“There are some people who might suggest that trying to take on a dragon by yourself is not a great idea, you know. There are some people who might suggest that wandering up a mountain without telling anyone where you’re going is a foolish choice. But you’re so convinced you can’t ask anyone for help and it never once occurs to you that your perceptual issues mean you are not exactly well-placed to judge whether trying a suicidal stunt is a good idea.”
The steady stream of Gregor’s complaints were the first thing that penetrated the darkness surrounding me. For a moment I didn’t move at all, just letting his words wash over me, but then memory came crashing down on me and I snapped open my eyes and sat up. Or tried to, anyway; pain in my side stopped me and I let out a soft shriek. Gregor was immediately beside me.
“Don’t try to move,” he said. “Don’t sit up. You will stay here until the storm subsides.” A thunderclap sounded outside, punctuating this sentence. “At a minimum. If you aren’t well enough to move by then you will stay here longer than until the storm subsides.”
I subsided back onto what was apparently a bedroll laid atop a small stone slab. Looking around, I was in some sort of mountain cave. There was a small fire burning near the cave mouth. Outside, a storm raged.
“Why am I here?” I demanded.
“Why are you here, in this cave? Or why are you alive?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“I suspect the answer to that,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that until you say it.”
“Despite your rant earlier, you know I’m not the kind of person who goes off for needless heroics.”
“And yet, I found you on the mountain with a dragon almost on top of you, and no evidence that you’d tried to run even though I know you’re more than capable of getting away once you realized you couldn’t kill it on your own.”
“Who says I was trying to kill it on my own?”
“Well if you weren’t, then either you have terrible allies or you’ve now learned that dragons aren’t amenable to talking.” Gregor’s tone was acidic, leaving me no doubt he knew which of those things it was. He always labeled these things as ‘guesses’ and insisted he didn’t know what was in my head until I told him, but his so-called guesses were right nearly all of the time.
I rolled my eyes. “None of the above,” I said.
“So what were you doing up there, then?”
“Killing a dragon.”
“So the answer to my question is…?”
I looked away and didn’t answer.
Gregor waited. He was good at waiting patiently until I said whatever I was avoiding. I was intellectually aware that dodging his question was pointless, but I still didn’t actually want to come right out and say why I had been on that mountain. I was certain he’d disapprove.
“Why are you here?” I asked instead.
“You were missing, the storm was starting, and the last anyone had seen of you was going up-mountain. Right after you screamed and ran away from that dragon hunter fellow in the middle of the town square. You can see why I might be concerned about this.”
“Concerned, yes, but you don’t usually decide that your concern merits stalking me up-mountain.”
“You don’t usually decide that merely seeing someone in the square merits going up-mountain when a storm’s coming and you know there’s a dragon up there. Moonhunter above us, Ella, what were you thinking?”
“You never call me by name unless you’re upset.” It was a pitiful attempt at distraction.
“I’m not upset. And don’t change the subject.”
Gregor had this idea that getting upset about my well-being would somehow upset me. I had never understood why he thought that. I wouldn’t have minded if he did occasionally display some emotions about me; he was so generally stoic that it was often hard to tell he cared—though he never denied having emotions. Now, I watched him begin to pace the cave agitatedly, seemingly unable to sit still, before settling back down on a rock beside the fire. Even seated, he seemed as though he might jump up again at any moment.
“When have I ever answered your questions on the first try?” I asked. “If I started giving you straight answers you’d get bored.”
“I assure you, I wouldn’t.”
But I couldn’t possibly give him a straight answer, not about this. How could I even begin to put it into words? The way the dragon hunter had looked over my body. The way he’d suggested, leeringly, that he often took the comeliest woman in the village for his reward. The way my skin had crawled even as part of me had shouted in my head He thinks you’re comely? Take a compliment!
The way the whole village had looked the other way when he reached for me, because who could possibly gainsay the one who was going to save us all from the dragon? The way I had been dazzled at first, until I wasn’t anymore?
Can’t call it being forced when you were doing your duty by the village, whether you have nightmares about it afterwards or not. Can’t call it being forced when you acquiesced because you’d never be allowed to refuse. But I didn’t want that taint touching Gregor.
There was a problem here, though: if Gregor insisted on taking me back down the mountain, I would be helpless with these injuries for a long time. And no one would think twice about the dragon hunter visiting me when he’d already showed such signs of interest in me.
“Ella.” Gregor’s gentle voice broke into my thoughts and I realized I’d said nothing for such a long time I’d outlasted even his formidable patience. “Whatever it is, you can tell me about it. Whatever it is, you can talk to me. Why were you up on the mountain? Why didn’t you try to get away from the dragon?”
“I was going to kill it,” I said. “The dragon hunter talks and talks about going out to kill the dragon and he may have the whole village convinced he’s going to do that, but he’s not actually going up the mountain and doing it. Sure, eventually they’ll stop believing him, but how long is that going to take and how many more people and livestock are going to die in the meantime?”
“Very good. You almost have me convinced. But if that were the whole story, you’d still have run when it became obvious you weren’t fighting it off.”
Once again I didn’t answer. There was no answer I could make to that; not without revealing myself. He studied me for several long moments, then went to the fire at the cave mouth. In the coals was a small teapot I hadn’t noticed, which he had apparently been using to heat water. Now he carefully removed it and mixed tea in the small mug he always carried with him. From the smell, it was willow bark tea, a painkiller. After a few moments to steep, he handed me the mug.
“Drink that,” he said.
I briefly considered doing so, but had I wished to kill myself through toxic drug interactions I could have done that at any time, and at any rate I didn’t think Gregor would be able to live with himself afterwards if he’d been the one to supply my suicide method—he would look back on it and say he should have known. So I set the mug down on the rock beside me.
“Ella, evading my questions is one thing, but you actually do need it. For the painkiller and probably also the hydration.”
“If you’re concerned about my hydration give me some water, then.”
“It’s not like you to refuse painkillers, especially when you have such obviously painful injuries.”
“And yet, here I am doing exactly that. If you want to hydrate me, give me some plain water.”
I watched his face carefully, because he was attentive to small details, and so I could see the moment when he figured it out. His expression was ever so briefly one of near panic before he once again hid all outward expressions of his emotion and looked at me levelly.
“What else did you take?” he asked.
I looked away.
“Ella. This is not a game. What else did you take?”
“Dragonsbane,” I said. Harmless enough to me, although combined with willow bark it would have been fatal.
But saying that was enough to let him figure out the rest of it. I resolutely continued to not look at him, as I did not want to see the flash of horrified comprehension on his face. Oh, he’d hide it quickly enough and focus on projecting calm at me, but I didn’t want to see it.
“Dragonsbane,” he repeated, in a flat tone. “You took enough dragonsbane that you’re concerned about the toxicity reaction to even this small amount of willow bark.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You were never planning on coming down the mountain alive at all, were you?”
“One life against the whole village,” I said. “Dragon eats me, dragon dies, that’s the end of it, dragon hunter moves on deprived of his glory.”
“Conveniently leaving out that you also die with that plan!”
“Is that so very important?” I snapped. “I’m just the worthless one. Just the extra one. The foolish one. The one who is so strange and fey that she’s not properly honored when the dragon hunter takes an interest in her! The one who might dare gainsay him and cause him to leave without killing the thing, when no one’s noticed he hasn’t killed the thing yet! Half-wild! Worthless! Should have been the one taken by the dragon, not her pretty sister, who’d have enough sense to go along and feel honored for it and might bring value to her house! So yes, this plan doesn’t leave me alive. I don’t think that matters!”
Ever so slowly, Gregor came to kneel by my side, and took my hand in both of his. “Ella, did the dragon hunter force you?”
“Is it still force when you say yes because you know you’re not going to be allowed to say no?”
“Is it, though? I didn’t fight back. I didn’t even refuse, not properly. I was reluctant, and he said it was lovely that I was so modest but that no one was going to mind as it was him, and all I could think was that if I refused more forcefully and he made an issue of it people were going to blame me for the dragon.”
“Ella. That’s still rape.”
“You say that, but I know what they’d say, and even if anyone admitted it, he’s still the dragon hunter. You’ve seen how everyone is—and still without even proof of what he can do.”
“It wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be okay, even if we did have proof he can kill the dragon.” Gregor’s tone was so fierce that I was set back by it. He doesn’t show emotion. He doesn’t show emotion to such a degree that I have trouble conceiving of the idea that I can actually matter to him, not when he’s more demonstrative with his dogs than he is with me. Except, apparently, for such brief moments as this one. For him to be showing even that little bit of feeling, the strength of his reaction must have been overpowering.
“I suspect the village would disagree,” I said.
“Then they’re wrong.” He shifted on the rock so that he could lift my head into his lap. I smiled and nestled into the comfort. “Ella. They’re wrong. And this isn’t the answer.”
“How can it not be?” I asked bitterly. “I die, he goes from the village, everyone gets to whisper behind their hands, and I don’t have to see him leering every time I close my eyes. I don’t have to go through the world feeling like I can’t reach it anymore. My magic’s gone from me, did you know that? Ever since that night, I can’t feel the earth anymore. Can’t feel the power. He took that from me. Some kind of taint, it has to be.”
“The Earth-mother isn’t the kind to find you broken for something that was beyond your control.”
“Then why can’t I feel the magic?” I poured every ounce of anguish into my tone, every moment of the panic I had felt since I left the dragon hunter’s bed and first realized that I couldn’t feel the magic, that I couldn’t reach my center, couldn’t continue with my duty—could not be a healer. “Why is my power gone? I’m supposed to be a healer. I’m supposed to have power.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But could the fact that you’ve been bottling this up inside be part of it? You’ve had trouble reaching the magic when you’re upset before.”
“I grew out of that.”
“You’ve never been this upset. You’re training to be a healer. What are the effects of trauma?”
“We haven’t studied that in detail yet.”
“You’ve had an overview. Tell me the high-level version. What are the effects of trauma?”
“Flashbacks. Emotional numbness. Uncontrollable emotions. Need for control. Often self-injury.”
“Any of that sounding familiar?”
I reached up and squeezed his hand, but remained silent. It was, in fact, sounding familiar. It sounded like a lot of what I had been experiencing over the last several days. The days had been a fog where I could not truly connect with anything, but had simply gone about my rote tasks as if nothing had happened. We were learning herbalism at the moment, without any magic to it, so while we were supposed to be connecting with our magic regularly, there was nothing in class to force me to reach for it, and I had been too dazed to do anything except what I absolutely had to—though years as the outcast wild child in our village had taught me to keep up a front through any kind of emotional storm if I needed to. I had finally come back to myself enough for it to occur to me that the magic might help, that meditation and reaching for the earth was supposed to be able to help us regulate our emotions, only to find that I couldn’t reach the magic. The loss of that certainty—for if there had been one thing in my life true up to that point it was that the natural world would always be there for me no matter what other humans thought of me or did to me—had been the thing that led me to come up with this plan.
If I was going to be useless, it was best for my death to mean something.
The thing was, even with Gregor here going over this, I wasn’t sure there was anything wrong with my reasoning. Even if it was possible for me to reach the magic again, healers were supposed to be bastions of stability, and I didn’t think I could ever be that. Without a way to earn a living… well, times were hard everywhere, and there was no good way out of that. A quick death seemed better than a slow one.
Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face, because Gregor said softly, “Talk to me, Ella.”
“There’s still no way out. He took my life, ruined my prospects, I can’t do anything, the future’s a mess… I don’t want to die meaninglessly.”
“So you came out here to die meaningfully instead?”
“Something like that.”
He squeezed my hand again, then. “There are other ways.”
“What other ways? How am I supposed to do anything? If you’re right, if I am suffering from trauma or shock or whatever you want to call it, how is there any sort of answer out there for me? How is there an escape? I can’t keep going, you can’t look after me…”
“But none of that has happened yet. It might never happen. Wait until it does, before you decide that’s the end of everything.”
“So I’m just supposed to sit here waiting for something to happen? Try to go about my day knowing that it’s hanging over my head?”
“It’s better than deciding everything’s over before anything at all has happened.”
“It’s not that simple,” I snapped, starting to cry.
“Of course not.” Gregor’s voice was gentle. “You have to keep choosing it every day. Just get through today. Tomorrow will come tomorrow.”
“Today there’s still a dragon attacking the village,” I said. “We still have to deal with that today. Or more people than just me are going to get injured by it.”
“So let’s make a plan for fighting it together. One that doesn’t end with anyone dying. If this whole ‘feed something a lot of dragonsbane and feed to the dragon’ plan works as a concept, why has no one tried doing it with livestock?”
“Because then they’d have to give up livestock. If you wait for it to attack, you can hope maybe your cattle will be untouched. There’s not enough dragonsbane growing to dose everybody.”
Gregor winced. “So they wait for it to attack instead and hope a human dies killing it? There is something very wrong with the way most people apparently approach the world.”
“That’s been true for ages; you just notice it less because people actually like you.”
“Moonhunter only knows why. So all we have to do is steal someone’s sheep, feed it some of that dragonsbane, bring it up here to be a target, and then pretend the dragon got it?”
“…That is not the plan I’d have gone with, but it would work. Theoretically.”
“Your plan is bad,” he told me. “My plan is better. Besides, that dragon hunter deserves a lot worse than us stealing the sheep intended to feast him.”
I snorted. “Okay. Fine. Tomorrow, after I’ve recovered, we can try it your way. Do not think this constitutes any kind of promise that I will stay alive.”
“I don’t want you to make a promise you might not keep. I just want you to not shut me out. Now, will you please try to rest? We’ve got a plan. You’re still injured. We’re trapped up in this cave at least until the storm stops, which probably means until morning, so there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“If you insist.” I closed my eyes, still holding close to Gregor’s hand, and considered. The world was hard, and awful, and I didn’t for a second believe that killing a dragon was going to make it less hard or awful. But I could at least manage staying alive long enough to kill the dragon; Gregor would need my help figuring out dragonsbane dosing for the sheep. After that… well, anything could happen, I supposed.
Even a world that managed to be tolerable for a few more days, and maybe a few more days after that.
It was, at least, a possibility.