I put Liberty's Daughter up on my website. "Scrap Dragon" is shorter, though, so I'm putting it on my LJ.
"Scrap Dragon," in case you didn't know, was the result of this offer. The winning bidder was my college friend Fillard, so for those familiar with him: yes, he's the Fillard in the story; Heather is his wife; and Peter is our friend Peter Gunn. Fillard won the auction, wanted a story for/about Heather, and this is the result.
The story is after the jump.
(Oh, and yeah. I'm totally putting my stories up in the hopes that my friends, fans, and vague acquaintances with Hugo Nomination powers -- i.e., anyone who went to last year's WorldCon, and anyone who's already bought their membership for this year's WorldCon -- will read my stories, adore them, and nominate them for a Hugo. I might as well just OWN THAT RIGHT UP FRONT.)
(Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. January/February 2012)
Once upon a time, there was a princess.
Does she have to be a princess? Couldn't she be the daughter of a merchant, or a scholar, or an accountant?
An accountant? What would an accountant be doing in a pastoral fantasy setting?
The people there have money, don't they? So they'd also have taxes and bills and profit-and-loss statements. But he could be a butcher or baker or candle-stick-maker, so long as he's not a king.
No, I suppose an accountant might work. Very well. Once upon a time, there was a young woman – the daughter of an accountant – who had two older sisters. The oldest of these young women was clever, the middle was strong, and the youngest was kind.
What if she wanted to be the strong one? The youngest, I mean. And what if the oldest wanted to be the nice one? It's not fair.
I didn't say the youngest wasn't strong or that the oldest wasn't kind. But everyone knew that it was the middle daughter who was the strongest, and the youngest who was the sweetest and most innocent.
Maybe they just thought she was sweet and innocent.
Maybe. They lived in a palace — or rather, in a large and comfortable house, and if they were princesses I could give the youngest one a fabulous bedroom with a drawbridge —
She can have a drawbridge anyway. Maybe her parents built it for her just because it was cool.
Okay. But the important thing is that, because she was so kindhearted, animals trusted her. They would seek her out, and when she found one in need, she would try to help it.
That would be really inconvenient.
Being trusted by animals?
Well, if they'd seek you out. I mean, you're out for a walk and a stray cat comes up to you and won't go away—
Maybe it's a really nice cat.
Or maybe it's a cat that will yowl at four in the morning every day and wake you up.
But the animals trusting her is supposed to show you what she's like inside. She's not just nice on the surface; she's a good person.
Well, I like animals better than princesses. She can have animals following her around, that's okay.
One day, word came to their city that a grave threat faced them. The city was near an extinct volcano — or rather, a volcano that had been thought extinct. But a powerful and evil sorcerer had raised the spirits of the volcano, and it was now threatening to erupt. If the sorcerer continued prodding the volcano with his malicious magic, the volcano would spew forth fire and lava and the city would be utterly destroyed.
Volcanoes erupt because of tectonic forces, not spirits.
This was a magical volcano.
Look, if the sorcerer could manipulate tectonic forces, why would he bother threatening the city with an eruption? He could wipe them out just as well with an earthquake.
Fine. It wasn't a sorcerer with a volcano. It was a dragon, a vast and powerful dragon that could breathe fire and took up residence in the crater of an extinct nearby volcano but threatened, if not supplicated with gifts of gold and treasure, to burn the city to ash.
But I like dragons. Dragons are cool.
Well, so? I like the French and France is cool but that doesn't mean I like Jean-Marie Le Pen. French people aren't all good or all bad and neither are dragons.
Okay. I guess that's fair.
So, the city was under threat by the evil dragon, and if you'd let me make this person a princess she would have a reason for feeling personally responsible for saving her city. But she's not a princess. So I suppose the King —
Couldn't they live in a democracy? Even an Athenian democracy is better than a King.
—the Council of Democratically-Elected Representatives of the People offered a reward to anyone who could defeat the dragon. But more than that, they begged for all those who were brave or strong or clever to do what they could to save the city. If it had been a King, he could also have offered the hand of one of his children in marriage, but you can hardly marry the son or daughter of a Council of Representatives so let's just say they pointed out that anyone who succeeded in saving the city would be a very hot romantic commodity indeed.
Arranged marriages are kind of creepy. But marrying someone who was only interested in you because you'd defeated a dragon also seems kind of creepy.
No one's going to have to marry anyone they don't want to marry. Anyway, the eldest tried first. She set out to learn all she could about dragons – first at the library nearby, then, when she had exhausted its resources, to a larger city some days' journey away. She sent home letters when she could, sharing everything she'd learned, but it was a vast library and she thought it would be years before she'd learned everything there was to know.
So the second sister decided to set out to confront the dragon directly.
And she never returned.
What do you mean she never returned?
I mean that she died on her journey. There were people who said that the dragon had eaten her–
But I don't want her to be dead. It's not fair.
No, it isn't. Death isn't ever fair.
But I liked her!
The people I like aren't supposed to die.
So can she just be sleeping, if you need to take her out of the story?
No. She died, and so the youngest —
I don't think I want the youngest to try to defeat the dragon. She might get eaten, too.
But she's the city's only hope.
I don't care. I want her to stay home where she's safe.
That's what her parents said. “We've lost one daughter already. Let someone else lose a daughter next time.”
And she's the nice one.
How is she supposed to defeat a dragon by being nice?
Other people said that, too, sometimes even where she could hear them. So the youngest daughter – whose name was Heather – decided that for now, she would stay home.
Heather had a book of blank pages, and she took all the letters her family had gotten from her eldest sister, with the diagrams of dragons and ancient philosophy regarding dragons and information about their nesting habits and lairs and so on, and began to organize it. Because, she thought, even if she could not herself defeat the dragon, perhaps she could provide a useful set of information to someone else.
But sometimes she would flip the book over, and from the back, she began creating a book about her sister, the one who had died. She had pictures that she had drawn, but she put in all sorts of things that made her think of her sister. There was a scrap of cloth from her sister's favorite dress, and a flower she'd pressed, and when Heather found a poem her sister had written she copied it out in the book. The funny thing was, her sister had loved dragons.
Because dragons are cool.
Which made it all the more ironic that she'd probably been eaten by one.
One afternoon she took her book and her lunch, called for her dog (whose name was Bear), and went to sit by a wooded lake not too far from her house.
The dog had better not die in this story.
The dog's not going to die. Not in the story, anyway.
They sat down by the lake. Heather took out her sandwich, and gave half of it to Bear. A nutria swam up and poked its head out of the water. “Hello, nutria,” Heather said to it. It didn’t swim away, so she broke off a piece of her sandwich and tossed it down to the nutria.
Is that a real animal?
Yes, nutrias are real. They’re rodents and look like a cross between a beaver and a really big rat.
Oh. That sounds cool.
The nutria shot a wary look at Bear, then climbed up on the bank to grab the piece of sandwich. Bear sometimes chased squirrels (and a nutria might have been sufficiently squirrel-like to chase) but right now he was more interested in getting another handout from Heather; he looked at her with a big doggy smile and wagged his tail. Heather sighed and took out another sandwich. Her food wasn't going to last long at this rate. "Go get me a sandwich, Bear,” she said to Bear.
Did he get her a sandwich?
Of course he didn’t. If dogs could make sandwiches, they’d eat them themselves. When the nutria finished its piece of sandwich, it sat on the shore of the lake looking at Heather with gleaming dark eyes, and Heather broke off another piece of bread and tossed it over. "Can you tell me how to defeat a dragon?" she asked it.
The nutria picked up the bread. "Why do you want to defeat it?" it asked.
Heather was a little startled that the nutria actually answered her; she talked to Bear all the time, and other animals some of the time, but she'd never had an animal answer her before. "Because if no one defeats it, it's going to come and burn my city to the ground," she said.
The nutria seemed to mull this over as it ate. "Know the truth that lies within you," it said. "And speak the truth that waits without."
Waits without what?
Without here is the opposite of within. So she needs to know the truth she has inside, and then speak some truth that's external.
You know, even with an explanation that's pretty cryptic.
It's advice from a talking water rat. Were you expecting step-by-step instructions?
Well, did she try asking it for something more specific?
She tried, but the nutria was done talking. It nibbled away the rest of the bread, then plopped back into the water and swam away. “Find me another nutria, Bear,” Heather suggested, but Bear just wagged his tail again.
One thing was certain, however. Heather still didn't know how she was going to defeat the dragon, but she thought the nutria wouldn't have spoken to her — and given her advice about knowing the truth inside — unless she did have the power to defeat it. So she went home, and quietly packed her belongings and left with Bear when no one was home. (She did leave a nice note on the kitchen counter, but she didn't want to stick around to explain in person that she was going out to fight the dragon because of advice from a talking rodent.)
Of course, she had no idea what the nutria was talking about. If it was the truth that lay within her it probably meant it was something she already knew and just hadn't fully realized yet, so she took her book with the information about dragons (and the pictures of her sister) and studied it when she would stop to rest. After reviewing everything three times, she still had no idea what it was she was supposed to know — unless the secret was that she was willing to ask unlikely sources, like nutrias, for advice.
There was a school nearby, and she could hear a bell that meant school was over for the day, so she waited while the children ran off and then went in to ask the teacher. He was a mathematician, although this was a small school so he was also expected to teach reading, grammar, and dancing.
They learned dancing in school?
Yes, in this place they considered dancing very important.
"Excuse me," Heather said. "I come from another part of the city, and I was wondering whether you knew of any way to defeat the dragon?"
"If I did, I'd already have mentioned it to someone," he said. "Although I suppose it's reasonable to consider the possibility that I would have tried that, and found no one willing to listen. But no, I don't."
"Oh," Heather said, feeling a bit deflated, even though she hadn't asked anyone else yet. Maybe she should have asked the students, before they all left.
"Is there a particular reason you thought I would know?"
Heather told him about the nutria, and the book of notes, and how she had no idea what truth it was she supposedly knew.
"Well," the teacher said, "I have a friend who is an inventor. If you'd like to come back to my house, I'll introduce you to him, and we can see if he has any ideas."
The teacher introduced himself as Fillard, as they walked.
That's a very unusual name for a person in a pastoral fantasy.
It's a very unusual name, period. He explained that his neighbor was also a musician and an actor; the neighbor's name was Peter, and Peter turned out to be extremely kind and invited Heather and Bear (and Fillard) to stay for supper, even though he'd never met Heather (or Bear) before.
As the shadows grew long and their after-dinner tea grew tepid, they all listed everything they'd ever heard about dragons. Peter had heard that they could sing; he wasn't inclined to go walking over to the dragon's lair to confirm this, but the stories said that dragons had beautiful voices, on those occasions that they chose to share them. Fillard, on the other hand, had heard that dragons enjoyed games almost as much as they liked hoarding treasure; there were stories of dragons offering to let travelers go free if the travelers could beat them at a game of chess. "Of course, the dragon always wins in those stories unless the human cheats," Fillard added. "I have a large collection of games, and could offer you several that the dragon wouldn't have seen before. That would make the challenge a bit more fair."
They made fresh tea as it grew darker, and since Heather had been taking notes in her book ("gd. singers / games — chess?") she had it out. She set it down at one point to look at a game that Fillard had run home to get and bring back, and when she picked it up, she had it upside down, so it was the side about her sister, rather than the dragon. "Laura loved dragons," she said softly. "I should put a picture of a dragon somewhere on Laura's side."
"Who is Laura?" the men asked.
She explained about her sister, and how she'd disappeared when she went to confront the dragon. Laura had always believed that dragons were cool —
Because dragons are cool.
— which made the circumstances of her death tragically ironic.
You already mentioned the irony.
And she explained about the book, and everyone nodded, and then Peter went to find an article about dragons that he'd saved from somewhere. There was nothing in the article that was new, but it had a lovely picture, a sort of extremely artistic diagram. He gave it to her to paste in later.
It was late, and Heather was tired, so Peter made up a guest bed for her. Heather woke early – before Peter or Fillard – and stepped outside.
Are you sure she got up first?
Fillard and Peter had stayed up very late talking, and weren't awake yet. The sky was light and the birds were singing, and when Heather opened her book she realized that she'd nearly filled it; only a pair of blank pages faced each other at the exact center of the book. All the rest of the book had been filled, with notes about dragons on one side and notes and mementos relating to her sister on the other. She held the picture hesitantly — it seemed to her like maybe it should go on the dragon side. But she'd never put a dragon in the Laura half of the scrapbook, and that seemed like a terrible loss. Since she'd flipped the book, she had to choose — it would be right-side up for one, upside-down for the other. After staring at it for several minutes, as the sky grew lighter and the sun grew warmer, she finally turned the book sideways, and pasted the picture in that way, so that maybe it could go with either.
And that was when she realized what the nutria meant.
Well, what did it mean?
I can't just tell you that straight out; it would spoil the flow of the story. We'll get to it in a bit.
You're as bad as that damn water rat.
Heather picked up her bags and called for Bear and set out —
Isn't she going to leave a note?
She only just met Fillard and Peter. Do you really think they'll worry?
Of course they're going to worry.
She got up, left a note, took the game that Fillard had offered her and the sheet music for songs that Peter had said he'd particularly like to hear a dragon sing, and then she and Bear headed for the path that would swiftly take them to the dragon's lair, at the edge of the extinct volcano.
You promised me the dog wouldn't die, remember.
Don't worry about the dog.
Does that mean I should be worrying about Heather? I didn't make you promise she wouldn't die because she's the hero of the story so I figured she was safe.
The dragon emerged from its lair as Heather and Bear approached. It unfurled its vast wings and shook them back the way you might stretch your wrists and crack your back, and licked its lips, showing its big teeth.
"Hello," Heather said to the dragon. "I know you're not going to eat me. I know you're not really a threat to the city. So I know the real danger must be coming from someone else."
That, you see, was the truth she'd already known —
Dragons are cool!
Yes, that dragons are cool!
But what about all that business about dragons being individuals with free will —
Here is what she realized as she talked through all the information in her book. The dragon had been demanding treasure, not food. And while everyone knew that dragons loved treasure, surely they ate sometimes. And yet only a few sheep had gone missing from the edges of town, plus a few unlucky people like Laura, and that just didn't seem like enough to feed a dragon. So she'd looked carefully at the diagrams of its jaw, and realized that its teeth were not shaped like a bear's teeth, nor like a lion's. After thinking about it carefully, she concluded that the dragon's natural diet was fish. Not people.
That doesn't mean it wouldn't eat a human who made it mad.
She'd also realized that a dragon did not actually have enough fire in its belly to burn the city to the ground. It could certainly belch out enough flame to kill anyone who came knocking with a sword, but that was a long way from burning down a whole city.
Maybe it was an empty threat.
But there was another thing everyone agreed on: dragons were smart. Smart enough not to make empty threats – not when a city might call the dragon's bluff by getting a big enough army together to take the dragon on.
The dragon could move, though, if that happened. This dragon had moved before, right? Because you said it moved in.
But dragons have a hoard. They save everything. And moving is annoying enough if you don't have a dragon's hoard to take with you to the Willamette Valley or wherever it is you're going. The last thing any smart, sensible dragon was going to do was set itself up to have to move all the time. So Heather was pretty sure the threats were coming from someone else, someone who didn't care that much what happened to the dragon. And the dragon probably knew who, and why, and so Heather thought that perhaps she would go and ask.
The dragon tucked her wings back —
It was a female dragon? How did Heather know it was a female dragon?
She'd been studying dragon anatomy diagrams for months. Do I really need to spell it out for you?
Yes, actually, I wouldn't mind knowing how you tell a boy dragon from a girl dragon.
The easiest way is coloration: the backs of a female dragon's wings are less brightly colored than the front of the body, to provide camouflage when they're nesting. Also, female dragons have wings that are scalloped on the bottom edge and male dragons have a penis.
This dragon, which was female, folded her hands in front of her and lowered herself to the ground. "You're not here to try to kill me?" she said, sounding a bit surprised.
"No," Heather said. "I did bring you a game, though, because I heard dragons like games, and some sheet music — do you read music? — because I heard you like singing. But mostly I came to ask you who it is that's using you to threaten my city, and whether I can help you."
"It's a sorcerer," the dragon said. "I'm a very young dragon." (She was indeed quite a bit smaller than Heather had expected.) "If I were older, he never would have been able to do this to me, but he's used his magic to trap me here so that I can't leave. He can't actually make me go set your city on fire, but when people come to kill me, I defend myself..."
"Including my sister?" Heather asked, a huge lump in her throat.
The dragon shrugged. "I don't remember anyone who looked like you," she said. "There are bandits, and other dangers nearby — not just me."
"How can I break the sorcerer's spell?" Heather asked.
"I don't know," the dragon said. "I can tell you where to find him, but he's really powerful — I'd feel terrible sending you off into danger."
Heather thought that over. "Do I need to defeat the sorcerer? Or just figure out how to break the spell?"
"Let me put it this way," the dragon said. "While I do not normally eat people, because they really don't taste very good, I would make a special exception for the sorcerer who has turned me into his own personal chained-up pet dragon and used me to intimidate people into letting him steal their money. In other words, if you can figure out how to break the spell, I'll take care of the rest of it."
"If nothing else," Heather said, "I could go down to the city and tell everyone the truth — that it's the sorcerer who's a danger, not you."
"You could do that," the dragon said. "Unfortunately, he'll just move us on to a new city. That's what he did the last two times when people figured it out."
Heather thought that over. This meant the sorcerer was powerful enough to enslave the dragon, but maybe not powerful enough to protect himself any other way. "Where does he keep all the money he steals?" she asked.
"He makes me guard it," the dragon said, and pointed down into her lair. Heather peered down at the hoard. The edge of the cavern shadowed it, but she could see a heap of glittering gold and rubies.
"Can I go in and look?" Heather asked.
"Oh, yes. I just can't let you leave with any of it."
Heather went inside the cavern and started poking through the treasure. There was gold and silver, there were gems and strands of pearls, there were bundles of paper bills and a few paintings, there was an ancient bronze cast horse, and there were books.
Heather picked her way through all of it; one of the treasures was a gem-encrusted lamp, and she lit it so that she could see a bit better. Bear barked. "Help me look, Bear," Heather said. "If the treasure's here being guarded by the dragon, I bet the magic is here, too. Somewhere."
The dragon came in and laid her chin on her hands, watching as Heather dug through the piles. After poking through the gold coins (and then rolling in the giant pile of gold because really, how often do you have the opportunity to roll in a giant pile of gold?) Heather started looking at the books. There were a few giant Bibles with gems on the front covers, and one of the lost plays of Shakespeare, and a collection of plays by Aeschylus that included all of Achilles, and a musical score for something called Per la ricuperata salute di Ophelia, which the dragon took an interest in and started studying while Heather searched.
Wait, is that the lost opera that Mozart and Salieri wrote together?
It was a cantata for voice and piano, actually, but yes, it was written by Mozart and Salieri together and then lost. You do realize that historically they weren't anything like they were in that movie...
Yes yes yes, historically they were probably friends, or at least friendly. Did the dragon not know it was there?
Oh, she knew it was there and had looked at it before, but you know how sometimes when you're trying to put away a big pile of books and you make the mistake of opening one, and you sit down and start reading it even though you've read it already and you were really intending to clean that day instead of reading for hours? That's basically what happened to the dragon.
Under a crate of gold bars, which Heather needed a lever to move as gold weighs so much, she found a very plain, unimpressive little book. From the outside, it actually looked quite a lot like the book she had made. Except this one had a picture of a dragon on the cover. The dragon looked up miserably at a man who sat riding on his shoulders.
Heather opened the book and suddenly became aware that the dragon was watching her. "I cannot let you destroy that book," the dragon said sharply, and Heather knew right away that she'd found what she was looking for.
"So, you can't let me take it," she said, and the dragon shook her head, "and you can't let me destroy it. I won't take it anywhere and I won't destroy it. I'm just going to look at it," she said. The dragon watched as she set the lamp on a ledge, then sat down under it to read.
It was a scrapbook, of sorts, full of pictures of dragons, but each showed the same thing in a different way: a dragon bound. Chained to a human figure, tied to the ground with giant nets, imprisoned behind bars. Heather thought that destroying it would probably free the dragon, but she was watching Heather's every movement now, and while it did occur to her that maybe she could "accidentally" drop the burning lamp onto it, that seemed awfully risky if it didn't work.
She took out her pen, and the dragon didn't twitch.
Carefully, she started drawing on the page.
"What are you doing?" the dragon asked.
"I'm adding things," Heather said.
"Hmm. I guess that's okay," the dragon said.
Heather drew a giant pair of scissors snipping through the net. She drew a file chiseling through the bars, and a key unlocking the chains.
"Do you feel like you could let me destroy it now?" she asked when she'd finished.
The dragon paused, then shook her head.
Heather looked more closely at the words written around the pictures. Where it said "by words and magic the dragon is taken," she put in a little ^ and wrote not so that it said "by words and magic the dragon is not taken." She changed the word "bound" to "boundless" and "grave" to "gravel" and something that ended with "die" she changed into a short essay about "dietary law."
It didn't make a lot of sense when she was done with it, but she didn't think that would matter. But the dragon still didn't feel like she could let her destroy the book.
So finally, Heather took her own scrapbook, and cut out the picture she had pasted into the center, and pasted it onto the cover of the magician's scrapbook, covering over the picture of the miserable looking dragon.
The dragon leapt to her feet. "HA!" she shouted, and bolted out of the cave.
Well, that seemed to have done it. Heather burned the magician's scrapbook, just to be on the safe side. She figured the treasure wasn't hers — it belonged either to the people it had been stolen from, or the dragon — but she couldn't resist the Aeschylus and the Shakespeare so she packed those up and left a note saying, I borrowed the plays. I promise to give them back after I've read them. — Heather.
She blew out the lamp, left the dragon's lair, and looked around. She could see the dragon high overhead and hoped she'd stick to her word and eat the evil sorcerer before she left forever. And then she called for Bear and they walked back down the path to the city.
Is that the end?
No. The next morning, everyone in the city woke to the sound of a vast, enormous contralto voice singing a cantata —
Yes, of course the dragon. And when she was done, she told them that she'd been freed, and had eaten the evil sorcerer, and would now be on her way to explore new lands.
Did she tell them who'd freed her?
No, because she could tell Heather would prefer not to have to put up with being famous.
But what about the reward? She was supposed to get a reward!
The next day, she got a package through the mail; it was a box containing those heavy gold bars, which was enough wealth to keep her well-supplied for the rest of her life. The dragon kept Fillard's game and Peter's sheet music, though.
She was also supposed to be a hot commodity. Romantically, I mean.
Would you want to marry someone who was only interested in you because you were a hero of the realm? She went back to visit Fillard and Peter to tell them how things worked out with the dragon, and they were delighted to see her. And over time she and Fillard became best friends, and they got married and lived happily ever after.
Did they ever see the dragon again?
I want them to see the dragon again.
Well, the dragon sent them postcards occasionally, from distant cities like Shanghai and Barcelona and Miami.
That's not the same as seeing her.
Surely the dragon would have come back to visit. Once. Heather freed her from the sorcerer!
You're right. She did. One night about ten years after Heather and Fillard had married, they were sitting on the beach with their child watching the sun set over the water. And in the clouds, Heather saw the dragon; for a moment, she thought it was just the sun in her eyes, but then she saw the huge wings and knew it was the dragon. And she shouted and pointed so that Fillard and their child could see her as well.
They all saw the dragon, just for a few minutes, in the last light of the day. And as the shadows gathered and the stars came out, they heard her singing.