This is a story I wrote about 6 years ago. I know it’s short, and doesn’t really have a resolution that might satisfy, but I also know I’m unlikely to revisit this world. I’m posting it because I’ve been tired and busy with real life and I thought some of you might enjoy this vignette.
Isere could feel the salt spray congealing into ice on her cheeks, mingling with the tears there. It was too cold, she slowly realized, and her thinking was no longer clear. Time to leave. She turned to the child.
“We need to go, childling.”
Sara turned her gaze from the gray ocean that had just carried her grandfather’s ashes away and nodded solemnly at her aunt.
Isere took her hand and helped her back onto the path they had left to reach the wave splashed rocks of the fjord. There was little room for error here, and even if she was ready for death, her niece was not, and she was responsible for the child. Sara shivered a little as she stood on the gravel path. There was only the two of them in the close, gray world. The fog coming in obscured the ocean, and only the rocks below and cliff rearing up beside them were still visible.
A shudder rocked Isere suddenly. She had left it too long, and now they would have to make the difficult climb in bad conditions. She should never have allowed Sara to accompany her, despite the child’s grief. She had given in based on her memories of being excluded from her own grandfather’s passing. Now, she wondered if that had been a true memory, or one of the others, the intruding dragon dreams that clouded her own reality so often these days.
“Go up, Sara. I’m behind you in case you slip.” She pulled the child’s scarf up to cover more of her face. The child was almost as tall as she was, she realized, seeing a vision slip the sweet face of an earlier, chubby girl transposed over this slip of a young woman.
Sara turned silently and started to trudge up the path, her head bent to see where she carefully placed each boot. Isere followed, feeling awkward suddenly as the dragon sight made her feel ill at ease in human form. She still wasn’t sure what it meant when this happened, if she was supposed to shift, or if it was simply a more powerful version of the teaching. Her father had explained it to her once.
“Dragonkind knew humans were afraid of them. And you know how easily humans believe their own lies. It didn’t even take two generations for them to accept that dragons were dumb beasts. Then it was genocide.” He looked distant, his warm hazel eyes chilling to green. “We were too few and too divided to fight back. So we created the ability to shift between human form and dragon.”
“What does this have to do with my dreams?” A much younger, more impatient Isere had demanded.
“We feared, correctly, that dragonkind would lose touch. We created a memory bank that every dragon was to add to, and that would in turn be inherited by every dragon child. Like you.” He’d reached out a hand to her shoulder, and disconcertingly she saw his talons appear mirage-like over his fingertips.
Isere in the present on the rocky path, stumbled and shrugged out of the memory, forcing herself to see reality. Sara was weaving, she saw. She shifted, feeling the transition in her bones and body as a dull ache and surge of nausea before she was through it and in dragon form. She leapt into the air, extending her stronger rear talons towards Sara to seize her… and then in one stroke of her wings, swept herself and the child off the path, away from the cliff, and out into the air over the fjord below. Sara hung limply in Isere’s embrace, and the dead weight pulled her downward. She fought for altitude, beating her wings faster and faster, feeling the pressure of the air with every stroke. The roar of the surf below her made her blood run cold.
The uprush of air along the cliff helped her, and as she caught it she could hear her own hiccup of relief echo back to her from the rocks of the cliff. She soared into the gray fog, relying on the winds to tell her where the cliff was and when it ended. She was flying blind, using her skin to sense her way. Sara still hung limp. Isere knew when she was over the land, but not where the parking area her rented SUV waited. She let out her breath in a strangled sob.
Dragon memory filled her mind. Wings larger than her own beating through clouds, at an altitude high enough to accumulate ice-crystals. A sense of despair as the weight increased, pulling the dragon downward. A sharp snap of pain, registering as a burst of white light behind the eyes, and she knew the wing was broken as the black body spiraled downward… Isere screamed, a long, thready wail, and snapped back to her own reality.
The black dragon had died, she knew, broken on the ground and half-frozen. She wasn’t that bad. But it could get that bad, and her dragon memories knew that. Frantic, she swooped lower to the ground. The forest was short here, spruces and birches that would thin into tundra only a few dozen more miles to the north. She could sense it below her, the peculiar softness of unbroken tree cover. Then she caught a flash of the harder ‘push’ of cleared land. She circled.
It took her a few moments to find the warmth of chimney smoke, the sweet scent of burning wood. She plunged toward it, knowing she was going down too fast, but pulled by the weight of the girl. She knew what it was, there was only one dwelling this far north and in this location. The Stack, it was called.
Surrounded by a vast stack of firewood, the northernmost outpost was part museum, part research station. Manned year-round, she knew, and the heat from the chimney gave her hope. She hit the stack, then. Tumbling the last few feet to the hard ground, they all came together in a heap, logs, child, and dragon. Isere was stunned and released her hold on Sara as they hit. She wasn’t sure how long, it could not have been more than a minute before she heard a male voice crying out, and she became aware that she was lying on the muddy path to the doorway. She was still in dragonshape, and for a muddled moment couldn’t remember how to shift.
Isere panicked, struggling to get up, and seeing Sara lying on her back not far away, her form bulky with the cold-weather gear they had both been wearing. She needed to be human before Sara roused, or the caretaker came to them. She was trying to shift, it was so hard…
She passed out. The grey swirls that were not fog, sparkling with colors, veiled her vision and darkened as her brain stopped processing.
Isere woke up in human form. She was lying in a bed, she realized, with most of her clothing gone. A pleasant warmth suffused her, and she stretched luxuriously and sighed. Then she remembered what had happened and sat bolt upright. She knew the smell of the bed, she knew where they were, and now she was really worried. Of all the people to run to when she was in trouble, he would have been the last choice for her. She wasn’t sure he knew that, though.
A low chuckle interrupted her train of thought. “As lovely as the view is, Z, you may want to cover up before Sara sees you.
She growled and turned to face him, not caring that her breasts were on display. He’d seen her before wearing less. “Hans…”
She stopped. That had come out wrong, it had sounded more like a plea than she liked. She was at his mercy, always had been.
“Here.” The tall man advanced out of the shadows into the gaslight, carrying a bundle of clothes. “You can wear these while yours are drying.”
She took them silently, clutching the wool shirt and jeans to her chest in a reflexive defense against the heat of his gaze. He stooped over her, and she was awash in his spicy scent. She closed her eyes and felt her throat tighten as he kissed the top of her head. “You’re safe, little girl.” He murmured, and his rough hand cupped her cheek with exquisite care.
She kept her eyes closed as she listened to him walk out of the room. She was afraid to see, afraid to let her emotions unravel from their carefully knitted shapes. He had changed. His hair was silvered at the temples, and his neatly trimmed beard was almost fully grey. His time on earth was waning, and she was just coming into her peak. Dragons and humans rarely loved, but it always ended in tragedy. She loved him. He loved her. She wished she had told him just once, how she felt, but it was impossible.
She dressed quickly in the comfortably baggy jeans and a worn t-shirt that clung to her like silk. Sara was fine, she already knew that, or Hans would have said something. As conflicted as her heart might be, her logic knew he was solid as a rock. She stopped and looked around the small room. A woodstove stood in the corner, and she could feel the heat radiating from it. He would have built the fire for her, she knew, he preferred to sleep in a cool room. She fought back a memory of the two of them keeping warm…
The double bed she had just gotten out of was neatly made up in flannel sheets, a wool blanket, and a down comforter. She remade it quickly. The window behind a half curtain was dark, which meant she had been asleep for some time. The wood floors were cool to her bare feet, but he hadn’t brought her socks. She stopped to look at his bookshelf, only a small three-shelf one here in his remote duty station. His home was lined with them, and she’d helped fill them, over the years. She recognized some of the titles here as ones she’d sent him. Her boxes of books had become a tradition between them, a connection as sure as their daily phone conversations had been for years, until he had cut her off from him and vanished.
She left the room and followed her ears to the kitchen, where she found them sitting and talking. Sara looked bright and chipper, the resiliency of youth personified. Her bright red hair curled over her ears as she sipped what Isere’s nose told her was hot cocoa. Hans had his cup of coffee – only one of many for the day, Isere knew – in hand, and he turned to greet her with a smile.
“Hello sleepyhead! Feeling better?”
She crossed the worn lineoleum to perch on a chair, tucking her feet up under her, and reaching over to squeeze Sara’s hand. “I’m fine, how are you, childling?”
The teen wrinkled her nose at her aunt. “I’m nice and warm again. And not a child!”
Hans chuckled. “Here.” He thrust a cup at Isere. She took it and sipped. He had made it to her taste. She flashed a grateful look to him as the warm liquid flowed into her. He smiled back. “Been having a good chat with your girl. I take it you recently lost your father?” His voice gentled a little. He well knew her rocky relationship with the old dragon.
“Yes…” Isere sighed. She had loved him. He had lived a very long time, but they had both known the end was coming for the last two years. “He’d requested his ashes come here, to the fjord. I… underestimated the effects of the cold.”
Hans looked concerned. They both knew she wasn’t telling the whole truth, and his speaking glance told her that she would have to account for it later, away from the child.
“What happened? Did you carry me all the way up here?” Sara asked. She didn’t sound concerned by her brush with death at all. Isere was reminded that adolescent brains were different from adults.
“All the way to my doorstep. Knocked down a stack of wood and made a dreadful noise, so I came running out. I was expecting a wolverine, imagine my delight to find two lovely ladies instead!” Hans answered her, and made her laugh with his account. Isere smiled. She knew there was more to it. She would still have been in dragonform, something he had only seen once, and hadn’t reacted well to at the time.
“So now what? Are we far from the car?”
“A ways, I’d imagine.” Isere sighed. She didn’t know how far. Miles, probably. “I got lost in the fog.”
“Ah, the roads are all crookedy around here. I’ll get you back as soon as you are ready.” Hans stood up and rinsed his cup. Isere thought he was anxious for them to be gone. He’d always valued his privacy, and they had never lived together for more than a couple of weeks. She’d thought that best, in the past, trying to keep her identity from him.
“What do you do up here all winter?” Sara was enjoying this adventure. Isere felt her lips curl into a smile. Sara always reminded her of her younger self. Her father, Isere’s brother, told Sara all the time she was just like her aunt at that age. Lars was fully human, and much younger than Isere, although you would never know it to look at them, and even Sara didn’t know Isere was the older sibling. Lars didn’t seem to mind having skipped the dragon gene. His thinning red hair showed his age, while Isere, older than he by a full generation, still looked like she was in her twenties.
Hans took Sara’s cup and looked in it. “I see bottom. Want more?”
“And to answer your question, I study ice. Sounds dreadfully boring, doesn’t it?”
“Um…” The bright teen was at a loss for words and Hans laughed.
“There’s a glacier a few miles away, and I’m conducting experiments to track the melting of it.”
“Oh!” Sara brightened. “I’ve never seen a glacier.”
“Well, with the fog it’s not safe to travel. So I’m afraid you won’t this time, but maybe your aunt will bring you back in the spring.”
Isere felt her eyebrow raise of it’s own volition as her shock at his words processed. “I’d be delighted to make that field trip.” She heard herself assuring the girl.
“Does the weather mean we can’t get back to the car? ‘Cause my dad will worry.” She pulled a pink phone out of her pocket and checked it. “And I don’t have signal here.”
“Oh, no problem kid. I already called Lars and let him know where you are.” Hans assured her.
“You know my dad?” Sara looked at both of them. “You know each other, then, right?”
“Yes, we’ve known one another for… a long time.” Isere looked at Hans and remembered their first encounter.
She’d been new to the little school. Hans was a strapping lad, with a thick head of dark brown hair and broad shoulders. She’d avoided him at first, along with the others. Her father moved them around so much, she never liked to make friends. She was too odd to fit in, anyway. Hans seemed unaware of her, until one afternoon as they were all sitting in class. The teacher had asked them to pair up for an assignment, and Hans had turned around to look at here. “Z… hey, Z!” he’d hissed urgently. She’d looked up at him in surprise, from her story she was writing. She assumed he was talking to her as there was no-one behind her, but no one called her Z, either.
“Wanna team with me?” He’d asked once he had her attention. She’d boggled slightly at him. Wherever she was, she did her best to become invisible, and as a result was never chosen for teams, much less asked to partner with someone.
“Um, sure?” She managed to squeak out in her surprise.
“Cool!” He’d grinned before turning around and raising his hand. “Teach, Z an me will team up.” He’d announced nonchalantly. Isere found herself admiring his calm boldness.
That had been a long time ago. Dragonkind aged slowly, perhaps half as fast as humans, and so she was forced to move every so often with her father to obscure her true age, and his. She had kept in touch with Hans, though. It had been the dawn of the internet, and she knew their friendship would have failed except for that ability to maintain inexpensive contact. They were both struggling students, back then, and everything had seemed possible. She had allowed herself hope…
She jerked herself back to the present, to the yellow walls of the little kitchen, lit by lamps and looking warmly old-fashioned. “It’s been a long time since we last spoke, though.” She said out loud to Sara, and to Hans.
She didn’t want to think about that break, so painful even now.
“So you didn’t know he was here?” Sara inquired, looking back and forth between the two of them. Hans looked so much older than Isere, and the older woman could see the child’s brain churning.
“No, I had no idea. My father may have known, though.” Isere thought that and said it at the same time, and could feel that it was right. Hans nodded, confirming it. Isere wondered when the two men had made contact again, and why her father had said nothing to her about it.
He’d been very specific about when and where he’d wanted his ashes scattered. She’d flown to Lars’ home from America, to pick up her father’s ashes. Isere had never been close to her brother. As old as his mother, she had played with him as a child, and then when her father moved the family to Norway, she had lost contact with the child except during her occasional visits to her father. Her hard-won independence from the crusty old dragon had come at that price. Lars had grown, married, and had a child of his own while Isere had stretched her wings metaphorically and literally elsewhere.
Isere looked at Hans. He shrugged. She would talk to him about it later. For now, “What did Lars say?”
Hans and Lars were not especially close in age, but they had become friends through her father. Isere suddenly wondered if Hans knew her father had been a dragon.
“He said he’d come up for her if you’d like. He knows you may want to stay a while.”
He said that so casually, so offhand. Isere blinked in surprise. Her world was turning upside-down. Hans had just told her he wanted her to stay, in his usual oblique way. He’d arranged for Lars to come get Sara, and then they would be alone together. The bottom dropped out of Isere’s stomach, and she sat down at the table, placing her mug very carefully on the polished wood, buying herself a moment to regain equilibrium.
Lars and Hans were conspiring together to keep her here at the Stack. She had no illusions about Lars, he was matchmaking, trying to mend a rift he did not understand. He had been born human… Isere had a flash of dragon memory. A father and son, in human form and clad in the rough garb of vikings, standing face to face. The father was speaking to the sullen-faced young man, his voice almost a roar.
“Dragon is not in the blood! You claim something by heritage, as a birthright, but dragon is in the heart!” Isere, living the memory of the dragon, felt horror as the father shifted his hand and arm. He plunged his dragon talons into the lad’s chest and held up the still beating heart. “Dragon is in the heart!” he roared again.
Isere felt Hans’ hand on her shoulder and she came back to her time and place, shaken. He rubbed her shoulders gently, understanding in some way. She knew he didn’t know about the dragon dreams, but he did know he’d upset her. She was soothed in spite of herself. He’d always been so steady, while she masked the roiling emotions that shifted her heart constantly.
“I’d like to stay, yes.” She heard herself saying. She put a hand atop on of his on her shoulder. Sara’s eye sparkled, and Isere knew she was matchmaking just like her father. Neither of them had any idea how complex the situation was. It would be simple to fall in love with Hans, but it would be a cruelty to both of them.