I’m shoveling gold into my bag by the fistful when Benji says, “I don’t like it.”
The cave is so cold my fingers are going numb even inside their cloth wraps. I sniff, but my nose keeps trying to drip anyway, just like the water goes on dripping from the pointy rocks on the ceiling.
Benji’s rucksack is still empty. He keeps on: “Something’s not right. This is supposed to be a dragon’s lair.”
“You said we wouldn’t see the dragon,” I point out.
“Trust me, we won’t see the dragon—that monster’s well dead. But if this is a dragon’s lair, where’s the rest of it?” He raises his lantern and waves it around the cave. It’s about as big as our place, but that’s not very big.
“The beast’s supposed to have laired here a century at least,” says Benji. “Don’t tell me it spent a hundred years in this stinking hole.”
I like the smell here—faintly mineral behind the tang of the oil in our lamps—but I don’t say that out loud. Benji doesn’t expect an answer.
“And another thing: it’s supposed to have cracked open two temples and a bank back in its raiding days—liberated gold sovereigns by the thousands. This is a tiny fraction of that. So what happened to the rest? What do you think—does a dragon go shopping?”
He grins at me, but I don’t feel like laughing.
Benji goes pacing the walls of the cave, ignoring the money, ignoring the big hole we came in through, looking at everything else close up. Where his light moves on, it leaves darkness behind.
There were glow-bugs on the walls when we got here, tiny points of green I could only see when I looked at them sideways, but we’ve shone too much light around now and they’ve quit their glowing. The darkness of the cave isn’t like the darkness of the city at night. It’s true black, all-devouring.
We shouldn’t be here.
“This is plenty of money,” I say as Benji prowls. “It’ll keep us for years, if we’re careful.”
“Careful?” he scoffs. “If we live like paupers, you mean. Don’t you want your dresses, Squirt? Don’t you want me to have my trinkets?”
Benji loves showing off when we’ve got money—gold on his fingers and in his ears. The rings only last as long as the money does, and then he has to trade them.
I scowl down at my work. Benji knows I want those dresses. Proper dresses, made by a real tailor, that I can wear to market so maybe people won’t whisper and stare so much. I’ve been making my own dresses since I was old enough to hold a needle, but even if I get lucky sometimes and can buy decent fabric, they still look like something a child would sew. Benji says my hands are too big for delicate work.
I want those dresses. But not as much as I want us to get out of here.
“We don’t know the dragon’s dead,” I try.
“Don’t worry so, Ellie,” says Benji with a laugh. “That monster’s been going in and out of this hole for decades. Now no one’s seen scale nor tooth of it in a month. Whaddya think it’s doing, sleeping out the winter like a bear? Hey, give me a hand here.”
He’s peering up into the dark, lifting his lantern towards something too high for him to see. My brother is a short man, stunted by a childhood of never enough to eat and a broken leg we couldn’t afford to have set right.
I put down my bag and go pick Benji up, lifting him onto my shoulders as easy as a father lifting a child.
“Hah!” he crows. “There is a hole there! How’d you miss that, Squirt? I thought trolls were supposed to have good night-sight!”
He’s teasing me. Trollbloods don’t have any real troll blood—it’s just what normal folks call people like me because we’re big and strong and slow of thought and speech. Brawn before brains, Benji says. He takes after our mother.
Benji scrambles off my shoulders, up to a rocky ledge.
“This is it! Big enough for a dragon to fit through, and it’s worn—you can see where the beast’s been back and forth. It must have left a little of its hoard here as a decoy—a clever monster, then. But not clever enough for us! Come on!”
He disappears from view, trusting me to follow. I hear his boots scrabbling over rock, getting quieter and further away.
I stand still.
I know I shouldn’t. I always do what Benji tells me. I stand still anyway, even though it makes my guts twist.
More scrabbling. Benji’s head reappears. “Ellie? What’re you doing down there? Let’s go!”
I take a deep breath, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks. “No.”
He holds out his lantern to stare down at me.
“Whaddya mean, no?” he says, and now the hard edges are creeping into his voice.
I stare at a spine of rock sticking out of the ground, slick and slimy with water. If I look at his face I’ll lose my nerve. “We got enough here, Benji. We should just take it and go.” Even to me it sounds like a child’s whine.
“Oh ho! You want to tell me what to do now, is that it? Well isn’t that great!” I hate it when his voice gets like this, loud and hard and a little bit sing-song. “Can’t get a word out of you when I’m planning this job, but now we’re here, ohhhh, Ellie’s taking charge!”
Even without looking, I can see his face, thin and sharp and angry.
“Useless muscle, you are. Won’t break down a door, won’t rough up a guy, won’t even join the fighting rings—“
“Don’t like fighting,” I mutter, hating how sulky it sounds.
“You like killing pigs well enough!”
I hate killing pigs. They struggle, and they scream like banshees. I hate the fear in their eyes when they look at me, before my knife does its work.
I don’t want to hurt them, but there aren’t many places will give work to a trollblood. The butchers down The Shambles like that I can pin a hog all by myself, and they like that I don’t mind when their boys play jokes on me, so they give me plenty of work. The money’s OK—not like what Benji brings in, but enough to keep him from fussing when I won’t help out with his jobs.
“Give me the bag,” says Benji.
Startled, I look up. The lantern-light shadows make his face hard to read.
“Don’t just stare at me, troll-skull! Give me your bag.” He sticks out a hand.
I can’t figure out what he’s planning, and my guts are twisting right up, but I pass the half-full sack of gold up to him. I always do what Benji tells me.
“OK,” he says. “Now fuck off.”
My stomach drops. “What?”
“You heard me. You’re so smart, you clearly don’t need my help. So fuck off.”
“You mean go home?” It sounds stupid even as I say it.
“Hah! No. You’re so keen to make the decisions around here, I reckon you can look after yourself now. Hey, I know! You could go be a monster-hunter!”
“That’s not funny,” I tell him, feeling my throat tighten.
Our dad was a monster-hunter. It’s one line of work where a trollblood can get rich, and people like having you around even.
I don’t remember our dad.
I was only little when we came to Abercoombe to slay their dragon. It had lived under these hills since there was only a little town down in the valley, and it left people alone even when the town became a city and spread decade by decade all the way up into the hills. Then all of a sudden it started raiding temples for gold.
No one knew why it started. No one knew why it stopped again just a few months later. But in between, our dad went down this hole to fix it for good, and he never came back out.
When his money ran out, our mum did what she could to look after us, but she’d never learned to be anything but a monster-hunter’s wife. A year later she was gone too. We told people she’d died of a broken heart. As Benji liked to say, no one wants to give money to orphans whose mum died of the purse-rot.
I don’t remember much of her either. I was only little.
“Twelve years I’ve looked out for you,” he says. His voice is quiet now, but no less hard. “Twelve years I’ve kept us both alive in a world that couldn’t care two bits if we wound up dead in a ditch. Twelve years scraping and scrounging and working my fingers to the bone to keep a roof over your head. Well, no more. You think you’re so smart, you can take care of yourself.”
He turns his back and disappears again, dragging my bag behind him. It goes clinking and rattling over the rocks, getting quieter and quieter, and then I can’t hear it at all.
My shoulders are tight, my hands clenched up in fists.
I could do it. I could take care of myself. The butchering money is enough to keep me, if I’m careful with it. Or I could find a better job, so I don’t have to kill pigs anymore. Benji thinks all I’m good for is my strength, but Benji doesn’t know the whole of me.
The only light now is the circle around my lantern. The glow-bugs haven’t come back, and I miss the comfort of their soft constellations. My fingernails are digging sharp into my palms.
But finding a new place to live or a better job, that means talking to people. Abercoombe is full of them—quick people, sharp people, who look at me with impatience or with fear and won’t wait around while I try to find my words. People who call me worse things than troll-skull when I mess up, and sometimes even when I don’t. How will I get anyone to listen to me without Benji to do the talking?
The only sounds left are my sniffing, over and over, and the quiet drip, drip of water. A freezing drop hits the back of my neck, making me shiver and hunch.
And Benji is walking away from me, off into the dark. Walking towards the dragon.
I pull myself up into the hole, scramble through a tight tunnel, until the space opens up and I start running.
I’ve only gone a little way through the next cavern when I see light ahead. I stumble around some rocks, and there’s Benji, leaning against the wall.
He smirks. “Glad you decided to join me.”
I say nothing.
“And another thing,” says Benji, “Konrad was offering good money for you to work at the gaming house! You wouldn’ta had to fight or anything, just stand around looking menacing when people don’t wanna hand over their money, and keep your trap shut if the watchmen come ‘round. What was wrong with that, huh?”
We’re still walking through the caves. I’m following Benji, and Benji is following the path worn smooth through each cavern by the dragon’s belly. This far in there aren’t glow-bugs, just darkness and cold and dripping damp, and the sack of gold bouncing against my shoulder, and a nasty feeling burning in my throat where all the things I want to say to Benji are stuck like hot peppers. It’s an old, familiar feeling, and I hate it.
Benji won’t shut up.
“That other trollblood they got, he makes ten shillings a week. A week, Ellie! You take that kind of work, you’d be bringing in more than me half the time! But noooo, you didn’t like that either.”
I know why he does this. He’s had to look out for us ever since we were small. When we were starving brats without family or home, and I was too little to be much good for anything, he used his clever brain and his clever words to bring in money any way he could think of. That was his whole life, thinking up ways to keep us. Small wonder money’s so important to him still, even now we mostly have enough.
This is how it’s always been. Even after I outgrew him and kept on growing. Benji’s the smart one, the normal one, the one people will talk to. He’s only looking out for his poor, slow, trollblood sister.
Some of the pointy rocks have fallen down off the ceiling here and busted up the rocks that used to stick up from the ground. The floor is a mess of rubble. My shoulders are bunched up tight.
“I swear, I don’t know what goes through your skull—“ says Benji, and then he disappears.
I throw myself forward, reaching for my brother as the floor swallows him up, but there’s a broken rock sticking up and I smash my head on it hard. Lights flash behind my eyes and the ground knocks the wind out of me, and for a second I don’t know who I am or where I am or what’s going on.
When the lights in my head fade, it’s so dark I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed. The blackness feels like drowning in ink. I’m lying on the cave floor with my left arm braced against rock and nothing at all under my chest, and my right arm is stretched way down into the nothing, and my hand is closed tight around coarse fabric.
I can hear muffled swearing below me, and somewhere, way, way below that, the quiet sound of water running.
“OK,” he says in a tight voice. “OK. Don’t move, Ellie.”
He starts to wriggle around in my grip. He’s not heavy, but I can’t help imagining him slipping by accident right out of his coat. Then I feel hands on my wrist, clinging hard, and he tells me to get up.
I lift Benji out of the hole, and he fumbles around on the ground and finds my lantern to relight. It takes him longer than usual to strike a spark, the flint rattling hard against the firesteel. His own lantern is long gone, down to the river, somewhere far below us in the dark. In the lamplight, his eyes are very big.
He looks at me, and his eyes get bigger. The light glistens on red splashes on the rocks.
“Shit,” says Benji. “You OK?”
My face is wet. I put my hand to my head, and it comes away covered in blood. Lots of blood, like I’ve just cut a pig’s throat.
In an instant, I’m a child again. My voice comes out high: “Benji?”
My brother darts over with the lantern, and looks close at my head. He touches my forehead here and there, stares at my eyes real close, makes me tell him how many fingers he’s holding up, and then he grabs my hand and presses it hard over a spot that throbs.
“It’s OK, Squirt, it’s just a cut. You’ll be OK. Head wounds bleed like a devil, is all. You keep that pressure on there.” He’s tearing big strips off his shirt hem. He folds one up over the cut, then wraps the other around and around my head.
His hands are gentle. I mop at the blood on my face with my coat sleeve, and don’t look at him.
Benji finishes bandaging me, wipes his hands on his trousers, and smoothes back my hair. “Hey,” he says, trying to meet my eyes. “You know I wasn’t actually gonna leave you back there, right? I knew you’d come after me. I waited for you.”
Hot peppers in my throat. I stare down at my coat sleeve, red and sticky. If I don’t clean that up soon, it will stain.
“Hey, c’mon, don’t be like that. I talk a lot of horse-shit—you know that, right?” He squeezes my shoulder. “You pissed me off and I acted out, but you know I don’t mean anything by it. I always look out for you, right, Squirt? Don’t I always look out for you?”
He sounds so hurt that I have to look at him. I meet his eyes, and they’re still the eyes of the boy that used to pluck feathers from my ear to make me laugh, when I was little and my belly hurt from hunger.
“I know,” I tell him. It’s true. I wouldn’t be alive if not for him.
He flashes me a big smile, and then he’s up and walking around, quick and jerky, like he’s got fire in his veins. “Whoof—that got my heart racing!” he laughs, too loud. He’s not looking at me anymore.
There are words building up behind my teeth, pushing to be let out, but I’m still trying to find the right order for them when suddenly Benji crouches and mutters, “What’s this, now?”
He holds up the edge of a big piece of sack-cloth, stained dark with soot.
“This is why I didn’t see that hole! It was over the top!”
He gets up and starts looking all around. “And these rocks here, they didn’t fall on their own. Someone knocked them down so we’d have to walk around them, over where the hole is. Not a complicated trap, but clever enough if you’re not looking for it…“
He’s frowning real hard now.
“I don’t care how smart that bloody monster was; it didn’t paint a sack with soot. I think someone’s moved in here, Squirt. They must’ve figured on the dragon being dead even quicker than I did. Pretty risky call, but it looks like it’s worked out for ‘em, if they survived long enough to set this up. I bet they dumped that bit of coin in the first cave to distract anyone who might come along later, and then set this trap here in case that wasn’t enough.”
This is my chance. “So we go back, right? ‘Cos it’s not safe?”
“Nah, nah …“ Benji’s still thinking. “Something doesn’t add up. Why not just clean the place out and hide the money somewhere safer? I reckon we go check it out. Whoever it is can’t be all that, or they wouldn’t’ve bothered with the traps and distractions. I bet if you give ‘em a bit of the old trollblood charm, they’ll go running.”
He grins at me. “There, see? And you thought I only brought you along to carry the bags.”
He must see something in my face then, because he comes back and squeezes my shoulder again.
“Hey. Ellie. It’s OK. I know we’ve had a fright, but we got through it, didn’t we? We got through it ‘cos you look out for me and I look out for you.
“So now we’re just gonna go see what’s what. We’d be fools not to at least have a look, right? But we’ll go nice and careful, and we’ll look out for each other, and if we see anything we can’t handle, we’ll get out of here. OK? You just say the word and we’re gone.”
He thinks he means it, too.
I want to say the word. There are so many words in my head, tumbling over each other. It doesn’t matter. There’s no word I could speak that would make him listen to me. Clever Benji always knows what’s best.
My brother winks at me.
“Come on, Squirt. Let’s go get rich.”
We take it real slow after that. Benji keeps stopping to check all around us, but he doesn’t find any more traps. Only wet rocks and darkness. My feet drag like they’re made of lead, but I know it doesn’t matter how slow we go. We’re still going the wrong way.
And sure enough, after an age of walking and climbing and walking again, there’s light ahead that doesn’t come from our lamp. It’s warm and yellow, like firelight, but it doesn’t flicker like fire.
Benji puts out the lantern and we creep forward.
The tunnel opens up into a big cavern, the biggest we’ve seen. This is where the light comes from. It isn’t firelight, though it’s warm—not just warm yellow, but warm on our skins, like standing in the doorway to a cozy room.
It comes from the heap of gold in the middle of the floor.
I can believe this came from two temples and a bank. There’s more money here than has passed through my hands and Benji’s and everyone we’ve known our entire lives.
Benji looks at me, and his gold-lit face is grinning so wide it’s almost split in two.
He’s smart, though. He doesn’t just go in, but stops and studies the whole place real careful.
The money’s in a kind of bowl in the middle of the floor, and all around are rocks sticking up from the ground, but these aren’t like the rocks in the other caves. These are carved. Ranks upon ranks of statues all over the place, like an army that doesn’t know how to line up straight.
Some of the carvings are rough, but others are as fine as you’d see in front of a great lord’s house. There are stone people, stone animals, and things that don’t seem to know what to be. One rock close to me looks a bit like a bear, but then the way I’m looking at it shifts and it’s more like a house. The gold-light runs down smooth faces and catches on tiny edges, making strange patterns of light and shadow that catch at my eyes.
There’s no sign of any sculptor. The light doesn’t quite reach all the way to the back of the cave, but there’s no people anywhere we can see, and no sounds either. Benji takes another minute to look around, and then he steps out into the light and stands still, tense and ready to run.
Benji lets out an echoing whoop that makes me jump clear to the ceiling. “Look at this, Squirt! We’re rich!” He grins at me again, all teeth, then turns and runs between the statues down into the cavern.
My heart’s pounding fit to burst, but I follow.
The dragon-worn path makes a wide corridor between the carvings. The ground crunches underfoot and a forest smell rises up, sharp and clean, like pinecones thrown on a winter fire. There are pine needles scattered all over the floor here. The smell would be a comfort, if things were different.
Gold doesn’t glow, of course. We reach the pile and there are eggs in it, a dozen or more, the exact same color as the coins they’re nestled in. Each one is as big as my fist or Benji’s head, and they’re glowing from the inside. I look at the closest one and think I can see something inside it, against the light—a little form curled up and waiting.
Benji grabs the egg I was looking at and hefts it, feeling its weight. I freeze, watching it bounce. Does the shape inside shudder a little?
“Gods above, Ellie, Fortune is smiling on us today! That fool dragon went and died and left a clutch behind! We find the right buyer for these beauties, I reckon we could ask a thousand sovereigns for each one.” He laughs a gleeful laugh.
My throat goes tight. There’s an ache in my gut, growing harder and heavier by the second.
“Benji?” I say. “What if we just leave the eggs?” It comes out like a child’s question, and I hate the sound of it.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Ellie! Now what?”
He glares at me, and there’s real hurt behind his anger. All he sees in these eggs are gold rings and new dresses, and he honestly doesn’t understand why I don’t share in his delight. How can I make him understand?
I try one more time. “They’re not ours to take.”
“Not ours? What’re you talking about, troll-skull? We found ‘em! And they’re gonna make us so rich you’ll never have to kill another pig in your life! But you don’t wanna take ‘em?”
He turns his back on me and starts shoving gold and eggs into his rucksack, fast and angry.
“I swear, I don’t know what goes on in your head these days. I thought we were a team, but here you are dragging your heels like a spoiled child every step of the way …“
One of the eggs knocks against another as he shoves it in the sack. There’s a noise like a tiny explosion, and then the light from the second egg fades away.
“Now look what you made me do,” Benji snarls without looking up.
My breath stops.
Benji tosses the dark egg to one side. It lands with a sad crunching sound, and a thick, clear liquid starts to ooze out of it.
I look to the shadows down the far end of the cave, but I can’t make out anything in the darkness there. The only sound, the only movement comes from Benji, all cursing and muttering and sharp-edged motion.
Fluid is pooling around the dark egg now, seeping away at angles where it catches on the pine needles.
I have to do something.
All around me, golden light glares off chiseled faces. A sharp-featured man stares at me, standing tall in robes and crown. A woman wearing a hawk’s mask, or perhaps a bird with the arms of a woman, reaches out to me. Further back, a rough-hewn dragon, barely-defined in crude strokes simply watches.
It’s up to me. I stand up tall, and I try to draw strength from the unmoving stone around me.
“Benji,” I say, and my voice is not a child’s. It is mine.
Benji ignores me, still scooping up gold and eggs.
“Benji,” I say again, and when he still pays me no mind I step forward and take him by the shoulder and turn him to face me.
He yelps like a startled dog and tries to twist out of my grasp. I hold on tight, and try not to squeeze too hard. I’m being careful, but this is the first time in our lives I’ve laid a hand on him, and his eyes are wide. My hand engulfs his bony shoulder.
I look him right in the eyes, and the outrage there makes my heart jump up, but I swallow and say, “These eggs don’t belong to us, Benji. They’re living things, and they got just as much a right to live as we do. You wanted gold, and you got it, more than we can ever use. Let’s just take what we can carry and go.”
I say it firm, standing up strong like stone, even though my guts are twisting and there’s a part of me that’s trying to curl up and hide.
Benji’s mouth is open, but no sound comes out. I open my hand, and he bounces away from it like it’s a punch, cradling his arm to his chest.
Is he hurt? I need to tell him I didn’t mean to hurt him. He needs to know I didn’t want to do it this way. I only wanted him to listen to me, really listen for once.
“Benji—“ I say.
That’s as far as I get before he starts laughing. It’s a hard, angry laugh, sharp-edged like a broken mirror.
“What the fuck was that, troll-skull? You think ‘cos you’ve got muscles for brains I’m gonna start taking orders from you now? Well sure, why not! You can be in charge! I’ll just stay home and let you look after me, since you’ve clearly got it all figured out. Don’t worry about paying rent, you can just flex your muscles at Old Man Tally till he lets us stay for free. And when we get hungry you can just punch us up some food!”
“I just want you to listen-”
“Listen to what?” he snaps, and there’s no laughter in him now. “Some half-baked ideas about ooooh, all life is sacred? Fuck that. No one thought our lives were sacred when we were cold and alone on the streets. No one thought your miserable trollblood life was worth saving except for me, remember? And now you’re worrying about a pack of monsters just like the one that got our idiot dad killed? If you want me to listen to you, troll-skull, then stop talking such shit. Until then, stick to what you’re good at.”
He turns away from me, grabbing for the half-filled rucksack with its precious cargo. There’s a pressure in my skull that I don’t know what to do with. Words, words, words. No matter what I say, Benji will always twist it around to serve him. Words are his weapon.
So I stick to what I’m good at.
Benji squawks and drops the bag as I lift him up, as easy as lifting a child, and pin him against the nearest statue. It’s a tree, gnarled and ancient but barely taller than me, the egg-light turning its leaves to autumn. Benji shouts at me, and struggles and kicks, but I use my weight to hold him still, pressing the breath out of him when he tries to squeal, like I learned in The Shambles. He weighs so much less than a pig.
There’s a moment, then, like a pitcher teetering on the edge of a table. I’m looking down at us from somewhere overhead—the hulking trollblood crushing the life out of this fragile stick of a man—and I can see how easy it would be for the monster to push a little harder, for the vessel to tip and shatter. And then I’m looking into my brother’s eyes, and the horror of what I’m doing climbs up my throat and tries to choke me.
“Enough,” I tell him. My voice comes out a growl I don’t recognize. “We’re not taking the eggs, Benji. Leave them alone and go. Get out of here.”
I give him one last squeeze for emphasis, and then I step back and lower him gently to the ground.
He’s gasping for breath, spitting filth at me with all the wind he has, but the hard edge is missing from his voice. And then there’s the way he’s looking at me.
I don’t even step towards him, just shift my weight, and he flinches.
“Screw you,” he gasps, hopping from foot to foot. “Screw you, troll-skull. Let’s see how you like being the big troll when you’re out there all on your own. Fuck it. I’m done with you.”
His eyes twitch towards his rucksack, but I’m standing between him and it, and there are still eggs inside. Then he’s off and running, back up the worn path, disappearing into the dark and taking our only lantern with him.
My legs don’t want to hold me anymore, so I sit down hard on the uneven floor, crunching up the pine needles. In the golden egg-light, stone faces gaze down at me. A solemn fish-tailed man. A long, pointed muzzle that might belong to a horse, or perhaps a serpent.
There’s no water here to drip. The silence of this place is so big it’s almost a sound, pressing in against my ears. An endless darkness of sound.
And then there’s a noise so faint it’s barely there, and the shadow at the far end of the cave unfolds, and the dragon drops down to the floor.
Benji was wrong. She’s not dead. But she’s old, so old. Her copper-dark scales are rough and time-scored. They’re starting to glow, now that she’s done hiding, but their light is faded and dull, just like her great round eyes. Her head wobbles on her long, thin neck, and the skin of her wings drags on the ground as she shuffles towards the gold.
I sit very still.
The dragon circles the pile until she finds Benji’s rucksack and sniffs at it. With a claw she teases it open. Gently, she begins replacing the eggs and the gold in her nest. Her hands are even bigger than mine, and they shake a little with age, but her touch is as delicate as an artist’s as she positions each egg, each coin, exactly where it’s meant to be.
She looks so tired these days.
The first time I saw her, she was bigger, less folded in on herself. Her eyes were already filmy, but her neck arched and her gaze was sharp enough to pin me in place. Her wings, when she stretched them out, reflected the light from her scales and glowed like paper lanterns.
She was so beautiful then. And there I was covered in pig’s blood from a bucket, snot running down my face.
I’d run away to escape the laughter of the butchers’ boys, to escape the stares and the curses and the shame. I had run all the way to the caves, to where our dad died, looking for the monster that killed him. Looking for escape.
I found it. But not how I meant it.
When everything is back in its right place, the dragon shuffles over to me. I stand up, and she drapes her neck over my shoulder. She thrums low, and it rumbles through my bones as: Thank you.
I’ve been keeping my thoughts far away, but that brings me right back to here and the tears start running down my face.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper into her neck. The broken egg sits dark at our feet. “I’m sorry. I should’ve been stronger, I should’ve done something sooner …“
She hums words I don’t know, but the sound is soothing. I lean into her scratchy scales, closing my eyes and taking comfort from her fading warmth. In the dark, if I let my head go empty, I can almost pretend it’s just another day, and I’ve come down here to see her, to learn from her, and to hide away from the world for a while.
She only knows a little of my speech and I know none of hers, but neither of us is much for talking anyway. I bring her stolen meat and pine needles to make the cave smell nice, and she lets me use her tools: hammers and chisels of a hard, heavy metal, all of a piece like they were poured into shape, and files made from her own shed skin. She teaches me how to read the stone and find the forms hidden inside, how to carve them into life.
Even without language, her patience is endless. My sculptures aren’t as good as hers yet, but I’m getting close. Turns out my hands are fine for delicate work, with the right tools and the right teacher.
Past her shoulder, half-hidden by the horse that might be a serpent, two stone figures—one tall, one short—clasp hands.
Benji doesn’t mean it, I think, not even after what I did. He’ll go home, and then he’ll wait for me. He’ll wait until I’ve been lost and alone in the dark long enough that I’ll run home and tell him I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again and beg him to please just take care of me.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could still run home to him. But I saw the way he looked at me, the same way people at the market have always looked at me, even though I’ve never laid a finger on anyone before.
I wanted things to change, but not like this.
What will he do, when I don’t come home? Will he forget about me and get on with his life?
Or will he come back with friends? Big friends, with blades and cudgels? I don’t think he would want to hurt me. But I do think he wants the riches here enough that he might overlook what his friends are willing to do to help him get them. He might even think it’s for my own good. A reminder of why I should let him do the thinking. He only wants to look out for me.
“There’s something I have to do,” I say, and though I doubt the dragon knows the words, I think she understands. I take one of the lanterns I stashed away here, and the biggest of the hammers and chisels, and go back into the dark.
There’s a few spots of green painting the walls of the entrance chamber, the glow-bugs still unsure but coming back to life. The decoy gold is piled up where we left it. I leave it there—if Benji does come back, at least he’ll have that. We have to look out for each other.
It’s narrowest here, in the tunnel I had to lift him up to reach, barely wide enough for a dragon to squeeze through. I raise up the lantern and read the stone, just like I’ve been taught. I tap the ceiling with the butt of a chisel and let it speak to me, here and here and …there.
I swing the hammer in the cramped space and drive the point of the chisel into the ceiling. I beat on it until it’s wedged in tight, and the crack that was hidden inside the stone has opened up and is worming its way across the ceiling, and then I take another chisel and begin again.
Again and again I swing my hammer, driving metal into stone. The impacts shudder through my body like sorrow, like rage, like the two fused together into something too big for me to name.
Stupid Ellie, trying to stand up for herself, proving herself the monster everyone’s always known she was. Stupid Benji, treating me like a child, forcing me to be the monster I never wanted to be.
I hammer, and I howl, and the stone howls back at me as the ceiling comes crashing down. I cover my eyes and choke and cough, and when the dust settles the tunnel is gone, just a wall of rubble, and tears are running down my cheeks again.
It’s not the only way into the cave system. The dragon has shown me others that come out in the forest on the other side of the hills. But only she and I, and perhaps some forest animals, know about those ones. As far as Abercoombe will see, the cave is gone—all its secrets sealed away in the dark.
There’s wetness dribbling down my face. I reach up and tighten the bandage around my head, feeling the ragged edges of Benji’s torn shirt soft against my fingers.
When I get back to the big cave, the dragon is singing.
She’s crouched beside her nest, holding the cracked egg in her hands. The sound she’s making is so low I can feel it more than hear it. I’m not sure if there are words in it. It’s hard to tell with dragon-speech, but I don’t think so. Only sorrow and love so deep I could drown in them.
I sit with my back against a miniature stone cathedral, breathing in dragon-song. Tears blur my sight, and I’m not even sure who I’m crying for anymore, the dragon or me or Benji or all of us together.
Stone figures gaze down on me without judgment. The dragon extends a ragged wing, and I crawl across the floor to sit beneath it. Under my knees, the scent rises of pinecones on a winter fire.
Through my tears, the rest of the eggs glow like church windows. The shapes inside are moving, swaying to their mother’s song. They barely fit in their shells anymore. Soon they will hatch.
Good. I can scrounge up enough food for the old dragon and me, while we wait. I can find the life in the last of these stones and use hammer and chisel and file to give it shape.
The old dragon might live to see it or she might not, but they will hatch, these beautiful monsters, big-eyed and golden-winged, and maybe they will live with the stone-folk in the caves under Abercoombe, but I think they will leave here and go out into the world, and see what lies beyond.
I think I will too.