The Dragon's Son
By Margaret Weis
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Margaret Weis
All rights reserved.
BELLONA SENT THE BOY OUT TO CHECK HIS RABBIT SNARES. THIS was one chore he never minded, for he was always hungry. When he found that he'd caught nothing, he was only mildly disappointed. He did not have to worry about his next meal this day. Bellona had brought down a fat doe the week before and there would be fresh meat in the house for some time to come. His mind was not on food. Today was the boy's birthday and he was preoccupied with the memory of what had happened this morning.
He'd experienced five birthdays up to now. Today made the sixth. He remembered clearly his last three birthdays and he might have been able to remember the birthday before that, but he could not be certain if he was actually remembering the birthday or if he had formed the memory out of those birthdays that had come since.
The boy dreaded his birthday and looked forward to it, all at the same time. He dreaded the day for the awful solemnity that attended it. He looked forward to the day, too, for on his birthday, Bellona would sit him down and speak with him directly, an unusual occurrence. There were just the two of them — the boy and the woman — but there was little communication between them. The two would sometimes go for days without saying more than a few words to each other.
At night, especially in the winter, when darkness came so early that neither of them was ready for sleep, Bellona would tell stories of ancient days, ancient warriors, ancient battles, ancient honor and death. The boy never felt as though she was talking to him when she told these stories, however. It was more as if she was talking to them, those who had died. Either that, or talking to herself, as if she was the same audience.
On his birthday, however, Bellona talked to him, to the boy, and although the words were terrible to hear, he valued them and held them close to him all the rest of the year, because on his day they were his words and belonged to no one else.
The boy had an imperfect sense of time. He had no need to count the days or months and he remembered the years only because of this one day. He and Bellona lived deep within the forest, isolated and alone, just the two of them. The passage of time for the boy was marked by gentle rain and the return of birdsong, the hot sun of summer, falling leaves, and, after that, snow and bitter cold. Bellona counted the days, however, and he always knew when his birthday was coming, for she would begin to make ready their dwelling in order to receive the special guest.
Bellona always kept the dwelling neat, for she could not abide disorder. She kept their dwelling in repair, working to make it dry during the spring rains and the summer thunder and warm during the harsh winter. Beyond that, she paid scant attention to it, for she was rarely inside it. Four walls stifled her, she said. She could not breathe inside them. She would often sleep outside, wrapped in her blanket, lying across the door.
The boy slept inside. He had a liking for walls and a roof and snug darkness. His favorite place in the world, apart from their dwelling, was a cave he had discovered located about a half mile from the dwelling. He visited the cave often, whenever he could escape from his chores. He felt safe in the cave, secure, and he would come there to hide away. He had come to the cave now, to think about his birthday.
Yesterday, the day before his birthday, Bellona swept the floor of their one-room hut, then laid down the fresh green rushes he'd gathered from the marsh. She cleaned the ashes from the fireplace and sent him to the stream to wash up the two wooden bowls and two horn spoons, the two eating knives and the two pewter mugs. She shook the dried grass out of the pallet on which he slept and burned it and stuffed it with fresh. She cleared away her tools and the arrows she had been tying from the table, which was one of only three pieces of handmade furniture in the hut. The furniture was not very well made. She was a warrior, she said, not a carpenter. The table wobbled on uneven legs. There was a tipsy chair for her and a low stool for him, a stool that he was fast outgrowing.
Her cleaning done, Bellona stood inside the small hut, her hands on her hips, and looked around with satisfaction.
"All is ready for you, Melisande," Bellona said. "We are here."
That night, the night before his birthday, Bellona remained inside the hut, keeping watch. Whenever he woke, which was often, for he was too nervous to sleep, he saw her lying on her side, her dark eyes fixed on the dying embers, the embers glowing in her eyes.
That morning, first thing, she sent him out to gather flowers. He knew how important the flowers were to her and they had become important for him, too, as being part of the ritual of this day, and he had taken to searching out places where grew the spring wildflowers, in order that he would be prepared.
He brought back two fistfuls of the bright blue flowers known by the peculiar name of squill, some dogtooth violets and bleeding heart. He gave them to Bellona, who dunked them in one of the two bowls that she had filled with water. She then set the flowers on the table, and sat in the chair. He squatted on his stool. His claws scraped the floor nervously, bruising the rushes and filling the air with a sweet smell of green and growing things. Bellona looked at him, also something special. On other days, she cast him a glance now and then and only when necessary. The sight of him pained her. He had once assumed he knew why she couldn't stand to look at him, but he had found out on his last birthday that he'd been wrong.
She would look at him today. She would also touch him. Her look and her touch made this day doubly special, doubly awful. He waited, tensely, for the moment.
"Enter, Melisande. You are welcome," Bellona called. The first rays of the morning sun slid in through the chinks in the wooden logs and stole in through the open door. "You have come to see your son and here he is, waiting to do you honor.
"Ven." Bellona turned her gaze full upon him. "Come to me. Let your mother see how you have grown."
Ven's mother, Melisande, was dead. She had died on the day of his birth. Her death and his birth were tangled together, though Ven did not understand how. He knew better than to ask. He had learned, long ago, that Bellona had little patience for questions.
Ven stood up. His claws made scraping noises as he walked across the dirt floor and he was conscious of the sounds his claws made in the silence that was fragrant, smelled of the flowers and the bruised rushes. He was conscious of the sound because he knew Bellona was conscious of it. On this day she heard it, when on other days she could ignore it.
Ven saw himself reflected in her dark eyes, the only time in the year he would ever see himself there. He saw a face that was much like the face of other children, except that his face had forgotten how to smile. He saw blue eyes that were fearless, for Bellona had taught him that fear was something he must master. He saw fair hair that his mother cut short, hacking savagely at it with her knife, as if it hurt her. He saw the arms of a child, stronger than most, for he was expected to earn his way in the world. He saw the body of a child, slender now that he had lost his baby fat, his ribs visible beneath sun-browned skin.
And he saw, in her eyes, his legs. His legs were not the legs of any human child ever born upon this earth. His legs, from the groin down, were the legs of a beast — hunched at the knee, covered all over in glittering blue scales; his long toes ending in sharp claws.
Ven walked up to Bellona. She rested her hands on his shoulders, and pinched them hard, to make him stand as straight as he could, given his hunched legs. She reached out a hand that was callused and rough to brush the fair hair out of his eyes. She looked at him, looked at him long, and he saw pain twist her stern mouth and deepen the darkness of her eyes.
"Here is your boy, Melisande. Here is Ven. Bid your mother greeting, Ven."
"Greeting, Mother," said Ven, low and solemn.
"This day six years ago you were born, Ven," said Bellona. "For you, this day began in blood and ended in fire. For your mother, this day began in pain and ended in death. I promised her, as she lay dying on this day, six years ago, that I would take her son and raise him and keep him safe. You see, Melisande, that I have kept my vow."
Outside the door, a bird sang to its mate. A squirrel chattered and a fox barked. The wind rustled the leaves. Creeping through the open door, a breath brushed Ven softly on the cheek.
"What is your name?" Bellona asked him, beginning her catechism.
"Ven," answered the boy. He didn't like this part.
"Your true name," Bellona said, frowning.
"Vengeance," he replied reluctantly.
"Vengeance," she repeated.
Leaning near, she placed her lips upon his forehead in the ritual kiss that she gave him once a year, her gift to him on his birthday. Her lips were rough, like her hands, and the kiss was cool and dry and dispassionate, yet he would feel it all the year long, feel the memory of it. This, too, he would hold close to him.
"Let your soul rest easy, Melisande," said Bellona. "Go back to sleep."
She let her hands fall from him, took her eyes away from him. Her gaze rested on the flowers and she was sad and far distant.
"You have the rabbit snares to check, Ven. And," she added unexpectedly, "tomorrow we're traveling to the Fairfield faire. We have furs to barter."
He froze the way the rabbits froze whenever he came near. He hated the faire. Once a year, they went to either Fairfield or another town for Bellona to barter fur pelts, exchanging them for salt and flour and tools and whatever else they needed, which wasn't much. At the faire were the children who looked like Ven from the waist up, but were not like him from the waist down. And though Bellona hid his beast's legs beneath long woolen breeches and a long woolen tunic and hid his clawed feet inside leather boots, she could not hide the fact that he did not walk as did other children.
"I don't want to go," he said to her that morning, the morning of his birthday. "I want to stay here. I'll be all right on my own."
He hoped for a moment she might let him, for there was a thoughtful look on her face instead of the scowl of displeasure that he expected. At length, however, she shook her head.
"No. You have to come. I need your help."
That might be true, but that wasn't the reason. She was making him go to torture him, to test him. She was always testing him. Tests to make him strong. He was angry at her and his anger blazed red in his mind and he said words he was surprised to hear.
"Today is my birthday. You made me greet my mother. Why is it I never greet my father?"
Bellona looked at him again — twice in one day — but this time he could not see himself in her eyes. He saw fury.
She struck him with her open hand, struck him a blow that knocked him in a heap to the dirt floor. He tasted blood in his mouth and the green smell of the rushes.
Ven picked himself up. His ears rang and his head hurt. Blood dribbled from his lip and he spit out a baby tooth that had been loose anyway. He did not cry, for tears were a weakness. He looked at her and she looked at him. He understood about his father then. Ven didn't know how he understood, but he did. He turned and ran out, his claws tearing the rushes.
He checked the rabbit snares, which were empty, and then came to this place, his place, the cave, where he felt safe, secure. He thought about his mother, who had given him his face — the face that pained Bellona to look upon because she had loved Ven's mother dearly and grieved her deeply and she blamed Ven for her loss. And, not for the first time in his life, Ven thought about his father.
The father, who had given him his legs — the legs of a beast — and who was the reason for his name.
VEN SPENT THE DAY IN THE CAVE. BELLONA WOULD NOT miss him. He was free to do what he liked during the day, so long as he completed his chores. The rule was to be home by sunset. The one time he broke that rule, ventured too far away, so that he was late coming back, Bellona whipped him with a willow branch, then made him stand in the middle of the room all night. If he started to slump or doze off, she flicked him with the branch.
The cave was not a large one, to Ven's disappointment, for he often saw visions in his mind of vast caverns with enormous chambers and labyrinthine passages to be endlessly explored. Sometimes, at night, if Ven couldn't sleep or if the snarl of the wild cat or the snuffling and pawing of a bear around their but woke him, he would imagine he was curled up safely in the darkest, deepest depths of his cave, so that no one in the world could ever, ever find him. Not even his mother.
Ven's cave had only one chamber and had apparently been used by a bear taking its long sleep in the winter. Last fall, Ven had been certain that the bear would return to claim it and he had prepared himself to defend it, for under Bellona's tutelage he was already a deft hand with a small bow. Fortunately for him and for the bear, the animal had smelled his strange and vaguely terrifying scent and sought another refuge, leaving Ven in sole possession of the cave.
Screened by a heavy stand of trees and a jumble of rock, the cave was always in shadow. Ven loved the darkness, for it was not dark to him. For him, darkness was filled with vibrant colors, wild and clashing and dazzling, that blazed across his mind. Alone, safe and protected by the darkness, he could close his eyes and watch the colors, touch them, handle them, shape them, as Bellona shaped the arrowheads or planed the arrow's shaft.
He played with the colors on this day, his birthday. He tossed the colors into the air and caught them as they fell. He used the colors to form an image of his mother, Melisande, giving her his face, for Bellona had told him last year on his birthday that he had his mother's face.
Ven made his mother's face softer than his, forming it to match the faces of mothers he'd seen at the faire. Melisande's face was soft and kind and always sad, for no matter how hard he tried, he could not imagine her smiling at him, as other mothers smiled at their children. He hoped that today she might smile, for it was his birthday, and when he had created her, he reached out his hand to her.
Another hand — a child's hand, like his own — took shape and form in his darkness. The hand was not made up of the colors of his mind, but was formed of colors of another mind. The child's hand reached for his hand. ...
Startled, Ven lost control. The colors swirled about and the image of his mother and the strange hand vanished in the confusion. He sat hunched in the cave in the darkness and wondered what had happened. Another mind had touched his, that much he knew. As he and Bellona talked with words, the other mind talked with colors. Ven had heard a voice within the colors, but he hadn't been able to understand what it said.
The experience jarred him. He didn't know whether he liked it or not. In some ways, it was pleasurable and exciting, and in some ways terrifying. He sat in the darkness, keeping the colors carefully subdued. He wanted to hear the voice again, to try to understand it.
He thought about the rabbit snares.
Ven summoned the colors and painted his mother's face, used her face to bait the trap. He opened his mind to the vast darkness and waited, impatiently, expectantly, for the other hand to reappear. When it did, he would grab hold of it and find out who it was.
A claw, not a hand, reached out of the darkness. The claw seized hold of the colors and would not let go. The claw tore open his mind, as it might have torn open a rabbit. The claw roamed around inside him, upended him, dumped out the contents, turned him inside out. The claw lifted him up. A face filled his mind — a face with a long snout covered with blue-black scales, snapping jaws and sharp teeth, red reptile eyes that looked straight at him.
"Where are you?" The words were flame and they burned Ven's mind. "Tell me where to find you. ..."
The pain was unendurable and Ven writhed in agony. He could not run away, for the claw held him fast, but the darkness could run to him and it did, flinging its blanket over him, burying him deep. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dragon's Son by Margaret Weis. Copyright © 2004 Margaret Weis. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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