From the author: My children were looking at the scorecard of the excellent game Dixit, and they were debating about the character facing down the dragon in the picture. I overheard their discussion: “I think it’s an old woman,” said my daughter. “No,” said my son, “it must be a boy. An old woman can’t fight a dragon.” Not only CAN an old woman fight a dragon, but she may be the PERFECT person to fight a dragon!
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“What do we do?” whispered Oliver. “What do we do, what do we do?” Tears continued to leak from his red-rimmed eyes.
“We’ll do what we must,” said Agnes. She looked around at the remaining residents of Thistlepatch huddled in one of the few intact buildings. Most of the other buildings has been reduced to ash or smashed to kindling by the dragon.
Slowly, Agnes rose to her feet. It was best she didn’t sit too long anyway, or her back would lock up.
“I will go to the dragon,” she declared.
There was a murmur of disbelief from the other villagers.
“Grandmother, don’t be foolish,” said Evelyn.
Agnes had known Evelyn’s parents, gone some time now. Evelyn had children of her own. Before long, faster than she knew, Evelyn would be the one feeling the pain her back and the wind in her bones. She would be the one they were calling Grandmother.
“Foolish?” snapped Agnes. “Of course it’s foolish; it’s a gods damned dragon. It was foolish for Tom to go, and Bernard. It was foolish for Jasper. Just because they were strapping young men didn’t make it any less foolish.”
“But Grandmother, at least they --"
“And what choice do we have? Are any of you volunteering to go?” Agnes glared around at the villagers, but no one would meet her eye.
“We do what we must,” said Agnes.
The day was bright and warm, and Agnes set out early. As she crossed the forest, she concentrated on the simple joys, maybe for the last time: the sounds of the birds in the maple trees, the crisp air, the sun on her face, the smell of pines and honeysuckle. She bent to gather herbs in the shady parts of the undergrowth, as she always did. As her mother had always done.
Half a day out of town, Agnes’ way was blocked by a wall of brambles. The immense patch of tight-knit thorns was deep, and stretched between the trees for as far as Agnes could see in either direction. She knew all the way back to her childhood that there were no easy paths through, no shortcuts. Her path lay forward, and it would be uncomfortable.
Using her woolen robe to shield her skin as much as possible, she plunged into the brambles, trampling them beneath her feet. Thorns drew hot lines across her hands and ankles, until her blood ran from dozens of small cuts. She tugged her dress free from grasping branches and heard fabric tear and seams rip. Grimacing, she continued, crying out when the brambles ripped particularly deep.
Finally, she was through.
She sat on a rock to catch her breath. Moisture stung her eyes, but she ignored it, examining the bloodiest of the gashes. From a pocket in her robe, Agnes removed a small sewing kit and set to work, mending dress and skin alike with an experienced hand.
As the elevation rose, Agnes had to stop more often for breaks. Though she was accustomed to walking, she had not walked an entire day in many years. Now that she was out onto the rockier ground of the foot hills, her ankles were starting to ache.
Evidence of the dragon surrounded her. There was no more birdsong here: tree husks smoldered where the tops had been burned off. The taste of ash was in her mouth.
Agnes longed to sit in her worn chair by the fire, drifting in and out of sleep. But she was close to the end now, and her path lay forward.
Eventually, Agnes found a path of stones worn smooth, scoured by the dragon’s passage. The path led to the edge of a steep cliff face, resuming, Agnes presumed, somewhere on the ground some two dozen feet below. The dragon would no doubt have spread his wings and glided gracefully to the ground, but Agnes needed another way down.
On the edge of the cliff was a small fir tree, with web-like roots trailing over the edge, reaching for the floor below. The wispy roots would never hold even her slight weight, but they trailed three quarters of the way down the steep rock face.
Agnes sat on the edge and braced her weary back against the tree. She gathered the longest roots and started braiding them into a sturdier cord. Her body was light and her arms strong from carrying water to the garden. When the cord was long enough, she would climb down. The path lay forward; she must go on.
The dragon’s black scales shown like polished steel, reflecting the last of the sun as it basked on the rocks before its lair. Wisps of smoke drifted from its nostrils, but it was not asleep; one enormous pupil cracked open at Agnes’ approach.
When the dragon saw the old woman making her way slowly toward him, he sat up in surprise, his head towering over her stooped body.
The dragon’s voice rumbled in Agnes’ bones. “Is this who Thistlepatch sends to battle me?”
“Nobody sent me, I volunteered,” said Agnes. “I’m the only one who could do what the others could not.”
The dragon chuckled incredulously.
“And what is it that you can do, die? Don’t you see how big I am? Don’t you see my sharp teeth?”
“My eyesight’s not that good,” snapped Agnes, sitting on a rock to rest her feet and hide her trembling.
The dragon cocked his head curiously. “Aren’t you frightened of me?”
Agnes’ bladder was in danger of letting go. She was as frightened as she had ever been in her life. More frightened than when Alphonse lay dying, leaving her alone and unprotected in a cruel world, not knowing how she would provide for their children. More frightened than when she had lain in bed, waiting for word of her sons.
As she always had before, she accepted the fear, but did not let it control her.
“War took my two sons from me. Plague took my sister and my daughter-in-law. Old age took all of my friends and neighbors. All you’ve taken from me is one grandson.”
The dragon rumbled in annoyance, his eyes narrowing to slits. “I don’t need your fear and cowering. Afraid or not, you will not leave this clearing alive.”
Agnes stood and faced the dragon. Her voice quavered, but grew stronger as she spoke, strengthening as she knew it was time to do what she had come for.
“I am old and frail. I’ve lived and loved, grieved and lost, and seen all the death I’ve cared to. Time moves on, and I’ll die as I lived; doing what I must.”
The dragon reared high above her, and as he did, Agnes reached into the pockets of her robes, bringing out the herbs that she had gathered along the way. Pokeweed and snakeroot and hemlock, how many times had she taught kids to identify them? Danger, she taught the little ones. Poison.
She smiled and raised her hands, as if to embrace a long lost friend.
The mighty dragon snapped her up in its jaws. It started to tilt its head back, but paused, catching the bitter taste of the hemlock. The dragon coughed and tried to spit Agnes from its mouth, but she was churning her legs, moving forward blindly, screaming in rage, crawling deeper into the beast’s mouth.
The dragon choked and shook its head, but he could not dislodge her. Deeper she crawled, to the back of its mouth. It couldn’t breathe, and Agnes pressed in the back of its throat.
The dragon swallowed, drawing the poison into itself, sealing its own doom.
In the end, as always, Agnes’ path lay forward.
This story originally appeared in Cast of Wonders.