The Dragon Killer’s Daughter
by MacKenzie R. Snead
Gayamiza was no stranger to pilgrims, but these two were not welcome — an old man and his daughter, foreignness sewn into their clothes, engraved in the blades they carried. The city let them in, as it did all acolytes, but as if swallowing food it was not accustomed to and ’didn’t particularly like. It coughed and gagged, people on the streets looking the other way, mothers ushering their young indoors. There was something about this pair the city didn’t trust, something more than the peculiarity of the father’s beard and the daughter’s burning hair. Any village fool could tell that they carried misdeeds in their pockets, that their pilgrimage was dishonest.
The journey had taken months, and now the father was too tired to walk. His daughter pulled him down the narrow streets in a wooden cart, bumping across unfriendly cobblestones without so much as a stumble. The locals found her strength disquieting, staring from their windows as she pulled her father along like some aged product nobody would buy. Strength like that was not natural in a girl, and shouldn’t be encouraged.
The old man squinted through heavy eyelids at the shining buildings, stiffly adjusting himself atop the armor and longsword that served as his bedfellows in the cart. “Where are we?” he asked hoarsely.
“Gayamiza, Father,” his daughter panted, not turning around to look at him. “Don’’t you recognize it?”
“No,” he croaked after a moment. “I’ve never been here.”
She knew that wasn’t true. The countless times he’d ventured to this place when she was a child, only to return with bowed head to a home sunk deeper and deeper in disgrace and poverty. She tightened her grip on the handles of the cart and leaned forward with determination. Her father would know something other than shame before he died.
“Better to come by ship,” he said absentmindedly, glimpsing the shimmering sea at the bottom of a side street.
“They don’’t let ships come to Gayamiza, Father. You know that.”
But he didn’t. Not anymore. Their journey through the mountains had been punctuated by his senility. Despite her patient reminders, he never knew what or where Gayamiza was.
Tomorrow, she thought as she gave the cart a great heave, her eyes skirting up the mountain in the distance. It loomed over the city, a precarious rise of rusty boulders on the edge of the sea, threatening to roll one rock at a time into the frothing waters below. After hearing so many stories about the place, she’d imagined the demon’s abode would be larger. It could hardly be called a mountain.
When we go up there tomorrow, he’ll remember everything.
A strange clairvoyance sometimes visits the elderly. It is rare, able to only manifest in a slipping mind. It just so happened that one of these fickle visitations came to the old man in the back of the cart. Guided by his daughter’s thoughts, he turned his gaze up to the mountain on the northern edge of the city, seeing it for the first time that day. Something stirred within him.
“The cave!” he thundered, clumsily attempting to draw his longsword from beneath him. A group of nearby children snickered, the old man appearing to merely grope at his own behind. His daughter stopped the cart and snarled at them with a snap of her teeth. When the urchins’ own behinds were speedily retreating, she looked back at the old man in alarm.
“You need rest, Father. We should get to an inn, then —”
“I’ve had enough rest in this accursed wagon,” he said, kicking the wooden frame as he tried to roll himself off his armor. “Quick, to the mountain, girl! There’s a devil needs killing.”
It took some time to get him into armor, and he needed support up every step of the Pilgrim’s Stair. They rested often, the father buttressing himself lopsidedly on his daughter and longsword. She tried to keep her eyes on the winding climb, the glittering city unfurling beneath them, flirting with her attention. As much as she didn’t want to admit it to herself, as much as she would never admit it to her father, Gayamiza was the most beautiful place she’d ever seen. Nowhere was the ocean so blue and bright, not in the rest of the dying world. Even up this high, she could taste the salty air in every breath — fresh, cleansing.
She spat, already feeling guilty. The beauty of this place was its enchantment. And yet, that water . . . The sea didn’t look anything like that back home in Heembryth.
“Step to it, girl.” Her father grimaced in pain, as if she were the one slowing them down. She hoisted his arm further onto her shoulder, carrying not only his metal weight, but the weight of the bronze daggers that hung at her waist.
People went by on the steps, true pilgrims carrying offerings. She worried someone would recognize her father. If they did, he could be thrown from the cliffs. But it had been a long time since he’d last been up these steps, and the people seemed determined not to look at them.
Twilight had fallen by the time they reached the final step of the Pilgrim’s Stair, which turned into a wide plateau before plunging down the throat of a black cave. A simple wooden arch stood over the cave’s mouth, etched with gold markings neither father nor daughter could read. She gently lowered him to the ground. He looked around without comprehension, wheezing heavily. Fallen boulders, given purpose in their deaths, had been carved into shrines across the plateau. These were occupied by pilgrims, some prostrating in the direction of the cave, others lighting candles that cast evasive shadows in the dusk.
The old man’s bellow broke the meditative silence like a ceremonial gong. He charged at the worshippers, cutting down altars with his longsword, extinguishing candles and prayers, spitting curses and threats local pilgrims couldn’t understand.
“Father!” The daughter rushed to pull him back, but the sight of the shrines had returned some of his old strength.
“Devil worshippers!” he cried, and she had to fall back as he swung his sword dangerously in every direction. “Serpent lovers — snake whisperers — forked-tongued heathens! This is no place of God! Take your prayers and offerings back down the mountain! The Lord should drown Gayamiza for its wickedness!”
As the last terrified pilgrim disappeared down the Stair, the old man finally faltered. His daughter caught him before he fell and helped him to lean against a nearby boulder.
It was then that Okubabi the Keeper showed himself.
In the rising darkness, the daughter saw him come forward through the broken shrines and smoking candles. He was said to be hundreds of years old, but he looked ageless, as every Keeper had before him — clad in green and gold armor, grasping the red sword that had cut its way into so many tales. Long black hair fell down his back in three rope-like braids. Their only imperfection was a thin streak of white that snaked across his scalp from brow to back, like a ribbon of moonlight through night. It marked where the dragon’s breath had touched him many years ago, when the beast had chosen him as her guard and taken his impermanence.
“Why do you frighten the pilgrims so, Stalker?” he asked in the Heembrythine tongue, a bemused smile playing at the corners of his mouth, as if this must all be some joke.
Her father pushed himself up straight, his longsword raised. “Devil protector,” he breathed, an eagerness in his stare that the daughter hadn’t seen for some years. “I’ve waited all my life for this.”
Okubabi’s smile faded to true confusion. “But don’t you remember me, old friend?”
“Friend?” scoffed the father. “I would never call a snake worshipper friend!”
If Okubabi was hurt by this, his face showed it as briefly as light reflects on a turning blade. In truth, he had been pleased to see Amallach the Stalker step onto the Pilgrim’s Stair. He had watched the old man’s progress from the bottom, marking his slow, stiff ascent. The sight had made Okubabi laugh, not at his friend’s weakness, but with the sheer surprise of seeing him return once more.
“Surely you know me, Stalker, after all the times we’ve danced on this very spot?” he asked, for how can the deathless understand age?
“My father hardly remembers anyone anymore,” Amallach’s daughter explained, gripping her father’s arm. The Keeper looked her up and down shrewdly.
“You’re the daughter,” he observed. When she said nothing, he asked, “Do you plan to face me in your father’s stead? You’ve been raised in the ways of the hunt, I hear. The blood of countless innocent creatures is said to already be on your hands.”
“I shed the blood of my first demon when I was twelve years of age,” she said, “but this is still my father’s fight. I would not dishonor him by stepping into it.”
Okubabi cocked his head, growing more and more curious. “How does your father plan to get past me?” he asked, a gibe in the words and tone, the way a childhood friend teases. “He’s never succeeded before.”
The daughter nodded solemnly. “This is his only unfinished hunt. That’s why I’m here to request that you simply let him through.”
There was a staggered pause, in which Okubabi searched her face, his own changing from a question to disbelieving hilarity. He burst into laughter.
“And why would I agree to such a thing?” he howled. It was a booming, jovial laugh, and tears were glistening in the corners of his eyes. “Sworn Keeper of the great Iakasi, let the most feared dragon hunter in the world enter her sanctuary? What makes you think I would do such a — ”
But his laughter, and the dragon’s name, had reignited the rage in Amallach the Stalker, who flung himself at the Keeper before the daughter had time to act. Okubabi stepped lightly aside and the old man fell, clattering to the rocky ground.
“Father!” shouted the daughter, cursing the Keeper as she rushed to Amallach’s aid. Okubabi stared soberly at the once agile hunter, no longer laughing.
“Oh, why don’t you ever wear your helm?” she half wept, half growled, raising his bleeding head off the ground.
“It hinders his senses,” Okubabi answered, his voice distant.
She glared at the Keeper, pulling her father back to his feet. “Gorúbh,” the old man groaned in a heavy daze.
“I’m here, Father,” she said, sliding back under his arm and placing a pressuring hand on his scalp.
“Come. Let’s get you back down the mountain.”
“He should rest,” Okubabi said to their retreating backs, but Gorúbh silenced him with a glare.
“Don’t speak, snake whisperer.”
After her father’s display atop the mountain, Gorúbh knew none of the Gayamizi would take them in. But providence still cared a little for Amallach the dragon hunter. No sooner had they stepped off the Pilgrim’s Stair, the old man barely able to stand, than they came across an encampment of traveling folk on the low cliffs. These were no pilgrims, but vagabonds collecting alms from sanctimonious devotees arriving “in the shadow of the dragon.” The father and daughter still had some gold, and the traveling folk were willing to haggle for it, offering food, drink, one of their few clean rags, a bowl of clean water, and the smallest of tents. The last of these barely sheltered two people, but there was no storm that night, and Gayamiza was warm, even without proper covering.
Gorúbh was toweling her father’s injured head when Okubabi stepped out of the darkness, his armor swapped for a cloak as black as the witching hour.
“Must go back,” Amallach muttered. “Have to go back . . . up the mountain . . . ”
“Shhhh,” soothed his daughter, refusing to look up as the uninvited Keeper crouched at the tent opening.
“We’ll go back tomorrow, Father. Rest yourself now.”
“You give him false hope, and false purpose,” said Okubabi.
The young woman didn’t reply to that, but merely stroked her father’s head. Amallach’s eyes were unfocused, wandering aimlessly around the tent. She doubted he even knew her now.
“I didn’t think you could leave your post,” she said stiffly to the Keeper.
He answered slowly. “Iakasi needs no guard, not even against the great Stalker.”
She turned to look at him, her eyes burning. “I remember when he was called Amallach the Venerer, when my people knew that devils slithered across this earth. My father was respected for fighting them.”
Okubabi looked almost pitying, but did not soften. “Your people were wrong. Your father killed gods, not devils.”
Her face turned almost as red as her hair. She looked away again, murmuring, “You’re the ones who are wrong . . . all of you.” But her voice lacked conviction. As her father’s apprentice, she’d seen the desolate lands cleansed of dragons. She’d grown up in one, and done some of the cleansing herself.
“My people are wrong?” Okubabi calmly clarified, settling cross-legged on the ground like a child awaiting tutelage. “Forgive me, I have not seen your homeland. Is it half as prosperous as here? Does it compare to Gayamiza’s vibrance? From what I’ve heard and read, it once did, back when dragons roamed undisturbed. Now it is a world cracked and dried, salted and withered.”
An infertile wasteland, yes, where the only reward for her people’s piety was starvation . . . But she shouldn’t think such things. Their reward was in the next life.
“That is not because the dragons were killed,” she said forcefully, reciting what she’d been taught since she was a little girl. She closed her eyes, trying to make the Keeper disappear.
“They built the Earth, child,” he said. “What did your people expect would happen when — ”
Gorúbh shifted abruptly, as if she intended to pick up her father’s sword, which lay unsheathed by his side. Instead, she brought her face close to Okubabi’s, her eyes bright and red as the Keeper’s own blade.
“There are still other dragons out there,” she hissed, her entire body trembling. “If they can save the world, why don’t they?”
Okubabi’s chuckle was somehow sad. “They are shadows of their ancient race now, mere beasts,” he said.
“Your people saw to that when they wiped out the last great dragons, and the Earth is paying for it. Your father is paying for it.”
He expected her to strike then, to draw one of the bronze daggers from her belt and prove herself Amallach’s daughter. But she sat still, and that is what impressed him.
“We almost wiped out the last great dragons,” she said. “There is one more.”
Okubabi didn’t appear the least bit threatened or insulted, but there was an icy edge to his voice.
“Indeed,” he said, “which is why people come from everywhere to worship in Gayamiza. Never any of your fellow Heembrythine, though. Shame . . . You’re the ones with the most to learn.”
“My people still understand that snake worship is a sin — ”
“And your land is dying,” emphasized the Keeper, finally sounding frustrated. “Healing it would not require your worship, only your surrender to the truth of what Iakasi is.”
“You would have us believe it is a god, this devil?” the young hunter spat.
Okubabi sighed steadily. “She is peace and prosperity, the health of the Earth,” he said steadily. “She is our only remaining hope.”
Gorúbh looked away again. She’d never known a more impossible man — besides, perhaps, her own father. “Did you leave your post just to insult him?” she asked. “Is that why you’re here?”
He looked down at the broken Amallach and almost reached out for a booted foot before thinking better of it. “I am saddened to see him like this. No one could say he wasn’t a great warrior.”
“He was the best,” murmured Gorúbh, swallowing more words before her voice broke. The Keeper studied her a moment.
“What I saw today showed that Amallach no longer has the strength to fight a dragon,” he said. “You did not bring him here to kill her, but for the very opposite.”
There was silence for a long time. Gorúbh bowed her head, her flaming hair tumbling over her face. “It’s the honorable end he deserves . . . the reward every other dragon hunter of his generation has received.”
Okubabi actually smiled. This was something he could understand, somewhat. “The curse of the best warrior is that he outlives all his fellows. Only time hunts him, and time does not grant glorious deaths.”
Her expression was earnest. “It’s only right that he should die facing the last one, the prey he never caught.”
Okubabi closed his eyes and breathed more deeply. The silence returned to stretch on for several more minutes. A shrill cry broke the night, rising from the gulls’ nests clustered in the rocks below.
“This is not for me to decide,” he said at last, opening his eyes again. “The decision lies with Iakasi herself. I will let you go to her, to ask for your father’s reward.”
Gorúbh blinked up at him. “I don’t . . . I don’t understand,” she said slowly, her voice surprisingly calm.
“This must be some trick. I’m not a snake whisperer. How could I even speak — ”
“No trick,” the Keeper assured her, “and there’s no such thing as snake whisperers. The ancient dragons possessed the gift of speech before we did, and Iakasi still possesses it. I will let you go to her, but you must agree to a terrible price.”
“You are the Keeper!” Amallach’s daughter suddenly shouted, as if somehow offended by his consent.
“Why would you let a hunter pass?”
“I already told you,” he said. “Iakasi needs no guard. You are human, and a girl at that. How much of a threat can you be?”
Gorúbh clenched her teeth, her father’s resolve coursing through her. “What is the price?”
The Keeper quietly considered her. “Your life,” he said simply. When she showed no reaction, he went on, “To go to Iakasi, you must be told a secret, and none but the Keeper can know it and live. When you return from the sanctuary, I will kill you.”
The girl paused, and then shrugged with a resignation that managed to momentarily astound him. “The beast will probably kill me on sight, so — ” she began to say.
In an instant, Okubabi had pressed a concealed dagger to her throat. “She will not harm you,” he said sharply, his black eyes flashing. “Now answer me, child: are you willing to pay this price for your father’s honor and glory?”
Gorúbh’s demeanor was grave and resolute. Without so much as a flinch, she turned against the blade to look at her father, blood trickling down her neck.
“I’ve no desire to live in a world without him.”
That was enough for Okubabi. He withdrew the blade and wordlessly rose from the tent. Gorúbh gently squeezed her father’s hand, stroked his sleeping face, and followed the Keeper.
He stood on the cliff’s edge, staring up at the dark mountain. In the blackness, Gorúbh could only make out the line of white hair running down his center braid — a crack of lightning in a storm-struck sky. He turned away from the mountain and pointed out to sea, his face as impenetrable as the cliffs below.
“There is an island, not far from here. The people believe it haunted by the ghost of a mad corsair king, so they dare not set foot on it. But pay any fisherman down at the harbor and he will take you close enough. That is where she dwells.”
Gorúbh looked out at the rolling waves, now shining silver in the moonlight, then back at the Keeper silhouetted against the mountain. She repeated the words: “Iakasi needs no guard.”
He nodded. “All she needs is a diversion.”
Her fingers instinctually brushed the daggers at her waist. Okubabi eyed them distastefully, but he merely shrugged. “Take those, if they comfort you, but you will not use them,” he said, making for the tent again. “I will stay with him while you are away, daughter of Amallach.”
“How can I trust you with him?” she called over the roaring waves, and he smiled back at her, looking almost a boy.
“I have not killed him all these years; I’m not going to kill him now. We await your return.”
Okubabi disappeared into the tent, and Gorúbh cast her eyes back out to sea. She tried not to think about the fate that awaited her, whether in the teeth of the dragon or at the end of the Keeper’s red blade.
She didn’t speak the boatman’s language, but she understood that he refused to touch the island’s shore. She laid her traveling cloak on the boat deck for when she returned, paid him her last coin, and pointed to the anchor as she told him to wait for her. The little man nodded his head nervously, and then burst into what was surely a stream of dire warnings as she dove from the boat.
The water was impossibly warm. In Heembryth, the land was scorched but the sea remained icy. That hadn’t stopped her from running to her father’s ship whenever he returned, her feet turning blue as she splashed through the frigid shallows. The stinging chill would only ever last moments, before Amallach the Venerer scooped her up into his strong arms and carried her back to shore, no matter how dark and bloody his voyage had been. No matter how much the world had turned against him.
Every pore in Gorúbh’s flesh protested as she emerged from the marvelous water, pulling herself up onto the sandy bank and into the brisk night air. She thought, briefly, about letting the warm waves carry her away into the night, but the memory of her father’s wilting face, his weathered voice, kept her moving. She wished she had her traveling cloak as she shivered and trudged further up the beach, heading for the dark trees. Okubabi hadn’t told her how to find the dragon’s lair, but it was a small island, from what she could see. Like Gayamiza, its shores were lush and full of life, the insects in the trees as loud as the roar of the sea. The sound made her heart long for things it had never longed for before, paradises she’d never imagined even as a child.
But all sound muted as she entered the foliage, as if some invisible door had closed behind her. She looked back at the sea, unable to hear the waves at all from where she stood beneath the trees, even though she could see them there, lapping against the bank. The insects had stopped their song. On what now looked like a faraway shore, the amber torches of Gayamiza twinkled and burned, distant as stars.
Pressing on, she decided to make for the center of the island, searching for signs along the way. The place appeared untouched, with no dragon markings or dead corsairs. When she looked up, she couldn’t see the sky through the thickness of leaves, and soon she was lost of all direction. This had never happened to her before. Steadying her breath and trying to remember everything her father had taught her of the hunt, she turned to retrace her footprints . . . but they had vanished.
You’ve lost the way, girl.
Her father’s voice. Her father’s face. He was leaning against a tree, smiling at her. Through the darkness, she could see that he was young and strong, as she remembered him. His longsword was slung across his back, the way he always used to carry it, when his wide shoulders were able to take the weight.
“You’re not him,” she said in a hushed voice, though it sounded like a shout in the deafening silence of the island. He only smiled more broadly — her father’s smile — and disappeared into the trees.
She didn’t hesitate. Running after him, she found him ten paces ahead when he should have been four. Every time she thought she was catching up, he was farther away, smiling for her to follow, as if this were a game from her childhood. It couldn’t be him — it was impossible. But in that smile his eyes recognized her as they hadn’t done in two years. He knew her like the real Amallach had.
The pit came without warning — a gaping chasm in the earth beneath her feet. Gorúbh seized a nearby vine just in time, pulling herself back to crouch upon the rim of the abyss, panting and looking around for her father. When he was nowhere to be seen among the trees, her gaze fell into the pit. A stone staircase spiraled down its walls, leading to the very heart of an inky vortex, where she could see a faint green light burning through the darkness.
The eye of the dragon.
Certain that her father — or the vision of him — had descended that stair, Gorúbh took the first step. Her legs trembled as she took the next, and then her whole body with the next after that. Why should she be so frightened? She’d hunted dragons before — three of them, with her father. But they were, as Okubabi had described other dragons, mere beasts, mindless and mute. None of them had been one of the great dragons of old, able to breathe fire, able to wipe out whole armies of men, and — if the Keeper were to be believed — able to speak.
The common dragons she’d hunted had all lived in simple caves. This place held design. The spiraling stone stairway was made for human legs, but slippery and uneven. Surely the Gayamizi had carved it for their idol. Yet nothing in the craftsmanship spoke of human tools, and no symbols were carved into the hardened mud walls. The dragon didn’t need stairs, but it had clearly made them. An invitation.
They built the Earth, child, said Okubabi’s voice in her mind, seeming to echo up from the depths of the abyss, leading her further down into what would likely be her tomb.
When she stepped off the final stair, a tunnel waited before her, bathed in emerald light. She followed the glow until it turned from green to gold, momentarily blinding her as her feet came to a slope. Letting her eyes adjust, she halted.
She was standing at the entrance of a great earthen chamber. There should have been nothing but darkness this far underground, but the golden glow hung everywhere, coming from nothing but itself. As the light filled her vision, she felt her mind go quiet and her heart begin to steady. It was as if the enveloping luminousness reached every corner and crevice of her thoughts, driving the shadows away. She looked around.
There also shouldn’t have been any foliage this far from the sun’s gaze, but vibrant leaves grew on every surface of the chamber — blades of forest grass at her feet, pink rhododendrons along the walls, purple wisteria hanging from the rooted ceiling. The faces of the flowers were filled with that golden glow — minuscule clusters of light, like jeweled pollen. There were honeybees and other insects darting and weaving through the forest grass. They tickled her toes and ankles and buzzed past her ears.
At the center of the chamber was a pool, clear blue and shining with the same mysterious light. As soon as her eyes fell on it, she stepped forward, drawn irresistibly to its edge. A tinge of fear now returned to her heart, but something in her hungered to peer down into the water. Things larger than insects scampered out of her way through the grass, birds fluttered to their nests among the roots and wisteria overhead, but the young woman did not see them. Her eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon the pool, and as she approached, she heard the voice of the dragon.
You have not drawn your weapon, child.
All light in the chamber converged on the pool, plunging everything else into darkness as Iakasi rose from the depths. It was immediately apparent how true Okubabi’s words had been; she was like no other dragon Gorúbh had ever seen. Sea-green scales, feathers as white as pearls, crystal eyes, and light — dazzling, unadulterated light — burning the girl’s face, searing her eyes and mind and soul. Something in her rose with the dragon, even as her knees met the earthen floor. She was kneeling without knowing it, her belt of daggers somewhere behind her, buried in the tall grass, forgotten forever.
“Iakasi,” she tried to say, the name catching in her throat. “Iakasi . . . ”
Her whole being trembled with an emotion somewhere between terror and ecstasy. It was unbearable. She could not meet the dragon’s gaze and lowered her eyes to her hands. They were covered in blood.
I know all that you are, daughter of the dragon killer, said the voice, and what you’ve come here to do. I have waited many years.
Suddenly, the grass at Gorúbh’s feet was that of another place — a hilly land far from Gayamiza, one which she only faintly remembered. Her father had taken her there when she turned twelve and when he, though aged, was still sharp as his sword. The creatures of Iakasi’s chamber turned into the animals and insects of those hills, the earthen ceiling above became a thunderous gray sky, and Gorúbh stared down at the dragon blood on her hands.
The beast itself lay in a patch of purple stellabir, a flower she remembered once growing in Heembryth, but which was now lost to her homeland. Her eyes tried to find comfort in the blossoms, tried to ignore the deeper spots of purple where blood had fallen on the petals — the way the flowers writhed back and forth in the heaving breaths of the wordless creature she had wounded.
She remembered how her father celebrated, how he jeered and laughed at the dragon, but stopped abruptly when he saw Gorúbh’s face. His expression was impervious, without sympathy for the beast or for her. He picked up the red dagger she’d dropped, pressing its handle into her soaked hands.
Finish it, he instructed, and Gorúbh did, watching the light in the creature’s eyes — the same as in Iakasi’s — fade as her dagger extinguished it. Amallach placed his hand on her shoulder, and Gorúbh silenced the unrest in her heart, determined to forget.
She hadn’t cried then, but now the tears came fast and free, golden tears of salt and light. “Is this why you have waited?” she sobbed, raising her red hands to Iakasi. “To kill the daughter of Amallach the Venerer, and avenge your murdered kin?”
You still do not know the spirit of a dragon, my child.
Iakasi’s breath was like the eastern wind, and as it touched Gorúbh’s face, she felt a great weight lift. The knot in her heart dissolved, evaporating into the light that burned above her. When she lowered her hands, the blood was gone.
“I — I don’t understand,” she said haltingly, daring to raise her eyes to the dragon. Iakasi’s gaze fell softly now on Gorúbh’s flesh, cooling her.
In some ways, I am not unlike your father, spoke the dragon. I have survived this long by being the best of my kind. No hunter could slay me, just as no dragon could ever slay Amallach. My kin were killed because they became the beasts your people believe them to be. The Venerers abused and degraded them until they could no longer speak, until they could no longer remember what they were.
The dragon stretched to her full height, and the earth trembled along with Gorúbh as the great voice echoed through the chamber. I never succumbed to the temptation of killing another, and so I was never debased nor hunted. I will not lower myself to take a life, not this night, not ever.
“You will not grant my request,” Gorúbh said weakly, remembering why she’d come.
Save your tears for your father, child, said the dragon, her long body coiling tenderly around the young woman. He has already died at Okubabi’s side.
Gorúbh stirred, distantly comprehending these words, but stilled again at the cool touch of scales and muscles, gentle as a mother’s embrace. Her tears slowed, and a peace she had never felt before flooded her chest. The thing beating inside her felt almost foreign now, for she’d never known a heart without heaviness, fatigue, grief. It was what she had imagined — or hoped — death would feel like. She slumped to the earth, willing it to absorb her, wishing to stay there forever with the insects and animals . . . with Iakasi.
It is all right for him to have a peaceful death, the dragon breathed, for he never knew peace in life. Now be still, child. Rest with me before you go back.
When she reached the tent, her father’s sword was already in his lifeless hands. Okubabi had placed it there. Gorúbh knelt at Amallach’s side, finding that she had not taken the dragon’s advice. She had not saved her tears. Here she was, at the deathbed of her father, and she had none left for him. All she could do was stare down at his motionless form, her traveling cloak wrapped tightly around her, the hood still up.
“He knew my face in the end, and smiled to see an old friend,” Okubabi murmured gently beside her. He was propped stoically on one knee, his right hand on the hilt of his sword in salute. Gorúbh closed her eyes and nodded in some comfort.
“I will bury you together, in the way of your people,” the Keeper went on. Gorúbh said nothing in reply, listening as he quietly drew his blade. After a moment, he asked, “Are you ready to join him?”
She nodded again, not sparing another glance at the body as she led the way from the tent. It was not her father anymore. It hadn’t been for some time.
Okubabi paused before following, not expecting this willingness, even haste. Something in Gorúbh’s appearance had changed since he’d last seen her. None remain unchanged after meeting the great dragon, but Okubabi felt uneasy that he could not place what was different. As he followed her out of the tent, he did so at a distance.
The sun was rising in a golden line where the sea met the sky. The waves beat more gently upon the cliffs now, their sound like the distant roar of dragons past. Okubabi let Gorúbh choose a spot on the cliff’s edge. She knelt, opening her arms to the shining water as if in welcome.
Wanting to make it quick, the Keeper reached out a hand and gently lowered her hood. But as he raised his sword, he suddenly wavered. In the sunlight glinting off the red blade, he saw, in the girl’s fiery hair, what had changed.
A thin strand caught up in the salty breeze . . . a streak of white through flame.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was “The Dragon Killer’s Daughter” by MacKenzie R. Snead, and if you enjoyed that, well, you’re going to have to keep up at his website mackenziesnead.com, because if that was his debut? Dang
It is, I reckon, pretty much impossible to grow up outside the shadow of your parents–and by parents, to be clear, I mean the adults who raise you, cos that’s more important than anything else. They are the context through which you learn the world, your guide and your guardian. How can you not be shaped by that? And often times that shaping, even when done with love, hides who we truly are and what we truly want from life. I’m knocking on 40 and still unpicking it, still learning who I really am and who I really want to be–and at the same time, trying to learn how to give my kids the space to grow in the directions they need, not in the directions I think they should. It’s… not easy, any of it. But then no-one ever said it should be, I suppose. There’s days that tracking down the last godlike dragon might be easier, and then there’s days where it feels damn near as miraculous as being granted guardianship of the last godlike dragon. There’s a lot of layers to this story that’ve got me thinking a whole lot of thoughts; I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and thank you to MacKenzie for trusting us with it.
About the Author
MacKenzie R. Snead is a debut author from Pennsylvania. He currently lives and teaches in the Middle East, which he’s discovered to be the well kept secret of foodie tourism, and where he enjoys writing about stray dogs. This story is not about dogs, but it is about strays, and he thanks his tireless wife for her feedback and edits, and for naming their own little stray Jedi. You can check out more of MacKenzie’s work at www.mackenziesnead.com
About the Narrator
Heather Thomas is a jewelry expert by day and frantic dabbler in many things by night. She co-hosts Under the Pendulum with her 2 siblings, and her other narrations can be found on Pseudopod, Escape Pod, The Wicked Library, Creepy, and Tales to Terrify. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and her 2 spoiled rotten cats.