Sneak Peek: Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland

Dragon Heart by Cecelia HollandWhere the Cape of the Winds juts into the endless sea, there is Castle Ocean, and therein dwells the royal family that has ruled it from time immemorial. But there is an Empire growing in the east, and its forces have reached the castle. So begins a saga of violence, destruction, and death, of love and monsters, human and otherwise.

In Dragon Heart, Cecelia Holland, America’s most distinguished historical novelist steps fully into the realm of fantasy and makes it her own. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter One

Jeon could hear his sister screaming all the way from the other end of the cloister, and beside him the abbot was fumbling with a set of keys. Jeon wheeled on him.

“You’ve locked her up? How dare you lock her up!” He strode down the walkway toward the heavy door, which Tirza’s wails pierced like knives through the wood.

“My lord, she is uncontrollable; she screams during prayers, she hits us—”

“She is a Princess of Castle Ocean.” He tore the key from the monk’s hand and thrust it into the lock. “You’ll suffer for this, Abbot.”

As Jeon turned the key in the lock the screaming stopped. He swung the door open, and there sat his sister, cross-legged on the cot, staring at him.

She burst into a huge smile and, stretching her arms out, leapt to her feet and ran to him, this funny tiny girl, with her wild red frizz of hair, her dusky skin, her huge blue eyes, who looked nothing like him but was his twin. He gathered her into his arms.

“My dear. My dear one.”

She nuzzled him, clinging to him. She came only to his shoulder, slender as a twig, like a feather in his arms. Her hair smelled of the sea dew that flavored her bath. She wore only a long shift; he looked quickly around for other clothes, for attendants, and turned on the abbot again.

“This is an outrage.”

“My lord, my lord.” The abbot was bobbing up and down like a bird. “We did not know—we did not expect—”

Tirza was pulling away from Jeon, brushing her wild hair back with both hands. She gave him an intent look, and went straight out the door and through the hedge there onto the sunlit grass at the center of the cloister, and stood there, raising her hands and her face into the light and the air. Jeon said, “You mean, you didn’t think we would care what happened to her.” He went after his sister, now turning slowly around on the grass, her arms raised over her head. “Tirza, come along.” He had to find her something to wear.

She came up to him, her eyes direct, and tugged on his cloak. “Ah,” he said, and took it off, and she wrapped it around herself, her gaze never leaving his face. She gave a low, mushy growl. Her brilliant blue eyes rounded, asking something.

He had always understood her better than anybody, some shared mind. “Oh,” he said. “Yes, we have to go home. Mother wants us all there. She is being married off again.”

Tirza’s whole face flared with temper. She shook her head at him.

“I’m afraid so. Another of the Emperor’s brothers. Nobody likes him, not even Mother. And he has two sons of his own. Whom he has brought with him to Castle Ocean. You won’t like them, either.”

She shook her head at him again, she clenched her fist, and her mouth opened, and he put his hand over her mouth. “No, Tirza. Not to me.”

She shuddered. Turning, she walked quickly away, and he caught up with her in a stride and took hold of her hand. Her fingers closed tight on his. They went on down the walkway, silent. At the door, he said, “I want to leave directly. I came overland, but there’s an Imperial galley here that’s on its way to Castle Ocean. That can take us home, and fairly quickly, too. The abbot has orders to pack your things. Didn’t you have any women with you?”

She aimed a brief, flashing look at him, and he laughed. Six months in this place had not subdued her, and he was beginning to enjoy the idea of seeing her meet the new putative stepfather. Outside the cloister, Jeon’s men waited by the wall with the horses. They bowed to him, and then also to Tirza, murmuring some greeting. Bedro was the closer of the two and bowing put him within reach, and she patted his head like a dog’s.

Jeon left Bedro to collect her baggage, put her up behind his saddle, and with the other man riding in front of them to clear the way they went down through the market. Santomalo covered both banks of the river here, its rows of red-roofed houses rising up the gentle hills from the beach. The sun was high and the harbor glittered, full of ships. He pointed toward the galley drawn in against the long wharf. “That’s the ship we’re taking. They’re trying to map the seacoast out to Cape of the Winds and then south, I think.”

She was holding on to the back of his belt as they rode along; she leaned forward, looking toward the harbor. The street turned steep down into the market, a field of different-colored awnings, noisy and busy with people. Jeon’s man called out and the crowd parted to let them through. Someone called out, “Monkey woman!” Jeon felt Tirza let go of his belt and swung his arm around behind him and gripped her fast. She leaned on him, snarling. They wound through the bazaar, past the rows of casks, the braided strings of onions and garlic, the bleating lambs in their withy pens. As they passed the lambs, Tirza bleated back. That she could do, make any noise but words. They were coming to the wharf.

“This is the Emperor’s galley, remember,” Jeon said lightly. “And the Emperor’s captain.” He reined up his horse on the bank beside the wharf, and she slid down to the ground, looking all around with her intense blue gaze. Jeon dismounted; his man came to collect the horse. There was no room for horses on the galley and these would go back overland. He was interested in the galley and glad to have a chance to sail on it, and he stood a moment running his eyes over it, seeing how it was built.

The galley was long and thin, with a high curled tail and a pointed head, laid against the wharf like a great wooden blade beside its sheath. The crew had gone off. No sails hung from the long diagonal yards and below the deck the oars were shipped inside the portholes, their leather sleeves like pursed lips. Down there, under the deck when the lips were plugged with oars and all the men were pulling at once, that space had to be a hot and airless hell. He stepped out onto the polished honey-colored deck and turned to help his sister, whether she liked it or not.

The captain bustled importantly toward them. Like all the Imperial men, he put much effort into appearances. He took off his hat as he came, made a deep obeisance to Jeon, and faced Tirza.

“My lady, welcome. Whatever we can do to make your passage agreeable, you need only speak.” He reached out for Tirza’s hand and she drew back from his touch. With a gesture toward the foremast, he said, “You see we have made arrangements for your comfort.” Still trying to grasp her hand, still bowing. Around the foot of the mast, several layers of light cloth hung suspended, enclosing a space hardly big enough to stand up in. She backed away from that, bumping into Jeon, and swatted at the captain’s reaching hand. A string of barks and growls issued from her.

“My lady.” The captain goggled at her, his arm dropping to his side.

Jeon said, “My sister is mute. She does not speak.” To her, he said, “Go inside for now, Tirza.” He had a firm grip on her arm; she was half-naked and he was determined to get her out of sight. She obeyed him, moved into the little silken room, and the veils fell between them.

She was not mute. She talked, but nobody understood her. She had said Jeon’s name, back at the cloister, and he had only frowned at her, uncomprehending, his own beloved name.

She sat on a cushion in this new, prettier cell, liking the way the sun shone through the veils of the walls. One was lavender colored and the light lay on her hands like a weightless wing. She thought over what he had told her, that they were forcing her mother to marry again.

They had tried this once before. Her mother had poisoned that one on their wedding night. She wondered why the Emperor did not take the point.

The chest with her things pushed in under the bottom edge of the silky wall before her. The same unseen hands whisked the veil quickly down again. It was a warm day, and she was comfortable enough in just the shift, but if she went out like this Jeon would make her come back inside. She unlatched the chest and got out a long dark gown. Through the wall she heard someone talking, close by, and then Jeon spoke. She pulled the gown on over her head, let the laces dangle, and went out onto the deck of the galley.

Jeon and the captain stood there in the beak. The captain had a long roll of parchment in his hands, and as she came up he spread it out before them on the rail where the gunwales came together.

She looked on curiously. The monks had had such parchments, which they marked carefully with black curling lines. This was not like that: this showed more of a picture. On the left-hand side was a busy clutter of zigzags, which she knew at once were the hills behind Santomalo; on the broad expanse there was a big cross in a circle, which meant the Empire.

To the west, the picture narrowed to a single feathery line, and that line soon vanished into nothing. On the far right side, another big upright zigzag.

The captain jabbed his finger at it, and said, “That is Cape of the Winds.”

She understood now, and she almost laughed. They had set down this swarm of lines to mean the world, then. But they had left out everything that moved, the wind and the waves, light and the dark; they had turned the myriad shapes into one shape, as if they were the same forever, locked on to their parchment.

In the blank spaces, the maker had drawn little pictures, as if he could not bear the emptiness, a sword, a four-pointed star, a bird, a whale, a dragon.

The captain was saying, “You see the problem. None of this is charted.” His hand swept from the busy edge across the blank space. His voice was stiff. “I‘d like to wait for more ships, make up a fleet.”

Jeon said, “Nothing ever was charted, until someone did it. Get a chart maker and take him along.”

“I can’t even find a man who will pilot us along this coast.” Again the captain swept his hand over the chart. He looked up with a frown, toward where the line between the land and the sea swept away straight into the west. “And Cape of the Winds is famously treacherous. Post Sanctum Malum malum, they say.”

“How did you get here?” Jeon asked.

“Down the river,” the captain said. “That stream I know, every current and every rock and where to put in for the night. Not … this.”

Her brother put his hand down on the middle of the parchment, as if he would seize it. “Then we will be the first.”

“My lord. With all possible respect—”

“Let’s go,” Jeon said. He turned, saw her, and smiled at her. “I can’t wait.” He put out his hand to her. “Come, pretty sister; we shall walk along the deck together.”

The first day, with the wind fair, they sailed out of the estuary of Santomalo and along the coast westward. On the leeward side they passed by a white beach covered with driftwood. In the evening they put into a little cove for the night and the whole crew went ashore, where they built a bonfire. Their shouts came faintly across the water to the ship. Jeon and Tirza sat on the deck, and he opened up his pack and got out their supper.

“This is another kind of invasion,” Jeon said. “The ship, I mean. The damned Empire. The castle is full of soldiers. Luka will only go in and out of the castle by the sea ways, so he doesn’t have to pass by the guards at the door.” Jeon put down his cup and took the flagon and filled it again. The sea breeze patted at them in little gusts. The moon was full, half-drowning the stars. Before them on a cloth the remains of their dinner: fish bones and tails, bread crusts, bits of cheese. Off on the shore the crew moved around their bonfire, settling down in the dark, like sleeping sea cattle. The long, narrow ship rocked gently against its anchor. Tirza was sitting next to him, her head tipped back toward the moon.

“Too bad we have no musicians,” he said.

She sighed. She loved music; she let out a stream of noise that sounded a little like music.

“Anyway, Mother has refused, so far, to go to the altar, for all kind of reasons, but mostly because she wanted all of us to be there. For a while Luka was gone, out to sea somewhere, you know how he is, but then he came home, and all she could do was claim that she could not marry until you were home, too.”

Tirza gurgled, maybe a laugh. Jeon drank more wine, leaning on cushions. “I doubt this will make her like you any more, that she has to marry when you arrive.”

She nudged him, and she did laugh. Between her and their mother much evil lay, which seemed to bother neither of them. He wondered, as he often did, what understandings Tirza had locked up in behind the voice that would not work. He would never know what she thought, nor what she believed. Now she was looking away, the moonlight bright on her face, and babbling, perhaps meaning music. He felt a wash of loneliness, although he had her by the hand, as if he reached through a hole in the wall that surrounded her.

This is beautiful, Tirza thought, and shivered.

They had been sailing west for days, now, every night putting in to sleep in some new place. This was the next new place. A wide, placid bay stretched out before them. The eastern edge rose into a long, dark line of hills, the shore curving deeply away beneath a palisade of sheer black rock, until it swung another arm out again into the sea. Shielded from the rough ocean, the water ran dark blue toward the beach, turned pale blue and green in the shallows, foamed white at the edge. Below the foot of the palisade the constant moving margin of surf separated the water from an arc of pale brown sand.

The crew had hauled down the great triangular sail. The galley stroked steadily in toward the land, the oars rumbling in their sockets. She leaned on the gunwale, looking down over the side. As they passed over the clear, green-blue water, she could see dark clumps in the depths: reefs and rocks. There was a reef directly below their boat now, the lumpy stone waving green with seaweed and alive with fish.

The broad bay was empty, desolate. On the shore, no huts showed, no smoke rose, there were no signs of fire pits or trash. No ships rode on the sheltered water, and no trails climbed the far green slopes.

Yet as they drew closer, all along the clean pale beach, in the driftwood, she could see the sun-bleached ribs and planks of boats. Some of these chunks of wood looked burnt. Down on the bottom in the clear blue depths, as the men rowed steadily across the bay, she saw a boxy stern and part of a thwart poking out of the sand. Nowhere was there a sign of a living man, except those newly come, but everywhere she saw shipwrecks.

She saw fish, also, everywhere, great schools of them. Their silver backs blended into the pale bottom and she found them first by their shadows on the sand. A seagull wheeled above them, screeching. She thought, for an instant, she caught a note of warning in its voice.

Jeon came up beside her. “Isn’t this lovely?” He was still a moment, his face grim. “I hate that they are coming here.”

She said nothing, thinking of the parchment and its lines. They would turn all this into lines, too, while she and Jeon, who should protect this place, did nothing. The captain strode up the ship, calling out orders. Three men ran up to the foremast, to take down the slantwise yard. Along the sides of the galley, all the oars but two rose dripping, cocked into the air, and withdrew through their ports into the hull. The galley glided through the calm water toward the beach, the front oars rising and falling in a slow rhythm.

She felt the boat under her quiver slightly.

The captain bellowed, “Steer, will you? What’s wrong with you?” He went down amidships, cursing.

From the stern came a wail. The ship hit something under the water; Tirza staggered, and when the deck tipped steeply up she slammed down into the rail.

Jeon sprawled across the deck. She flung out an arm to catch him; he struck the mast and rolled out of her reach. The ship careened sideways. The captain staggered and came up against the mainmast, buckling her house of cloth around him. Tirza was holding tight to the rail with both hands; a sailor rushed past her and dove overboard. She twisted, looking for Jeon, and saw him huddled facedown down under the stern rail.

She felt her grip on the gunwale slipping. She hung over the rail. A wash of salt water broke over her. She rocked back up again into the air, gasping. Below, the water was churning and leaping, thrashed to madness, and then up through the chaos came the dragon.

He was red as new blood, big as the ship. The enormous horned head reared up into the air, borne high on the long neck, and the shoulders thrust through the water. Tirza struggled around to go to Jeon; he still lay on the deck down there, wedged against the footing of the tiller, and she lunged toward him, and then the dragon’s jaws parted and a gust of green flame erupted from its throat.

The fiery stream hit the deck of the ship and it burst into flame. From under the deck came the screams of the oarsmen trapped down there. Tirza stretched toward Jeon, veiled in the fire, and the dragon struck the ship and heeled it over, and this time it broke in half.

The stern lurched up, and Tirza fell overboard. She plunged deep into the water; in her ears some constant roaring faded to a muted hum. She came up a few yards from the blazing bow of the galley, the glare in her eyes, the heat beating on her face. The sea was steaming. In the wild thrashing waves she could not swim; she could barely keep herself afloat. She flailed out with her arms, trying to claw her way through the broken battering waves. Something struck her in the side and drove her under. She swam up, and her outstretched arm caught something solid and she clung to it and pulled herself up to the air. A moment later she realized she was clutching a dead body.

Even recoiling from it, she looked to see if it was Jeon. Then from just above her the huge red head drove down and took the corpse away, so close she saw her reflection in the fierce slits of its eyes.

She screamed, clawing backward. The beast loomed over her, enormous, its red scales streaming. She saw its head dart down beyond her again and rear up, a man clutched in its jaws. The sailor was alive, thrashing, his mouth open, and the dragon flipped him up into the air, so that he came down headfirst, and swallowed him whole. The huge maw swung around again. Away from her. She struggled in the furious water, trying to swim across the tow, but the crashing directionless waves carried her swiftly always closer to the dragon. Her ears were full of roaring and screaming. She could not breathe; salt water stung her nose. She saw the wedge-shaped red head rise again, another man in its teeth.

Then the surge of the water brought her directly against the dragon’s side. Her fingers scraped over the slick red scales, trying to find a hold. Above her, along the beast’s spine, rose a row of giant golden barbs, and she lunged up and caught one and held on.

The beast was snapping at some other swimmer. Clutching the spine, Tirza was borne higher up into the air. Below her she saw the bow of the ship but not the stern. Nothing of her brother. Below her, the water was full of men, some drowned, some screaming and waving their arms, and some trying to swim, and the dragon caught another, and another, its head darting here and there at the end of its long, supple neck. She wrapped her belt around the spinal barb, to stay on, the barb thick as a tree bough, polished smooth and sleek as gold; she was sick to her stomach; she could not breathe; she knew that Jeon was dead, that they were all dead. She would die next. The beast whirled and her head struck the barb hard enough to daze her. The sky reeled by her, and then abruptly the dragon was plunging down again into the sea.

She flung her head back, startled alert, and fought to untie her belt. The wet knot was solid. Just as the sea closed over her head she managed to draw in a deep lungful of air.

The sea rushed past her. The light faded. They were going down, steadily down. She looked up, and far over her head she saw a body floating limp in the shrinking patch of pale water. Then the dragon was swimming sideways, and the water was rushing in one direction like a river, through some deep, cold place.

The light vanished. In the pitch-darkness, surging along on the dragon’s back, she could not imagine an end. She had to breathe. Her lungs hurt. The dark water rippled on her skin. Her arms were wrapped around the barb, her body flying along above the strong-swimming beast. She counted to herself. Surely something would happen. When she got to ten she counted again. Her lungs ached. She could see nothing. Strange lights burst in her eyes and were gone. Nausea rose in her throat. Then the dragon was swimming upward and above them was sunlit water.

She counted again, and at eight she burst into the light and the air.

Her whole body shuddered, taking in great gulps of breath. She clung to the barb, looking around her. They were in a lake, or a lagoon, surrounded by high cliffs, the water salt but calm. She realized she was inside the headland, that some passage beneath the sea cliff connected this lagoon to the sea. Ahead of her the golden barbs ran up the huge coiled neck of the dragon; it was swimming toward the beach, a strip of sand at the foot of a pleated black cliff.

She tore at her belt; with a leap of relief she saw the cloth had frayed almost apart in the wild ride, and with her fingers she ripped away the last fibers just as the dragon reached the shallow water. She plunged down the red-scaled side and ran up onto the sand.

The black cliff there rose impossibly high and steep. But its sheer face was runneled and creased, and she ducked into the nearest of these seams, back into a narrow darkening gorge that bent sharply to the left and then pinched into nothing, a case of rock.

Far enough, she thought. She was only a few feet from the beach, but the opening was narrow and the beast couldn’t reach her here, and the bend might shelter her from the flames. She crept cautiously up nearer the opening and peered around the corner, to see out.

The dragon had lain down right in front of her on the sand, its great head only about ten feet away. So it knew she was there. But it stretched out, relaxed, well fed, half-asleep. She leaned against the rock wall behind her and looked it over.

At ease, the beast sprawled with its neck coiled, its head between its forepaws, arched claws outstretched, each claw as long as she was. The massive bulk of its body curled away, its tail half in the water still. The red arrow-shaped head lay half-turned toward her, the eyes closed. A glistening horn thrust up above each of its eyes, which were rimmed in gold, the wide curled, oddly delicate nostrils also gold trimmed. The long red neck led back between the high, round ridge of shoulders with scales a yard across. Each scale was glossy red, gold edged, at the center a black boss. Below its barbed spine the scales overlapped in even horizontal rows, smaller with each row, red squares in golden outline. As they shrank, the black boss at the middle became smaller and fainter, the gold trim thinner; until the scales low on its sides were red alone.

She watched the dragon until the daylight was gone. Once, in its sleep, its jaws parted and gave a soft greenish burp and a little round stone rolled out. Still sleeping, its red tongue licked over its lips and he settled deeper on the sand.

The sun went down. In the night, she thought, she could escape and she edged closer to the beach. Just as she reached the mouth of the crevice the dragon’s near eye opened, shining in the dark, fixed on her. Tirza scuttled back into the deep of the crevice, all her hair on end. She thought she heard a low growl behind her.

She wept; she wept for Jeon and even for the Imperial men, and for herself, because she knew she was lost. At last she slept a little. When she woke, it was morning and she was so hungry and thirsty that she went back to the mouth of the crevice.

The dragon was still there. It stood on its short, heavy legs, looking away from her. The sun blazed on its splendor, the glowing red scales, the curved golden barbs along its spine. Then the narrow-jawed head swung toward her, high above her on the long neck. Between its wide-set eyes was a disk of gold. Its eyes were big as washtubs, the black pupil a long vertical slice through the red silk of the iris, the haw at the inner corner like a fold of gold lace.

It gave a low roar, and the roar resolved into a voice so deep and huge she imagined she heard it not through her ears but the bones of her head. “Why don’t you come out where I can eat you?”

“Please don’t eat me,” she said.

His eyes widened, looking startled. Her mouth fell open. He understood her. For a moment, they stared at each other. She took a step toward him.

“Why shouldn’t I? You’ll just die in there anyway.” He gave a cold chuckle. “And by then you’d be too thin to bother digging for. Tell me what you’ll give me, if I don’t eat you.”

She stood at the mouth of the crevice, and all the words crowded through her mind, everything she had ever said that nobody else had understood. But all she said was, “What do you want me to do?”

“Can you dance? Sing?”

“I—”

The dragon said, “Tell me a story.”

A cold tingle went down her back. “A story,” she said.

“If it’s good enough, I won’t eat you.” The dragon settled himself down, curling his forelimbs under him like a cat’s, waiting.

Her heart thumped. She sifted quickly through all the stories she had ever heard; she knew at once that those stories of men would not satisfy the dragon, much less save her life.

He was waiting, patient, his jeweled eyes on her. She realized since he had begun speaking to her she had thought of him as “he.” That gave her a wisp of an idea. She sat down in the mouth of the cave, folded her hands in her lap, and began, “Once there was an evil Queen. She was so evil everybody was afraid of her, except her youngest daughter.” Tirza gave this Queen a round, angry face, a voice like a slap, remembering the last time she had seen her mother, remembering so well that her throat thickened and she almost stopped. She forced her mind cool. She sorted rapidly through the next possibilities. “And this Princess would not yield or bend. So the Queen hated her daughter, and decided to get rid of her. But she did not intend that the Princess could be free, to do as she pleased.”

That was the real injustice. Tirza spent some time describing the beautiful daughter, so that she could plan the next part. The daughter looked a lot like her sister, Casea, with her white skin, her black eyes, rather than like Tirza herself. The feel of the words in her mouth was delicious. The dragon was utterly silent, his eyes watching her steadily, his long lips curved in a slight lizard smile.

“So she shut the Princess into a tower by the sea, and set guards around her.” The story was growing stronger in her mind, and she let her voice stride out confidently, telling of the tower, and the wild storms that rocked it, the sunlight that warmed it, and the birds that came to sing to the Princess in her window. “There she lived lonely, singing to the birds, and grew even more beautiful, but nobody ever saw her, except, now and then, her guards.

“But one day a Prince came by.” She made the Prince like Jeon, honest and brave. Dead now, probably, dead in this monster’s belly. Her voice trembled, but she brought herself back under control. She gave the Prince Jeon’s red hair, which she saw amused the dragon, for the wrong reason. “The Prince heard the Princess singing, and climbed up the tower wall to her window. They fell in love at once, because she was beautiful and good and he was handsome and brave and good. But before he could carry her off, the guards burst in on them.”

The dragon twitched, and she leaned toward him, intent, excited, knowing now she had him. “The guards drew their swords, and although the Prince tried to fight back, he had no weapon, and he was one against four. So they got him down quickly, and they sent for the Queen.”

The dragon growled. Tirza kept her voice even and slow, rhythmic, speaking each word precisely over the rumble: this was the best part. “The Queen came at once, riding on the ocean waves, faster than any horse. She told the Prince, since he was such a lizard that he could scale a castle wall, he would become the greatest lizard. And she turned him into a dragon, and cast him into the sea.”

The dragon lifted his head up and roared, not at her, but at the sky, and then quickly sank down again, his eyes blazing.

“But the Princess. What happened to her?”

Tirza was ready to run for the crevice, if this did not suit. She met the dragon eye to eye. “Her heart was broken. She fled from her mother and the tower—”

“Good.”

“And now she wanders through the world looking for her Prince. Only her love can change him back. But every day she grows older, and every day, the dragon grows more like a dragon, and less like the Prince.”

She was poised to run. But the dragon’s eyes were shining. His long lips drew back from his dagger-teeth, and he nodded his head once. Turning, he bounded into the lagoon and disappeared in a whirling eddy.

She went cautiously out onto the open sand. From the cliff a little farther on a long spill of water fell, and she went there and quenched her thirst, all the while looking for some other way out of the lagoon. The towering black cliff enclosed it like a wall. She looked up, wondering if she could climb it, but she could see no path on the sheer face.

In the lagoon, too soon, the water churned and the dragon’s head rose through the slosh of his passage and he swam to the beach and strode up onto the sand. In his jaws he held a flopping green sea bass, which he flung down before her.

“Eat.” The voice like speaking bronze.

She recoiled; the fish was still flopping, its desperate glistening eye on her. She cast around quickly for wood for a fire. “I need to cook it—”

He growled. “You should eat your food alive. But wait.” He reared his head back and shot forth a bolt of flame, which blasted around the fish for several seconds, until it lay utterly still.

She went warily up to it, knelt down, and touched the carcass. Under the charred skin, the fish was nicely cooked. She peeled back the skin and ate the hot flaky white meat. It tasted a little sharp, but it was delicious.

The dragon was crouched there, his neck folded between his shoulders, his head settled above his forepaws, watching her. When she was done, and sitting there licking her fingers, he settled down around her, stretched his head out along his forepaws, and swung his tail in a long curve, so she stood in the middle of his coil. Half embrace, half prison. The great red eye blinked once in a flash of gold. “Tell me another story.”

After that she could roam as she pleased around the lagoon, as long as she told the dragon stories whenever he asked. She told him everything she knew about her family, weaving all that together, how in the beginning the sea’s youngest daughter, Atla, came ashore at the tip of the land, where Cape of the Winds jutted into the endless sea. Wise and kind and merry, she drew every creature to her.

She lured even the monster Hafgavra, the Mist from the Sea, who seized her with his many arms and carried her into his cave above the battering tides and forced her to lie with him. After, when he lay sated, she cut out his two hearts with a clamshell. As he died, his body turned to black rock, and calling up all the creatures to help her, she built her castle of him. His enormous belly was the center of it, and his yawning mouth the hall, open to the sea. Of his many arms she raised four straight up as towers into the sky and wound the rest around as corridors through the rock. And there she lived, and there of the rape by Hafgavra she bore a son, the monster Atlarro, who became the first King of Castle Ocean.

Atlarro married a human woman, and their son, Lukala, had the guise of a man, but he kept the heart of the monster. And all after, his descendants had hair as red as Hafgavra’s red heart’s blood.

Of all this Tirza made stories. As the generations piled one on another, like the rocks of Castle Ocean, King followed on King, rescuing Princesses, punishing the wicked, battling monsters in the sea, chasing pirates, and defending his people, stories sprouting and intertwining, growing on one another. She fed all these stories to the dragon, except one.

That was the last part, the newest, how to the east the Empire was growing, spreading over the land, grinding out evil and death, until at last it reached the sea. Then her father, King Reymarro, called up all his friends and kinsmen to fight. But the Emperor lured them away from the ocean and in the mountains destroyed them.

There was no way to tell this well. She thought this story was not over yet.

One day ran after another. When the winter storms blew by and rain fell and the wind howled above the lagoon, the dragon made fires for her in her cave. He brought her fish, well cooked, and every day she told him stories. She loved the words, their feel in her mouth, their power over him, how they held him utterly rapt, all his strength and rage suspended on her breath. But the more stories she told, the more she longed for Jeon and Luka, Casea and her sister Mervaly, and even for her mother, and for Castle Ocean on its cliff, where she belonged.

She was sitting in the sun one afternoon, thinking of Jeon and Luka, of her sisters, even of her mother, and tears began to roll down her cheeks.

The dragon said, “What’s the matter? Why are you sad?”

“You ate my brother,” she said bitterly. “I hate you.”

He gave one of his throaty chuckles, unperturbed. “You eat the fish. You don’t care about their brothers.”

She cast off the thought of fish, which she had always eaten. “Do you have no family? No home but here? Where did you come from?”

He looked surprised. His huge eyes blazed red as the heart of a fire. “I was always here.” But his stare shifted, and as much of a look of perplexity as she had ever seen came over his long reptile face. “I was always alone. Until you came. Now something has changed. I just realized this.” He turned, and disappeared into the lagoon. She got up, and walked along the beach looking for something else to eat.

During the day he slept in the sun, or went down into the lagoon and was gone for a long while. She guessed he went out the tunnel under the cliff, to the open sea, and hunted. She wandered the beach, drinking from the waterfall, eating the berries that grew down the steep, rough wall of the cliff, and gathering sea lettuce, crabs, and clams. She worked out stories as she walked, saving bits and pieces when she could not make them whole. She thought of new words, and new patterns of words; she saw in her mind the pictures made of the words, and saved everything to tell to him,

When he came back, he always had a fish for her and cooked it with the fire of his breath; no matter what the fish, bass, tuna, or shark, the meat always had a faintly tart, spicy taste. If he had fed well he burped up lots of stones, some as big as her fist, most toe sized or smaller, crystals of red and blue and green. If he had eaten nothing or not enough, he complained and glowered at her and licked his lips at her and talked of eating her instead, his red eyes wicked, and his tongue flickering.

“I don’t have to listen to you,” she said, holding herself very straight. She turned back toward her crevice, where she could get away from him.

Behind her, the deep rumbling voice said, “If you try to escape I will definitely eat you.”

She spun toward him. “But I want to go home. Someday, when I’ve done enough, you have to let me go home.”

At that he gave off a burst of furious heat and exhaled a stream of green fire. She dodged him, and ran toward her safe place.

One huge forelimb came down directly in front of her, the great claws biting the sand. When she wheeled, his other paw stamped down, fencing her in.

“You can’t leave!”

She put her hands over her ears, the roar shaking her whole body. The ground trembled under her. He was lying down, and his tail swung around, curling around her, not touching, but close. She lowered her hands. He was calm again, now that his great scaled bulk surrounded her. Only a few feet away the enormous eye shut and opened again. “Tell me a story.”

So she had to escape. During the day, she searched through the seams and gullies worn into the cliff, hoping to find some way through the wall, but all the openings pinched out, or ended in falls of broken rock. Once in the shadows at the back of a defile she found a skeleton, still wearing tattered clothes—a cloak with fur trim, and pretty, rotten shoes, even rings on the finger bones.

The bones were undisturbed, laid out in a human shape inside the rags of cloth. Whoever this was, however he had gotten here, he had never even left the cave.

She had left the cave. She found herself a little proud of that.

She took one of the rings and slipped it on her finger, wondering who he had been. Somehow she had to fit this into a story. The ring was loose and cold, and finally she put it back on the bony finger she had taken it from.

One evening, after she told him about some adventures of the Prince as dragon, she turned to go back into the crevice, where she usually slept. Before she could reach the cliff he caught her lightly with his forepaw—the long, curved claws like tusks inches from her face—and tossed her backward. She stumbled off across the beach, wondering what she had done wrong. The other paw met her and sent her reeling. She whirled, frightened, her hands out, and he batted her around again. His head suspended over her watched her with a cold amusement. He was playing, she realized, in a haze of terror, not really hurting her, just enjoying his power. She caught hold of his scaly paw and held tight, and he stopped.

But he did not let her go. He reached down and took her between his long jaws, gently as a mother with an egg. Tirza lay, rigid, her breath stopped, between two sets of gigantic teeth, the long tongue curled around her. He lay down, stretched out, and carefully set her on the sand between his forelegs. He put his head down, so that she lay in the hollow under his throat, and went to sleep.

She lay stiff as a sword under him. Something new had happened and she had no notion what he might mean by this. What he might do next. Yet the cavern under his throat was warm, and she fell asleep after a while.

The next day, he dove into the lagoon and was gone and she went back to the search, working her way steadily from one end of the cliff to the other, trying to find a way out. She went back through every crevice, tried to chimney up the sides, and crawled along the top of huge mounds of rubble. She found many openings back into the cliff, but always the space came to an end, the cliff pressed down on her, dark and cold.

She crept back out to the sunlit lagoon again. The beauty of it struck her, as it always did, the water clear and blue, grading darker toward the middle of the lagoon and paler in the ring of the shore, the tiny ripples of the waves, the cream-colored sand. The sky was cloudless. The cliff vaulted up hundreds of feet high, sheer as a wall of glass.

As she stood there, wondering what to do, the blue water began to churn, throwing off breaking waves, and the dragon’s great head thrust up through the center of it, a white fish between his long jaws.

He saw her, and came to her, cast down the fish, and breathed on it with the harsh fire of his breath, and then, as usual, stood there watching her eat it. She was hungry and ate all the pale, flaky meat. Being close to him made her edgy. She had thought of a good story to tell him, with a long chase through a forest and the dragon’s escape at the end. She could not look at him, afraid of what she might see brimming in the great red eyes.

He sat quietly throughout the story, as he always did. She had learned to feel the quality of his attention and she knew he was deeply involved in it. She brought it to an end, and stood.

His head moved, fast as a serpent, and he caught her between his jaws. He laid her down on her back between his forepaws. She lay so stiff her fists were clenched, looking up at the wedge-shaped head above her, and then he began to lick her all over.

His tongue was long and supple, silky smooth, longer than she was tall, so that sometimes he was licking her whole body all at once. She was afraid to move. He licked at her dress until it was bunched up under her armpits. His touch was soft, gentle, even tender, stroking over her breasts he paused an instant, his warm tongue over her, and against her will she gasped.

He said, in his deep, harsh voice, “It’s only me, the Prince,” and chuckled. He slid his tongue down her side and curled it over her legs.

She clutched her thighs together, but the tip of his tongue flicked between them, into the cleft of her body. She shut her eyes. She held her whole body tight, as if she could make an armor of her skin. Her strength was useless against him.

But nothing more happened. He slept, eventually, his head over her. She dozed fitfully, starting up from nightmares, her body licked in green fire.

In the morning he went off as usual and she searched desperately along the cliff face. At the waterfall she stood in the tumbling water, thinking of his tongue on her, wondering what else he would do.

Through the streaming water she looked back into the crevice in the rock and saw a way to climb up.

She stepped in behind the waterfall. The air was cool and damp, the rock wall of the hillside hung with long green weed. The gap where she stood closed up above her head, but just beyond, within reach it seemed of the very top, was a ledge, where a little twisted bramble sprouted.

She slid her hands over the smooth, mossy rock, found a place to hold on with her hands, and got her foot wedged into a crack. She began to climb. The wet green weed was soft and her toes clutched at it and her soles skidded across it. She found a handhold deeper into the crevice and pulled herself higher. That led her back into the waterfall, which slammed down on her shoulders, her head. She reached up, grabbed the bramble, and drew herself up, and the bramble pulled out and she fell hard down into the rocks.

She rolled over, her whole side throbbing, her hair plastered to her face. I can’t do this, she thought. I can’t do this. The water pounded her. She stood again, filthy and soaked, and looked up. Knowing better what to look for on the rock, she picked out a seam where she could put her fingers. A bulge below that where she might be able to get a foothold. She leaned up, bent her hands into the niche, and stretched her leg up and got her foot on the bulge, and pushed up, hard, lunging toward the top. With her free foot she scrabbled at the curve of the mossy wall, and for an instant got enough hold to lunge higher. Her head and shoulders burst up out of the waterfall and she stretched her arms across the ledge.

Her feet lost their grip. She was sliding back again. Her hands rasped helplessly over the bare rock of the ledge. She pumped her legs, and jamming one knee against the rock she got an unexpected purchase and lurched up and forward again and got most of herself onto the ledge.

Stretched on her belly on the warm stone, she closed her eyes. Her knee burnt with pain and her hands were numb. She wanted to rest, but she could not stay here, she was still too near the beach, and she got to all fours.

The ledge ran crosswise of the cliff, but up there, several body lengths above her, was another such shelf, bigger. She ran her eyes over the stone before her. From below the rock face looked blank, but now she could see the little fissures and edges and seams. She started cautiously, sliding one hand up above her over the rock, finding something to hold on to, moving each foot until she was sure of its grip.

A roar from below her shook her. She nearly fell. Pressed against the stone, rigid with fear, she sobbed for breath.

“No! Come down! Come down now!”

Her heart was banging against her ribs. He could burn her here, cook her like a fish. She thrust her hand into a crevice of the rock, and with her feet paddling at the wall she dragged herself up. If she fell he’d kill her. In a rush she scrambled over sheer rock to the next ledge and crept out onto it. Panting, her whole body trembling, she could not move for a moment. The muscles in her calves jerked.

“Come down!” he shouted. “You’re making me angry! Don’t make me angry!”

She licked her lips. He might do anything now, if she went back. She got to her knees, her gaze sweeping the rock. There seemed no way up, except, to the right side, a nearly vertical gulley, a runoff channel, full of pebbles.

She began to creep up along it, her face to the cliff, her hands groping along. Under her feet the pebbles rolled and slipped and her ankle began to throb. Her arms felt heavy and limp as water and it took all her effort to reach up. Her body ached all over. Her face was inches from the black rock; her nose banged it, more painful each time.

“I’ll never let you go!” he roared, and a wave of heat flared over her feet and legs. “I’ll hunt you down until I find you.” Her heels felt scalded. She smelled burnt hair. She could not go back now, ever.

Yet he had not killed her: she had gotten out of reach of the edge of his flame.

Below her he raged and bellowed up and down the beach, threatening and pleading with her and howling out blasts of green flames. Her dress was soaked with sweat, the late sun burning on her back. Her fingers bled so she could not grip the rock. She rested, pressed to the cliff face, panting. She dared not look down.

She found a toehold on the rock and pushed herself up, her hands sliding up over the surface. The palisade wall changed abruptly from black rock to deep-packed dirt, hairy with roots. Nothing to hold on to, only loose dirt. She tasted dirt. She got one foot on the ridge where the rock ended, and pushed herself up. Slipped, and for a sickening moment was sliding; the rock ledge against her stomach stopped her hard. She hung there. She was too tired. Her legs wobbled under her. She leaned on the dirt, her eyes shut, her mind blank. Bent her knee, slid it blindly up onto the ridge, and pulled herself up. The dirt had fallen away here. Tilted inward. She leaned her back against the crevice, her hands numb.

It was hard to move again. She had dirt in her eyes. Stretching her arm up, she groped for a handhold, a root, anything. Her hand reached over the edge of the cliff into air and grass.

She clutched a handful of grass. The sun was going down. Behind her, the dragon gave up a despairing cry. She lurched upward, over the top of the cliff.

Her eyes that for hours had seen only rock a few inches from her nose now stretched their gaze across a broad meadow, an oak tree, a pond of water. She had escaped. She did not turn back even to look at him. She crawled up over the rim of the cliff into the grass and lay still and slept. All night, in her sleep, she heard him roaring.

She had nothing to eat, but the spring had come; the meadow was full of mushrooms, and the trees of birds’ nests and eggs. She walked a whole day inland, picking a way down a long ridge, and finally came to a path. She followed that much of the night, through a brilliant waxing moon, going steeply downhill, and toward dawn came on a heap of stones: a road marker.

Yet she saw no one else. The narrow, stony path tracked across an inland valley clogged with brambles and thickets of willow, and when the path climbed up high onto the next ridge she looked back and saw only mountains. She walked on, eating whatever she could find—roots, nuts, even flowers and grubs and crickets.

On the third day the little path climbed up to the high road, winding along the crest of a hill from north to south. She sat down under a spreading oak by the side of the great road, and after another day she saw some travelers coming toward her.

This was an ox-drawn cart, with two women riding in it, a man walking beside the ox, three boys with sticks herding along four or five sheep. Tirza sat up, eager. After days without words she wanted to talk again. When she told them who she was, they would take her home and she would reward them with stories. She began forming the stories in her mind, beginning with the dragon.

Turn by turn of the wheels they drew nearer, and when she could see their faces she stood up, waved her arms, and called out, “Help me—please help me!”

The cart stopped, all the people bunching together. A woman cried, “What is she?” The man with his staff stepped forward and called, “What do you want?”

She went toward them, her arms out to them. “I am a Princess of Castle Ocean, lost and alone. Take me home and you will be well rewarded.”

In the frightened cluster of people one of the women screamed. The boys stooped to gather rocks. Even the ox recoiled from Tirza. The man called, “Get away! Get away!” and shook his staff at her.

Alarmed, she stopped, her arms falling to her sides. “No. You don’t understand.” In her own ears now she heard her voice as they heard it, no words, only growls and whistles and shrieks. A rock struck her on the arm.

“Get away! Witch! Demon! Get away!”

With a scream she turned and ran. Another rock flew by her head. Tears dribbled down her face; she had lost; she had lost; it was all gone. Their screeching voices behind her sounded fainter, farther. When she could hear them no more, she flung herself down in the wild grass and wept.

Copyright © 2015 by Cecelia Holland

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