by Vanessa Fogg
He was born on a night that dragons sang.
That fall the dragons returned to the mountains above Tharn Valley. They came in flocks of three and four, sweeping overhead like a swirl of autumn leaves, a scattering of brilliant color on the wind. Gold and red and russet brown. Silver and the dark green of mountain pines. And rarest of all, the blue dragons: bluer than the skies against which they flew, bluer than the cold mountain lakes. They were a blue that was rumored to be glimpsed occasionally in the depths of the mountains’ highest ice sheets, the blue of glacial ice compressed a thousand years. A blue sometimes seen in fire, at the center of the hottest flame.
The dragon-heir’s mother shivered at their music. She stood in the field outside her home, listening and tracing the dragons’ path with her eyes. The wind blew, and she tugged her cloak tight about her swollen belly. The contractions were still irregular, but strong enough now to bring tears to her eyes.
“Asha.” Her husband spoke her name, coming up from behind her. He had returned only that afternoon from the autumn herding of sheep down from the upper meadows. He smelled of wind and chilled sweat. He followed her gaze, watched the dragons soar toward a far white peak. “We heard them in the mountains,” he said. “They’re coming from all over, I think.”
“A dragons’ congress, now?” Asha’s voice was sharp, incredulous. “Why?”
Her husband’s voice was quick and reassuring. “It likely means nothing. Who knows the comings and goings of dragons?” It was an old saying in the mountains. He smiled then, unable to help himself. “You should have seen them from the upper pastures. So many, so bright and near. And the sheep and dogs weren’t frightened at all, not even of the songs they’re singing. Their songs can soothe a mountain. . .”
Asha gasped and shook her head.
His arms went out to hold her. “Has it started? Should we fetch the doctor now?”
One of the farm hands was sent to town to fetch the doctor. But by the time the doctor and boy returned, the baby had already been delivered. Asha sat up against the pillows of the birthing bed, holding her son in her arms. The women of the farmstead gathered around, cooing and exclaiming; the father stood proudly beside his wife, accepting the congratulations of the doctor and the visitors that followed. But Asha was silent, staring into her son’s brilliant blue eyes. They were the blue of glaciers, she thought. The blue of dragons. She put the baby to her breast and the bright eyes closed. She grew drowsy as her milk let down. As she drifted off she thought she heard, faintly, a few last peals of dragon song.
The dragons’ congress dispersed three days after the baby’s birth, ending as mysteriously as it began. Only the resident dragons of Tharn Mountain remained.
The baby was named Erran, and he had the blue eyes of his father and his father before him. He grew quickly, a sturdy child with fair yellow hair and an easy smile. An ordinary laughing boy on an ordinary sheep farm in the upper valley.
And yet, not altogether ordinary.
For he was known as the dragon-heir, the son of a storied lineage. When poets sang the sagas at festivals, the greatest legends spoke of his ancestors’ deeds. He grew up on family stories that were recited in halls throughout the land. And every year, as the last leaves of autumn curled and dried to brown parchment, Erran and his father led a procession from the town to the foot of Tharn Mountain. From there, it was only Erran and his family who continued up the lower slopes to a meadow of sweet red grasses. A large, flat gray stone lay in the meadow, and on its surface each family member laid out the offering that he or she had brought: a rich cloak lined with the warmest sheepskin; an intricately woven tapestry depicting daily farm life; wooden carvings of animals and men; a flask of cider and a wheel of the year’s first ripened cheese.
Erran was six the first time he walked alongside his father at the head of the small parade. His legs ached by the time they reached the meadow. He threw himself on the ground as his father laid out offerings on the stone. He had had to be solemn and proper while the townsfolk were present, but now in the meadow with only his family about him, he could be a little boy again. The gathering took on a festival air, as the adults chatted and his older cousins ran and wrestled in the field.
“Erran,” his father called, and Erran went over and laid out his own small offering: a little leather purse, burned with the letters that spelled out his name.
“Will he come?” the boy said, looking into the skies.
“Gilduran?” the father said, speaking the name of the family dragon. He shook his head. “They say that in the first few decades he did come. But after a hundred years the memories go thin, and it’s now been longer than that. . . And he’s busy patrolling the Inner Range. No, Gilduran has not come to this ceremony in my lifetime or my father’s lifetime, either. But we still remember, Erran, even if he does not. We still bring the offerings. And from time to time he does still return to this meadow, and takes what he likes.”
“My wooden sheep from last year is gone,” Erran observed, poking through the offerings, old and new, on the stone.
“So it is,” his father said solemnly.
All his life the boy had known of dragons; all his life he had known of the dragon heroes. Pictures of the heroes hung in the main hall, woven into the tapestries that warmed the walls: Haldur the First, the first one to make the pledge; Erik Redhair, his great-grandson; fair Katja the Brave, who offered herself as pledge at a time when there was no male heir of age to do it. And more, down the centuries. . . An older cousin remarked once that no one could have known what Haldur the First or Erik or many of the others looked like, and that the tapestries were woven long after their deaths. But Erran thought the pictured Haldur looked like his father, who was also named Haldur. He hoped never to see his father’s face on the wall, or his father’s name inscribed on the shield of heroes.
“Shhhhh,” his mother hissed in his ear, as he woke in terror from a dream of fire and loss. “Just a dream, my love, it’s nothing.” And the boy clung to her and sobbed, unable to talk, unable to say what exactly he mourned.
In the morning the dream was forgotten. Sunlight shone through his window; there was the clatter of breakfast dishes in the kitchen; a dog barked outside, and familiar voices spoke within.
But from time to time a ghost of the dream whispered at him. A vision of flames licked at his memory; the earth shook and swayed beneath his feet.
He remembered what his mother had told him: that the mountains slept, that the earth was quiet. Their dragons were strong, and sang to keep earth’s fires in check. Every day he looked to the sky for them. He could not remember ever hearing them sing, though he had been told that they sang at his birth.
The family stories were filled with invocations of honor. “Honor” was something that all heroes had. “Honor” was something worth fighting for. Yet it was also something that could be shown to someone else, as the townsfolk and even the nobility showed honor to Erran’s family. Erran’s father tried to explain. He said that honor meant showing respect to those who deserved it. But honor was also something that a person possessed, the most important thing you could have. “It means doing the right thing, always,” his father said. “Even when it’s hard. Even when you don’t want to do it. It means keeping your word. It means keeping your promises.”
“Like Haldur the First and his pledge,” Erran said, his eyes flashing with sudden understanding.
“Like Haldur the First,” his father agreed. “And all in our family who have kept the pledge after.”
“So Father--” Erran’s blue eyes were wide, his young voice intense. “You have to keep the pledge if you’re called, and I have to keep it, and any sons I might have--forever and ever?”
“Forever,” said his father, the twenty-third Haldur in the family line.
Asha had been listening. That night she visited her son in his room. He was eight and too old to be tucked in at night, yet she drew the bed-quilt over him and laid a hand on his head. “I heard you talking with Father today,” she said softly. “You know that the pledge hasn’t been called in three hundred years. There’s no reason to think it will be called in our lifetime.” Her hand gently smoothed his hair. “Don’t worry about it, my little one.” The faintest tremor crept into her words. “Don’t worry about it.”
He pushed away the nightmares of fire and blood; he pushed away his fears for his father, and for himself as well. They were ancient legends, and what time did he have for them in the new sunlit world? There were lambs to watch being born, and afterward lambs to care for and cuddle. There were dogs to romp with, and ewes to be milked and sheep to be sheared. There other children to wrestle and play with, and woods to explore. In the woods were hidden ravines and nameless streams and rushing waterfalls. Remnants of ancient lava fields, with boulders of black crystal bigger than himself. A field of obsidian shards, shining brighter than glass in the sun.
“Ha! The dragon-heir!” a cousin hailed him, and bowed low. It was a game amongst the children, a teasing nickname, a gentle jest. He played with them, fighting epic battles against mythical trolls or warriors from across the sea. Sometimes they re-enacted one of the old family sagas: they played they were fleeing from doomed Skalkass Valley, covered with fire and ash three hundred years ago. And then Erran would have to play the role of the dragon-hero; he would have to fulfill his pledge to make the earth’s rages stop. He went about his duty with what he imagined was the dignity of his ancestors, the brave and accepting nobility of heroes.
When he was twelve his father took him up to the summer pastures and left him there with the sheep for the season. It wasn’t necessary; there were hired shepherds for the task. But his father said that the master of a farm should know everything about how a farm was run; he should know how his sheep fared throughout the year. Erran spent the summer on the lonely heights with only a few shepherds and dairy-maids for company. Their summer farm was located on the upper slopes of Mount Asgilinath, and their sheep grazed in meadows at the edge of glaciers. Yet higher than Mount Asgilinath, higher than all the mountains of the valley, was great Tharn Mountain, the home of dragons, shining in perpetual ice and snow. Erran woke each day to the sight; Tharn Mountain filled his sky. From this height, he could finally hear, at times, the dragons singing: a low, thrumming sound more felt than heard. A handful of times, he saw a dragon in flight: a blaze of color against Tharn Mountain’s white flanks. And one morning he saw all four shoot out at once from their great mountain caldera: green Rilgar, the youngest of the dragons; golden Rivnath, scarlet Hanath, and Atharan whose red scales were turning silver with age. The dragons streaked up and out into the air, trailing plumes of steam behind them. Erran heard their song change: the low thrum broke into bell-like peals, ringing out over the valley.
“You don’t see that every day,” said Old Karloff, the oldest shepherd on the mountain. And he laughed warmly to see the awe on Erran’s face.
It was different from what he had ever expected, waking each day in the clear, thin air, so near to the sacred home of dragons. Childhood stories rushed back to him. In the long, light-filled evenings, Erran listened to the tales of shepherds and dairy-maids: sightings of rare dragons, the remembrance of rare songs. Old Karloff had lived to see three full dragon congresses in his time. He had seen Gilduran return to the low meadow on Tharn Mountain and leave with something—a blanket? a great tapestry?—in his claws. He had watched dragons more carefully than any man alive, and even he could not predict their comings and goings.
Erran watched Tharn Mountain and thought of the hidden waters of the caldera. Tharn was the first mountain to be tamed, after it had blown up and nearly destroyed the world. Its crater had filled with snow and rain, and from that sacred lake the first dragons were born. The gods charged the dragons with controlling earth’s fire and protecting mankind, and the dragons did so, but only at a price. . . The hidden waters of their birthplace were said to be bluer than anything —bluer than glaciers, bluer than fire, bluer than the blue dragons seen at the last dragons’ congress. A blue that could not be named, a color given only briefly to newborn dragons, in the hour of their first flight. Errran thought of Haldur the First standing on the edge of those waters. What had gone through Haldur’s mind? Had he felt afraid? Erran felt dizzy just thinking of it. An old chill touched his heart.
At the midpoint of summer his father came up to check on the flock. Haldur the Twenty-third brought gifts for his farmhands: wine, cheese, sausages. A sack of rich spice-cakes to celebrate the solstice. And a handkerchief of sausage-buns which Asha had baked especially for her son.
“Do you know why I sent you up here?” Haldur asked his heir. It was not common for well-off farmers to send their sons to the upper meadows, and certainly not first-born sons; herding was considered lowly work.
Erran looked out at Tharn Valley spread below, tumbling in its lush folds of green. Tharn Mountain rose to the north, and at his back were the barren mountains of the Inner Range: sheer walls and edges of stone gilded with ice. To the south were cinder cones and the great lava desert where Skalkass Valley had once been. Erran took a breath of the sunlit air, and considered his father’s question.
“Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
A dragon-heir should know of dragons, yet the master of a farm should know everything about how a farm is run. So Erran spent parts of some summers tending sheep in the upper pastures, and parts of some summers in the valley, learning to cut and dry hay, and tend the crops, and manage all the summer work. One day he accompanied his younger sister into town to sell sheep’s milk cheese and other goods at market. He had helped unload her wares, and was chatting idly at the nearby leatherworker’s stall when his attention was caught by a girl standing at his sister’s table. He stopped talking and stared. Och the leatherworker followed his gaze and grinned.
“You and everyone else has his eye on that one,” Och said.
Erran was too entranced to even blush. “Who is she?”
His sister swatted him on the arm when he asked her. “Oh, so you go off gossiping and idling instead of working, and then take an interest in the customers!” She shook her head, trying and failing to hide a smile. “Her name is Elsbeth, and she’s a new servant in the household of Lady Cerine. They’re visiting for the summer from the city. Something about the hot springs here and Lady Cerine’s old bones.” His sister paused. “The girl comes ‘round this time every market day if you’re interested. Seems her ladyship has a taste for our fresh yogurt and cheese. My berry jam, too. ”
Erran’s parents said nothing when he began finding reasons to accompany his sister Lisel to market. Lisel said nothing as well. She even managed to keep quiet and let Erran flail in his first conversation with the pretty servant girl. Elsbeth had eyes blue as any girl in the valley, but dark hair that was unusual in the highlands. Her figure was small and slender. She met Erran’s eyes frankly, without a hint of shyness.
“So when will you be thinking of asking me for a walk?” she said soon after they met, as she tucked away a pot of Lisel’s bilberry jam into her basket.
This time Erran did blush. “I- I have been thinking on it,” he confessed.
“So will you be asking?” Her chin was lifted, her smile a dazzling challenge.
He met her eyes and challenge together. “Will you take a walk with me, Elsbeth?”
“I will.” Her gaze softened. “My lady gives me time off tomorrow. You can fetch me at the gate after the noon bell.”
Afterward, he would think back on that summer as a time somehow separate from the rest of his life, like a still pool of sunlight amidst life’s rushing stream. He and Elsbeth took many walks together. He brought her up to his farm, and to the wild fields and woods where he had played as a child. He showed her the field of obsidian shards. They walked up a mountain and listened to the faint chimes of dragon song. She twined meadow flowers into a bright garland as he sat beside her and they talked now casually and now intensely, and then not at all, as the long summer glowed all about them.
They were silent together on the day that they saw the dragons of Tharn Mountain take flight, heading west into the empty mountains of the Inner Range.
“I’ve never seen dragons before,” she said finally.
“Even here, we don’t see them often,” Erran admitted.
“There are no dragons where I come from.” She looked at him. “No fire vents either, or live fire mountains. No bubbling hot springs. No dragon-heirs.”
“An old, hereditary title,” Erran said dismissively. “It means little now.”
“Does it? You’re pledged to protect us all if the mountains should wake again. And you’re from a great, renowned family. What does your mother think, you dallying with a lowly servant girl?”
“Serving girl to a noble lady from the great city,” Erran rejoined. “You’ve seen things I never have, been in houses that would not let me in . . .”
“But only as my lady’s servant, not as a guest.”
“Do you miss it?” Erran said. “Your home in the city by the sea? Your family?”
“Of course!” But a soft smile lit her face. “Yet I love it here, too. I love these mountains, and, well. . .” Her voice trailed off, and for the first time she seemed almost shy.
“Would you stay, then, Elsbeth? When the summer ends and your mistress takes her household back home, would you stay in the mountains with me?”
Her blue eyes met his. “I must ask my father. I must see my parents one more time. But if their answer is yes, then. . .Yes.”
Before she left, he slipped a silver ring upon her finger. “See,” he said softly. “You didn’t have to ask me to ask you this time. I’d been thinking on it since I saw you.”
She returned in the late spring, after the lambs were born. They exchanged rings and vows in a meadow by his family’s farm. She wore a crown of ice-blue flowers, brilliant against her dark hair. Garlands of flowers were tossed at their feet, and their family and friends sang and rang bells in blessing.
Because it was the dragon-heir’s wedding, the nobles of Tharn Valley had sent gifts. Lady Cerine even attended, dabbing her eyes. At dinner, Erran and Elsbeth shared wine from a gold plated toasting cup sent by the Prince in the city himself.
A poet was singing, and Erran’s sister Lisel was exchanging glances with Elsbeth’s older brother, when old Karloff on the mountain raised his eyes to see the flock of strange dragons flying in from the west.
Even at Erran’s birth, there had been murmurs. Three full dragon congresses within the span of a half century—it was too many, too soon. Elders shook their heads. Who knows the comings and goings of dragons? Dragons were as unpredictable as the weather. But some people warned that the weather patterns were changing.
For centuries Erran’s family had kept records. Shepherds in the mountains had always reported unusual sightings to the dragon-heir and his kin. The dates and details of noted dragon gatherings were recorded in a fine book of white vellum, kept on a table in the hall of tapestries. After Erran’s birth, Haldur went to that book, reassuring himself of other times of closely spaced congresses, other times of dragon activity that meant nothing, nothing at all for humans.
The records in the book grew after Erran’s wedding. Shepherds saw strange flocks entering and leaving Tharn Mountain’s caldera, visiting with alarming frequency. The resident dragons spent more time aloft. Gilduran returned twice, thrice, even passing over the farmhouse itself one evening, an impossible radiance, a sun of blue fire in the falling twilight.
“What does it mean?” Elsbeth said anxiously. She and Erran stood in the meadow, watching Gilduran disappear into the west. Her right hand rested on the growing curve of her belly; she was pregnant with their first child.
Erran took her other hand. “Our dragon is visiting his home,” he said. “That’s all.”
He did not tell her the dreams he had been having. The old nightmares of fire and ash. He did not tell her of the new dreams: the dreams of flight, of Tharn Mountain’s hidden waters, of a blue color without name.
He could still push the dreams away, still push them down, still squeeze them into a tiny corner of the sunlit days. There was always work to be done, after all. There was the hay to be cut and baled; there were sick sheep in need of care; there was a dispute with a neighbor over fences. The farm’s cheese had become popular in the great city, and there was a new contract to be negotiated with a new cheese trader. Erran and Elsbeth’s children were growing: two little girls with their mother’s dark hair and their father’s startling blue eyes. Erran returned from the autumn herding of sheep down from the upper pastures, and his daughters ran to him: slight Katrin launched herself into his arms, and little Issa hugged him about the knees and cried until he picked her up as well and hugged them both to his chest.
He sat to dinner with his wife and daughters, with his mother and father. His father’s younger brothers and their families lived in their own homes on the farm, yet often joined them. Lisel had moved to the city, now the proud wife of a prosperous cloth merchant. At larger family gatherings there was a new generation of children running and shrieking underfoot. The seasons slid past: lambing and weaning and sun on the mountains and the annual fall visit to the low meadow on Tharn Mountain. Then the days grew short, and there was snow piling in great drifts about the house, and the sheep slept in the barn and all was still. Erran and Elsbeth slept together under blankets of warm wool, and she pressed her body against him, a deeper warmth held to his heart.
He woke, gasping and choking on fumes. Ashes clogged his mouth, his eyes. He went to sweep them away with a hand and realized there was nothing there. His heart pounded; he felt his lungs still burning. Elsbeth stirred beside him, and with an effort he slowed his breath; gradually, his heart calmed. Moonlight shone through a high window and in the cool, shadowy light he focused upon his sleeping wife—studied the line of her nose, her parted lips. I will never forget you, he promised silently, staring, memorizing. Her features were softened in rest. He sought to burn them in his mind. I won’t forget, he thought. No matter what happens—I won’t forget you, I won’t forget you.
“Is it true, Father?” Katrin said tearfully. “Will you have to fulfill the dragon-pledge?”
“I might,” he said truthfully. “If I am called to it.”
“But are you? Will you be called?” She stood before him in her white sleeping gown, hair disheveled, eyes wide and brimming with nightmares.
He held her close, but he could not lie. “I don’t know,” he said. “None of us ever know.” He spoke past the sudden tightness in his chest. “But to be called is . . . an honor.”
That summer brought news of new fire vents opening in the barren lands southwest of Skalkass Valley. Those lands had always teemed with fire, had been abandoned centuries ago. But word was that these new eruptions were different: the glow of the fires was seen as far north as the great city, and the skies there were darkened. Fishermen claimed that the seas of the south hissed with steam. There were rumors of earth tremors in the far west, on the other side of the Inner Range. And dragons throughout the land were active.
“Dragons moving in the south and west,” the cheese trader said to Erran. He spoke conversationally, as though remarking upon the price of grain, or the season’s rains. Yet there was a weight, an expectation in the pause that followed.
Erran felt that expectation everywhere now. Conversations stilled when he neared; voices broke off. The townsfolk greeted him with forced ease, and he saw the guilty question in their eyes.
He was in the fields when he received word that the Prince’s man had arrived, asking to see the book of dragon-records and to speak to the dragon-heir alone.
“What right did he have?” Elsbeth raged. “What right did the first Haldur have to choose for all his descendants? To give his pledge, yes, but to pledge all his heirs, forever? Why? Why can’t it be someone else?”
“Elsbeth. . .” Erran’s voice trailed off helplessly.
“What did the Prince’s man say? Does the Prince command you to act?”
“The Prince has never commanded us in this, Elsbeth. No one does. His man was only here to advise and consult. To look again at our book and talk.”
“So what will you do?”
Their eyes met, and his answer had been known to her even before she asked.
“When?” Her voice broke.
His hand touched her belly, where their third child grew. “Soon,” he said. His voice broke only a little.
Dragons were gathering in the mountains around Tharn Valley. Asha watched them from the field, remembering a day twenty-eight years ago. Then it had been autumn, but now it was full summer, the mountains green, the air heavy with the scent of drying hay and wild thyme. Sunlight fell hot on her hair, the back of her neck.
Her husband stepped up from behind her. He did not touch; they only stood together, side by side, staring.
Erran did not say goodbye.
He left the house in the hour before dawn, before the faintest paling of light. He had packed and hidden a travel-pack of food the night before, and he stepped out with it slung over his shoulders. There was not much in it—he would not need much on this final journey.
A dog raised its head as he walked past; an owl’s eyes glinted as it soared by on soundless wings. No one else noticed him.
He was too cowardly to say goodbye, Erran thought to himself. Too cowardly to say the final words, to see the expression on his mother’s drawn face. To say goodbye to Elsbeth, to hold her in his arms, and to hold Katrin and Issa… Only Haldur his father would not cry; only Haldur understood. He would have taken his son’s place if he could—would have leaped to do so—but he could not, and Haldur accepted this; pride and sorrow were mixed on his face.
Erran adjusted his pack and kept walking.
Dawn was whitening the sky as he climbed the lower slopes of Tharn Mountain. He could have walked this section of the trail with his eyes closed. He passed the meadow of sweet red grasses. Beneath his sorrow he felt something stirring, lifting. He was walking where he had never been, where no man had walked in three hundred years.
Wind moved through ancient pines. He felt the thrumming heart of the mountain, the beat of dragon song.
It took him three days to reach the top. Three days alone on the mountain, the music growing ever louder around him and within. He heard the singing in his dreams. He thought that Gilduran might appear to guide him, but even when forests gave way to open meadows and vistas of sky, he saw no dragons. They were hidden, waiting.
He walked on, pulled forward as the poles of the earth pull migrating birds. He was not lost. He remembered taking this walk in play, in pretend-games with his cousins and friends when they told him he had to be a dragon-hero. He remembered jumping from boulders, sailing leaf-boats on the streams, fighting off imaginary monsters with his playmates. He saw his life as though from on high, spread shining below him in quilt-like pieces, like the view of Tharn Valley tumbling below when he grazed sheep in the high summer pastures.
He thought of the smell of Elsbeth’s hair. That first summer with her, walking with her in the mountains . . . Her laughter as the wind plucked a blossom from her hair. The first time she slipped her hand in his. And then the rush of days after, a baby Katrin smiling and growing to a little girl graceful as her mother, pressing her soft cheek against his. Little Issa laughing as she crammed a sweet into her mouth, and then reaching out for him with sticky hands. . .
He had not said goodbye to them the day he left, but hadn’t he been saying goodbye all summer long? Hadn’t he been saying goodbye for years, to everyone? His friends, his cousins, his uncles and aunts; the townspeople he knew, even the cheese trader who came from the city, his parents. . . He wished he’d been able to send a last word to Lisel his sister, but she would know, she’d understand. . .
He emerged above the tree line; he scrambled and walked and climbed over an expanse of rock and snow. Now there was only sky above, and the cliffs of the caldera looming before him.
His heart beat deliberately and loud. He saw Gilduran waiting, perched on an outcropping of the caldera’s rim. He flashed back to something he had said to his daughters, seemingly a lifetime ago. Even if I’m called, I’ll never really leave you, he had said, holding a weeping Katrin and an uncomprehending Issa. I’ll be watching you from on high. Remember that. I’ll be here. I’ll never truly go away…
He wished he had said it to Elsbeth, to his unborn child. He wished that he could hold them all one more time.
There were more dragons now, rising out from the great crater. He went toward them, to the caldera’s steaming waters: to the hidden lake that he had always feared, and had always longed to see.
There was a great burst of song when the newest dragon emerged from Tharn Mountain. He flew out over the valley, swooping low over the farm of the dragon-heirs. His family was waiting for him, watching. Katrin and Issa ran in delight under the blue dragon’s path, waving their arms and yelling up at the sky. Their father was beautiful in the summer light, and all their sorrow was forgotten in that burning beauty.
Even the adults of the family forgot their grief for that instant. They waved and yelled as well. The townspeople below heard the song, and came out to see. A poet from one of the noble estates had been waiting eagerly for this moment; he watched the young dragon soar overhead, and his mind was already reaching for the first lines of a new saga, a poem commemorating the latest fulfillment of Haldur’s Pledge.
Other dragons began pouring out from Tharn Mountain’s peak. Gold and red and russet brown. Silver and the dark green of mountain pines. Rarest of all, the blue dragons—the young ones. Their songs rang out over the valley, strong and commanding.
The dragon who had recently been a man tilted his head slightly, as though listening. He flapped his wings one more time, and then banked in a great circle, heading back toward Tharn Mountain and the others. He climbed into the sky.
He still had remnants of a man’s mind, although they were already fading under the fierce joy of dragon song. He passed over the meadow of sweet red grasses, the Meadow of Remembrance, and he thought, I must remember, I must remember to come back this time each summer. . .
And then human thought faded. He followed close behind Gilduran, the dragon-heir who had come before. He joined the great host, flying into the barren highlands of the Inner Range, singing to keep earth’s fires in check, pledged forever to his new brethren just as Haldur the First had pledged . . .
Elsbeth stood with her daughters and Erran’s family in the meadow, watching the dragons leave. Their music was soft now in the distance. She held the curve of her belly with one hand, and wondered if the child within could hear the dragons singing.
* * *
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Anywhere and everywhere! "Congress of Dragons" started as a story for my two little girls. I started to tell them about a boy who longed to see dragons, and I had him halfway up a mountain on his way to the dragons when I found that I really didn't know where the story was going. A little while later I came across a description of Crater Lake in Oregon, and one of the story's central images took hold of my mind. Finally, I've always been fascinated with stories of ritual human sacrifice (yes, I'm a bit morbid), and I wanted to play around with that idea. The final result of all these images and ponderings? The story in this issue of Mirror Dance.