Read an Excerpt
and Other Stories
By Jane Yolen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Jane Yolen
All rights reserved.
There is a spit of land near the farthest shores of the farthest islands. It is known as Dragonfield. Once dragons dwelt on the isles in great herds, feeding on the dry brush and fueling their flames with the carcasses of small animals and migratory birds. There are no dragons there now, though the nearer islands are scored with long furrows as though giant claws had been at work, and the land is fertile from the bones of the buried behemoths. Yet though the last of the great worms perished long before living memory, there is a tale still told by the farmers and fisherfolk of the isles about that last dragon.
His name in the old tongue was Aredd and his color a dull red. It was not the red of hollyberry or the red of the wild flowering trillium, but the red of a man's lifeblood spilled out upon the sand. Aredd's tail was long and sinewy, but his body longer still. Great mountains rose upon his back. His eyes were black and, when he was angry, looked as empty as the eyes of a shroud, but when he was calculating, they shone with a false jeweled light. His jaws were a furnace that could roast a whole bull. And when he roared, he could be heard like distant thunder throughout the archipelago.
Aredd was the last of his kind and untaught in the riddle-lore of dragons. He was but fierceness and fire, for he had hatched late from the brood. His brothers and sisters were all gone, slain in the famous Dragon Wars when even young dragons were spitted by warriors who had gone past fearing. But the egg that had housed Aredd had lain buried in the sand of Dragonfield years past the carnage, uncovered at last by an unnaturally high tide. And when he hatched, no one had remarked it. So the young worm had stretched and cracked the shell and emerged nose-first in the sand.
At the beginning he looked like any large lizard for he had not yet shed his eggskin, which was lumpy and whitish, like clotted cream. But he grew fast, as dragons will, and before the week was out he was the size of a small pony and his eggskin had sloughed off. He had, of course, singed and eaten the skin and so developed a taste for crackling. A small black-snouted island pig was his next meal, then a family of shagged cormorants flying island to island on their long migration south.
And still no one remarked him, for it was the time of great harvests brought about by the fertilization of the rich high tides, and everyone was needed in the fields: old men and women, mothers with their babes tied to their backs, young lovers who might have slipped off to the far isle to tryst. Even the young fishermen did not dare to go down to the bay and cast off while daylight bathed the plants and vines. They gave up their nets and lines for a full two weeks to help with the stripping, as the harvest was called then. And by night, of course, the villagers were much too weary to sail by moonlight to the spit.
Another week, then, and Aredd was a dull red and could trickle smoke rings through his nostrils, and he was the size of a bull. His wings, still crumpled and weak, lay untested along his sides, but his foreclaws, which had been as brittle as shells at birth, were now as hard as golden oak. He had sharpened them against the beach boulders, leaving scratches as deep as worm runnels. At night he dreamed of blood.
The tale of Aredd's end, as it is told in the farthest islands, is also the tale of a maiden who was once called Tansy after the herb of healing but was later known as Areddiana, daughter of the dragon. Of course it is a tale with a hero. That is why there are dragons, after all: to call forth heroes. But he was a hero in spite of himself and because of Tansy. The story goes thus:
There were three daughters of a healer who lived on the northern shore of Medd, the largest isle of the archipelago. Although they had proper names, after the older gods, they were always called by their herbal names.
Rosemary, the eldest, was a weaver. Her face was plain but honest-looking, a face that would wear well with time. Her skin was dark as if she spent her days out in the sun, though, in truth, she preferred the cottage's cold dirt floors and warm hearth. Her mouth was full but she kept it thin. She buffed the calluses on her hands to make them shine. She had her mother's gray eyes and her passion for work, and it annoyed her that others had not.
Sage was the beauty, but slightly simple. She was as golden as Rosemary was brown, and brushed her light-filled hair a full hundred strokes daily. When told to she worked, but otherwise preferred to stare out the window at the sea. She was waiting, she said, for her own true love. She had even put it in rhyme.
Glorious, glorious, over the sea,
My own true love will come for me.
She repeated it so often they all believed it to be true.
Tansy was no special color at all; rather she seemed to blend in with her surroundings, sparkling by a stream, golden in the sunny meadows, mouse-brown within the house. She was the one who was a trouble to her mother: early walking and always picking apart things that had been knit up with great care just to see what made them work. So she was named after the herb that helped women in their times of trouble. Tansy. It was hoped that she would grow into her name.
"Where is that girl?" May-Ma cried.
Her husband, crushing leaves for a poultice, knew without asking which girl she meant. Only with Tansy did May-Ma's voice take on an accusatory tone.
"I haven't seen her for several hours, May-Ma," said Rosemary from the loom corner. She did not even look up but concentrated on the marketcloth she was weaving.
"That Tansy. She is late again for her chores. Probably dreaming somewhere. Or eating some new and strange concoction." May-Ma's hands moved on the bread dough as if preparing to beat a recalcitrant child. "Some day, mind you, some day she will eat herself past your help, Da."
The man smiled to himself. Never would he let such a thing happen to his Tansy. She had knowledge, precious, god-given, and nothing she made was past his talents for healing. Besides, she seemed to know instinctively how far to taste, how far to test, and she had a high tolerance for pain.
"Mind you," May-Ma went on, pounding the dough into submission, "Now, mind you, I'm not saying she doesn't have a Gift. But Gift or no, she has chores to do." Her endless repetitions had begun with the birth of her first child and had increased with each addition to the family until now, three live children later (she never mentioned the three little boys buried under rough stones at the edge of the garden), she repeated herself endlessly. "Mind you, a Gift is no excuse."
"I'm minding, May-Ma," said her husband, wiping his hands on his apron. He kissed her tenderly on the head as if to staunch the flow of words, but still they bled out.
"If she would remember her chores as well as she remembers dreams," May-Ma went on, "As well as she remembers the seven herbs of binding, the three parts to setting a broken limb, the ..."
"I'm going, May-Ma," whispered her husband into the flood, and left.
He went outside and down a gentle path winding towards the river, guessing that on such a day Tansy would be picking cress.
The last turn opened onto the river and never failed to surprise him with joy. The river was an old one, its bends broad as it flooded into the great sea. Here and there the water had cut through soft rock to make islets that could be reached by poleboat or, in the winter, by walking across the thick ice. This turning, green down to the river's edge, was full of cress and reeds and even wild rice carried from the Eastern lands by migrating birds.
"Tansy," he called softly, warning her of his coming.
A gull screamed back at him. He dropped his eyes to the hatchmarked tracks of shorebirds in the mud, waited a moment to give her time to answer, and then when none came, called again. "Tansy. Child."
"Da, Da, here!" It was the voice of a young woman, breathless yet throaty, that called back. "And see what I have found. I do not know what it is."
The reeds parted and she stepped onto the grass. Her skirts were kilted up, bunched at her waist. Even so they were damp and muddy. Her slim legs were coated with a green slime and there was a smear of that same muck along her nose and across her brow where she had obviously wiped away sweat or a troublesome insect. She held up a sheaf of red grassy weeds, the tops tipped with pink florets. Heedless of the blisters on her fingers, she gripped the stalk.
"What is it?" she asked. "It hurts something fierce, but I've never seen it before. I thought you might know."
"Drop it. Drop it at once, child. Where are your mitts?"
At his cry, she let the stalk go and it landed in the water, spinning around and around in a small eddy, a spiral of smoke uncurling from the blossoms.
He plucked her hand toward him and reached into his belt-bag. Taking out a cloth wrapped packet of fresh aloe leaves, he broke one leaf in two and squeezed out the healing oils onto her hands. Soon the redness around the blisters on her fingers was gone, though the blisters remained like a chain of tiny seed pearls.
"Now will you tell me what it is?" she asked, grinning up at him despite what he knew to be a terribly painful burn. There was a bit of mischief in her smile, too, which kept him from scolding her further about her gloves.
"I have never seen it before, only heard of it. I thought it but a tale. It is called fireweed or flamewort. You can guess why. The little blisters on the hand are in the old rhyme. It grows only where a great dragon lives, or so the spellbook says:
Leaves of blood and sores of pearl,
In the sea, a smoky swirl,
Use it for your greatest need,
Dragon's Bane and fireweed.
They used it somehow in the dragon wars. But child, look at your hands!"
She looked down for the first time and caught her breath as she saw the tiny, pearly sores. "One, two, three ... why there must be fifteen blisters here," she said, fascinated. "Sores of pearl indeed. But what is its use?"
Her father shook his head and wrapped the aloe carefully. "I cannot imagine, since the sting of it is so fierce. And if the note about it be true, it will burn for near an hour once the florets open, burn with a hot steady flame that cannot be put out. Then it will crumble all at once into red ash. So you leave it there, steaming, on the water and come home with me. There is no use for dragon's bane, for there are no more dragons."
The fireweed had already lost its color in the river, graying out, but still it sent up a curl of blue-white steam. Tansy found a stick and pushed it towards the stalk and where she touched, the weed flared up again a bright red. When she pulled back the stick, the color of the weed faded as quickly as a blush. The stick burned down towards Tansy's fingers and she dropped it into the river where it turned to ash and floated away.
"Dragon's bane," she whispered. "And I wonder why." She neglected to mention to her father that there was a large patch of the weed growing, hidden, in the reeds.
"Such questions will not win you favor at home," her father said, taking her unblistered hand in his. "Especially not with your dear May-Ma ready to do your chores. She will chide you a dozen times over for the same thing if we do not hurry home."
"My chores!" Tansy cried. Then she shrugged and looked at her father with wise eyes. "Even if I were home to do them, I would hear of it again and again. Poor MayMa, she speaks to herself for none of the rest of us really talks to her." She pulled away from him and was gone up the path as if arrowshot.
He chuckled aloud and walked to the water's edge to pick some fresh peppermint and sweet woodruff for teas. The river's slow meandering was still noisy enough that he did not hear the strange chuffing sound of heavy new wings above him. It was only when the swollen shadow darkened the ground that he looked up and into the belly of a beast he had thought long extinct. He was so surprised, he did not have time to cry out or to bless himself before dying. The flames that killed him were neither long nor especially hot, but fear and loathing added their toll. The healer was dead before his body touched earth. He never felt the stab of the golden claws as the dragon carried him back to its home on the far spit of land.
Only the singed open herb bag, its contents scattered on the path, bore testimony to the event.
They did not look for him until near dark. And then, in the dark, with only their small tapers for light, they missed the burned herb sack. It was morning before they found it and Sage had run off to their closest neighbors for help.
What help could be given? The healer was gone, snatched from the good earth he had so long tended. They could not explain the singed sack, and so did not try. They concentrated instead on his missing body. Perhaps he had fallen, one man suggested, into the river. Since he was not a fisherman, he could not swim. They expected his body to fetch up against an island shore within a few days. Such a thing had happened to men before. The fisherfolk knew where to look. And that was all the comfort the villagers had to lend. It was harvest, after all, and they could spare only the oldest women to weep and prepare funeral pies.
"And what kind of funeral is it?" May-Ma asked repeatedly. "Without a body, what kind of burial? He will be back. Back to laugh at our preparations. I know it. I know it here." She touched her breast and looked out to the garden's edge and the large, newlycut stone overshadowing the three smaller ones. "He will be back."
But she was the only one to hold out such hope and to no one's surprise but MayMa's, the healer did not return. The priest marked his passing with the appropriate signs and psalms, then returned to help with the harvest. The girls wept quietly: Rosemary by her loom, dampening the cloth; Sage by the window, gazing off down the path; Tansy alone in the woods. May-Ma sobbed her hopes noisily and the villagers, as befitting their long friendship with the healer, spoke of his Gift with reverence. It did not bring him back.
The healer's disappearance became a small mystery in a land used to small mysteries until after the harvest was in. And then Tam-the-Carpenter's finest draft horse was stolen. A week and a half later, two prize ewes were taken from Mother Comfy's fold. And almost two weeks after that, the latest of the cooper's twelve children disappeared from its cradle in the meadow when the others had left it for just a moment to go and pick wild trillium in the dell. A great fear descended upon the village then. They spoke of ravening beasts, of blood-crazed goblins, of a mad changeling beast-man roaming the woods, and looked at one another with suspicion. The priest ranted of retribution and world's end. But none of them considered dragons, for, as they knew full well, the last of the great worms had been killed in the dragon wars. And while none had actually seen a goblin or a beast-man, and while there had not been wild animals larger than a goldskin fox in the woods for twice two hundred years, still such creatures seemed likelier than dragons. Dragons, they knew with absolute and necessary conviction, were no more.
It was a fisherman who saw Aredd and lived to tell of it. In a passion one early morning he had gone over the side of his boat to untangle a line. It was a fine line, spun out over the long winter by his wife, and he was not about to lose it, for the mark of its spinning was still on his wife's forefinger and thumb. The line was down a great ways underwater and he had scarcely breath enough to work it free of a black root. But after three dives he had worked it loose and was surfacing again when he saw the bright water above him suddenly darken. He knew water too well to explain it, but held his breath longer and slowed his ascent until the darkness had passed by. Lucky it was, for when he broke through the foam, the giant body was gone past, its claws empty. All the fisherman saw clearly through water-filmed eyes was the great rudder of its red tail. He treaded water by his boat, too frightened to pull himself in, and a minute later the dragon went over him again, its claws full of the innkeeper's prize bull, the one that had sired the finest calves in the countryside but was so fierce it had to be staked down day and night. The bull was still twitching and the blood fell from its back thicker than rain.
Excerpted from Dragonfield by Jane Yolen. Copyright © 1985 Jane Yolen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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