The Dragon, the Witch, and the Railroad
Songs of the Seashell Archives #5
Progress has transformed Queenston, capital city of Argonia. Once the land of witches, wizards, fairies, and other magical people and animals, since the Great War, the country has changed. Queenston, particularly, is now the city of contraptions and conveyances, including a modern international railroad.
In the Great War Argonia's dragons allied with the armies to push back an invasion. For their assistance, the beasts shared what food remained as the country rebuilt itself. But with the war won, the allies came to "recover" the war-torn country, bringing with them new ideas and inventions, most of which only needed a supply of iron and a reliable source of heat for their boilers. The dragons were again recruited, tamed, altered and virtually enslaved to power Progress.
Verity Brown is a modern girl. The magic of her witchy foremothers has become, if not actually illegal, highly unfashionable. The only magic that matters to Verity is her own curse, forcing her to know and tell the truth regardless of convenience.
On Verity's 16th birthday, a hot-air balloon crash kills her father. The balloon's dragon and wrangler rescue Verity, but are blamed and sentenced to be put to death. Her honorable quest to save them and find her father's murderer takes her straight into the den of the wild and ferocious Dragon Vitia.
“Be still, lady, and be quiet. Screaming won’t do you any good, you know, and it is annoying.” The man sounded exasperated. She didn't recognize him from the train so perhaps he came from above the avalanche. Now he tested the knot with which he had bound her arms. What did he have to be cross about? She was the one who’d been abducted!
“So is being tied to a stake!” she bellowed at him. “I’ll stop screaming when you untie me and take me back to the train!”
“Train is gone now,” the man said. Although the sack had been removed from her head, she couldn’t tell what he looked like because his coat and hood covered most of him and the hood’s ruff, his hair, beard, mustache, and eyebrows were iced over. He'd stood a bit behind her when they watched the dragons working so she hadn't seen him clearly then. Of course, there didn't appear to be any help coming who would require a clear description of her attacker so it probably didn't matter.
“It can’t have,” she said hoarsely. Screaming against the wind was hard on the voice. “My aunt wouldn’t let them leave without me.”
It wasn’t a lie, of course, but she did have doubts. Ephemera could still be napping with her shells in her ears. She might not have realized Verity was missing until the train was well on its way. But Verity was unclear about how much time had passed since she'd been taken—it couldn’t have been long, surely? Maybe he was lying about the train leaving. She screamed again, loudly enough that surely if Ephemera had missed her she would hear and pull the cord to the emergency brake.
“My apologies,” the man said. “I am sorry about this, truly. You seem like nice girl, but Dragon Vitia is demanding sacrifice and is best if it is no one we know. Besides, Queenston man paid plenty for avalanche to stop train and you to be taken for Dragon Vitia. It worked out neat for everyone. Man needs girl gone and dragon needs girl. Elegant solution to problem. Is nothing personal."
"That is absolutely not true!" she yelled. "Being consumed by a dragon will be very personal to me!"
"Maybe she not eat you—or not much of you. Villagers say she only do this sometimes—many years in between. They give her sheep, cows, but sometimes she lets them know, she wants girl, too. Maybe she will save you for later. Maybe she needs virgin and you not virgin?"
"I won't dignify that with a response!" she snapped.
"Maybe if not, she doesn't eat you. Nobody speaks of her spitting anyone out once she takes them, though." He looked up, said, "She comes. I go, now. Rest in peace, you."
He ran off, galumphing in snowshoes at a surprisingly rapid pace.
Other snowshoe tracks surrounding her marred the snow’s pristine surface. A detached part of her wondered, if she was supposed to be sacrificed, why hadn’t someone stuck around to do properly whatever they were supposed to do, sacrificially speaking? If they were going to make her a ritual sacrifice, they ought to at least have the grace to see to it that the ritual was performed properly, oughtn't they?
An ear-splitting shriek accompanied by a whole orchestra of drums, “boom, boom, boom,” was followed by a gale, carrying the stench of rotten eggs.
Her captor continued to bound like a bunny, as far from her as he could go.
Very well, she thought, if her fate was decided she might as well face her doom. She gasped, only partly in fear. The creature was magnificent. Not a sooty drudge like Auld Smelt or the locomotive’s beasts. The moon reflected off the snow and glinted against the monstrous wings. The wingspread must have been as wide as one of the train’s cars was long.
It zoomed in, circling her stake, and held her gaze with its enormous golden eyes, each bearing a black pit in its center.
That was probably fortunate since otherwise she might have fixated on its big yellow teeth and the fangs with the puffs of smoke billowing from between them. She couldn’t recall if wild dragons, the old time ones before they were all properly tamed, were said to cook their meals before they ate them or not. Either way, getting eaten by one was bound to hurt a lot.
Although she was sure she was still screaming, she could no longer hear herself. She heard nothing but the “whup-boom-whup-boom,” of gigantic wings as the dragon continued to circle. The wind from the flapping blew her hood back.
Then, in a heart-stopping moment, the dragon swooped down so close its scales grazed her face as its great jaws clamped shut . . . on the stake. Which it grabbed and pulled out of the ground, with her attached.
Wonderful, she thought. I’m to be toasted like a marshmallow on a stick.
But not yet. First the stake was hoisted aloft, and whereas before she had struggled to loosen her bonds from the stake, now she clung to it.
Suddenly the dragon dropped her. Her heart and body parted company for the eternity between the time the beast released the stake from its teeth and when it caught it in its great claws.
The dragon’s claws wrapped completely around her, stake and all. The beast was so huge she could not see from one wing tip to the other without shifting her gaze. Palaces are that big, not animals. Or so she had believed.
Behind her, down the hill, were the train tracks, and on the cliff top below her was a castle, a village, some pastures, and farmsteads. But coming closer with every boom of the dragon’s wings was a cratered mountain, a cone with the top bitten off.
Sheep and cattle, out for a quiet graze, scattered as the dragon soared over them. Pigs squealed in their pens. Verity could empathize completely.
The dragon, attracted by the squeals, swooped. Suddenly a blast furnace erupted in front of Verity's face, the heat searing her closed eyelids. When she opened her eyes again, surprised that she could, she saw two charbroiled pigs’ heads bobbing between the dragon’s front teeth.
Were the pigs a mere snack?
Apparently so, for the great beast casually climbed higher while still carrying the cooking pigs in the oven of its mouth. Its breath now smelled more like bacon than rotten eggs.
The rolling fields dropped away and the sheer rocky face of a mountain rose up before her. The dragon flapped her great wings up and down, up and down, and with each flap she scaled another vertical mile of mountain.
Verity concentrated on refraining from regurgitating, a perfectly natural thing to do with hard claws wrapped around her middle as she imagined her gruesome death, all the while shooting straight up the side of a volcano. She knew from her geographical studies that conical mountains with hollow bits at the top were almost always volcanoes. The way her luck had been lately, this one was no doubt active. A heavily seamed rock face relieved only by narrow outcroppings fell away beneath them as the dragon climbed. Verity caught glimpses of what certainly looked like human skulls and bones sticking out of the crevices in the cliff face. These could have been the bones of previous sacrifices, disposed of by the dragon after it had picked them clean.
The dragon realigned its flight to a horizontal plane in a nauseating change of direction, then glided into a broad grassy bowl. Cattle and sheep had been grazing there but stampeded in every direction, although there was nowhere for them to go. The sides of the scooped out mountaintop were far too steep.
A small lake in the center of the crater mirrored the cold white sky. The dragon flew over it, to the far side of the bowl. Toward the top was a small black hole far too small for any part of the dragon to enter, but when the dragon was upon it, it turned out to be much larger than it had appeared. The dragon drew in its wings and plunged straight down into darkness that its flame suddenly exposed as rippling black rock.
Verity got sick then, all over herself and the dragon’s claws. Fortunately, her captors had not gagged her.
The dragon dropped her and she fell . . . for about two feet. The stake dug into her back. The impact of landing loosened her ropes, and it took only a tug at her bonds and she was free! Free to be eaten at last. The dragon exhaled a brief flame and in it she saw once more the great beast’s eyes, sly, assessing, no doubt trying to figure out which parts of her were the best cuts, although that hadn’t concerned it with the poor pigs.
Verity closed her eyes and made fists of her palms, hoping the beast would kill her with one blast of flame so she wouldn’t feel its teeth.
Whup. Whup. Whup. She opened her eyes. The dragon was gone. That dragon anyway. As the whupping died away, high-pitched screeches replaced it. Twin flames, one on each side of her, zipped past as scaly bodies cannoned into her, ricocheted off the walls and turned around to do it again.
So, she thought, the dragon didn’t want her for itself—or probably, herself. She must figure a human woman would make good baby food—no tough hide or fur to worry about, though one good thing about this particular sacrificial rite, at least, was that it allowed the victim be offered wearing their cold weather gear rather than, for instance, being naked, which would have been not only embarrassing but extremely chilly.
By the gas-lamp sized flames sputtering out of the mouths of the dragon babies, she saw that the floor was littered with rounded pale slabs of something that resembled very thin broken china. These, she conjectured, were the shells in which the young dragons had arrived in this world. There were other plate like objects lying around too, but she was too busy fending off dragon assaults to identify them.
Dodging a pass at her head, she stepped sideways. One of the dragonets flew past and its flame illuminated a dark abyss on the far side of her left boot. She pulled her foot back and wind milled her arms to drive back the dragons while she flung herself at the nearest cave wall.
Huddling there, she tucked her face into her knees and wrapped her arms around them.
Screeching drilled into her ears as dragon bodies butted her from both sides. Hot flames singed her skin. Her sleeve caught fire followed by her hood. However, from working with her Papa, she was used to fires and burns and knew how to deal with them. She slapped out the flames and rolled sideways on the cave floor. “Go away, you little horrors!” she commanded—shrieked, actually. She had quite a good shriek.
When she raised her head again, the twin flames showed the dragonets had turned their backs on her and were tearing into a carcass that lay next to the opposite wall, a calf from the look of it. It didn’t smell too ripe so she thought the dragon must have brought it for them before fetching her. So if she was not food why, other than to be driven mad by these little attack-torches, was she there?
And when was the mother dragon returning to finish her off?
The young dragons gobbled down the calf and started lapping at a wall in the far corner. By the dragon light, Verity saw water glittering in a fan-shaped pattern against the stone, a little indoor fountain.
She rose as the dragonets turned toward her. They were not yet actually flying, as their mother did. They were simply bouncing off the walls like most small children. She had gradually become convinced that she was not an item on their menu—for the time being. Plenty of cow remained from what she could see.
When their bellies were full, they returned to examine Verity. They clawed at her legs, not to rake but simply to command her attention. She reached down very carefully and patted one on the head. It butted its skull into the palm of her hand.
“Nice dragon,” she told it. “Lovely, gentle, kindly dragon, aren’t you? Yes, you are!” It hiccoughed in surprise and caught her hair on fire again, but she was convinced it was awkwardness, not malice.
She tried to pat out the fire with one mitten and to distract the dragons, lobbed a bit of shell over the edge of the abyss. “Catch!” she cried, running to stick her stinking sizzling hair under the water running down the wall. It flowed into a little basin and fortunately that was deep enough to dunk all of the burnt bits.
She was going to have to find a way to protect herself before the little monsters killed her accidentally, if not on purpose.
A terrible squawking and whining issued from behind her and she turned to see both dragons with their little wings unfurled and their feet right on the edge of the ledge, looking down into the depths of the cave. They wanted to chase the fragment of shell, but she had sent it where they couldn’t go. Fledglings, they were not yet ready to fly. Surely the adult dragon didn’t intend that she teach them to do so?
“No matter, little horrors,” she told them, scooping up another bit from the floor. It seemed to be scale rather than shell. This time she threw it toward the entrance tunnel. Both of them darted to it and struggled to claim it.
She threw another one, a little closer and they both pounced on it. It seemed hours that she played fetch with them, until her arms were aching and her back was burning with pain.
“Very well,” she said at last. “If you’re going to eat me, now would be the time. I’m too tired to do this anymore.
Followed by more squawking and whining, she collapsed near the water basin, removed her mitten, scooped a handful of the cold water and drank. It had a very strange flavor, no doubt from the minerals in the wall, but it seemed pure enough. Besides, she doubted she would live long enough to die from poisoned water.
The flames of the young dragons traced dizzying circles while they darted about a few more times, then they too came to the fountain and rested beside it, wings folded, heads tilted questioningly as if to say, “Now what are you going to do, you strange excuse for a meal?”
One of them belched up a flame that came perilously close to her nose. She clapped her hands, and said, “Stop that!” using the same tone with which she had once admonished the kitchen cat’s boisterous kittens, the watchdog’s puppies, or her horse when he tried to stand on her foot or brush her off on a tree. The dragonet swallowed its flame at once and looked up at her from under surprisingly long curly eyelashes. Adorable, if one liked that sort of thing. And rather pathetic. Perhaps the mother dragon wasn’t very maternal. She seemed to have dropped off the snack and left the little ones on their own.
“You must be sleepy,” Verity said aloud, but very soothingly. It wasn’t a lie. It was a prayer. She was tired and hungry and the flame-seared cow had begun to smell edible, if not exactly appetizing.
The little dragons’ eyes were slightly less bright than their flames. Maybe if they liked her, as something other than a menu item, when their mother returned, she would refrain from eating their new playmate. They folded their wings and settled down on either side of Verity.
She wondered where their mother had gone and when she was coming back. Evidently, they required her to do something, and they did not seem to require her to cut their mangled cow up into smaller pieces.
Perhaps a lullaby was in order? Under normal circumstances she had a pleasant enough voice, but some animals liked singing and some didn’t and actually, she couldn’t remember any lullabies, which tended to consist of the minutes of various public meetings and bits of official legislature set by long-ago minstrels to snore-inducing tunes. The dirge from her father’s funeral was freshest in her mind, but she was afraid it might convey the wrong idea to her hosts. She hummed and sang snatches from Madame Louisa's cabaret show, which were jolly and bouncy but effective.
As she sang, Verity's eyes became adjusted to the dimness and she realized that the cavern was not quite as dark as she had first thought, but glowed with a slightly greenish light. Aha! Bioluminescence. In a less—er—enlightened—time, they no doubt had deemed it magic, but she knew it to be a natural phenomena, caused by little plants growing on the walls, unless in this case it was the chemical interaction of certain minerals? Her papa had explained it to her, but there was more than one type. She never realized it cast so many different colors of light, however. It was sparkly without the need to reflect sunlight to make it so.
The dragon’s children were asleep, but Verity was more alert than ever, inspecting her surroundings. The interior—if one could call a space with a thousand foot drop off on one side an interior—of the little ledge was wildly disordered and full of bone fragments and other things she had not wished to consider before, even had she had the time. From the reaction of the fledglings when she threw the shell over the edge, there seemed to be no way down from their perch other than jumping, so she tried not to think about it and examined her more immediate surroundings.
Other humans had been there before her, as she could see by what seemed to be drawings on the walls, though she could not see them well in the dim light. From the shell fragments littering the floor and some other, darker, flatter plates of material, she guessed that there had been previous litters of dragonets as well. Something poked her hip and she cautiously tilted to one side and pulled it out from under her, careful not to disturb the dragon baby whose head was resting against her arm. The dragonets obligingly shifted so they were leaning on each other instead of her. She stood, very cautiously. Her muscles were cramped from sitting so long. She was sleepy, hungry, and thirsty, but the cow was not as tempting as it had been. Scooping her hand in the little basin, she sucked up more of the water.
The article she had pulled from under her was a piece of greenish-brown (though it is difficult to see precise shades and tints of color without sufficient light) scale too large to have belonged to either of the small dragons.
It was as big as a platter and if she could rig a handle in the back, she might be able to use it as a shield, to protect herself from the fires of her ledge-mates. Dragon scale had to be fire-proof, didn’t it? The scale didn’t seem as big as the ones on the mother dragon so she imagined it probably belonged to an older and larger brother or sister dragon from another clutch. She devoutly hoped he or she wasn’t off at dragon school and would not want to come home to the cave for an after-school snack—her—any time soon.
The young dragons were rather sweet in a terrifying sort of way, but she had to leave. Going down the way she came up was out of the question, but perhaps she could go further up on the crater’s edge at another point and then go down—more gradually?
The possibility bore further exploration.
The entrance to the passage from the crater was open. Fresh air and a spot of sunlight or even a snowy night would be refreshing at any rate.
Verity was quite sure that if anyone were going to rescue her, it would be her. She couldn’t expect much help from an elderly aunt and a train full of strangers and nobody else would know until the train reached civilization again, would they? Civilization could be defined in this sense as being somewhere that the locals did not tie other people to stakes and wait for dragons to carry them off.
The tube-like passage was steep, but climbable. It was an old lava tube, left in the mountain from the days when the volcano was active. She'd read about them in geology texts.
The floor of the passage was quite slick, but fortunately her moose hide soled boots were made for walking on the dry Argonian snow, and were not at all slippery. It took much longer to climb up it than it had to be carried down it, however. But at last, and it seemed that it had been weeks instead of only hours, she stood at the entrance, reveling in the open air
The sky had darkened to steely gray with dirty clouds lurking on incredibly vast horizons. Almost at her feet, the lake spanned much of the crater’s bottom. It seemed even bigger now than it did when the dragon soared over it.
She needed to see what lay under the lip of the crater where it dipped to its lowest point. The walk was much farther than it had looked, but there appeared to be a path along the side of the bowl, skirting the lake. That made sense. Unless the dragon had hauled each and every cow and sheep up the mountain, someone had to drive them up, which meant they needed to climb back down again—probably very quickly.
But looking down the side of the mountain, she saw only the impossibly steep drop into the valley below she had seen when the dragon flew up. It was far too sheer for her to climb, especially without equipment. No wonder the passage from the dragon nursery to the outside had been so easy. It wasn’t as if she would be able to go anywhere from the only outside area she could reach.
The path dwindled to nothing near the crater’s lip. Who had put it there? Surely not the dragon. Unless she’d made the path to give her babies easier access to the herd, which might mean she wasn’t returning to help them.
Loathe to return underground and resume being a living target for ballistic young dragons, Verity walked along the shore of the lake until the sky grew darker and it began to snow. She might not find her way back to the cave. She might die of exposure. If only there were some way to signal any possible airships flying overhead, a vain hope. The dragon could have swatted one out of the sky with her tail. Airship dragons, any tame working dragon, would be no match for her. If the area were devoid of air traffic, a signal fire would be futile. It would attract only the attention of the savage villagers who’d staked Verity out to begin with. They’d probably take a signal fire for the dragon’s flame as the beast barbecued her.
Nearing the cave mouth once more, she spied a flash of something that caught the last rays of the setting sun shining off the lake.
A rustling noise issued from inside the cavern’s passage. The dragonets squealed up the long passageway and crowded around her. They seemed to have missed her.
Then they saw the cows and sheep. She was glad it was getting dark so she need not witness the details, but in the end, she had to find a stone to finish off the sheep the dragons had managed to wound the worst. She hated it, but she couldn’t bear to watch the poor animal suffer any longer. The dragonets were messy killers. She hoped even more fervently that they were now her friends. At least they had not seriously attempted to kill her. Yet.
So she dragged the sheep up to the cavern entrance and down the corridor, hindered by the eager “assistance” of the dragonets.
The last thing she wanted was for the mother dragon to return, but honestly, what could the creature be thinking, flying off like that and leaving her babies to fend for themselves when they were obviously so bad at it?