By Joanna Michal Hoyt
Welcome to my lair, dragon-slayer.
No, I’m not mocking you. Nor bewitching you, whatever the King said. If I were doing that, it wouldn’t occur to you to wonder if I was doing it.
Listen before you throw that spear, or you’ll live long to regret it.
Yes, live. I’d be hard-pressed to kill you. I can’t breathe fire. I have teeth and claws, reasonably sharp, but you’ve got the better reach with your sword, even if your spear-cast misses, which it shouldn’t now you’re between me and those golden statues of armed people fleeing. Besides, I have arthritis like my mother; lunging at you would hurt. I’m ready to leave this life, this body, this loneliness—even at spearpoint, if you won’t choose the better way out.
So you don’t believe I can’t breathe fire. You saw the burnt wreckage of your lover’s house.
You didn’t see how the fire started, did you? No. You saw what was left: bones, cinders, melted metal—iron only, no trace of the gold. Who but a dragon would do such things? Who do you think? How do you suppose the King keeps his guardsmen loyal, his capital resplendent, and his critics silent?
True, the heroes who seek the dragon’s lair never return. You think that means I kill them? Look again at those statues.
You think I turned them to gold? I can no more cast a spell than I can breathe fire. The spell of this place binds me, but I didn’t shape it.
Yes, I know things you think I shouldn’t. I know the guardsman told you that he and his comrades had seen the dragon fly overhead, but by the time they came to the place where the dragon had alighted—to what had been your friend’s house—it was too late. Look at me. Do you see wings? He said that the guardsmen in their troops could try to fight the dragon off when it attacked human habitations, but that only a single champion could break through the spell and come to the dragon’s lair, didn’t he? Yes, you remember. And I know how he looked, too: the mole on his left cheek, the chipped top front tooth.
Maybe my mother’s Sight came to me like her arthritis. More likely the Sight comes with the dragon-spell. Every curse must have an escape clause, or else it burns a hole in the world and sucks the curse-caster in first of all. Here’s the escape in the dragon-spell: I know the truth, and I can tell you. But the curse will still bite us both unless you believe me.
You’re starting to believe. You fear that means that my spell’s gnawing your mind like a worm in wool. Oh, our King’s clever. I’ll likely be dead if you find me convincing and dead if you don’t.
Yes, I know the usual form of the proverb. Choose wrong, and you’ll be damned as I am now.
You can still choose to be the hero, the savior, you wanted to be. You can lay down your weapons and take me by the claw—the left; the right pains me so I might hurt you in spite of myself if you shift it. Look me in the eye—either eye will do. Say, “I set you free.” Then I’ll have my old shape again, and we can go down and tell the truth…
Yes, my old shape. Don’t you understand yet? I hardly needed the Sight to know what the guardsman told you. It’s the same thing they told me before I climbed this mountain with my mother’s name bitter as ash in my mouth.
I was away when my house burned. My baby brother, my twelve-year-old sister, vanished. My mother, who had the Sight and a tongue that spared no man, was left behind for me to find, though her wedding bands were gone. I came seeking vengeance. You see what happened. I can’t undo it now. You can.
Still not sure you can trust me? They weren’t sure, either, those golden statues, back when they had life and motion. They tried to leave without choosing. Here they stay.
No, those aren’t your only choices. I see your hands tightening on the spear-haft. Yes, you can still do that. I can’t stop you. I won’t even blame you overmuch for choosing what I chose.