The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Here There Be Dragons

In the ancient, walled city of Oldlight, night had fallen with the snow. Both covered the stone buildings with a heavy hush. All of those who lived in Oldlight had shut themselves safely inside; hearth-fires flickered from every window, catching the blankets of white on the streets outside and setting them to sparkle.

It was beautiful—a jewel of a city. And such a shame, therefore, that no one could visit it.

And no one could leave.

The walls around the city were high, built of huge rocks nestled together so close a whisper would not fit through the cracks. The gates were just as tall, iron bars thick as branches, topped with razor spikes.

There were jokes, that the barriers were all for protection, to keep the dragons out, but only because they had to laugh at something. The dragons never bothered them, though they could occasionally be heard in the distance, growling and snarling. Sometimes, jets of flame lit the sky, two jets that met in crackling balls of flame and eventually became just one that faded away, leaving the scent of scorch behind it to float past on the wind.

Nonetheless, in a way, the jokes were right, as all jokes contain a grain of truth, even if those telling them aren’t aware of it.

By far the nicest of the buildings in Oldlight sat right on the edge near the tall gate that was never opened, itself surrounded by small walls that weren’t meant to keep anyone in or out. The gates to the castle were never closed, and people came and went. The girl who sat in the castle’s tallest turret, watching the snow, was perfectly allowed to leave, if she liked, to explore the city around her.

But she’d done that already, knew every inch of the city, and all the people, too. They called her Princess as she passed, and curtsied or bowed. She had walked every mile of the high walls and stood at the gate, and then returned, sullen, to her turret.

~*~

The snow was worse in the mountains. The boy and the old man shivered over a fire more steam than flame, built of sodden twigs and leaves. They had paper, but it was the one thing they would never burn, sooner they’d set their few bits of clothing alight. The old man kept pulling the scroll further from the sparks, then leaning forward again so as to read the tiny, cramped writing that scuttled over it like a thousand spiders.

“Are we close?” the boy asked. Personally, he thought the old man quite mad. Surely, what he claimed couldn’t be true.

But if it was…

“Closer than I’ve ever managed before,” whispered the old man, a strange fervor in his eyes. “My life’s work, this. And who’d have thought, with nothing but a scrap of a lad for help. Not that I had much’ve a choice, no one else believed any more…”

The old man had said as much when he’d stamped into the orphanage, one gnarled hand on a walking stick topped with silver, the other clutching a fistful of it. A fair price, he said, for an assistant to carry compasses and bread and blankets.

And now, now he said they were close. They must be. The last village’d been more than a week past. Here there was nothing but mountains and bitter wind and, below, a vast, flat expanse of emptiness.

“Get some rest,” said the old man. “Tomorrow we find them. Oh, yes. Tomorrow we’ll see them with our own eyes.”

~*~

The boy awoke. Sleep hadn’t come easy, the cold biting at him, waking him more suddenly than the bell at the orphanage, calling all the children to breakfast.

His stomach rumbled. He turned, and all at once, he wasn’t hungry at all.

It wasn’t right, that color, not on a person. The old man was blue as a summer lake, fingers curled and frozen and stiff around the scroll of paper.

“Wake up!” said the boy, grasping the old man’s shoulder, certain his own shoulders were shaking even harder. “Please, wake up!”

The old man did not wake. He never would again.

It was a dull, gray day, with a sky the shade of bad memories, and no villages had sprouted down on the plains overnight. Even with a spyglass, there was no sign of anyone, anywhere. Alone, the boy sat in the snow, curling his knees to his chin, beside the blackened remnants of the fire. Frozen himself, as frozen as the dead old man, but with indecision. Tears turned to ice on his cheeks.

Right. Well. There must be something down there, something he just couldn’t see, and it’d be closer than the last village, all the way back on the other side of the mountains.

And the old man had been quite mad, but if he was right…

Sniffling, the boy packed up all their things, and did his best to cover the old man with snow. All day he walked and slid down the steep mountainside, his footprints the only ones marking that anyone visited this place. Behind the clouds the sun arced, unseen, on its journey from morning to evening. Now and again, he stopped to check the scroll, still not entirely believing the words written across it.

~*~

The girl sat in her turret after supper, watching the candles wink on behind windows across the city.  She thought about going for a walk, to creep along the inside of the walls once again, but knew her parents would say it was too late. Which was silly, there wasn’t any danger, although in the distance she could see two flames, battling sun-bright in the sky.

“There’s nothing here,” whispered a voice. “He was wrong. Nothing at all.”

She jumped. “Who said that?”

No answer came.

“I demand you show yourself!” she said, checking behind the draperies. Then under the bed. And in a wardrobe full of dresses she never wore.

“Here there be dragons,” said the voice. “Here there be nothing, more like.”

There was something…odd…about that voice. It didn’t sound like any voice in Oldlight, not that she knew each and every one, but still, there was something strange about it. She wanted it to say something else, just so she could be sure.

It stopped talking, and began to make a…a sound. An awful, wet, sniveling sound. She began to follow it, down the stairs and out the front door, along the walls to the tall, barred gate, as it rang louder and louder and louder.

~*~

A noise tore through the night. The boy’s head snapped up and he rubbed his eyes to clear them, his blood turning cold as the snow underfoot. He turned all the way around, and blinked.

A girl stood in the snow. Well, she must be a girl, but there was something…odd…about her. She didn’t look precisely like any girl he had ever seen, but for the moment, the differences weren’t as important as what was behind her. A gate, flanked on either side by high stone walls.

“What–?” he asked, his voice bouncing over the whiteness.

She moved toward him. “I heard you,” she said. “We’re told never, ever to open the gate, but I heard you.”

“Why shouldn’t you open the gate?” he asked. “Who are you? What is this place?”

It was a lot of questions to ask, and he tried to listen for an answer as he fished for the map.

“I am the princess of Oldlight,” she said.

Oldlight. He squinted, and traced the spider-letters all over the scroll with his finger, searching… Searching, and not finding.

He peered at her. At her bright, round, golden eyes, and the lengthened fingernails, and the tiny scales that covered her, glimmering in light reflected off the snow.

Something roared, distant but nearing. The boy looked up, but not before he caught a flicker of fear on her face. “They never come this close,” she said. “Never!”

Here there be dragons, thought the boy as the ground began to shake, hard enough to toss the map from his hand. It flew up on the wind and exploded in a shower of sparks like stars falling to earth. The stream of fire hit the gates, another the buildings just behind. Another and another and another, until all of Oldlight was aflame. The girl screamed and the dragon whipped its head around to stare at her, its eyes enormous versions of her own, just as its scales and talons were. A searing jet of blue-white heat melted the snow in front of her and she screamed again. “We are no longer safe,” hissed the great beast. “For this, we will get our revenge.”

Dark shapes, a hundred of them, began to appear, dark against the night. The boy dashed forward. Her hand was cold, a strangely dry sort of cold.

“Run,” he said, pulling her along as, behind them, leathery wings flapped nearer and Oldlight, the no-longer-hidden land of the dragons, burned. “Run.”

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