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Year's Best Fantasy 4
Michael Swanwick [www.michaelswanwick.com] lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His novels include the Nebula Award winner, Stations of the Tide (1991), The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) and Jack Faust (1997), and Bones of the Earth (2002). Swanwick is also the author of two influential critical essays, one on SF, "User's Guide to the Postmoderns" (1985), and one on fantasy, "In The Tradition ... " (1994). But in between the novels, he writes short stories, and his tales have dominated the short fiction Hugo Award nominations in recent years. His stories have been collected principally in Gravity's Angels (1991), A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997), Moon Dogs (2000), Tales of Old Earth (2000), and as a pamphlet, Puck Aleshire's Abecedary (2000), and a collection of shortshorts, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (2003).
"King Dragon" appeared in an original anthology published by the Science Fiction Book Club, The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye. It appears to be set in the same fantasy world as The Iron Dragon's Daughter. It is in any case an example of what Swanwick in his essay "In the Tradition ... " calls hard fantasy, not like the fantasy worlds of other writers but dark, technological, and brutal. It is interesting to contrast it to Pat Murphy's fine and very different dragon story later in this book.
The dragons came at dawn, flying low and in formation, their jets so thunderous they shook the ground like the great throbbing heartbeat of the world. The village elders ran outside, half unbuttoned, waving their staffs in circles and shouting words of power. Vanish, they cried to the land, and sleep to the skies, though had the dragons' half-elven pilots cared they could have easily seen through such flimsy spells of concealment. But the pilots' thoughts were turned toward the West, where Avalon's industrial strength was based, and where its armies were rumored to be massing.
Will's aunt made a blind grab for him, but he ducked under her arm and ran out into the dirt street. The gun emplacements to the south were speaking now, in booming shouts that filled the sky with bursts of pink smoke and flak.
Half the children in the village were out in the streets, hopping up and down in glee, the winged ones buzzing about in small, excited circles. Then the yage-witch came hobbling out from her barrel and, demonstrating a strength Will had never suspected her of having, swept her arms wide and then slammed together her hoary old hands with a boom! that drove the children, all against their will, back into their huts.
All save Will. He had been performing that act which rendered one immune from child-magic every night for three weeks now. Fleeing from the village, he felt the enchantment like a polite hand placed on his shoulder. One weak tug, and then it was gone.
He ran, swift as the wind, up Grannystone Hill. His great-great-great-grandmother lived there still, alone at its tip, as a grey standing stone. She never said anything. But sometimes, though one never saw her move, she went down to the river at night to drink. Coming back from a night-time fishing trip in his wee coracle, Will would find her standing motionless there and greet her respectfully. If the catch was good, he would gut an eel or a small trout, and smear the blood over her feet. It was the sort of small courtesy elderly relatives appreciated.
"Will, you young fool, turn back!" a cobbley cried from the inside of a junk refrigerator in the garbage dump at the edge of the village. "It's not safe up there!"
But Will didn't want to be safe. He shook his head, long blond hair flying behind him, and put every ounce of his strength into his running. He wanted to see dragons. Dragons! Creatures of almost unimaginable power and magic. He wanted to experience the glory of their flight. He wanted to get as close to them as he could. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.
It was not far to the hill, nor a long way to its bald and grassy summit. Will ran with a wildness he could not understand, lungs pounding and the wind of his own speed whistling in his ears.
And then he was atop the hill, breathing hard, with one hand on his grandmother stone.
The dragons were still flying overhead in waves. The roar of their jets was astounding. Will lifted his face into the heat of their passage, and felt the wash of their malice and hatred as well. It was like a dark wine that sickened the stomach and made the head throb with pain and bewilderment and wonder. It repulsed him and made him want more.
The last flight of dragons scorched over, twisting his head and spinning his body around, so he could keep on watching them, flying low over farms and fields and the Old Forest that stretched all the way to the horizon and beyond. There was a faint brimstone stench of burnt fuel in the air. Will felt his heart grow so large it seemed impossible his chest could contain it, so large that it threatened to encompass the hill, farms, forest, dragons, and all the world beyond.
Something hideous and black leaped up from the distant forest and into the air, flashing toward the final dragon. Will's eyes felt a painful wrenching wrongness, and then a stone hand came down over them.
"Don't look," said an old and calm and stony voice. "To look upon a basilisk is no way for a child of mine to die."
"Grandmother?" Will asked.
"If I promise to keep my eyes closed, will you tell me what's happening?"
There was a brief silence. Then: "Very well. The dragon has turned. He is fleeing."
"Dragons don't flee," Will said scornfully. "Not from anything." Forgetting his promise, he tried to pry the hand from his eyes. But of course it was useless, for his fingers were mere flesh.Year's Best Fantasy 4. Copyright © by David Hartwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.