By Seymour Hamilton
Word Count: 1500
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)
Summary: A selfish dragon is puzzled by a man who has woken him up from his long rest.
Talking to a Dragon is of all conversations the most dangerous. It is not that Dragons are evil. It is that Dragons know your hopes and fears. They are elementals, beyond mortal concepts of good and ill. Their minds are filled with the experience of millennia, and to them pleasure and suffering, joy and sorrow are as the shapes of clouds at sunset. The Dragon Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan raised his head from the mountain pool, and let a draught of water roll down his throat to mingle with the subterranean streams that flowed within his mountainous body. He unsheathed a claw that girt one of the ranges that were his hide and idly scratched an avalanche off his southern massif. A Village that had sprung up in his last few centuries’ sleep disappeared under the rubble of a collapsing foothill, but he paid it no heed. Even the ache of loneliness for the time when he had sported in the fire of a younger world had long since joined pity and forbearance in some lost crevasse of memory.
He shrugged a scaly wing and forest hillsides crumbled. His yellow eyes blinked slowly, and he reached out in his imagining to search for what had roused him. Now that he had drunk his fill of the emerald lake around which he lay in a cordillera of stony folds, he was calm, but deep below, his sulfurous fires churned with the lava of implacable life, and he sought a reason for being and doing. Would he rise up on his mighty wings and roast a glacier into a sudden torrent? Or stretch out a claw and make new canyons and defiles amid his rocky domain? Perhaps he might lay waste the plains in one blast of drought and destruction, renewing himself in actions the world had not seen for generations of mankind. He blinked again, and directed one hooded eye down to the tiny figure which had troubled his mind even when he slept.
Below the precipice of his chin, beneath the seracs and hoodoos which were his teeth, down, down to the lakeside where his chin had rested, he cast his gaze. At the outlet of the lake, trebled in size now that his head no longer blocked the water’s way, a man clung to a boulder, half in the sudden spate of frothing spray, half spread-eagled upon the ragged rock. As the Dragon watched, the first flush of water dwindled to a trickle, and the man staggered to his feet, one hand groping for the staff that dangled from a leathern thong around his wrist. Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan cleared his throat of the gravel from centuries’ disuse, and spoke.
“Man, I am curious why and how you have disturbed my rest. Your kind have scaled my flanks and stood upon my crags and troubled me no more than the eagles whose generations have flown above me while I slept.”
And the man raised his head to the bellow of sound that thundered around the lake, and whispered. “I did not come to wake you, but to find my own awakening from the illusions in which I have dreamed I lived.”
And Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan heard the man’s speech in the terrible power of his ancient mind, and the great Dragon’s puzzlement grew, for there was no fear in that small voice. “And now you know that I am the mountains you have seen at sunset when my backbone is the ridge that cuts off the last red rays, are you awake?”
The man nodded, but that was enough.
“Good,” said the Dragon, and his word split rock. “Now you may reach into your small soul to find the most precious thing in your life, and bargain with me to spare you.” And the man knew what and who he meant, and at the same moment, that he was himself known. “A woman,” mused the Dragon. “A mere woman whose life is no less ephemeral than your own. What is that to me? Can you not imagine gold and rubies, imperishable diamond, or even the rage of a mortal who knows he must die? Can you offer me no more than this weak memory of passing pleasure? What have I to find in your soft tenderness on which I can brood while I sleep away another space of time that to you is an eternity, and to me is as a summer’s evening?”
“I do not offer anything to you, Dragon. You cannot have my memory, nor the woman who is its origin. You may rend me to bloody gobbets or smear me across the valley with one of your mighty claws, but I will not surrender the treasure of my memory to you.”
“What?” asked the Dragon. “You will not bargain for your life with this one miserable possession?” “No,” said the man. “Then feel your mind taken into my timelessness and experience the emptiness that I know, who am forever alone in the magnificence of my eternal solitude. Raise your head that I may suck out your joy.”
And the man’s head was raised, and the yellow eye of the Dragon pierced downwards more keenly than any eagle searching for its prey. Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan’s avaricious intelligence bent its primordial energy to scoop up the memory it did not want, but needed to possess simply because it was gainsaid him. The Dragon’s eye sought the windows of the man’s soul to enter at his pupils and scour him clean of his essence and his past.
The elemental’s mind reached out through his hooded yellow eye, but was defeated. Below that awful head, a faint sound echoed among the splintered rock, and the Dragon knew that what he heard was laughter. Then range on range of his huge bulk stirred, and a continent shuddered to his earthquakes. “Pitiful mortal, do you dare to mock me?”
“You mock yourself thrice over, Dragon,” replied the man. “Once, that you desire what you cannot feel, twice that even by my death you will be thwarted, thrice because I am blind and all your magic is powerless to enter my mind’s eye.”
The Dragon slowly blinked as he directed the full force of his thought upon the frail mortal. Deep below memories piled over the eons when he had woken to ravage the world, to rise and challenge the light of the sun in his burning fury, to fly above the rocky wreckage of twisted ranges, jagged horn-bergs and glaciered sierras, Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan recalled the terrible secret that gave him power, and he was shamed because he could not feel as did the mortal whose life he was about to end. And in that moment, he was himself transparent in his thought to the man he intended to devour. “You are eternal, elemental, timeless, all-destroying,” said the man. “But you do not and never shall know the treasure in my mind that my woman has set there. Thus, I pity you.”
Lightning smote down the precipices, rocks flew from the heights, and devastation was where the Dragon’s talons churned the bedrock, but the man stood firm and laughed once more, because he knew that Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan had trembled. Preparing himself as best he might for his death, the blind man braced himself on his staff for whatever might follow. The avalanches rumbled into silence and the tremors subsided. The earth no longer shook as the great being lowered his chin so that once more his head became the crags and peaks to which the man had climbed.
“Man,” said Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan. “Live out your tiny life. Whether or not your memory stays green, whether or not your love returns your devotion, whether or not you stumble and fall on your blind journey back to her, you have braved my wrath unflinching, and I honor you by my amazement. Your treasure is in your own keeping. I cannot take it, though while I outsleep your brief life, I shall ponder the name of the power by which you guard the memory of your woman.”
“Then freely I give you the answer,” said the man. “The power has one simple name, and that is love.” He turned, and heedless of the baleful yellow eye that watched him tap his stick upon the rocks, took his way back down the mountain in search of the woman he loved.
“Elemental Exchange” is one of twelve inter-related stories involving dragons that can be found in the The Laughing Princess, written by Seymour Hamilton and illustrated by Shirley MacKenzie. You can purchase the book in print or electronic form from Amazon. The stories are meant to be read out loud while looking at the illustrations. You can hear the author read the stories by going to http://seymourhamilton.com/?page_id=17, where you can also find the illustrations by Shirley MacKenzie. The above story was republished courtesy of Acedrex Publishing.