The Dragon’s Riddle:
This creature’s found with every flesh,
A joy in birth, a balm of death.
Wrought where even waters die,
Friend by tongue, and kin to I.
Many years from now, a man charges across an open green, seated high upon his steed with a lance tucked under his arm. The woman he rushes does not move at his approach, nor does she cry out in pain when his weapon finds its mark. He rides past, then brings his horse around with the expectation of seeing her dead. He will be sorely disappointed.
She stands tall, and with a languid motion, the lance is plucked from her breast and cast aside. She advances upon him; the eyes of his horse roll within their sockets in dumb animal fear, and that is the only warning he receives before his steed rears back, and he falls. When he manages to gain his bearings once more, his horse has long abandoned him, and the woman stands before him unharmed, not even a spot of blood upon her tunic. Her hand curls around the circumference of his neck, and she wrenches him off of his feet. He kicks out against empty air. One hand goes to her iron grip, the other toward his sword, but she unsheathes it for him and holds the point just over his left breast.
“If I attempt to pierce your heart, rest assured, I will be wildly more successful,” she says. Her nails slice through the film of his flesh, drawing out pinpricks of blood.
“What kind of creature are you?” he gasps. For he has heard that she is, at best, a witch and a trickster, and at worst, an unholy beast—but not in all his wanderings did he hear tell she might be deathless. But she deigns not to answer him; instead, her grip loosens, and he is thrown to the ground.
“You will not be the last to try this,” she informs him, “though, fortunately for me, you were not the first, either.” Her fingers find the tear in her tunic that his lance made, and she rends it further to reveal what lies beneath. A fantastical sight greets his eyes. For the first time in his life, he is struck dumb with wonder.
“Shall I tell you a secret, Sir Knight?” she asks, “one my father taught to me?” She crouches before him, face to his face. One hand grips his chin, claws pinching the flesh of his cheeks, and he is forced to look into her green, green eyes.
“Once your heart has been broken that first time—and provided you survive it—another can never kill you,” she whispers, her breath sweet again his skin, her smile sharp. “So, you should have gone for the head.”
She lets him go. “Leave now,” she tells him, “and you will live to fight another day. Go procure yourself another horse and a better lance. Come back and test your luck once more, if you so desire. But if you do, heed my advice. Aim straight and true. I will not be so merciful again.” And then, with a rush of unnatural wind, she is gone.
He will scamper away to lick his wounds. He will seek out a new mount and a better weapon, and as he procures his supplies, his mind will return to her again and again until the hidden depths of her eyes are a well-worn memory. When they meet once more, on a different green, perhaps he will have taken her warning to heart. Perhaps this time, when he approaches her, he has a different goal entirely. But this is not that story. Not yet.
Once upon a time, there stood a solitary cottage in the meeting place betwixt a vast rolling steppe and the beginning of a deep, dark wood. The cottage was built into the side of a hill, and the man that lived inside it was an eccentric sort of fellow, silver-haired and bespectacled. He lived with his put-upon wife, and for many years it was just the two of them on the cusp of the wilds until at last they had three daughters—each more beautiful than the last, each one odder than the first. The first daughter was named Corvina, and she came into the world squalling her outrage at the unexpected, unwelcome change in habitat. Once she was situated in her mother’s arms, her father came into the room to see his first-born daughter, her little cheeks still red from screams that would continue to echo about if not for her mother’s breast. Her father looked upon her, and the joy of being gifted a child was so great that he could not help the tears streaming down his face, but all the same, he shook his head slightly and said to himself very quietly, so that his wife would not hear, “No, not the one.”
The second daughter was named Dorata, and she too came out squalling, though not quite as loudly as her elder sister. Her father was overjoyed at the safe delivery of another precious daughter, but when he saw her in her mother’s arms, he whispered to himself, “Almost.”
The third daughter was named Meralda, and when she was born, not a sound issued from her lips. The most she would do was stare up at her mother with big green eyes and nary a peep, so resolute in her vow of silence that the midwife had to spank her to make sure she drew breath. When her father beheld her for the first time, he cried, as he had done twice before—but this time, in a loud, clear voice, he said, “Yes, her.”
As the years turned, the three little girls grew into bigger girls, and each, in their own way, captured a special place in the heart of the town. Corvina was renowned for her midnight locks, her charming smile, and her clever long fingers. On market days in the town center, she could often be found amid a gaggle of young boys who hung on her every word as she entertained them with whimsical stories. Dorata, in contrast, grew to be fair-haired and light of foot. At the peak of midday in the hot, golden summers, she could be spotted running throughout the fields, her loose tresses trailing behind her. A pack of other children followed close behind her, girls and boys alike, each eager for a moment of her warm attention to alight on them alone. The third, Meralda, had her green, green eyes—and little else, for she was quiet and shy, hardly ever speaking. Not even childhood scrapes and bruises could induce her to wail. As a result, while her sisters attracted admiration and interest, Meralda inhabited the edges of their shadows. When she did venture with them into town, one would hardly know it. If one was particularly observant, one might catch an elusive glimpse of large emerald eyes peering around the corner of a building; or, within the town library of ancient leather-bound books, one might notice the soft displacement of air from small, careful breaths, the rustling of pages coming from a hidden nook, or the trail of deft fingers in dust—the only signs of her presence. The most observant of the townsfolk would note these signs and then nod to themselves and agree: ah yes, she is her father’s daughter. The first two they had never been quite sure about, but in regards to Meralda, there was no doubt.
For, you must understand, Meralda’s father had been just as quietly strange as Meralda in his youth, and age only cultivated his eccentricities. He charted the stars at night and walked through the woods from dusk until dawn. He spoke gibberish in rhymed couplets when the mood came upon him. He guarded the entrance to his personal library with an alarming zealousness and claimed to have all sorts of arcane, fantastical, impossible treasures hidden inside it.
He called himself the Dragon Hunter.
The first lesson her father ever taught her was to never tell her true name to a dragon. The second lesson was to never trust a dragon, for although it is against their principles to lie, that makes them twice as dangerous.
Her lessons started early, as soon as Meralda could stand and toddle about on wobbly little legs. She would follow the Dragon Hunter out into the forest, where he would teach her how to read the tracks of animals both big and small. Wolf, deer, marmot, mouse—she learned them all, but the hardest one came last.
“The most difficult creature to find,” her father told her as he blindfolded her eyes and spun her in circles, “is the creature that knows all your tricks—and does not want to be found.” Then he left her to count to one-hundred in the middle of the woods, his departure through it leaving no trace.
The forest was an open book to the Dragon Hunter, and he tutored her in its secret language. Here, this small burrow, almost invisible under the tangled roots of a great oak—this is a perfect spot for a young dragon to hide. The lake, over here, a pristine waterway untouched by humans—this is where the adult dragons come to nest, and mate, and feed. That empty corridor of sky, where the North wind howls into the South: their migration path. This dark, forbidding jut of rock against the mountainside, with its hollow, hungry maw—
“Don’t ever venture into it,” he told her sternly when she’d dallied at the mouth of the cave for a moment too long. “At least, not until the time is right.”
“And how will I know when that is?”
But the Dragon Hunter was an enigmatic figure—by great cultivation on his own part—and would not say.
The lessons were continued indoors, too, for of the many secrets the Dragon Hunter kept, perhaps one of his most magnificent was what lay behind the small wooden door at the back of his cottage that led into the earthen hillside. The only person allowed beyond that threshold was himself, and eventually, Meralda, when she was old enough to understand that what lay within was much more perilous than anything that might lurk without. For behind that unassuming door was a vast network of caverns dug into the hillside containing the Dragon Hunter’s personal library of ancient hidebound books, crafted from the strangest iridescent scales, gilded with gold, encrusted with rare jewels. The tomes sat on ragged wooden shelving that ran throughout the cavern system, and Meralda’s favorite pastime soon became exploring the halls of books glittering under torchlight. To ensure her safety, the Dragon Hunter entrusted her with a golden compass. “A compass which always points to the heart of things,” he’d told her, pressing it into her hand. With this gift, she was never lost in the cavernous library, for the compass always pointed to the heart of the study: the Dragon Hunter’s desk built of solid mahogany, overrun by scrolls of ancient languages and sheaths of half-used parchment. The only clear space on the desk was a built-in side shelf used to display a family of little dragon figurines cut from precious stone. They were arranged in a line, first jade, then sapphire, ruby, and amethyst, and on afternoons when she did not have lessons, Meralda would sit in her father’s chair, chin pillowed on hands, to watch the gems twinkle in the dim candlelight. When the light passed through them at the right angle, one could almost mistake the refraction for the rise and fall of a ribcage, a ripple of reptilian flesh; in these rare magical moments, she dreamed each dragon was alive.
So enamored was Meralda with the inner sanctum of the library, that she often forgot there was a world outside of it, but the outer world did not forget about her sisters. Each day they grew in grace, wit, and beauty, and each week when they ventured into town together, throngs of young men and women waited to meet them. Among the kludge that hung on Corvina’s every word, there was one young man who listened harder than the others. He learned the art of her wordsmithing just as he had with metal, and on the day Corvina refused to tell any more stories but asked for one instead, he stepped forward and told a tale of his own. When he came to its end, the sparkle in her eyes was all the applause he could ever wish for. As for Dorata, among the gaggle of youth who chased at her heels, one boy pushed himself faster and faster until he could keep her pace. As they tied a race for the first time, his heart skipped a beat when she gifted him a new smile, meant for him and him alone. It was little time at all before Corvina and Dorata announced their courtships.
The only daughter who was not courted was Meralda. Though she could often hear her name whispered among the young townsfolk in the same reverent way they spoke of the Dragon Hunter, no one ever approached. In the beginning, this did not bother her very much, for she was quite young, and still the apple of her father’s eye, but as her sister’s courtships blossomed, and the eldest began to speak hopefully of marriage, Meralda pined for a suitor of her own.
“Oh, my heart,” her father said, “one day, men will travel from across kingdoms to see you.”
“Will they be handsome, like Corvina’s blacksmith?”
“Yes, they will be very handsome,” her father replied.
“And will they be strong, like Dorata’s farmer?” And her father assured her that they would be. But she was not satisfied.
“And will they be brave, and kind, and loving, just as all the books and stories say?” At this, her father shook his head, accompanied by a deep, heavy sigh.
“My dearheart, they will be handsome, strong, and brave, for they will be knights of great valor and renown—though perhaps when they finally do arrive, you will no longer desire them.”
Meralda could not fathom a situation in which this would happen; after all, knights were the dashing heroes of all the stories she’d read, in both the dusty, ill-kept town library and her father’s own personal collection. But the Dragon Hunter sat her down and held her hands within his own.
“You will break many hearts, and many people will break your heart,” he said, “but I shall tell you a secret: once your heart has been broken that first time—and provided you survive it —another such wound can never kill you.”
Meralda was not greatly comforted by this proclamation; she was still dreaming of heroes and princes from faraway lands. To distract her, the Dragon Hunter fished an exotic trinket out of his Secret Armoire of Mysterious Curios, and she was satisfied for the day.
Her lessons were not, strictly, to hunt dragons; quite the opposite, in fact. The Dragon Hunter was a caretaker, rather than an actual hunter, and Meralda’s tutelage reflected this— though not once, throughout all the lessons, did she ever glimpse a dragon. Nevertheless, the lessons continued, and she learned to hunt wild game while her sisters baked bread. When the midnight stars rose, and her sisters lay sleeping, she stayed up to chart the heavens, and record their secret dictates. But the most essential subject by far was that of languages. It is a widely known truth that dragons invented language, and taught it to humans only out of pity; as such, their mastery of the art is unparalleled. Meralda studied her father’s ancient scrolls until she, too, became fluent in many dragon tongues, especially the language of riddles—but it was her sisters who, during the long drowsy summer afternoons, learned the language of love. And somewhere within the intervening years of lesson upon lesson, the Dragon Hunter grew old, and Meralda grew up.
Meralda had always known her father to flout conventions. Now, as she entered into young adulthood, she couldn’t help but notice that sometimes her father’s eccentricities dallied on the edges of madness. The riddles and rhymed couplets he once spoke in the privacy of his study, he now spouted publicly in the village market. He could often be found speaking to the vendors in verse, or languages long dead. Once Meralda even caught him trying to pay them with pieces of Fool’s Gold; when she attempted to give him a purse of real coin in exchange for his pyrite, she was rebuffed.
“This is one of the highest forms of currency among dragons!” he insisted, dangling the offending sachet in front of her nose. “Second only to the currency of words!”
“And that might very well be true, but we are among humans right now,” she hissed back, “and they will start to think you are a swindler, a thief, or worse—a fool!”
Her father deigned not to respond but looked upon her with such a grave stare of disappointment that she couldn’t help feel a weight settle upon her heart. The Dragon Hunter turned from her and continued down the cobblestone street, his long cloak and multicolored scarf trailing behind him as he made his way out of town. Meralda scurried after her father, dodging the odd thrown tomato as she did so. Her eyes burnt at the humiliation but stayed achingly dry as the whispers and jeers of the townsfolk nipped at her heels all the way home. “It’s the Dragon Hunter,” they tittered, not nearly as reverent as in her youth—though perhaps they never had been, and Meralda had only wished it so.
Her father’s new strange behavior was not relegated to the town; at home, he stayed locked in his study within the hollow hillside for days on end, roaming through the endless shelves and muttering to himself in a language that not even Meralda could interpret. He would emerge to fall ravenously on whatever his wife and daughters had prepared for dinner, only to disappear once more. The Dragon Hunter now refused to take his cloak off indoors; instead, he layered them one atop another and draped himself in excess scarves no matter the temperature or location. His walks through the wilderness grew more prolonged and frequent, stretching from early evening to the hour after midnight. Each time, Meralda watched him stride into the woods or across the empty plains until he was a black smudge on the horizon, and as the wind whipped up the layers of capes about him, he almost seemed to fly, skimming low to the ground on fabric wings. She kept vigil until her father dissolved into the landscape.
Meralda could never bring herself to be truly vexed about these new erratic habits; after all, they were but an amplification of the activities she and her father had always done together. Corvina and Dorata, however, had no such qualms. They would rib him good-naturedly when they thought him silly, and less good-naturedly when they found him embarrassing.
“One day, I’m going to go out for a walk and not come home,” the Dragon Hunter warned them after one such incident. He held a long pipe clenched between his teeth and wore a heavy cape thrown over two other cloaks. As he prepared to go outside, Meralda thought she saw a flash of silver metal peeking out through all the layers of fabric—perhaps chain mail? The idea that he might need to wear such a thing twisted her stomach into knots, but before she could get a better look, her father covered up the odd material by donning a long striped scarf. His ensemble completed, he swept from the cottage for another impromptu evening sojourn.
“Humph.” Her mother stood by the stove side, hands planted into hips. “He’s been saying that for years now, but does he ever do it?” She clucked her tongue and returned to work, but when the Dragon Hunter did not return until the early dawn of next day, Meralda was not so certain, for already the smoke-scent of departure hung in the air.
Corvina was the first. She left her father’s house to marry the blacksmith, who was enamored with her quick tongue and clever fingers. Another rotation of season’s cycles and Dorata went to marry the farmer, who had long ago fallen for her deftness of foot and golden laughter. Soon, the only ones left in the cottage were the put-upon mother, the Dragon Hunter, and the youngest daughter.
“And is there no one who will love me for my quiet ways and my green, green eyes?” Meralda cried out one morning, throwing her spoon down into her porridge. Her sisters did not answer her, for they were having breakfast in their new homes with their new husbands. Her father could not answer her either, for he was absent, gone on one of his solitary quests. It was her mother who sat down next to her and assured her that one day, she would find her match.
“It won’t be one of the village boys,” Meralda declared. “They do nothing but speak ill of me.”
“That’s because they don’t know what to think of you. Perhaps the man of your heart will come from farther afield,” her mother suggested gently.
“I’m just the same as my sisters,” Meralda insisted.
“Similar in many ways, yes,” her mother agreed, “but they took more after me. You are your father’s daughter, a creature of both wits and ferocity. There will be some who love you, but many more who fear you.”
“Then perhaps I do not want to be my father’s daughter,” Meralda spat.
She regretted it as soon as she said it, but words were a fickle gift of the dragons, and once spoken, could not be taken back. She watched as her mother drew herself up to her full height of five feet. When the older woman spoke, her words were precise and cold.
“I journeyed far to meet your father, and I stayed because he was a good man,” she said, “You are not made of the same mettle as your sisters, so do not expect the same ending to your story that they received. You will not get it.”
Meralda felt her face crunch, and she bit her lip. Her mother’s voice gentled into a soothing hush.
“Meralda, the mate of your soul must be your equal and opposite,” she murmured, “for just as fire cannot fight fire, power cannot tame power. Only tenderness can do that, and it is a gift we call strength – but there are few men, or women, who know of this gift.”
“Little wonder, then,” Meralda muttered, “for this gift you speak of—it is foolishness.”
“That is what it is to love a dragon.”
“I’m no dragon.”
Her mother said nothing else, returning to sweep the earthen cottage floor. Meralda exiled that conversation to the deepest caverns of her mind, and no longer spoke of love; her thoughts were consumed only by her continued effort to contain the emanation of chaos that was her father. When spring rains came, and the heavens rang with peels of thunder, Meralda followed him out into the storms. The Dragon Hunter brought a notebook, and his metal telescope, which threatened to char both father and daughter with a stray bolt of lightning at a moment’s notice. They stayed in the torrential downpours until both were drenched through, the Dragon Hunter watching the sky and taking waterlogged notes while Meralda begged him to go inside.
“This is the mating dance of the dragons!” was his rebuff. “It lasts but one season every fifty years.”
“Father, it’s a thunderstorm. Nothing more and nothing less!” Meralda shouted, but she was drowned out by the tumult of the firmament. The Dragon Hunter continued scribbling notes in his saturated journal. Meralda shivered and kept watch.
When summer bled into autumn, the woods began to ring with gunshots, and the Dragon Hunter took up his rifle.
“There are men in the woods hunting after the flightless wyrms,” he told her, his countenance unusually stoic.
“No, Father,” Meralda replied, without any heart, “They’re only poaching the forbidden bucks in the King’s Wood.” But he did not heed her and strode into the forest. Meralda waited at its edge all night for him to reemerge, too afraid to venture in after him.
In the dead of winter, the Dragon Hunter insisted on trekking out into the hinterlands of the forest to check on the young dragons during their first hibernation, despite the raging snowstorm and deathly temperatures. Meralda caught him by his sleeve at the door, pleading with him to reconsider. The Dragon Hunter embraced her with a tender smile.
“My dearheart,” he said, “This is the life of a dragon hunter. Our foremost duty is to the dragons, even when it is dangerous. They must always be first in our hearts.”
“But Father,” Meralda whispered, “There are no dragons.”
The Dragon Hunter’s expression shuttered. His smile disappeared, a new sadness blooming within his eyes as he turned away from her. He went out despite the squall, and Meralda watched in disbelief as the blizzard seemed to part before him. Soon it had subsided entirely, leaving behind a virgin snowfall and a sky full of stars. Meralda went to bed in the comfort knowing that his journey would be a safe one.
But when dawn came, the Dragon Hunter had not returned. His youngest daughter waited by the door as the morning slipped by, watching the empty horizon.
“Oh, he’s finally gone and done it then, has he?” Meralda’s mother grumbled. She continued cooking, but Meralda saw the shine of silent tears running down her face. She watched their progress with fascinated dread.
When the sun reached its apex, Meralda could bear it no longer. Abandoning her post, she threw on her father’s emerald green cape, took up his walking staff, and marched for the door, but at the last moment, she thought better of going out blind and made a detour to his study. A quick rifling through his notebooks and loose papers revealed no clues as to where he might have gone, and she almost left empty-handed. Then, through the clutter, a glimmer of old, familiar gold caught her eye: the compass she’d used so many times as a child. It sat half-hidden by a sheath of notes next to a little silver dragon figurine she’d never noticed before. She quickly slipped the dragon into the pocket of her cloak for luck and snatched up the compass, which she kept in a viselike grip until she stood outside at the start of her father’s old trail. There, she held the precious metal up with open palms and pressed her lips to its glass face.
“Point me to my heart,” she murmured, and the needle sprung to life.
The Dragon Hunter’s tracks were easy to follow; he’d made no attempts to hide them, and the snow was fresh and unblemished. She followed his footsteps in loops and circles that flattened out into lines, and always the needle of the compass pointed true. She traveled over hill and dell, past frozen waterfalls and even the forbidden cave, and both compass and footprints led her still deeper, into the heart of the forest.
Until she reached the end of her father’s trail.
There was no body. No sign of his presence. The footprints stopped mid-track as if he’d simply floated off his feet and into thin air.
She looked to her compass, but the needle spun round and round, without direction.
“Dragon Hunter!” she called out, and her cry rang through the silent wood.
“Father!” But she received no response.
“Dada,” she whispered. The word died on her breath, a powerless summons that he did not obey.
Meralda combed the surrounding snow-laden woods for hide or hair of her father but found no trace. In the next several weeks, she branched out in all directions, to the same fruitless result, though she used every tracking skill she knew. But he was a creature that knew all her tricks – for he had taught them to her – and did not want to be found.
Winter reigned for months on end, but little by little spring reclaimed its strongholds of wisteria, rosebud, and tulip. All around their cottage, the meadows shook off their coats of snow, rivers of ice broke open, and Meralda marked down all the days her father remained gone. The tally stayed by her bedside, each strike an outlet for her silent grief.
In his absence, Meralda took up the mantle of Dragon Hunter and soon found that his legacy haunted her more than any ghost ever could. Whenever she went into town, the whisperings of the townsfolk caught in her ears; they still tittered among themselves, but now it was ‘The Dragon Hunter’s Daughter,’ they muttered as she passed. Some of the more antagonistic villagers, who had hassled her father in his decline, now transferred their attentions to his successor. It was purely in her attempts to frighten them off that Meralda incidentally cultivated a mystique of her own.
Now when she visited the village, Meralda sang in dragon languages all the way there and back. She spoke to the animals she met, did sleight of hand tricks during transactions at the market, and sometimes, when she felt particularly impish, vanished herself in a flash of light and smoke from the middle of town. All this was more than enough to ward off the mobs that had stalked her father, but for those who proved more insistent, and continued to harass her, Meralda took to cornering them and posing them a riddle. Each wrong answer was accompanied by a brief electrical charge—but for the few that managed to guess correctly, Meralda rewarded them with a boon: perhaps a talisman, or a reading of their future. After such an encounter, said individual’s fortune seemed to increase tenfold. Soon enough, many of the townsfolk vied for a chance to play Meralda’s game of riddles, and while they could not understand her strange powers, they did at least respect her.
As amusing as the town could be, her real work lay beyond its borders. Each day she wore her father’s green traveling cloak along with his walking staff or rifle. She tended the same trails and secret glens her father had been warden of, recording their natural phenomena. She tackled the study and the cavernous library, organizing the seas of papers as best she could. She read through her father’s writings and even began adding to them herself. However, there remained one glaring obstacle in her conservation and academic efforts.
“I’ve still never seen a dragon,” Meralda confided to her mother one evening, “My duty is to the dragons—Father said they must come first in my heart. How can that be possible when I’ve never even seen them?”
“I’m sure you will, when the time is right,” her mother reassured.
“But how can you love something you cannot understand?”
Her mother clucked her tongue. “A creature may contain two conflicting impulses, just as a word may have two separate meanings. Your father taught you the language of riddles, did he not?” When Meralda sputtered in indignation, she chuckled. “This is a riddle you will have to solve by yourself, daughter-mine.”
Unlike their mother, her sisters were not so understanding of this radical change within their youngest sibling. One or the other would often corner Meralda in town and beg her to give up her new duties, and while Meralda refused every time, they persisted throughout the spring and summer. Their plots culminated at the harvest festival, and when the trees shed their fiery leaves to reveal the truth of themselves, Meralda was ambushed by both of her sisters. They gripped her tight, one on each arm, and forced her to sit down with them by the feasting table.
“You’ll never find what you’re looking for by following in the footsteps of our father,” Dorata warned, “or worse, you will, and you’ll come to the same end.”
“Little sister,” Corvina chided, “you’re not a small child anymore. Isn’t it past time you put away the foolishness of an old man?”
Meralda looked between them both, the two shining beacons of her childhood, and for the first time saw a ragged hunger within them for the one thing they had never been given.
“I’m sorry,” she told them softly, “but we don’t have the same story. We’ll never have the same ending.” Then she wrestled herself from their hold and left.
And then, as though no time had passed at all, it was winter once more, and with it came the anniversary of the Dragon Hunter’s disappearance. Meralda woke up that morning to a fresh snowfall, along with a strange itching in her bones that required her to jump out of bed, grab her best walking shoes and staff, and don her cloak.
“I’m going out to search one more time,” she told her mother, who met her by the door.
“Meralda, do you not think I want your father to come home as dearly as you do?” her mother chastised, “But even I’ve accepted that you will not find him. You’ve looked in every possible place.”
“Every place but one,” Meralda replied, “and I think now the time is right.”
She followed the path her father took, once more treading through unbroken snow as she headed through the forest. Eventually, young trees gave way to primordial old-growth, untouched by the men of the village, but as her father before her, Meralda knew each knot and root of every tree. She followed the memory of his trail until it veered further into the woods, away from the base of a high mountain, but Meralda stopped and turned to the cave nestled within the mountain’s roots – the one place she had been told never to go.
The entrance was dry, but as she descended down into the earth, the air dampened as her vision darkened. She felt her way in further by following the cold tunnel walls with her hands until they fell away from her fingertips. Then she knew she stood within a vast cathedral of stone by the echo of her footsteps that ascended upwards into unfathomable heights. An unnatural wind swept through the empty hollow in even pulses, and she sensed more than saw the invisible movement of the dark.
“Hello?” she called up. At the ring of her voice, the heart of the mountain purred with carnivorous life. She looked up into the dark cavern to see two luminous moons—no, not moons. Eyes, white as the mists of morning and with the light of a thousand midnight stars, peered down at her from the blackness. She looked up into the face she could not see, of what could be—of what must be—a dragon. A rift of fire opened through the dark, and when the voice of the cavern spoke, it trembled the foundations of the world.
The scent of a daughter from the race of men has not graced our hall for some time. Tell us, Child, why have you come here?
“I’m searching for my father,” she answered into the darkness. “He calls himself the Dragon Hunter.”
His name is known to us, the voice rumbled, but we do not know yours. What is your name, Little One?
But Meralda had never forgotten a lesson, not even the first one.
“I’m the Dragon Hunter’s daughter,” she replied and planted her hands on her hips when she sensed the creature’s amusement.
The one you seek is not here, the voice told her. You will never encounter him again in this life.
Meralda swallowed down her despair with a painful click of her throat. “Then…I’ll go now,” she stuttered, “and leave you to slumber in peace.”
Ah, ah, the voice chuckled, for this information, and my time, I require payment.
“I have nothing of value to give you,” she protested.
On the contrary, so long as you have your tongue, you possess the greatest treasure of all. The darkness shifted above her, and the voice was closer now, a sibilant hissing that slithered over the damp walls of the cave and into her flesh. I will pose you A Riddle, and you will have three chances to answer. A test, if you will, to see how much of your father’s daughter you truly are. If you answer false, I will eat you whole.
“And if I answer true?”
…you shall receive a gift.
That sounded more like a threat than a boon to Meralda. Her frame trembled, and she slid her hands into the pockets of her cloak to hide the most obvious tremors; her right hand jolted in surprise when it met with a smooth stone in the abyss of fabric, and she closed her fingers around it for luck, the cool weight of it within her clenched fist giving her a semblance of courage. She squared her shoulders and jutted her chin, just as scalding breath and damp underground air conspired to make her shiver. The voice curled around her further in seductive sibilance.
Do you accept this offer?
“I do,” she answered, sharp and clear, for she did not see any real alternative.
Very well then, the voice murmured, and then it whispered The Riddle into the shell of her ear.
The Dragon’s Riddle was not unlike the kind her father used to quiz her on in her childhood: four lines long, separated into two rhymed couplets, with an added homonym to lead her astray. But words had not led Meralda astray for a long while, and buoyed by her lucky stone, her answer rang throughout the mountain hall.
She nailed it on her first try. All in all, it was a very easy riddle to answer—not because she thought the voice was trying to help her out, but because she knew dragons are prideful creatures, and not always as clever as they think themselves to be.
Hmm. The voice sounded perplexed. Have you heard this riddle before?
“No,” she told it, “you just aren’t very good at coming up with them.”
The cavern shook with deep, molten laughter. You have the heart of a fool, the voice declared, and you will receive a gift to match. At those words, the skin of her left breast lit up in a sudden, painful fire, and she choked on a scream.
Go now, Little One, the voice commanded. Protect our kind as you would your own. She didn’t need to be told twice, hurrying for the passage back to the outside world, the stench of burnt flesh left in her wake. As she ducked into the tunnel and scrambled for safety, she thought she heard one last unearthly rumble. Your father would be proud.
Meralda stumbled back through the tunnel in a daze of pain, emerging from the cavern to fling herself into the wood. She ran blindly through the trees until, at last, a misplaced step sent her careening to the ground. There she lay, panting wildly as snow soaked into her skirts, a puddle of terror and wonder. The gift from the dragon still burned. She ripped her clothes away from the wound, and her heart skipped a beat when she saw the green protrusion burnt into her flesh. She fumbled for her lucky stone to quell her panic—but, of course, it wasn’t a stone at all.
A familiar silver dragon figurine sat in her palm, the very same one she’d discovered in the library a year ago before her first fruitless search. The little drake regarded her evenly as Meralda pressed a shaking hand to her lips. She looked from it to her mutilated skin and back again. Her eyes burned with an odd pressure. Her diaphragm seized as a foreign sound broke its way out of her, a wail built up from a thousand different hurts and hoarded in the hollow of her lungs, and then Meralda was crying for the first time in her life, drowning in an ocean of grief—and another, dearer emotion, that she still did not understand.
She cried for what seemed an age, but when Meralda finally wiped her nose, rose to her feet and brushed herself clean of snow, the stars still held their apex. Her steps were shaky, tentative, but she persisted, and soon the forest fell away into the snow-laden steppe and the empty, endless sky. The Dragon Hunter journeyed home through the winter bite with a single emerald dragon scale seared into the flesh above her heart. Tears burnt rivers into the crest of her frozen cheeks. When they caught on her tongue, she tasted love.
“I love you like salt.”
King Lear in Respite Care, Margaret Atwood