[It's sort of been sitting in my head for years. Though some details far less long.]
'This is what happens when you try to interfere in other people's cultures,' she told herself, straining against the ropes binding her arms, staring out at the strange clearing in front of her. It obviously wasn't clear because it couldn't support trees, as evidenced by the young trees growing up in it, but none of them looked more than a year old.
That bothered her.
What if all those sacrificed before hadn't died of exposure and then been spirited off by the elders to keep the superstition alive? What if they'd really been sacrificed to something? Something with enough force to beat back the forest on yearly basis.
And soon all doubt was removed as just such a something cast a shadow over her, and then loudly landed in the clearing.
She was having difficulty processing that the thing was real.
She could see before her. She could see it's size. See it's color, a sort of dull black unless the light hit it just right and the iridescence took hold. Then it had all the colors of a grackle or a soap bubble. She could see its size. He could hear its movements. She could note that the walk around the clearing it was taking was flattening all of the new growth and infer that if having done this on a yearly basis was why the clearing existed.
Most of all she could see it's shape, and therefore name it.
She could even smell it to some degree, and feel the wind displaced when it beat its wings.
What she was finding it impossible to do was come to terms with the fact that there was, in real life, a dragon in front of her.
It approached her and sniffed her. A rush of air whipping past her into its nostrils. Then it gave an annoyed snort and did something eyebending that she couldn't describe, she had to close her eyes to avert the headache she felt coming and when she opened them again a young man, about her age, stood before her. He did not look happy.
"Who the fuck are you?" he asked, clearly more from confusion and for information than out of anger. Whoever he wasn't happy with, it wasn't her.
When she found her voice she responded, "You speak English?"
"I speak whatever language suits the situation," the young man said as he started to pace, "Besides, at this point in history it seems like everyone speaks English."
She was trying to think of something to say when he continued, "Bastardized mongrel language that it is. Bastardized German, bastardized Latin, bastardized Greek, even bastardized Dutch."
"You left out bastardized French," she said.
"That's just twice bastardized Latin." He turned his attention to her, and to her situation, noting the ropes binding her arms, and her clothing. "You still haven't answered my question."
"My name is Marie, I'm a hiker, a tourist."
"Thought the accent gave it away."
"I don't get out much." He looked away and mumbled, "Just what I need," sarcastically. "You're not from the village."
"That wasn't a question. Besides, you already answered. They've been fucking me over for years by sticking to the letter of our arrangement rather than the intent, but this," he gestured at her, "this violates both." He sighed, "I'd better get you down."
He passed out of her sight, behind her. She felt the rope around her left arm being loosened, then her arm was free. "I'm sure you'll be wanting to get out of here," He started to work on the rope binding her right arm, "but these things take time. You'll need a place to stay in the meantime. I can help with that."
Her right arm was free, and so she was free, she spun around to face him.
"But I need something from you first," he said.
"What?" she asked, grateful as she was for being set free she couldn't keep the suspicion from her voice.
"What do you want to know?"
"What happened in the village."
"There are some things that words can't communicate, and even if they could it would take too long." He paused, "Now what I'm about to do is a bit intrusive, and I'm sorry for that, but it's the only way."
She hadn't noticed his hands creeping up to the sides of her head, but at that moment they reached her temples and suddenly she was reliving her entire visit to the village, in greater detail than she realized she had noticed when it was actually happening. What especially stood out was where each member stood with respect to the sacrifice. Who objected, who tried to stop it, who was for it, who stood by and did nothing.
How she had tried to convince them not to sacrifice anyone, how they had decided that in that case they'd sacrifice her, and again what seemed to stand out was the position of every member of the village. And it was every member, every adult at any rate, because it had been a group decision to sacrifice her in place of the chosen victim.
Then she was back in the present.
"Thank you," he said.
Another eyebending transformation and she was being carried through the air by a dragon, then they landed and he was human again.
He led her to a hole in the ground, which led to a series of steps and then a hollowed out cave with people of various ages, most of them female. "Carmen," he called out, "Carmen."
A response came in another language she didn't understand, perhaps Romanian, from another young man. The dragon-man responded in that language and the youth hurried over. The two had a quick conversation in that language, then the dragon-man said, "Marie, this is Carmen. Don't laugh, it's a perfectly legitimate male name."
"And my mother wanted a girl," Carmen mumbled.
"Carmen, this is Marie. The pact has been broken, I have work to do, make her comfortable until I get back." Then that dragon man left.
Carmen looked at Marie strangely, as if seeing some relic or wonder in a museum. Finally he said, "So you're an American?"
"I've never seen one before, except on television."
"You have a television?"
"No. No, no, no. As a child, before the village sacrificed me," Marie's brain hiccupped at that. "Tell me, did you ever see a show called, 'Hogan's Heroes'?"
"Pity, that was how I learned English. Of course it was before your time. Before my time too, actually. Got it by... that's not important. I assume me knowing English is why he chose me to deal with you. At least I hope it is."
"The dragon has an unfortunate tendency to play matchmaker. He's not all that bad at it, but when he's right it just makes things even more frustrating. In everything else he's great to live with, but trying to control love is just... Am I boring you? We don't talk to outsiders much. I'd hate to think I was boring you.
"Most of my practice with English has been talking to myself, or imaginary friends. I'm talking to much, aren't I. You should have a chance to say something. Sorry. Say something."
There was a pause that was somewhat awkward, then Marie asked, "Did you say you were... that you were sacrificed?"
"Yeah, we all were. The ones who were born under the dragon's protection live in a different cave. It's not like we never get together, and if someone feels like they'd be more comfortable in the cave they're not in they can switch, but generally those of use who remember the village have an easier time relating with one another than those who grew up outside of it."
"I... don't understand."
"Well how much do you know."
"Nothing, or thereabouts." Marie said. "Assume I know nothing and start from there."
"Ok, so the story goes... um," Carmen stopped. "Sorry, I don't think I've ever met someone who didn't know the story before. Let me start again.
"A long time ago dragons had retreated to these woods as they were slain throughout the land. And for a while all was peaceful. But then, sometime after the village was built, the humans of the village discovered the dragons of the wood and decided to wipe them out.
"At least that's one version of the story, another says the dragons struck first. Either way the dragons were all but exterminated. Only one survived. You met him."
"Doesn't he have a name?"
"Of course he has a name, but it's in dragon. No one can say it. And since he's the only dragon around people just call him "the dragon". In our native tongue of course. Anyway... where was I?"
"Only one survivor."
"Right, he was the only dragon left alive, and badly wounded at that, but the cost to the village was all of the fighters Or at least enough of the fighters that, even wounded, the dragon could destroy the village, but might himself be destroyed int the process.
"He didn't want to destroy the village. He wanted to destroy the people who had ordered his kind killed while remaining in safety and leaving others to do their dirty work. He wanted to hurt the ones responsible, and only the ones responsible.
"So he negotiated.
"He could not get the village to give up its leaders there and then, and in the end the deal was struck that every year one would be given to him. The compact was sealed with magic of some form or other.
"And the next year, on seeing the first sacrifice, the dragon realized he'd been tricked. Any native of the village could fulfill the obligation, and the leaders weren't about to send themselves to sacrifice, so instead the sacrifices were those with too little power to defend themselves. At first dissidents and the like, but then there was a shift toward children, and for a while it was virgin maidens and generally anything other than the people who were actually in power.
"So for generations now the dragon has been faced with the question of what to do with all of us who were sacrificed. And what he does is bring us here, and let us live out our live our lives. And carries on ... um... what's the word?"
Marie gave him a blank stare.
"The dragon would know, it's an English word with Latin and Greek roots. He likes those. Mostly he likes to insult them. P. It starts with 'p'." He made motions as if speaking but no sound came out, then he found the motion that felt right. "Poly! It's polysomething."
"Polyamorous. He carries on polyamorous relationships with a lot of the women. I think he considers himself lucky that the people in the village are more willing to part with a girl than a boy, because it means he gets more chances at relationships."
"The dragon has sex with humans?"
"Only those who want it, of course. No one is forced into a relationship they don't want here. Dragon rules. But yes, and not just sex. He has children." Carmen hit his head, remembering something. "In fact," he said, leading her to a tunnel that snaked off toward another section of the cave complex, "you came here on a good day. We're expecting a birth."
The tunnel was narrow enough that it made the most sense for her to walk behind him, Carmen kept on talking only occasionally looking back, "I should be closer to our... infirmary. Is that the word? I think that's the world. I should have been there before you even arrived but I forgot."
They arrived in another chamber and Carmen spoke with a woman. He turned to Marie and said, "I'm not late yet. Would you like to-"
The woman asked Carmen something and Carmen answered. The woman turned to Marie and asked something. Carmen explained, "She was wondering who you were, I told her you were an American, she wants to know how you got here."
"I said that sacrificing people is wrong and anyone who sacrifices another to save their own life doesn't deserve to have their life saved."
Carmen translated and the woman responded, "She says you'll fit right in here."
Marie looked at the floor and added, "I also said there was no such thing as dragons."
Carmen translated. The woman laughed then asked something. "What do you think now?" Carmen asked.
"I was wrong on that point..." Carmen started to translate. "But everything I said about sacrifice was true."
Carmen translated, the woman responded. "She says she likes you, but you really should learn the language."
The woman walked away to do other things.
Carmen asked, "I'm going to be delivering today, that's why I have to be here for the birth, would you like to help?"
"Come on, how often do you get to see a human being lay an egg in a life like yours?"
"Lay an egg?"
"How is laying an egg birth?"
"When it comes out of the mother: birth. When it comes out of the egg: hatching."
There was a pause.
"Is my English wrong?" Carmen asked.
"I'm not sure. How does it work?"
"Nine months in the mother, twice as long outside the mother in the egg. Don't have any hatchings due soon, but like I said, expecting an egg to come out today. Any minute now someone could come out shouting for me to oversee the delivery." There was a pause. "Any minute now."
"Do you want to help?" Carmen asked.
"I'll help," Marie said.
The delivery was largely unremarkable, but when the egg did come out it caused Marie, who was helping Carmen to catch it, to exclaim, "Good God that's heavy!"
"It's dense," Carmen said, visibly struggling with the weight. "It has to be because... I'll show you, but lets set it down first."
They carefully laid the egg on a soft area created by piling up leaves and ferns. Carmen looked it over and said something to the mother, she seemed relieved.
"I'm guessing you said it was healthy."
"Good guess." Carmen took a moment of silence then said, "See these lines?" pointing to a network of curving reddish cracks crisscrossing the otherwise black egg. "They're seams. As time goes on they'll expand and these two sections," he pointed to black areas adjacent to each other, "Will go from being like this," he put his hands together, "to like this," he pulled his hands apart to shoulder width.
"So this egg...."
"Is going to be huge. But it needs to be small to fit through the birth canal and that's why it's so dense. Now that it's touched air all sorts of chemical processes will kick off inside of it the end result of which will be a much bigger, much less dense egg.
"And almost all of that big egg is here already, hence how heavy it is."
"Almost?" Marie asked.
"Well, it will pull in moisture from the air and we... you know... pour buckets of water on the eggs just in case."
[Original Work Index]