From the author: Editor Jennifer Brozek wrote me one afternoon: “Help! I’ve got an anthology that’s short a story, can you write one in a few days?”“Of course!” I said, delighted to pinch-hit, even though I was leaving for Australia the following week. She wanted a fairy tale turned on its head, told from the monster’s point of view. Human Tales came out in August of 2011.
The fiery orange padparadscha sapphire lay glowing at the cave’s entrance.
A torment. A reproof.
Once upon a time there was a dragon. She was fierce and brave and wild. Her sinewy coils stretched longer than the fat man’s house in the village where the sheep-keepers dwelled, longer than the span of river that ran through the valley at the foot of her mountain, longer than the hottest day of summer and the coldest night of winter.
The dragon called herself Granletten, when she thought of names at all. She had not seen another of her kind in many, many turnings of the world, since her sister Persille had taken flight, seeking her own path far beyond the mountain, in the way of dragons. Solitary creatures, dragons are, despite their penchant for deep thoughts, and for clever repartee with like-minded (or, even better, contrary-minded) souls.
This morning had started like any other. Granletten had shifted her great bulk toward the front of the cave, shielding its contents from the rising sun. She thought about the clouds on the horizon, the turning of the seasons, and the time when she was a half-grown dragonlet and had first flown through a waterfall, just to see what would happen. She was just preparing to think about moving her right front claw a few inches, to cover the pile of gold coins that lay there, when her great eye was caught by a movement on the path.
Oh, is it time for another human already? Surely it hadn’t been all that long since the last one. His bones were around here somewhere… She cast an eye back to the far reaches of the cave, but did not see them in the gloom.
By the time she looked forward again, the man-child was nearly at the cave’s mouth.
Granletten kept down the numbers of brave fools who came waving their tiny swords in her scaly face by the simple expedient of distance, living as she did in a large cave on the wild side of her mountain.
The humans satisfied various purposes of their own by sending her their most dispensable fools: younger sons of large families, troublemakers, petty criminals—anyone who needed weeding out. Then, they would wait a decent interval before sending another, leaving her to go about her dragonly business unmolested. Every once in a great while they would send a clever rogue. At those times Granletten enjoyed some smart banter before killing him. It was really a favor she did for the humans, relieving them of these unwanted burdens upon their fickle society.
“Good morning, fierce and terrible dragon,” the man-child sang out, his voice only trembling a little. In his small and pale hands, he rather inexpertly held a sword. A large satchel was slung across his back.
Granletten rolled her enormous eyes. Somewhere, the humans had gotten the idea that she needed to be told who she was, as though she might perhaps have forgotten; now every fool who came by recited the same tired lines.
She sent him a puff of smoke from her nostrils, because that’s what he would be expecting her to do.
The man-child held his ground. She could almost taste how badly he wanted to turn and run.
What would be his story? A quest, a dare, a princess’ hand in marriage? Ah, humans and their petty concerns.
The man-child suddenly set the bulky sword on the ground, then dug into his satchel and brought out a small bundle.
“I have come bearing a gift.”
Granletten perked up her ears. This was different. Usually they came to steal from her.
When not fending off stray humans, Granletten spent her time amassing, sorting, cleaning, and organizing her treasure. Dragons are the keepers of the world’s brightest, loveliest artifacts, holding them safe and secure. She was pleased to honor the fiery spirit of the earth by collecting and safeguarding its elements, resting the cool length of her body across as much of the bounty as possible, like a hen atop her eggs.
As the weak and tender jewels such as opals and pearls stay supple when given regular contact with the thin, watery oils of human skin, so do the bolder gems—rubies, sapphires, diamonds—crave the touch of a dragon. Gold and platinum come to life in the fire of a dragon’s breath, shining out the reflected glory of the earth’s fires below in an answering song, thrilling to the heat and wildness. Treasure stolen by humans, to be worn by their interchangeable kings and queens and princes and sultans and rich men’s daughters, or hoarded in their counting-houses gathering dust and slowly dying inside—this was treasure that wanted rescue. That wanted tending by the world’s dragons.
The rest of her time was for deep, solitary thoughts.
When you live a double dozen centuries or more, you have plenty of time to ponder. And dragons lived longer than any other of the earth’s creatures. It was all part of the ancient bargain, the balance that held the world together.
A balance that seemed to be shifting.
It began with the humans. Granletten could not recall exactly when the first flickering spark of animal essence coalesced into something greater, something finer, prouder. Animals were clever enough; the mountain goats had long since learned to avoid her smoky cave entrance, lest their young vanish into her great maw.
But she could not place precisely when the clever animals became really clever, exactly; when they developed the ability to think.
The ability to speak.
It had happened so subtly. Fits and starts. Long stretches of no progress at all. Then one day, she realized she could talk to them.
They would talk back. Sometimes they would even make sense.
“A gift?” Granletten tried to form the words, to speak back to the man-child, but her voice was long-unused, and it came out more like “Grr-grft!”
This frightened him, clearly; he took a step back, stumbled over his own sword, and almost fell.
Granletten blinked at him, waiting for him to recover. Then she tried again, after clearing her throat (and sending another gust of smoke and ash in his direction). “A gift? For me?”
“Y-yes, your highness, oh mighty dragon…” He flushed and looked down at what he held, as if reminding himself of it. Of his resolve. Why had the humans sent this one? He wasn’t like the others—neither brave or foolhardy enough to be on a dangerous adventure, nor calm enough to be one of the clever ones.
Granletten leaned forward, resting her jagged chin on her scaly front limbs and peering at him for a closer look. “Tell me your story,” she rumbled.
What joy it was when the first humans began to talk to her! It wasn’t as though the dragon had been lonely—no, not that. “Lonely” was a pale, small, human emotion, a concept it had taken her some time to grasp. “Of course not,” she had laughed, when the first clever man-child had gotten it through to her powerful, long-thinking mind. “My sister Persille is just beyond those mountains, over there.” She’d waved a sharp-clawed forelimb in a generally sunward direction.
No, loneliness was not the problem. But to have someone to listen to one’s ideas, to argue back? Ah, sweet treasure.
The problem came clear when that first man-child had brought his clever mind to her, had gone away again (for she did not kill this one, out of amusement and a desire to speak with him once more), and then, by the time she had thought about what he had said and looked for a continuation of their conversation… well, he was gone.
Granletten had roused herself, secured her cave and treasure, and ventured down to the village, searching for the small, fair-haired youth that had so delighted her just a short while ago.
After all the screaming and panic and general hubbub had subsided, and she’d had to dispense with a few particularly foolish-brave warriors with little pointy metal weapons to wave at her, a trembling elder had approached her.
“What… what do you want, noble dragon?”
Granletten had sighed, sending a gust of fire breath to singe the man’s hairy ears, without exactly meaning to. “The boy, who came to me: Emmon, his name was? I would speak with him once more.”
“Emmon?” Confusion, consultation with other elders. Finally, from another, even more ancient one: “That was my great-grandfather, dead these hundred years or more.”
No. One couldn’t have a satisfactory discourse with humans, when they came and went like so many mayflies.
So Granletten the mighty dragon kept her own council. She enjoyed the greater and lesser fools who came her way, thought her deep thoughts, and tended the earth’s treasures.
“M-my… my story?” The man-child had a smear of dirt on his face, dust mixed with sweat. Granletten resisted the urge to wipe it away—even if she could wield a claw so tenderly across his fragile flesh, he would surely not take the gesture in a friendly manner.
“Yes. Your story.” Her voice was warming up now, the words coming more easily. “Why do you bear me a gift? Nobody brings gifts to dragons. If you’re trying to play a trick on me, please remember that no one has ever actually succeeded at that.”
“Oh… n-no trick, I promise. No trick. Um… your th-things are so beautiful…”
She raised a scaly eyebrow. “How do you know what my treasure looks like?”
“Everyone knows. I found something beautiful, too beautiful for anyone in the village, or the city, or across the whole country. They said I should bring it to you.” All this without stammering.
Two things the humans did: they made the jewels lovely, and they made them portable. By digging and cutting and faceting and polishing the raw, bulky stones that made up the essence of the earth’s magic, they made the gems far easier for the dragons to collect.
It was perhaps ironic that humans did this with no actual understanding of what it was they were working with. Of the value of their finds, the true treasure of their play-pretties. Oh, there were various self-styled witchkind and sorcerers and the like among the humans, who claimed to find powers and echoes and spirits and other such nonsense in precious stones. Granletten had quickly discerned that this was all smoke and ash; that these holy folk were just as greedy as any other clever monkey or bright-eyed magpie who spies a shiny bauble and seeks to make it his own, to hold it close.
No, the humans had no clue that the blood-red rubies with which they adorned their fairest maidens or worthiest kings were the literal blood of the earth; that the deep green emeralds that graced the plump fingers of a rich man’s wife held the spirit of the forests and marshlands within every sparkle; that the rare golden-orange sapphires of the tropics were the manifestation of the very passion that kept the earth vital, and propagating, and alive.
They just thought the stones were pretty.
Granletten didn’t mind. Portable suited her; the fact that the humans had gathered so many jewels actually made her work easier, saved her the trouble of hunting them down in the depths of the earth herself. And beauty pleased her. Even a dragon has a sense of style.
Granletten narrowed her eyes at the man-child. He no longer looked afraid, now that he’d gotten around the tangle of his words. “Did your king send you?”
He shook his head. “No, not the king; not even the mayor of the village. They’re fools.” He paused then, seeming to consider the import of his words, but then pressed on. “The holy man sent me, because you are more powerful than the mayor or the king. You’re the one who should have this.” He opened the bundle.
The dragon, like all of her kind, was a cold-blooded creature. Despite this fact, the ichor in her veins ran hot and excited when she looked at what the man-child brought forth.
It was a single, perfect, enormous padparadscha sapphire, bright orange, flaming like the center of the sun. Some human hand had cut it, shaped it into a faceted oval, as if to be set in jewelry—but it would be a bauble for a giantess, for the thing would weigh down any woman’s finger, would leave a bruise on even a strong and valiant man’s chest.
Yet it had never been set to metal; Granletten could see that at a glance. The fiery essence of the stone sang out to her, even as it reached for its brethren on the hoard behind and beneath her. Yearned to be returned to its companion-stones.
Granletten looked at the man-child’s face, assessing it. He appeared both proud and certain of himself, without doubt, and without any of the fear he’d shown earlier. What was his game here? What did he want in return?
“Where did you find this, youngling?” she asked instead.
He shrugged, then set the heavy stone down on the ground before the cave’s mouth. “Our holy man is wise, and would not tell me where it came from. He said you would want to know, and that you could not be told.”
“All the treasures of the earth are mine to guard and tend; you humans merely take custody of them from time to time, without leave.” She said all this without threat in her voice. The words were clear enough.
He gazed back at her, still unafraid. “And so I give it to you.”
This had gone on long enough. “And what do you expect in return?”
The man-child smiled. “He told me you would ask this too.”
Sometimes, the humans would come to her, not seeking an adventure or the solution to a quest, but offering a bargain. They would have noted her great size and power, the terrible fire of her breath, her powerful wings and sharp teeth and claws, and would ask her to destroy some neighboring village, or burn down a particularly stubborn stand of trees, or haul some great structure from one place to another. In return, they would offer her a grubby handful of stones—paste, usually—or shiny metal-things of no value whatsoever.
Granletten would patiently explain to them that they had nothing that was of any worth to her, and if they had, she would take it without doing them any favors, other than leaving them alive. If she felt generous.
This never seemed to please the humans all that much. But it would make them leave off bothering her a while, anyway.
Until the next generation came along, in a heartbeat, as they did; and they would forget the lessons of the last time. Oh well, at least it made for an interesting distraction, every once in a while.
Long life could be tedious.
“Of course I would ask that. Who gives a gift to a dragon without asking for something in return?”
She tried not to snort too violently; the flames would crisp the man-child’s face, and then he would only be screaming, incapable of further conversation. And she really did want to hear what he had to say next.
The thought helped draw her attention from the astonishing sapphire, anyway. She hadn’t even known there were such stones in the world—so large, such concentrated masses of pure earthly essence.
So much passion.
“Well.” Now the man-child drew himself up, self-important. “I do. I need nothing from you. I am merely offering up the most impressive jewel mankind has ever known to the most impressive beast in the land.”
Now she did snort with all the gust of her fire-breath, turning her head slightly to spare the life of the foolish creature before her. “And did your holy man not warn you about excessive flattery? Did he not tell you how clever I am?”
The man-child danced away from the edge of the fire, a small ember smoldering at the edge of his pointy boot. “Of course he did, your grace. He told me you are the cleverest dragon in all of the land. Cleverer than your sister, Persille. Cleverer than the he-dragons who perished in the last turning of the aeons. Cleverer than even the great dragons of the Antipodes, whose very sweat can ignite ancient forests as they sleep.” He watched her carefully as he went on.
Too bad for him that dragon-emotions did not play out across dragon-faces.
“I suppose you fancy yourself clever as well.” She was buying for time, and she knew it. Because she could not take her eyes off the padparadscha sapphire. It was… awakening something in her. Something she could not explain, could not define.
Yes, it was lovely—all jewels were, in their own way. And large, well-cut, flawless jewels were lovelier. And the jewels of fire—rubies, sapphires, the yellow diamonds—were lovelier still. All this was perfectly understandable, perfectly reasonable.
So this, being the biggest stone she’d ever seen—it made sense that this jewel would stir her passions.
But still, there was something more at work here…
Then she heard the words of her own thought. “Passion,” Granletten whispered. “This is a stone of passion.”
The man-child gave a hesitant grin. “Yes, your highness: it is a very pretty stone.”
“No.” Understanding dawned on her. The humans had no idea, no concept of what minerals meant to the earth, though they were drawn to them all the same. They didn’t grasp why they—humans—felt compelled to collect and refine, purify the gems. Clever though they might be, they lacked this fundamental awareness.
Which was why dragons were the true keepers of gems.
But dragons were meant to be immune to their stirrings. And yet Granletten could not deny the quick beating of her heart, the steaming of the fires in her belly… the heat in her loins.
For the first time in centuries, Granletten felt aroused.
Close on the heels of this discovery was the terrible knowledge that this was something she was not meant to feel. There was no purpose for this arousal, no possible outlet for it. It was as the man-child said: there were no male dragons, hadn’t been in many centuries. Never would be any more.
All the dragons that existed in the world were here already. When and if they died, they would not be replaced.
This was the bargain dragonkind had made, ages past. One can have long life, or one can propagate, leaving one’s children behind to carry on.
Something broke inside Granletten at that moment—her soul, her will, her resolve—something vital, something sharp. She cried out, sending flames and fire everywhere, singeing the gold and jewels that surrounded her, thrashing her long tail back and forth. The man-child had fled; he was halfway down the mountain by the time she recovered enough sense to even wonder about him.
But he had left the be-damned jewel.
It sat in the entrance to her cave, glistening, glimmering. Inflaming her. Lust poured through her loins once more at the sight of it. “Throw it away!” she bellowed to herself, reaching out a long claw to grab it.
Touching it was worse, though. As she drew it to her face, she knew she’d never, ever be able to let it go.
It would stay here, in her sight, torturing her. Forever tempting, forever withholding. Forever promising something she could never have.
A dragon is always alone.
But until this terrible gift, she had never been lonely.
Granletten lay in her cave, staring at the padparadscha sapphire. Large tears rolled down her face as a dragon-sized heat boiled through her body.
This story originally appeared in Human Tales.