published in the anthologies “Sea Glass Hearts”, “The Monsters We Forgot” and “Gothic Blue Books Vol 6: A Krampus Carol”. She tweets at @iridescentwords.
Clive Phillips is a linguist, translator, editor and poet. He has translated novels, philosophical texts, song lyrics, poems and screenplays from Russian to English. He writes and performs poetry and hosts events. He does narrations for films and is currently recording an audiobook for a novel he translated and edited. In his free time he dances and practices qi gong.