From the author: A dragon landed on the path in front of Allis. “The virgin!” he rumbled. “What have you done with the virgin?” “A civilized conversation is usually initiated by a greeting such as ‘Salutations of the evening’,” she remarked. “Or perhaps, if you were in a poetic mood, you might present me with an extemporaneously composed sonnet.”
One summer afternoon, Lady Caroline hitched up her skirts, rolled two vinegar barrels into the corner of the cool, stone-floored herbarium and sat down for a private chat with her daughter, Allis. “You’re almost a woman, my dear, and it’s time you learned the family secret. The truth is, we’re were.”
Allis’s soft hazel eyes wandered to the hanging bundles of rosemary and feverfew. “Where?”
“Not ‘where.’ ‘Were’.” Lady Caroline sighed. Her sons were small and lean, as black-eyed and quick-tongued as she, while her only daughter . . .
“Were,” she repeated, speaking slowly so Allis could understand, “as in were-wolves. But not until your woman’s cycles come, and almost certainly not a wolf. I’m not, and neither is your aunt Jessie. Our family tradition has always been far more imaginative.”
Allis heard the sigh and the patience in her mother’s voice. Drifting on the patter of words, she guessed that something was going to happen to her, something that involved turning into an animal. Not a wolf, for she wasn’t nearly clever enough to be a wolf. Something slow and sleepy, like she felt right now. A lizard dozing in the sun? A turtle on a log?
Oh, dear. Suppose she became a were-turtle and nibbled on ants’ eggs? When she turned back into a girl, would the eggs still be inside her stomach?
“Just come to me when something unusual happens,” Lady Caroline said.
Unusual? Like being able to read Latin? Allis sighed. With her wits, she would probably end up as a cockroach.
For the next two years nothing went right at the manor. After a terrible wheat harvest, the Duke conscripted half the field men for his latest campaign. The oldest brother married, and Allis never knew what to say in those all-too-frequent occasions when his new wife, Ivy, would jab her with an elbow and say, “So what does the dummy think about that?”
The next spring, the Duke died and his younger brother became regent and promptly started another campaign, so there were more conscriptions. It took three more years for Allis to begin her woman’s cycles, and when she finally did, nothing happened.
“Sometimes it skips a generation,” Lady Caroline murmured as she went off to deal with the holes in the bedsheets before Ivy could order new linens.
Allis didn’t mind not becoming a were-goose or a were-sheep. Life was complicated enough once her sister-in-law started having babies, one every year. “Let the dummy look after them,” Ivy said. So Allis did, and discovered she liked babies. Human babies, calves, foals, goslings, it didn’t matter. They all ran to her when they were hurt or needed comforting.
It soon became obvious the manor was too small to be divided among the three sons, especially if they were as prolific as the oldest. The youngest brother went off to college in Oxford, much to everyone’s relief, but the middle one showed no sign of going anywhere and every sign of courting the neighbor’s buxom, dowry-less daughter.
It was time for another talk in the herbarium. “Lord Talbert has made a offer for you for his third son.” Lady Caroline tucked back a few newly gray hairs. “They’ve got plenty of lands.”
Allis gathered that she was being sent away. “I’ll miss the babies.”
“Only until you start having some of your own.”
Allis brightened. “That would be nice.”
“It’s settled, then.”
Allis was packed off on a white mule, accompanied by two men-at-arms, the cook’s assistant for a chaperon, and a donkey to carry her two small trunks. She enjoyed ambling through the countryside, along fields of ripening millet. Gradually the country became wilder as they climbed through pine-wooded hills. The men touched their sword-hilts and looked nervous as the sun sank lower.
Allis wrapped herself tighter in her cloak. Now that they were past the sunlit fields, she began to feel dreadfully homesick. Although the sky was not yet fully dark, a full moon had risen.
If only, she thought, she were beautiful like the upstairs parlormaid, or were smart enough to go to college like her brother . . .
Lost in thought, Allis had wandered far from the others. She noticed now how quiet the forest was. The night birds had disappeared and her mule came to a halt, head up and long ears quivering. Then she heard it, too.
A noise. A very strange noise. A burbling, boiling noise. And it was coming straight towards her.
The mule leapt into the air, reversed fore and rear quarters and took off at an astonishing pace, leaving Allis on her back in a particularly thorny clump of brush. She managed, at the cost of some nasty scratches and considerable damage to her clothing, to sit up. The next moment, the crashing, roaring noise was directly above her.
Everything went sweet and dreamy and vivid, all at once. For the first time, Allis noticed the intricate arrangement of the tree branches and felt their slow green thoughts. She wondered what marvelous things they’d dreamed over the centuries.
A dragon landed on the path in front of her. The warmth that radiated from his shimmering red-gold scales was like sunshine on pearls, his breath hinted of the liquid hearts of volcanoes, and his tourmaline eyes glittered with tantalizing mysteries.
“The virgin!” he rumbled. “What have you done with the virgin?”
Allis arranged her bronze wings gracefully along her back and coiled her tail three times so the tuft made an attractive design next to her muscular haunches.
“A civilized conversation is usually initiated by a greeting such as ‘Salutations of the evening’,” she remarked. “Or perhaps, if you were in a poetic mood, you might present me with an extemporaneously composed sonnet.”
The dragon blinked, steam issuing from its nostrils. “I — want — the — virgin.”
“There’s no person of such singular chastity — of either gender — present. Only the two of us, and I assume you exclude yourself from nomination. My own sexual experience — or lack thereof — is not a suitable topic for public discussion.”
As she spoke, Allis extended her fore-claws, which were as sharp as the dragon’s. The dragon outweighed her, being as large as two cart-horses while she was only the size of a pony, but she was equally agile on the ground and in the air.
The dragon arched its sinuous neck. “Your pardon, my lady griffin. My discourtesy comes from a predicament of a personal nature and not from any distaste for your company. No insult was intended.”
“And none was taken,” Allis replied graciously. With her eagle’s beak, she couldn’t manage a normal smile.
He curled the corners of his mouth in a dragonish grin. “Nothing would delight me more than to regale you with ‘How the Dragon Prince Stole Wisdom From the Sun’, or ‘The Singing Rubies of Kasimire.’ In iambic pentameter.”
“Iambic pentameter? Really? How exquisite!”
“Alas, I have an urgent task elsewhere.”
Moonlight glimmered on the dragon’s scales as with one bound he hurled himself into the starry sky. Allis watched the intricately veined wings spread wide to catch the thermal currents. She sighed, for the rabbits cowering behind the nearby thickets would make poor conversation. What marvels this dragon must have seen and what wonderful stories it could tell! She itched all over with curiosity.
She got to her feet and padded along the forest floor, distracting herself with the rich scents and textures. When the moon set, she curled up, wings furled and tail coiled neatly, and fell asleep.
Allis awoke with stickers in her hair and dew on her clothes. In the distance she heard voices calling her name. She got up, brushed off the twigs, and headed in that direction.
The cook’s assistant chattered so Allis could hardly understand her, but she slowly realized that the more she stood there with a blank expression on her face, the more the cook’s assistant fussed. It had never occurred to Allis that she might have any influence over other people. For her entire life, everyone else had been smarter and more confident than she. They certainly all talked faster.
Allis said, totally untruthfully, “I’m so glad you found me.”
The cook’s assistant gave her a tearful hug and a hot breakfast. “We were that worried for you, miss. All alone in these terrible woods. And that dragon — I was sure you’d be eaten alive!”
Dragon? Allis envisioned a sinuous creature, all red and gold. Wondrous, mysterious and yet oddly preoccupied . . . But she couldn’t imagine being frightened of it.
Lord Talbert lived in a real castle, not a manor house like Allis’s family. It was covered with turrets and towers and decorative things whose names she didn’t know. She felt homesick just looking at it. A succession of
impatient-looking maids moved her from one room to another until she was thoroughly disoriented.
Finally, they reached her own chamber. Left alone, Allis perched on the edge of the canopied bed, trying hard not to cry. Her two small trunks, scuffed and trail-worn, sat in the center of the Turkoman rug. Besides the bed, there was an intricately carved armoire, three dressers, five chairs and two desks. They all looked expensive and breakable.
Just about the time Allis was sure they’d forgotten about her, she heard shouting. She tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack. Striding down the hall was the most beautiful young man she’d ever seen. He had coppery hair and deep blue eyes. At his heels stormed an older man, richly dressed in silver-and-black.
“You’ll do as I say —” bellowed the older man, “— or I swear I’ll disinherit you!”
“So be it, Father! Hang me from the parapets. Boil me in oil. Cut off my allowance. Do whatever you like. I can not marry her!” The young man hurried off, leaving his father standing, chest heaving, in front of Allis’s door.
“Um,” she said.
“Who are you, my child?” the old man asked.
“By all the saints! Rannen! Come back here and greet your bride!”
Allis burst into tears.
The next day Allis joined Lord Talbert and his family at breakfast. Everyone welcomed her politely, except for Rannen, he of the red hair and startling blue eyes. Rannen stared miserably out the nearest window, hardly eating anything, and Allis stared equally miserably out the opposite window, hardly eating anything either.
Allis spent mornings in the ladies’ bower, listening to gossip about people she’d never met and trying to hide the condition of her embroidery. During the afternoons, the ladies rested from their exertions, so Allis explored. She got lost three times before she found the kitchen gardens. She’d put on her oldest clothes and spend the afternoon with the chickens and geese, the milk cows and the litter of new piglets. Her wanderings took her to the stables, where she found Rannen, dressed in clothes almost as patched as hers, trying to bottle-feed an orphan foal. Straw liberally sprinkled his hair and the front of his shirt was drenched with milk.
“Oh, you poor thing,” said Allis. She put her arms around the struggling filly and pulled her into her lap, where she settled down to nursing. “She misses her mama.”
“I guess I’m a pretty poor substitute.” Rannen laughed as the filly pulled hard on the sheep’s-gut nipple. He glanced at Allis, seeing her for the first time. “Oh, it’s you.”
Allis bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it’s not your fault. In fact, you’re being a rather good sport about the whole thing.”
Allis thought that Rannen looked much nicer smiling and with hay in his hair than scowling at the big table. She hated the mealtimes here. At dinner last night, Lord Talbert had done nothing but rant about the dragon. Three young women had been carried off and later found, unharmed but badly frightened. “The Duke wants that dragon caught, or killed!” he said, and put Rannen in charge of the hunt. Rannen had looked twice as miserable as he usually did.
“You know,” Allis said, stroking the foal’s mane, “I think I saw that dragon the night before I came here.”
“You did?” Rannen jerked the bottle, and the filly kicked in protest. “He didn’t — hurt you or anything?”
“Oh no, he was rather nice. At least I think so. It’s all rather muzzy. What do you suppose he wanted the girls for, since he let them go?”
Rannen stammered, “You know the old legend about the — the kiss of a virgin breaking the most fearsome curse.”
“No, Ivy never read me that story. I’m not very good at things like that, but it doesn’t sound like it would work.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“No,” she sighed. “I suppose not.”
After that, life settled into a routine. Every morning at breakfast, Lord Talbert demanded that Rannen marry Allis, and every morning he refused. Then Rannen hunted the dragon, while Allis ruined her embroidery. In the afternoon, they nursed foals and puppies, chatted with the farmer about the breeding of pigs, chased the goats and groomed the cows. Sometimes Rannen showed her a little swordplay, but she wasn’t very interested in it.
In the evenings, Allis slipped outside the castle walls. She felt as if she were looking for something in the darkened sky, but she didn’t know what. As the moon grew fuller, she noticed everything smelled wilder and sharper. Grasses, flowers, the moist tang from the moat. On the night of the full moon, she sat alone in the fields, breathing in the richness of the night. Just then, the dragon flew past, silhouetted for an instant against the brightness. Her heart filled with wordless longing, to follow him through the sky and learn all there was to know.
The world came alive to her eagle’s eyes — the fields and copses, the palace with its shining moat, even the piglets asleep in their open pen. The next moment she was in the air, her wings singing as she soared towards the moon.
She found the dragon ten leagues to the north, halfway to Oxford, hunkered down in a little clear space along a river and holding a woman dressed in red satin. When she landed beside him, the dragon looked up with a snort. The woman squirmed free and dashed for the nearest thicket.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the dragon.
“You weren’t trying to kiss her, were you?”
“None of your business.”
She was glad she couldn’t laugh aloud. The poor dragon looked discomfited enough. “I might be able to render some assistance, given the opportunity.”
“You can — can free me?”
“Pray be seated and attempt to enlarge your intellect to concepts previously unimagined.” She arranged her tail in three coils with the tuft decoratively displayed. “I conclude that you believe yourself cursed in assuming a nonhuman morphology in the fullest phase of the moon.”
It took him a moment to digest what she’d said. “Of course — how could anyone — god forbid there should be some other soul as wretched as this — you don’t believe that turning into a dragon — and scourging the countryside — is a good thing?”
“Do you engage in scourging? It seems to me a lamentable waste of time, when there is but a single night each month to explore the mysteries of the —”
“You don’t understand! All I can think of — night and day — is how to get rid of this awful curse. I’m hideous, unholy. A menace to maidens everywhere!”
“I suspect you have yet to encounter a maiden to validate that hypothesis,” Allis replied dryly. “They’re generally locked up at this hour.” Exasperated, she leapt to her feet and spread her wings for flight. “Instead of bemoaning your fate, Rannen, you should learn to appreciate its opportunities!”
“Wait!” he called as she sped away. “How do you know my name?”
On a high crag overlooking a wide moon-washed valley sat a magnificent two-headed bird known to legend as a roc. Allis spiraled down to land gracefully beside it.
“Good evening, Mother,” she said. “You’re looking resplendent tonight.”
One of the roc heads swivelled around on a neck as supple as a snake’s. Feathers gleamed purple-black in the pearly light. “How delightful to see you.”
“Don’t state the obvious,” hissed the second head. “Allis, you’re looking well yourself.”
“Except that I’m in the most appalling predicament.”
“Don’t you like your new husband?” asked the first head.
“What new husband?” Allis cried. “You’ve promised me to a were-dragon, and he’s so obsessed of his ‘curse’ — yes, that’s how he thinks of it, a curse! — that he won’t even consider marriage!”
“Surely there’s some mistake —”
“Ha!” Allis snapped her eagle’s beak in one of her mother’s faces. “I can’t stay on indefinitely as an unwed bride and I lack even the most remote qualifications for a lady’s maid. I’d be quite happy working in the stables, but that’s not an option, either.”
“You couldn’t persuade them to send you home?”
“What a stupid idea,” snapped the other head. “My dear, just tell the boy the truth and get him to marry you after all.”
“I don’t see why I should have to marry anyone, let alone someone who doesn’t want me,” Allis grumbled. “But, intellectually limited as I am in my human form, I don’t seem to have any other choice. Much as I’d like to, I can’t very well attend Oxford as a griffin.”
They sat looking at the moonlight over the valley for several long minutes. Lady Caroline stroked Allis’s feathered neck with one pale yellow beak. “You’ll think of something, dear.”
“What the child wants is action, not words,” said the other head. “Tonight, I’m flying to Oxford to see your brother. Exams are next week and he needs cheering. Why not come, too?”
Allis thought that if she were studying for exams, a visit from a contentiously two-headed roc would fall somewhat short of cheering. Perhaps later she could strike up a friendship with one of the professors . . .
Allis woke in the field beyond the moat, with birds chirping in her ears and sunshine filling the sky. She hurried around to the servant’s entrance, went up to her room and fell into bed. She was roused for the second time by the upstairs maid.
“Oh, miss, do get up! His Lordship’s all of a pother, and what will he do if you’re late for breakfast? Hurry now, wash and put on your best gown!”
Allis rubbed her eyes. She’d been having the most lovely dream — flying through a sky filled with stars that sang to her in a thousand different languages, and she could understand every word.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
“Matter?” The maid threw back the covers and shoved a sopping bath sponge in Allis’s face. “It’s only the Duke! Arrived out of nowhere an hour ago, he did. Fancy breakfast in the big hall and everything, didn’t I tell you? Get up, you big lazy girl!”
“I’m not lazy!” Allis snapped, handing the sponge back to the maid. “And — and even if I were, you have no right to say so!”
The maid blinked, bobbed a curtsy and went on with her duties without another word.
The regent Duke had arrived with two score men-at-arms, a professional dragon-killer and his dragon-hound. He was the coldest looking man Allis had ever seen. “Talbert,” he said, “I will have this dragon’s head before the month is out, or I will have yours.”
Lord Talbert assured him that everything possible was being done to catch the dragon.
“Not everything,” said the Duke.
The ladies of the palace were kept inside all day, for Lady Talbert was taking no chances with the Duke’s men. Allis missed Rannen and the animals terribly. There was no one else she could talk to, and for the first time she could remember, she had things to say. The Duke frightened her, for he wanted the power and prestige that killing the dragon would give him, although she didn’t understand how she knew this.
She also felt it was unfair to the dragon, who was a wise and magical creature, something to be preserved and appreciated, not destroyed to further the Duke’s political ambitions. She couldn’t say those things to Rannen at the dinner table, and between the ladies and the daily hunts, she never met him anywhere else. She could see how unhappy he was by the shadows under his eyes, which deepened as the month wore on.
Allis stood at her window, shutters thrown wide. The moon seemed to have seeped into every part of the room. She began to pace up and down, as restless as the animals in the barnyard below, forcing herself to wait.
Suddenly there was a great uproar — horns, men shouting, the great alarm bell ringing. Allis nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Dragon! Dragon ho!”
Allis leaned out the window and saw the magnificent, sinuous shape silhouetted against the full moon. She heard the Duke and Lord Talbert shouting orders, the
dragon-hound’s frantic baying, the clatter of spurs and iron-shod hooves. A deafening thwop! echoed from the parapets, and she caught a glimpse of a huge black-iron quarrel catapulting through the night. The dragon plummeted earthward and was lost to view.
She reached the dragon shortly after the Duke’s men surrounded him. One wing dragging, the red-gold beast reared on his hind legs and blew steam at the attackers. The dragon-hound, its nose streaming blood, whimpered as its master set another quarrel in his deadly-looking cross-bow. The Duke sat on his highbred stallion, his sword poised to give the attack signal.
Allis set down directly in front of the dragon, facing the Duke. She beat her wings, clawed the ground and gnashed her eagle’s beak. The men cried out and pointed at her.
“What in god’s name is that?”
“The first man that draws steel on yonder griffin will be the first man to lose his head!” the Duke said. He bent to ask the dragon-killer, “Is this true they possess the wisdom of the ages?”
“Don’t arsk me, Yer Grace, hit’s dragons wot’s me business, not flyin’ lions.”
“Duke!” Allis flared her wings and lashed her tail for appropriate theatrical effect. “What is your justification for persecuting this dragon? By what law, statute, or municipal ordinance do you pursue him with harmful intent?”
“It’s a dragon, Lord Griffin, and I’ve caught it on the very lands I’ve sworn to protect. This one’s already carried off dozens of innocent maidens! I’ll have its head on my lance, and neither you nor all of Hell’s demons can stop me!”
“Men have slaughtered the innocent before,” she answered coolly, “yet they are usually accorded certain judicial rights, such as the opportunity to confront witnesses and refute their testimony.”
Allis seated herself and arranged her tail in three neat coils. “To begin with, how do you know it’s the same dragon?”
“There couldn’t be two such monsters!”
“But has no one actually seen this dragon commit an atrocity, other than to defend itself?”
“That’s because we cornered it before it had the chance. All those maidens —”
“Who, as I understand it, suffered no more harm than a walk home in the moonlight and a few palpitations. Can you swear that you yourself have never caused similar distress?”
“It’s a dragon, damn you, I can’t let it live —”
“I’d be the laughing stock of the county — the man who let such a prize slip away!”
“But what if you were the man who had a dragon to do his bidding,” Allis said in her silkiest voice. “Nothing unlawful, of course, and not too frequently, for
over-familiarity generates disrespect. Who would dare to challenge you when a dragon might come at your call?”
The Duke lowered his sword. The dragon-killer disarmed his cross-bow with a look of disgust.
“To enhance the bargain,” said Allis, “I could add a service of my own. Anything you want to know. One question, once a year.”
“Done! You have my word on it!”
Allis turned back to the dragon, who was sitting on his haunches, eyes wide with astonishment. “Let’s depart posthaste,” she whispered, “before he changes his mind.”
The dragon, taking Allis’s advice, made for the mossy riverbank where it had brought the unfortunate woman in red. She landed beside him and examined the injured wing. The leathery membrane was torn and one slender bone broken, but the bleeding had stopped. She wished she knew which herbs would be most suitable for a reptilian metabolism or how to properly suture the laceration.
“You saved my life,” the dragon said.
“If you hadn’t been so determined to divest yourself of your dragonish gifts by means of a maiden’s kiss, you wouldn’t have been in such a predicament to begin with!”
The dragon hung his head. “You tried to warn me, but I just wouldn’t listen. Now you’ve indebted yourself to that foul Duke for my sake. How can I ever repay you?”
“Don’t worry about the Duke. He won’t be able to understand what I tell him, anyway. As for repayment . . . Do you know that charming Frankish poem, ‘Chanson de Reynard’?”
Allis opened her eyes to see Rannen’s face, not four inches from her own. He lay on his back, his face open and relaxed in the morning sunshine. His tourmaline eyes twinkled as he rolled over and kissed her tenderly.
“I knew it was you,” he whispered. “Allis, my heart’s sweet treasure, I owe you my life and my happiness. Will you marry me?”
Allis rubbed her eyes, wishing it were as easy to sweep the cobwebs from her brain. There — everything was coming clear at last. How simple it all was. The answer had been right in front of her all these weeks.
“I won’t need to take much,” she murmured, ticking off the items on her fingers, “books, pens, paper, a study lamp. After a few more turns as a griffin I’ll have no trouble passing the exams, and my dowry ought to cover the tuition . . .” Absently, she patted Rannen’s arm and got to her feet.
“Allis!” Rannen’s face bore an expression of mixed astonishment and hurt feelings. Favoring his injured arm, he rose to his knees and took her hand. “I want to marry you!”
“That’s very sweet.” She removed her hand and continued on her way. “Yes, by all means, let’s do that when I get back.”
Rannen scrambled to his feet and rushed after her. “Back? Back from where?”
“Veterinary college at Oxford.” She gave him a radiant smile. “I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it before. I like helping things that are hurt or lost, you see, and I’m good with animals. It all makes such perfect sense —”
“You can’t leave me, now that we’ve found each other! The stables just won’t be the same. I don’t want to lose you.”
She frowned. “Who said anything about losing me?”
“Well, what else would you call it — you going off to Oxford alone?”
Allis stamped her foot. “Honestly, Rannen, as a dragon you’re marvelous good company, but as a man you’re more than somewhat tiresome. Now that I’ve found a dragon to talk to, I have no intention of losing him. Every month, on our special night, I’ll wait for you at the river. It’s halfway between here and Oxford, an easy flight for each of us.”
Understanding slowly crossed Rannen’s face and one corner of his mouth curved upwards in a dragonish grin.
“After all,” he said, tucking her hand through his elbow as they strolled back toward the castle, “I never did have time to recite ‘The Singing Rubies of Kasimire’ for you.”
“In iambic pentameter.” With a blissful sigh, she rested her head against his shoulder.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.