She was too pale, too still. Ailith held her fingers under her daughter’s nose. She could feel the breath, but it was shallow, weak. She scooped up some water from the jug beside her and dripped a little between those tiny pale pink lips.
Water wouldn’t be enough. It was important, but Ailith knew her daughter would not survive long without medicine. Ailith’s stores were gone, wiped out by months of plague over a hard winter which had claimed her neighbours, her sisters and brother, even her husband. Uricon had been emptying since the dragon came, but now the once thriving town was home to only Ailith and a dozen or so others.
Ailith wrapped her child up in blankets then left her in her cot while she gathered what she would need: her bag, a small knife, and linen cloths to wrap herbs in to protect them. With the bag slung over her shoulder, she picked her daughter up and left the house.
A few doors down Ailith stopped and knocked on a door, then opened it and stood in the doorway.
“Eda, are you here?”
A woman a few years older than Ailith limped from a different room. “Do you need me to look after her again?” she asked, speaking quietly.
“If it’s not too much bother?” Ailith checked.
“Of course not. You go and do what you need to do.” Eda reached out to take the infant, who stirred a little as she took her.
“Thanks,” Ailith said sincerely.
It was the wrong time of year for most of the plants she needed. Summer or autumn would have been better, but at least there was something growing. With a little luck, a lot of knowledge and a splash of creativity, Ailith could make something that would help. At least the weather was warmer than it had been, blue almost breaking through the clouds above. Ailith made her way along the hedgerows, crouching to take a leaf of this, a sprig of that, a few early flowers, each with a flick of the curved tip of her knife.
When Ailith heard the telltale ground-shuddering roar, she dropped to the ground and was half under the hedge before the word dragon had even jumped into her mind. A mother blackbird chattered at her in annoyance for a moment then hopped back into the hedge when the great wind shook it. Ailith prayed to all the gods she could think of that the great beast would be gone soon so she could head for the woods and see what she could find there. Her prayers were answered. A second roar, a fresh blast of wind from its great wide wings, and away it soared. Ailith could see an animal clasped in one huge claw, a goat, she thought, and hoped it wasn’t one of hers. She waited until the dragon was out of sight then climbed to her feet and dusted herself down.
The woodlands were cool and light and smelled of decomposing leaves and fresh growth. In happier times Ailith would have lingered and enjoyed the freshness of unspoilt nature around her, but she didn’t have the time. She went from tree to tree, gathering willow bark and hawthorn leaves and the moss from the wych elm. With the ingredients safely stored in her bag, Ailith hurried back to Uricon.
“How was she?” Ailith asked Eda as she took her daughter back.
“Quiet. Very quiet. Are you going to make some of your healthsome broth?”
“Will you bring some over for Farley? I think he’s pulling through now, but…” Eda looked at Ailith hopefully.
“Of course I will.”
Ailith returned home and, after feeding her infant, began cooking in her largest pottery cauldron. She boiled milk and added the ingredients, chanting quietly as she did so; dried rosemary since she couldn’t get any fresh, willow bark, the last of her honeycomb, half crystalised, and tiny baby dandelion leaves which would have to do instead of mugwort. As she chanted a sourceless wind plucked at Ailith’s hair and then her clothes. Her daughter stirred and wailed weakly, but Ailith couldn’t stop now she’d started. She added the yellow daffodil pollen, then the sticky mess that was the ground-up moss; it should have been dried properly, but Ailith hadn’t the time. The wind grew, swirling about the room and forcing Ailith to chant more loudly.
She added the final ingredient, chanted the last words of the spell, and shut her eyes. The wind dropped and the only noise Ailith could hear was faint mewling from her daughter. Ailith breathed in and let the breath out slowly. Then she opened her eyes and took the cauldron off the fire. She ladled some of the mixture into a cup and added water to cool it. Then, slowly, gently, she fed a few drops to her child. Almost immediately a little colour returned to the infant’s cheeks.
Relieved, Ailith fed a little more of the potion to her daughter, then wrapped the baby and placed her gently in the cot.
“It’s working, Eda,” Ailith told her friend a few minutes later. She pressed a small jug of the potion into the older woman’s hands. “This is for Farley. It’s working. My little one is coming back to me.”
After exchanging a welcome hug with her friend, Ailith hurried home, unwilling to be gone even for a few minutes. She slept far more restfully that night than for many weeks leading up to it, checking twice in the night on her daughter, who each time seemed to be breathing more easily and have more colour in her cheeks.
After the second check, Ailith slept long into the morning and woke to the familiar thunder of the dragon’s roar. It was loud and deep and near. Ailith could feel the vibrations in her bones when he roared again, then noticed that her daughter seemed undisturbed by the emanations. She hurried to the cot and pulled open the shutter, letting in cool air and daylight. The colour was gone from the infant’s face, making her look almost ghostly. When Ailith leaned in, panicking, she would hear thin, wheezing breaths, shallow and uneven. She fed a little more of cold potion to the little one, but this time there was no change.
“No, please, sweetness, I need you.”
Ailith picked the girl up and unwrapped her from the blankets. She felt cold, her arm limp. Normally, even while ill, the infant had wrapped her tiny fingers around one of Ailith’s own, but now there was no such grip.
“No, no, no,” Ailith muttered. “No, you have to get better. I don’t have anyone else.” She sobbed.
There was nothing for it. The potion had failed. Even with all Ailith’s ingenuity in substituting ingredients she didn’t have, even with her most powerful chant, the precious thing in her arms was still dying. The plague was stronger than Ailith’s potion. But perhaps not stronger than all the magics she could muster. She would save her daughter, no matter the cost; she would even sacrifice herself.
Ailith realised tears were streaming down her cheeks. She stopped and took a deep breath. This was insane. What use would it be to lumber Eda with an infant – for who else would take in a sickly orphan in this town so dilapidated? – when she could barely care for herself and her own son? And besides, Ailith recalled, a life for a life was not how the magic worked. Sacrificing a life half lived already for one barely begun? It would not be enough. She could sacrifice herself to the magics for her child and they could both of them die.
The cost that wanted paying was far greater than that.
Ailith searched for something to pay it with. A few goats, a handful of chickens, a dozen apple trees. Worthless. A hundred cows would not be enough. A thousand chickens would fall short of what she needed.
Above, the dragon swept past and the wind from his flight blew in through the open window, buffeting Ailith. Her daughter stirred, shifted her head a little. And that was it. It was ambitious and dangerous, but now that Ailith had thought of it there was nothing in the worlds of the living or the dead she would allow to stop her.
There wasn’t much time. While the dragon was directly above Ailith had her best chance at success. She didn’t want to consider what that chance was – it was magic she knew in principle, but of a far greater scale than anything she had attempted before.
She didn’t have the right supplies; that would make things difficult. No chalk, but she did have a little ground up shell powder she’d bought from a trader two summers before for a spell to make a goat conceive, and sprinkled it on the dirt floor of the house in a circle. She didn’t have any fresh lavender, but the dried flower along with the far fresher snowdrops she’d picked the previous afternoon might suffice. Rock salt she had in plentiful amounts, at least, and oak sawdust, so she drew the symbols on the ground, careful not to smudge them and the circle with her feet as she walked around withershins three times.
Ailith took a deep breath. The circle and symbols were drawn; the preparations were complete. That left only the payment. No roar had she heard since beginning the ritual, no gust from the dragon’s wings. Where was it? Ailith looked out the window. The beast had drifted eastward, nearer the Old Hill. How far was that? Three miles? Four? She bit her lip. Too far, unless she could keep it in sight. From inside her circle, she would be able to as long as he continued circling above the Old Hill, but if he moved away she’d lose the connection and the spell could go catastrophically wrong.
If she had a fallen scale, or a bit of broken claw, none of that would matter. Those, she could not improvise—
Wait. Maybe she could. And bring the beast nearer in the process, though if what she had in mind worked, distance would become irrelevant.
Ailith hastened to the half-collapsed old house she used to pen her goats, muttering prayers that the dragon would not find something to eat in the next few minutes. She picked one of the older nannies, a fat, malicious old thing which nevertheless gave good milk. Ailith swiftly culled a few hairs and a paring from a hoof, then turned it out of the pen, gave its hindquarters a couple whacks to encourage it to seek greener pastures, dodged a bite, then got back inside and raced through the simple spell that would ensure the link to the goat.
To the window once more, and to agonized waiting. Would the dragon take the bait? Would it even see it? Would the stupid goat go farther than the next yard? She had no idea where it was. Her chosen victim normally did everything it its power to stray; it would be typically contrary if it refused to now.…
The dragon circled wider so Ailith had to lean right out of the window to keep it in view, then it spotted the goat and abruptly altered course. It descended in a swift glide—towards Uricon. The familiar hunting roar pealed forth. Then it was rising once more, the stricken goat in its jaws.
Ailith took up her daughter, leaving blankets behind, and carefully stepped within the circle. She sat down, set the goat’s hair and hoof within one of the symbols on the floor, took a deep breath, and performed the first spell.
“From hair and hoof to claw and tooth,” she intoned, and reached outside the circle to pick up a pinch of daffodil pollen and sprinkle it on the items cut from the hapless animal. She felt for the link in her mind, like searching for the name of a half-forgotten acquaintance. She snatched at it, and with the goat’s blood on the dragon’s teeth it was only the smallest step to extend the link.
That part done, Ailith began to recite the first prayer to the goddess Ancasta.
“Great Ancasta, hear my prayer to you, I ask for the life of my daughter and offer to you the life of the great dragon.”
The wind blew in the window and Ailith could feel a pressure in her ears, like when she went diving for pond weed and the water got inside them. A roar sounded from the east, an immense, ground-shaking roar that sounded almost as if it were coming from inside her own skull.
“Great Ancasta,” Ailith continued, trying to ignore the pressure and the incredible sound, “Hear my prayer and aid me, hear from my lips and from my heart. Take that which I offer—”
The voice inside her mind made Ailith falter. A male voice, no great goddess of the ages. It was powerful, filling her head, and she almost felt weightless, half tasted blood in her mouth.
Pain. No. Survive.
The thoughts were not so much words as feelings, desperate, frantic and instinctive, given form by own mind. Outside, the dragon screeched, a noise which made Ailith shiver and the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
“Take that which I offer,” she resumed, more loudly as she sought to block out the invading emotions as the link with the dragon grew. “As a gift free—” Ailith struggled to pronounce the words as something inside her own head fought to silence her. She couldn’t fail her daughter. She looked down at the pale, delicate infant in her arms. “As a gift freely given,” she spluttered, “In the hope of a gift in return, the life of that which is precious.”
The half-voiced growling emotions in her head seeped out and Ailith heard her own voice cry out unbidden: “Stop!” Her arm spasmed, almost wiping away one of the sacred symbols on the floor beside where she sat. “No!” she told whatever it was which sought to possess her. “I cannot.”
The second prayer was to the goddess Senuna, the same words, and yet something constricted Ailith’s throat and all that emerged was a painful cough. She focused just on being able to breathe, then pictured a wild rose in her mind to calm her. The strength of the grip on her mind and throat weakened. The delicacy of the flower seemed unfamiliar, too small to notice.
She wanted to laugh. You should pay more attention to detail, she told the force in her mind. She’d hit upon the perfect focus, one the dragon found so trivial it couldn’t comprehend it. The rose blossomed, expanding to fill her mind: petals, sepals, stamen, hips. Oh, yes: and thorns.
“Great Senuna,” she began, and above the dragon roared once more, almost a howl this time, forlorn and hopeless.
“Hear my prayer to you,” she continued, barely able to hear her own voice above the dragon’s wail. “I ask for the life of my daughter and offer to you the life of the great dragon. Great Senuna, hear my prayer and aid me, hear from my lips and my heart.”
The roar stopped, and once more Ailith’s throat closed. Now there was no mistaking the taste of blood in her mouth, and she didn’t know which she feared the most: that it was her own blood, or that she could taste the dragon’s last kill.
There was no wondering now what force sought to halt her. The dragon’s will forced itself inside her head with all of its pain and fear and confusion, and she could feel it facing the possibility of its own mortality and fighting with all of its being to prevent it. She could feel the dragon’s own sense of majesty, its supreme confidence beneath the more immediate emotions. She was as much inside its mind as it was inside hers, and she found it almost unbearable.
She had to protect her child, and would pay any cost for that to happen. And with the dragon inside her own head, it felt like a personal sacrifice, giving up the whole of her greatness, her majesty, her friends in Uricon, her rule of these petty hills and its little animals. Ailith shook her head. Her thoughts were becoming confused; she almost couldn’t distinguish them from the puny being of words and goddesses that attacked her. No. That wasn’t right. She flew up, high into the sky, and the link weakened. Ailith felt herself again.
“Take that which I offer,” Ailith continued, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears, “As a gift freely given, in the hope of a gift in return, the life of that which is precious.”
She had to pause. Sweat dropped from her face and coated her whole body. Exhaustion plucked at her, willing her and tempting her to just lie down, forget the silly circles on the floor, and sleep.
“Great Sabrina,” Ailith muttered, naming the last and greatest of the goddesses, the spirit of the river that flowed past the town, its unending, life-affirming susurration audible from where she sat, even through the internal clamor of the spell.
The dragon fought her within her own mind and her tiredness threatened to overcome her. But the dragon was tired too now. When it roared she could hear its exhaustion, and when it fought she could feel it. The fear was greater within it now, the confidence as nothing, but that fear was strong. It was a cornered beast, dangerous, but she was a mother bear and would not, could not back down now.
“Hear my prayer to you,” Ailith sobbed.
The dragon’s voice broke through once more, echoing inside her head: Stop, it cried.
Don’t want death. The dragon’s feelings were clearer, no longer abstract and instinctive, but actual words, a plea directed right at Ailith. It chilled her. She’d thought the dragon nothing but a monster that occasionally snatched up livestock, but his desperation was seeping in, his feelings part of her and now he was even using real words, a sentence even. Ailith faltered. What right had she to take the dragon’s life for that of her insignificant mewling infant?
She shook her head, recognising the intrusion of the dragon’s thoughts into her own.
She’s not a mewling infant, Ailith thought as hard as she could, wondering if the dragon heard and understood her. She’s a precious gift and I will do anything for her. Ailith felt a surge of strength. She wasn’t going to let her daughter die and the dragon wasn’t going to stop her.
“I ask for the life of my daughter,” she continued, “And offer to you—”
He was weakening, and he was distant; Ailith could feel it. But he wasn’t done yet. The pressure in her head intensified, her throat burned and the chill of the room clawed into her like the depths of winter.
“The dragon,” she gasped, and it felt like she’d missed something but couldn’t remember what. “Great Sabrina, hear my prayer and aid me.” Darkness crept in around her eyes and her head pounded, but she was so close. “Hear from my lips.”
“And my heart. Take that which I offer.”
Her eyes drooped closed and she couldn’t open them. Her head was nothing but pain, and she wondered if it was deliberately inflicted by the dragon or whether it was his pain she felt just as she felt his fear and desperation. She cried out in pain and heard the dragon’s roar in echo across the land. She must fly, flee further from whatever attacked her, but her nest on the hill was as far as she could manage, her strength too little to work her wings.
“As a gift,” Ailith managed. She gave up trying to open her eyes. It didn’t matter. All the mattered was that she completed the spell. But the next words evaded her. The dragon forestalled her. She opened her mouth to form the words, but they would not come, and in her mind the dragon repeated not, not freely given, not, and she couldn’t fight his will.
“In the hope of a gift in return,” Ailith said. She felt the dragon’s surprise and felt his crushed disappointment in her heart that she’d sidestepped the battle he’d poured almost the last of his strength into.
Finally free of all but a token attempt to stop her, Ailith gasped out the last words in a rush: “The life of that which is precious.”
The pressure in her head intensified, so great that she felt that blood must be pouring from her nose and ears and eyes, unbearable pain. She roared, and heard it through two sets of ears a second apart. Then the pain faded, the wind vanished, and it felt like a soft hand brushed her shoulder. A voice in the fleeing wind seemed to whisper freely given.
As the pressure and the magical wind vanished, Ailith felt her overextended strength leave her too. She opened her eyes and saw in her arms her daughter, pink-cheeked and smiling, but exhaustion overcame her; Ailith slumped, spent, to the floor, breaking the circle; only a parent’s instinct managed to keep her child atop her. Ailith’s last sensation, before sleep overcame her, was the pressure of a tiny hand grasping her fingers.
Up on the Old Hill, a naked man uncurled from the dragon’s nest, finally free of pain, and stared at his hands and legs uncomprehending. A voice like an owls’ wings on still air seemed to say freely given as it drifted by. So distracting did he find his physical form it was some time before he realized he’d understood the words.