The Cost of Fire’, Kiera Duggan

Illustrations © 2017 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Dragon, © 2017 Katharine A. Viola ] I am least loved in my family. I am a daughter, a curse, a waste of nurturing and of time and of love. My brother is loved most, a sacred boy who will bring my parents gold and silver and other treasures not found in the earth. If I live, I can give them nothing. I am meant for death and ruin.

They smile at him and praise him, and I know they scan his features often, delighting in finding their own carved in his young face. They are not cold to me. But they do not love me, not like my brother, and when faced with the desolation they will trade me without hesitation. I should not resent them for it, but I do. I do.

“Ethelinda, don’t forget your prayers,” my mother reminds me every night, from the safety of my brother’s bed. She pulls him close, and whispers stories in his ear; I have never received a kiss goodnight. Instead, I kneel and press my palms together, and think of the stars.

I want to know where the girls go, when they are forsaken, I tell them. Why are we, the golden sheep, so quickly tossed to the wolf? What will happen to me? I don’t want to be a forgotten martyr, but I know the truth. I face death or the unexpected, undeserved future for those who escape the fire.

Give me the fire, I ask the stars, for I have nothing else. Give me freedom, I beg, as though my heart has already turned to stone. My pulse rattles sharply in my ears as I whisper out the prayers, but the sky is as distant and cold as ever.

I have no choice: I wait for the scorching with fear and without complaint.

The dragon-fires are increasing. We are coughing up ash from the skies, and a dark weight is settling in my chest. I know the other girls feel it too. I don’t suppress my glower at the ones who have passed their seventeenth birthdays, those who are safe. The village sees them with different eyes now, and people touch them, smile at them as if they are new babies, not new women, as if we all do not recognize their falsity. At night, I tell the stars the truth: I despise this life but I want it. I want to live. I want to mend my leaden heart, to banish the doubt and the darkness festering inside my ribcage. The village leaders are choosing more girls, left in the forest with nothing but their blood rushing through their veins. I wonder where they go. I trace the outline of the mountain that leans over us, dark against the cloudless stretch of sky.

“Ethelinda, play with me.” My brother is wielding a wooden sword, smacking it clumsily against the tree. “If I keep practicing, I’ll kill you a dragon someday.”

“Don’t be so childish, Dawid,” I tell him sharply, as if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind since I was old enough to speak.

Last week they took the neighbor’s daughter. We used to play together here in the shade of the mountain at the edge of the forest, back when the sacrifices were less.

“Enough!” I roar at him when he cracks his sword against a high branch. “You’re nothing but a foolish brat, thinking you can face down a dragon. The sooner you realize that, the better.”

On the way home, he tries to wind his arms through mine, clutching at me despairingly, but I shake him off. If only there were a way, I think to myself. I could end the dragons’ reign, end them for destroying us! Despite everything, I fall asleep imagining myself as the fearless knight, brave conqueror and dragon-slayer, with flames splashing around me and corpses strewn at my feet. When I wake in the middle of the night, my face is wet with tears.

It is nearing my seventeenth birthday, and my family has little idea what to do with me. They step carefully around me like a hot coal on the firebed, allowing me to rise later and assigning fewer chores. My brother asks for help with his schooling and my mother brushes my hair out in the morning; my father simply starts stilted conversations at meals. Someone less callous would find them kind for it, but I am not benevolent, and against all my judgements I cannot help but find them wanting.

“Why are you doing this?” I whisper as she combs a finger through a particularly stubborn knot. Her touch is foreign, but I lean into it anyway, starved.

She says nothing, but she doesn’t have to answer. We can’t wish away seventeen years of indifference and cautious distance, no matter how hard we try.

“Ethelinda,” my father says, my name unfamiliar in his mouth, “we love you. We always have.”

I bite back my words before they scald us both. Why could you never show it? Why do you pretend I’m a stranger living in your house? Why is that the first time I’ve ever heard you say the words? The questions in my throat burn, demanding to be heard.

That night when I kneel down to pray, I ask the stars to teach me how to love my family, but they have no wisdom for me.

I don’t make it to seventeen. Within a week, a new dragon comes, with scales of golden-red and a wingspan that blocks the sun. She sweeps over our village with not a breath of fire, and burns the next to the ground. The wafting smoke leaves a great dark stain against the blue of the sky; the dragon’s roar freezes the blood in our veins. We watch, silent, as the town yields to the flame.

The dying scream, but their cries are ignored.

“Foolish,” say the village leaders. “Foolish to forget a sacrifice this time of year.” As soon as the shadow passes, they have withdrawn into deliberation. A new girl then, a new ransom. I pretend not to hold my breath at every stray noise through the afternoon.

As soon as they return, I know the Chosen immediately. “Ethelinda” has barely crossed the lips of the eldest before my brother gives a shout of alarm.

I always imagined a brave tear on my cheek, and a resoluteness in my heart when I envisioned my name being called. Instead I am stone-faced, as empty as a chasm.

The village, in a halfhearted demonstration of tradition, follows me to the edge of the forest as night falls. But one by one they depart, and I stand listening to my brother screaming.

“Ethelinda! Don’t forget, don’t forget!” I clench my fists tight, digging my nails into my palms until the skin tears. I do not know how long it takes to quiet him, but it feels like an eternity. When the silence finally comes, my heartbeat shakes my entire body.

I am alone. The rise of the mountain is visible in the moonlight, and looms heavily over me. I have nothing but the blood in my veins, despite my assumed title. I am both the Chosen and the castaway, priceless and disposable, valuable and valueless.

I wait for a few more moments in the light of the moon, and then I step into the woods. I don’t look back.

I don’t know which way is forwards or backwards or sideways and I can’t see the sun. When I close my eyes I see either a red sky or the sweep of a gauzy wing, I cannot tell. I think it is midday. I have walked for a long while and my legs are tipping on the mountain slope. When I touch my hands the skin flakes away like parchment so I try to rub off the deadness but it keeps flaking and floating away on the wind.

“Ethelinda! Ethelinda!” rings in my ears and the only way to silence it is to walk walk walk. The shuffle of my feet on the dirt is just enough to disguise the calls of the vultures that follow. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the stars, but I want to tell them: you were right, you were right, I will not doubt you again.

I sleep in the cave in the mountain and I do not wake up. I am a carcass, waiting to be devoured. So I sleep and welcome the dreams, since I have nothing but the red red red blood in my veins and even that pumps slower. My skin is flaking away. Where are my dreams? All I can see is red.

“Ethelinda, we love you.” “Ethelinda, play with me.” “Ethelinda! Ethelinda!”

I think I am screaming but I cannot be sure. Whenever I can pry my eyes open I reach out for the ceiling of eyes above me. I feel sweaty but my skin is dry and hot to the touch. There is someone calling for me, tugging on my memories with a desperate strength but I am weak and I cannot answer. My head is full of darkness and my heart is full of red so I just keep wishing over and over for the stars.

My flesh is weak, thin against my beating insides, and I shred it like paper. It tears from my body easily, flimsily, and in its place, I build plates of armor.

There is fire in my veins and it settles in my belly, fueling the hiss of my tongue, a warm circulation through the ice of my heart, or at least what remains. I am pained, but it is the good kind of pain, like the sting of cold water after a burn. In my delirium I wonder if I’ll have a scar.

When I wake I am not blind. I am new, pale skin in the darkness, and stable, and made of different stuff. I can remember and there is clarity, but only for a moment. There is a voice, silvery and of steel, and it says I am here at last.

“You are awake,” says the dragon, her voice deep and absolute.

“This is a dream,” I tell her. “This is a dream.” But in my dreams I am the dragon-slayer and I cannot slay her, I am too fragile and she too beautiful and I am afraid and this is a dream.

Her long snout is inches from my face, and I can see a spark glimmering in her nostrils. Without a word, she snaps up her head and a great plume of fire arcs towards the cave ceiling. In the light of her flame, I see my hands where they rest upon a threadbare blanket. Where the skin has flaked away, tough black scales crawl up past my wrists. More skin is peeling where the tough armor ends; when I twitch a hand hesitantly I notice the sharp claws where my fingernails once were.

“This is real,” the dragon says, her leathery lips stretching back in a toothy, violent smile. I can’t decide if this is a good dream or a nightmare, and I close my eyes again.

I want to ask her why my scales are black, when all I can see is the red red red of the fire, but my dreams—where are my dreams?—have pulled me away and into the blaze.

 [ Dragon, © 2017 Katharine A. Viola ] I am both the Chosen and the castaway, and my skin is gone. My face is beginning to change, and I am grotesque and beautiful. My jaw is deformed and stronger and my back is long and spiked. They care for me in the cave, bringing me fresh meat and water when I wish it. I am both hungrier and more satisfied than I have ever been, but there is something, someone I long for, and I cannot remember it or whom. I ask my caretakers what is happening, why I am changed here in this lonely cave.

Smoke rises from the mouth of the red-gold dragon, and she says, her voice a deep rumble, “You changed long before you came here.”

She will say no more. My body is decaying, rotting in the onset of the black armor. I wonder if it is normal to feel, as it overtakes me, the emptiness in my belly and my throat filling. I have no mirror, but I know that soon I will be unrecognizable.

But no one has come. There is something wrong with my eyes and tears no longer slip down my cheeks, but I can feel them burning inside, behind my intricate layers of obsidian scales. I am the Chosen and I am the castaway, and I have been forsaken. My life is worthless, and I have traded it, but for what I do not know.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen the sun. My back is changing, growing warped and twisted like a curving tree-branch, and it burns like the heat of molten glass when I try to stand. I stay down on all fours and slither across the cave floor instead, scratching at the rock with my talons. The dragons have begun to refuse me food; they snarl when I get too close, and watch as I hiss at them in pitiful rage. The emptiness becomes unbearable after three days, as though there’s a hole in my stomach. I feel weak. Human.

On the evening of the third day I crawl to the cave mouth, and drag one contorted limb after another until I reach dirt and not stone. It takes me hours to ease myself down the rise of the mountain, the far side where the beasts live. The setting sun burns bright and orange on my contorted back. I don’t examine myself in the light of day—I don’t know what I’ll find.

When I finally reach the forest, it has grown dark and quiet. There are no men here; the land is too close to the perch of the dragons. Eyes of woodland creatures stare out at me from the brush. I shift under their gaze, resting my chin to the dirt to relieve the pressure on my back. It isn’t fair. They look at me and see my human eyes, not my scale. Like I am an unnatural thing.

The whisper of a rabbit scurrying through the undergrowth catches my attention. Even in my exhaustion, my talons are quick, faster than my fingers ever were. I slice it open and watch its intestines spill over the grass like the rush of a gurgling stream. Its taste is divine in my hollowness within; I am so eager that my newly emerged eyeteeth scrape the outside of my mouth and draw blood.

I scream into the woods incoherently once I have devoured the rabbit, wrathful and furious and desperate. There is no sound in answer.

The red red red fire finds me once I have grown a tail. It snakes back behind me, spiked with a large leathery flap curving up at the end. With practice I hope I will be able to snap it as fast as the golden red dragon, whose tail darts behind her like a raging fell wind. But once the fire arrives, I am crippled.

I writhe on the floor of the cave, great bursts of flame scorching my throat. It is molten lava, spilling out from my mouth as I snap my jaws and roar in agony. I grind my claws on the stone, my newly emerged and spiking vertebrae smashing against the walls. My scream shakes the earth, and fire darts past my teeth and dances in front of my eyes, a demonic sprite that I’ve captured deep in my belly. My eyes are blinded by the great clouds of smoke rising from my nostrils. They are not yet slitted and reptilian; how long it will take for them to disappear as well?

No one will look for and no one will find the human girl—she is gone. Now I am strong, now I am magnificent, and my wings are beginning to unfurl. They are weak still, filmy and delicate like a newborn bird’s wing, but they will be great. No one will look for me, but if they did, they’d find a flake of skin, a long black hair, maybe a fingernail: debris from an age past. The fire has come, and now I am the kindled flame.

I am falling. My rounded eyes are closed against the onslaught of the red red red sun, and my wings are furling in, too gauzy to catch the tearing winds. Fire escapes from my mouth, ripped from my quivering belly. Forsaken, I am forsaken. I streak through the air, my black wings dark against the blue of the sky, about to meet the ground. A frightened cry escapes my jaws and I close both my eyelids. It’s impossible—I am too new, I am too faint, I am too useless, but I spread my wings anyway in despair and in hope. Just before I touch the ground, the wind catches me. I fly.

The first time I see my body after my birth is after a long flight, past the mountain to a lake I have never before seen. It is sleek and undisturbed, a mirror of the sky stretching overhead. I am familiar with the sight of my long black claws, and of the armor-scales that cover my entire body. My neck has grown, I have felt it, and now with a twist of the head I can see down my spiked back, far down to my thick tail. My long jaw, wreathed in a mixture of gray smoke and ash, parts to reveal my pointed teeth as I stretch to drink from the lake.

Once I dreamed of dragon-slaying, but now I realize the futility of such a wish. I am glorious. My furled wings extend high above my back, and when I expand them, they are wide and strong enough to create a gale. My neck is elegant, reaching to a long jaw and nostrils orange with the hint of fire. I see it for the first time—my human eyes are gone, a relic from days past. They are slitted now, large and ruby and terrible.

I am glorious and I am not forsaken and I am red red red. An inferno is in my belly and a hurricane at my wings, and the flame has become the fire. I wait for a few more moments in the hazy waning light, and then I propel myself from the earth, shaking the ground like thunder. My disappearing shadow on the mountainside is a great and dreadful thing. I don’t look back.

I wait for the night, when the moon rises and my fire will be stunning in the dark. The village lights are weak in the distance, and I take no care to step quietly or hide my glowing mouth.

When I reach the edge of the forest, the village is somehow still undisturbed. They have sent their sacrifices, ruined the lives of their daughters, and now they think they are safe. There is a deep thrumming in my veins, sparks burning in my blood. With one roar I awake the entire valley, and send a column of flame into the night to light the stars.

(You changed long before you came here.)

The humans are stupid. They dash into the street, pitchforks and swords in hand, as if they could pierce my hide. I find it amusing, in my cloudy rage, and test my claws upon the earth. There are screams of horror at the sight of me, but they know no help will come. Mothers clutch their sons tight to their breasts and throw their daughters in my path, begging for mercy. I beg for retribution, and send a gust of mighty wind through the streets.

I am careful to avoid splashing any licks of red red red flame near the sacrificed and frightened girls. Some are dead-eyed, prepared to serve as I had once, others are sobbing in terror. My throat burns, and I itch to destroy those who had thrown them forward, cowering to escape my gaze.

I delight in the screams, and crush the weak roofs of their dwellings. My mouth curves back over my teeth in a wicked smile, and my eyes are blinded by my flames. The ash coats my glowing nostrils and my claws rend the wood upon which I stand. I don’t regret a single spark.

The fire has destroyed me, but I am the fire, and vengeance day has come.

“Ethelinda! Ethelinda!” The screaming gives me pause; I know that voice. There, face glowing under the light of the moon, is a boy. He carries a wooden sword.

“I don’t know how, but it’s you. I know it.” I can barely hear his voice over the crackle of burning wood and the shrieks of the townspeople. When I take a step forward, he does not step back.

“You know nothing of dragons,” I hiss. His face tugs at my memory, something from another time, another body, another person. My mind is shrouded in a thick angry fog—the only clear recollections I have now are of the cave, of fire. The boy steps closer.

“I know you.”

“Stay back!” I twist and snarl in rage, destroying another cottage with a flick of my tail.

“Don’t do this, Ethelinda. I love you!” he says desperately, eyes teary and wet. “You don’t have to do this. You can come home with me. You can just be a girl again.”

He stares into me, looking past the scale and the wings and the talons. For a moment I stare back, and let him search for the human eyes. But they are gone. Everything I was is ash, flaked away on the wind with every new scale, blackened by my flame. These people thought me worthless, once upon a time. They stole my life, so I steal his. With a wild roar I turn and send a kiss of red red red fire towards the boy, and watch as he glimmers like a star in the night. In the end, we are all most beautiful in the blaze.

There is fire in my veins and it settles in my belly, fueling the hiss of my tongue, a warm circulation through the ice of my heart, or at least what remains.

I am both the Chosen and the castaway, and none will rival me.

© 2017 Kiera Duggan

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News