The Dragon Bone Curse
by Stefan Milicevic
The dragon bone taint runs deep in our village. The beast’s giant skeleton sprawls from one end of the village to the other, enclosing us in its boneclast embrace. At times the eye sockets gleamed with a purple light, as if threatening to come alive again and devour us all.
When Athuros Valerian had slain the Black Drake, people sang his praises, but now we curse and spit at the mere mention of his name. The fool had doomed us. With its dying breath, the dragon unleashed a terrible curse upon us, defiling our ground. A few scores of years passed and our soil became hard and gravely. Where once had been patches of green, now there was an ashen taint, spreading every day, staking out the borderlines of its little kingdom. Our crops withered away, and the only things that grew with any enthusiasm were scanty bitterweed shrubs.
But these were laughably trifling things, compared to what befell us.
Unlike other girls my age, I am anything but comely. The taint has warped and deformed my body. My teeth are dagger-sharp gnashers. My nails are shaped like pointed claws and rock-hard to the touch. Worse, however, are the grey dapples that fleck my body, like bruises.
When I was younger, the pain kept me awake at night until I became somewhat accustomed to it. Every motion sends a biting pain through my limbs, every breath feels like a scattering of steel flakes in my breast. Every word I speak reeks of acid and brimstone.
I knew I would be lucky to live to be thirty three, just like my father.
It was by the beginning of my sixteenth year that Eclarion came to our village. Under the harsh stare of the sun, I was harvesting all the bitterweed the hard ground would yield. As I picked and hacked at a particularly stubborn patch with my trusty bone shard, I saw a person approach the village. Visitors were unheard of in these parts, travellers avoided us like the dragon bone plague itself.
Only when he drew closer did I realise that he wore white robes and a sword at his waist.
“Quite the tool you got there,” the stranger said, his voice not unkind. “Would you mind if I took a closer look?”
“No, sir,” I said, my eyes fixed on his sword. I never thought that I would see one, save for the ones in my father’s books.
“A masterful piece of craft,” he said, admiring my shard, trying very hard to sound like an artisan. “Is this your handiwork?”
“Yes, sir. I break pieces of bone off the dragon and shape them into tools.”
The stranger’s gaze shifted to the dragon. “Ah, that old thing.” He smiled. “I almost didn’t notice it there. What is your name?”
“Laria,” I replied.
“Greetings, Laria. My name is Eclarion. I came to cleanse your village.”
As I balanced the bitterweed-brimming tankard on my tray, I realised that Eclarion was in no great hurry to help us.
When the message of his coming reached us, his name was whispered amongst the tavern goers, with an equal measure of excitement and reverence. My father often talked about the priests of Runya. In his tale, they helped the needy and healed the sick. Runya had fashioned them after her angels; beautiful and golden-haired. They were clad in resplendent robes, white like innocence, brandishing silver swords that could slay the darkest things. I put the tankard on the table and snuck a glance at him.
Eclarion was nothing like the priests from my father’s stories. His white robes were tattered and frayed, the colour of innocence faded to an eggshell white. His golden locks were a tangled and greasy mess. He showed no interest in healing the sick or aiding us in any way, save for frequenting my father’s alehouse.
Only his sword lived up to my expectations. It was a beautiful piece of art. I often admired it secretly, slipping clandestine glances at it, as I served Eclarion his bitterweed ale. He noticed my awkward ogling.
“It is beautiful, is it not?” he asked. His voice sounded like pieces of old parchment rubbing together.
“Yes,” I said, barely able to contain my excitement.
He grabbed the sword by its leather-wrapped hilt and slid out the blade. The silver sang as it scraped the inside of the scabbard. There it was, right in front of my eyes;
salmon-silver and beautiful like nothing I had ever seen before. It glowed as if bathed in fluid moonlight. My hand reached out for it. I wanted to touch it, feel it--partake in its beauty. When I came close to touching it, I felt a fiery pang burn my skin. It was unlike any pain I had experienced before. The dull ache of the taint bruises was nothing compared to the searing heat. I yowled and withdrew my hand.
Eclarion chuckled. “It is the taint that runs through your veins. You will never be able to use it.”
My heart shrivelled. I did not just want to hold it in my hands. I wanted to own one. “But I will be, once you cleanse us? Right?”
A shadow cast over Eclarion’s face. He was but a handful of years older than myself, but his haggard appearance made him look worn. “What do you think of Athuros Valerian?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “He had slain the dragon long before I was born. I’ve been taught to curse his name, but I think he just did what he considered to be right.”
“So you would choose this accursed existence over death?” He often quizzed me like this; I could tell by the sly cast of his face. And I could also tell by his lopsided grin that he enjoyed it.
“I never knew another life. The other villagers say that a quick, smouldering death would have been better for our ancestors, but I don’t think so.”
“And pray tell why, dearest Laria?”
“Because we carved out our life from this hard ground. Father tells me that we deserve cleansing. I think so too; I want to see green grass. I want to see flowers.”
“Flowers and green grass, you say?” And with that Eclarion knocked over his tankard of bitterweed ale, spilling its contents all over the table. A sheet of pale-green liquor splashed over the rough, wooden surface.
“What are you doing?” I grabbed a piece of cloth and wiped the slush off the table. I rubbed and scraped until the table was clean again. Despite my best efforts, a sticky smudge of green stained the table.
“See?” Eclarion said. There was a triumphant smile on his face. “It will never be as clean as it once has been.” He picked up a cutlery knife and rammed it into the table, sending small splinters flying. “You did your best cleaning it, but the wood has been soaked and is now brittle.”
I blinked. “So? It’s still usable.”
“For now. It is but a matter of time until it cracks. Maybe not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. But one day it will.”
His riddle ravelling did not make any sense to me. Instead of cleansing our village, he indulged in alcohol and revelry. If all the priests of Runya were as slovenly and lazy as Eclarion their order was a sore disappointment.
“What does this have to do with our village?”
Eclarion sucked in a draught of air and let out a heavy sigh. “It seems that I am a poor educator. It matters not.” He rose from his chair. “Meet me tomorrow, at break of dawn, in the village square.”
“Why? I have to help Father all day, and I need my sleep.”
“I will begin the cleansing tomorrow morning. Then you will understand the little lesson I have just given you.” He turned away and left.
My heart pounded wildly in my chest. Tomorrow we would be free of the filth that has riddled us for generations. I had to witness it firsthand. Although I doubted Eclarion’s competence, I wanted to see him wield his magnificent, alabaster sword.
Later, it occurred to me that he left without paying for his ale.
I woke early and met Eclarion at the village square, where the skull of the dragon lay. He sat on top of the ugly thing, perched close to the edge, his long legs dangling in the air. Its eyes were empty and dead.
“Oh, good. You came,” he said, and heaved himself off the skull with, what in my eyes looked like, a neck-breaking jump. “Watch the daybreak with me.”
I nodded and turned my gaze eastward, to witness my last taint-ridden daybreak.
The sun peered beyond the blade of the horizon, as if reluctant to greet our tainted village. Bars of sunlight shone through the dragon’s ribcage, casting interspersed shadows at us. We stood there a while in silence, as the iron-grey morning slowly turned blue like steel.
Eclarion broke the silence. “You said you wanted to see green grass, Laria.”
“Yes,” I replied, “I only heard of it from the stories my father had told me.”
Eclarion nodded and drew his sword with fluid grace. Then, he buried the tip of the blade into the ground, piercing the crust of the gritty soil. When he removed his blade, a tuft of grass sprouted from the ground.
I could not believe it. It was green; not the pallid green of bitterweed ale, but green like life. Like hope. I wanted to touch and smell it. I felt a warm feeling rise in my chest. I loved it--it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
My excitement was short-lived. A few moments later, the stalks of grass withered away and turned to dust, blown away by the wind.
“Do you remember my little lesson?” Eclarion asked.
I nodded, my gaze still fixed to the naked patch where the grass had been.
“This land is beyond repair, not even the magic of Runya can lend it succour,” he said, with deep regret in his voice. “It will never be as clean as it once has been.”
“So you’ve come here for nothing? You drank our ale, ate at our table and now you will just walk away?” I heard how bitterness bled into my voice.
“No. I will fulfil my mission, and cleanse this village duly,” he said, and his eyes turned hard. “My last name is Valerian. Athuros was my ancestor, Laria.”
I froze. He bore the name of Valerian. The name we learn to curse as soon as we speak. “I did not accept this mission lightly,” he said. “When my order sent me to your village I felt responsible for the fate that had befallen you, for even if it was not his intention, the deeds of my ancestor brought this plague upon you. I wanted to ascertain whether cleansing was the correct choice.”
I felt my chest constrict as he spoke. “You mean...”
He said the words I did not dare to utter. “Yes. If I am to cleanse this village, I have to slay every one of you. The taint is spreading every day, and my order does not want it to reach the cities.”
“But your sword revived the ground! If we get more priests we could--”
“No. It is hopeless. I have to burn this accursed stretch of land, but before I do so, I will let the people die by Runya’s blade. They are a weak and weary lot, but finishing them off in their sleep it is the least I can do for them.”
He approached me with small steps, sword brandished in hand. I felt rooted to the ground. I could not scream nor move. There was finality in Eclarion’s voice that made my spine tingle. He was a quick-witted reveller, a clumsy educator and a rogue, but at that moment, I realised that he was a priest of Runya before all else. I feared that he would strike me down, but he just walked on.
“Run away,” he said, with his back turned. “The other people in your village have given up a long time ago. The blade may be a more merciful end for them. You still have hope. Therefore, I will let you go.”
Fury swelled in my chest as I saw him, bared blade in hand, in the fading dawn. A part of me realised that he wanted to carry out his duty. Another part of me knew that he wanted to atone for his ancestor’s sin. But nothing of that mattered. He was about to slay the people who shared my cursed blood.
As I grabbed a jagged bone shard, I saw the face of my father in my mind’s eye; his gaunt face, his squinting, watery eyes. He was the one who taught me to hope. I would not allow him to take my father from me.
I charged at him, screaming at the top of my lungs. Eclarion turned and parried my attack, and there was a dull sound as steel and bone touched.
I was fortunate; the shard was hard and sharp.
It was nowhere near a potent weapon as Eclarion’s blade, but at least I had a fighting chance.
“Begone. I will not tell you so again,” Eclarion said with an edge in to voice.
“No. These people have a right to live. There must be a cure.”
Eclarion smiled bitterly. “Do not make this more difficult than it has to be, little Laria. I shall atone for the sins of my ancestor and give your people the rest they deserve.”
“His sins are not yours. You don’t need to atone for anything.”
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked. Silence settled between us. That was one of these moments in life when words accomplished little. “I see.” He walked towards me with slow, solemn steps. I saw the fire in his eyes and the inside of my mouth became dry. “Then you too shall be cleansed.” He swung his blade at me and I raised my makeshift sword to defend myself. He let down a shower of blows upon me, each of which I blocked clumsily. He swung his blade at me like a man swatting away a fly. That was what I really was for him. A nuisance.
I gasped and trembled, parrying each attack with the best of my ability, each time escaping within an inch of my life. The sword’s bright, warm light burned on my skin each time it flashed near my face.
The dance continued and soon Eclarion had me with my back against the dragon’s skull. I felt the skull’s cold, rough surface chafing against my back, creating a sharp contrast to the sword’s blazing luminescence.
“I shall tell you this one last time. Run.” Although there was steel in his voice, I could hear him quaver.
“No,” I said, my voice atremble. “I won’t run. I won’t betray the others.”
Eclarion sighed and raised his blade, ready to deliver the final blow. I prayed to Runya herself that her harbinger would make my death quick and painless.
The cold surface of the dragon skull became warm, as Eclarion’s body turned a glowing hue of purple.
His face was ashen and his eyes fixed onto the skull. A strange mixture of fear and admiration was on his face, like a man who just found a new god.
I seized the moment and rammed the pointed end of my shard into Eclarion’s chest. There was a terrible sound of cracking bones and piercing flesh as I pushed my weapon deeper and deeper into his breast. Red blood seeped from the wound as he staggered back. He held the place with one blood soaked hand and soon most of his faded robes were stained with scarlet. He rasped, coughed and wheezed until the last of his strength left him. His sword fell to the ground with a clang and Eclarion collapsed.
I watched him die, as the thirsty earth soaked up his blood. Catching my breath, I turned to see the glimmer in the dragon’s skull that had saved my life. There was a sound of cracking bones as a tremor swept me off my feet.
The skeleton was moving its joints in a jerking manner, as if breaking free from invisible chains. The gargantuan thing beat its skeletal wings and stared at me, the purple flame in its eyes leaping and dancing. Fear filled my heart; my chest constricted, trapping the air in my lungs.
The beast continued, each moment a lifetime. Then, a fleshy membrane formed around the frame of its wings, and with a gigantic heave, it propelled itself into the skies, leaving the barren lands behind.
I caught my breath again and realised that both my forehead and my loins were wet.
I broke into tears, burying my claws into the blood soaked earth.
I ran the dry cloth one more time over the flat surface of my sword to hone its brilliant sheen. The grip had been waxed and the blade polished; I was ready to go and spread the word of Runya. I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, scarcely able to believe that the clean, smooth face it reflects was mine. Not even after five long years.
Eclarion’s blood removed the dragon bone curse from our ground and with each passing day our appearances changed; claws became fingernails, fangs became teeth. But whereas the other villagers started to grow crops, I came to the cities and became an anointed priestess of Runya, so that Eclarion’s sacrifice may never be forgotten.
The only mystery that still scrapes at the back of my mind is why the dragon rose, after the ground drank Eclarion’s blood. Time and age had dulled its thirst for destruction, and after decades of languish even the revenge it received seemed a poor compensations for all those lost years. Maybe it just wanted to pass away with the precious little dignity it had left. After all, I like to believe that it was weary of the curse itself.
Stefan Milicevic is an author of fantasy, horror and science fiction who likes to talk about himself in third person (which makes him sound kind of important). When he is not involved in a mind-racking game of Go or Shogi, you can find him tinkering with a new story, or hanging out with his friends. He is also fluent in four languages and can't waltz to save his life.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
The sheer possibilities and depth of the subject matter. Well-written fantasy stories are a crucial part of the modern myth.