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The Dragons of Babelby Michael Swanwick
The dragons came at dawn, flying low and in formation, their jets so thunderous they shook the ground like the great throbbing heartbeat of the world. The village elders ran outside, half unbuttoned, waving their staffs in circles and shouting words of power. Vanish, they cried to the land, and sleep to the skies, though had the dragons half-elven pilots cared they could easily have seen through such flimsy spells of concealment. But the pilots thoughts were turned toward the West, where Avalons industrial strength was based, and where its armies were rumored to be massing.
Wills aunt made a blind grab for him, but he ducked under her arm and ran out into the dirt street. The gun emplacements to the south were speaking now, in booming shouts that filled the sky with bursts of pink smoke and flak.
Half the children in the village were out in the streets, hopping up and down in glee, the winged ones buzzing about in small, excited circles. Then the yage-witch came hobbling out from her barrel and, demonstrating a strength Will had never suspected her of having, swept her arms wide and then slammed together her hoary old hands with a boom! that drove the children, all against their will, back into their huts.
All save Will. He had been performing that act which rendered one immune from child-magic every night for three weeks now. Fleeing from the village, he felt the enchantment like a polite hand placed on his shoulder. One weak tug, and then it was gone.
He ran, swift as the wind, up Grannystone Hill. His great-great-great-grandmother lived there still, alone at its tip, as a gray standing stone. She never said anything. But sometimes, though one never saw her move, she went down to the river at night to drink. Coming back from a nighttime fishing trip in his wee coracle, Will would find her standing motionless there and greet her respectfully. If the catch were good, he would gut an eel or a small trout, and smear the blood over her feet. It was the sort of small courtesy elderly relatives appreciated.
“Will, you young fool, turn back!” a cobbley cried from the inside of a junk refrigerator in the garbage dump at the edge of the village. “Its not safe up there!”
But Will shook his head, blond hair flying behind him, and put every ounce of his strength into his running. There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.
The hills bald and grassy summit was not far. Will ran with a wildness he could not understand, lungs pounding and the wind of his own speed whistling in his ears.
Then he was atop the hill, breathing hard, with one hand on his grandmother stone.
The dragons were still flying overhead in waves. The roar of their jets was astounding. Will lifted his face into the heat of their passage, and felt the wash of their malice and hatred as well. It was like a dark wine that sickened the stomach and made the head throb with pain and bewilderment and wonder. It repulsed him and made him want more.
The last flight of dragons scorched over, twisting his head and spinning his body around, skimming low over farms and fields and the Old Forest that stretched all the way to the horizon and beyond. A faint brimstone stench of burnt fuel lingered in the air after them. Will felt his heart grow so large it seemed impossible his chest could contain it, so large that it threatened to encompass the hill, farms, forest, dragons, and all the world beyond.
Something hideous and black leaped up from the distant forest and into the air, flashing toward the final dragon. Wills eyes were wrenched by a sudden painful wrongness, and then a stone hand came down over them.
“Dont look,” said an old and calm and stony voice. “To look upon a basilisk is no way for a child of mine to die.”
“Grandmother?” Will asked.
“If I promise to keep my eyes closed, will you tell me whats happening?”
There was a brief silence. Then: “Very well. The dragon has turned. He is fleeing.”
“Dragons dont flee,” Will said scornfully. “Not from anything.” He tried to pry the hand from his eyes, but of course it was useless, for his fingers were mere flesh.
“This one does. And he is wise to do so. His fate has come for him. Out from the halls of coral it has come, and down to the halls of granite will it take him. Even now his pilot is singing his death-song.”
She fell silent again, while the distant roar of the dragon rose and fell in pitch. Will could tell that momentous things were happening, but the sound gave him not the least clue as to their nature. At last he said, “Grandmother? Now?”
“He is clever, this one. He fights very well. He is elusive. But he cannot escape a basilisk. Already the creature knows the first two syllables of his true name. At this very moment it is speaking to his heart, and telling it to stop beating.”
The roar of the dragon grew louder again, and then louder still. Echoes bounced from every hillside, compounding and recomplicating it into a confusion of sound. Cutting through this was a noise that was like a cross between a scarecrow screaming and the sound of teeth scraping on slate.
“Now they are almost touching. The basilisk reaches for its prey. . . .”
All the world exploded. The inside of Wills skull turned white, and for an astonishing instant he was certain he was going to die. Then his grandmother threw her stone cloak over him and, clutching him to her warm breast, knelt down low to the sheltering earth.
When he awoke, it was dark and he lay alone on the cold hillside. Painfully, he stood. A somber orange-and-red sunset limned the western horizon, where the dragons had disappeared. Frogs sang from the river-marsh. In the dimming sky, ibises sought their evening roosts.
“Grandmother?” Will stumbled to the top of the hill, hindered by loose stones that turned underfoot and barked his ankles. He ached in every joint. There was a ringing in his ears, like factory bells tolling the end of a shift. “Grandmother!”
There was no answer.
The hilltop was empty.
But scattered down the hillside, from its top down to where he had awakened, was a stream of broken stones. He had hurried past them without looking on his way up. Now he saw that their exterior surfaces were the familiar and comfortable gray of his stone-mother, and that the freshly exposed interior surfaces were slick with blood.
One by one, Will carried the stones up to the top of the hill, back to the spot where his great-great-great-grandmother had preferred to stand and watch over the village. It took hours. He piled them one on top of another, and though he worked harder than he had ever done in his life, when he was finished, the cairn did not rise even so high as his waist. No more than that remained of she who had protected the village for so many generations.
By the time he was done, the stars were bright and cruel in a black, moonless sky. A night-wind ruffled his shirt and made him shiver. With sudden clarity Will marveled at last that he should be here alone. Where was his aunt? Where were the other villagers?
Will carried his rune-bag with him always, stuffed into a hip pocket. He yanked it out and spilled its contents into his hand. A crumpled blue jays feather, a shard of mirror, two acorns, and a pebble with one side blank and the other marked with an X. He kept the mirror shard and poured the rest back into the bag. Then he invoked the secret name of the lux aeterna, inviting a tiny fraction of its radiance to enter the mundane world.
A gentle foxfire spread itself through the mirror. Holding it at arms length so he could see his face reflected therein, he asked the oracle glass, “Why did my village not come for me?”
The mirror-boys mouth moved in the silvery water of the glass. “They came.” The lips were pale and tinged with blue, like a corpses.
“Then why did they leave? Why didnt they bring me home?” Unconsciously, Will kicked at his stone-grandams cairn, built with so great a labor and no help from anyone.
“They didnt find you.”
The oracle-glass was maddeningly literal, capable only of answering the question one asked, rather than that which one wanted answered. But Will persisted. “Why didnt they find me?”
“You werent here.”
“Where was I? Where was my Granny?”
“You were nowhere.”
“How could we be nowhere?”
Tonelessly, the mirror said, “The basilisks explosion warped the world and the mesh of time in which it is caught. The sarsen-lady and you were thrown forward, halfway through the day.”
It was as clear an explanation as Will was going to get. He muttered a word of unbinding, releasing the invigorating light back to whence it came. Then, fearful that the blood on his hands and clothes would draw night-gaunts, he hurried homeward.
When he got to the village, he discovered that a search party was still scouring the darkness, looking for him. Those who remained had hoisted a straw man upside down atop a tall pole at the center of the village square, and set it ablaze against the chance he was still alive, to draw him home.
As so it had.
Two days after those events, a crippled dragon crawled out of the Old Forest and into the village. Slowly he pulled himself into the center square. Then he collapsed. He was wingless and there were gaping holes in his fuselage, but still the stench of power clung to him, and a miasma of hatred. A trickle of oil seeped from a gash in his belly and made a spreading stain on the cobbles beneath him.
Will was among those who crowded out to behold this prodigy. The others whispered hurtful remarks among themselves about its ugliness. And truly it was built of cold, black iron, and scorched even darker by the basilisks explosion, with jagged stumps of metal where its wings had been and ruptured plates here and there along its flanks. But even half-destroyed, the dragon was a beautiful creature. It was built with dwarven skill to high-elven design—how could it not be beautiful?
Puck Berrysnatcher bumped hips with him and murmured, “Its yours, isnt it?”
Will shrugged irritably, said nothing.
“Same one as the basilisk shot down, I mean.”
“I dont know, and I dont care. It wasnt me that brought it here.”
For a long time no one spoke. Then an engine hummed to life somewhere deep within the dragons chest, rose in pitch to a clattering whine, and fell again into silence. The dragon slowly opened one eye.
“Bring me your truth-teller,” he rumbled.
The truth-teller was a fruit-woman named Bessie Applemere. She was young, and yet, out of respect for her office, everybody called her by the honorific Hag. She came, clad in the robes and wide hat of her calling, breasts bare as was traditional, and stood before the mighty engine of war. “Father of Lies.” She bowed respectfully.
“I am crippled, and all my missiles are spent,” the dragon said. “But still am I dangerous.”
Hag Applemere nodded. “It is the truth.”
“My tanks are yet half-filled with jet fuel. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to set them off with an electrical spark. And were I to do so, your village and all who live within it would cease to be. Therefore, since power engenders power, I am now your liege and king.”
“It is the truth.”
A murmur went up from the assembled villagers.
“However, my reign will be brief. By Samhain, the Armies of the Mighty will be here, and they shall take me back to the great forges of the East to be rebuilt.”
“You believe it so.”
The dragons second eye opened. Both focused steadily on the truth-teller. “You do not please me, Hag. I may someday soon find it necessary to break open your body and eat your beating heart.”
Hag Applemere nodded. “It is the truth.”
Unexpectedly, the dragon laughed. It was cruel and sardonic laughter, as the mirth of such creatures always was, but it was laughter nonetheless. Many of the villagers covered their ears against it. The smaller children burst into tears. “You amuse me,” he said. “All of you amuse me. We begin my reign on a gladsome note.”
The truth-teller bowed. Watching, Will thought he detected a great sadness in her eyes. But she said nothing.
“Let your lady-mayor come forth, that she might give me obeisance.”
Auld Black Agnes shuffled from the crowd. She was scrawny and thrawn and bent almost double from the weight of her responsibilities, tokens of which hung in a black leather bag pendant from her neck. Opening that bag, she brought forth a flat stone from the first hearth of the village, and laid it down before the dragon. Kneeling, she placed her left hand, splayed, upon it.
Then she took out a small silver sickle.
“Your blood and ours. Thy fate and mine. Our joy and your wickedness. Let all be as one.” Her voice rose in a warbling keen:
“Black spirits and white, red spirits and gray,
Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may.”
Her right hand trembled with palsy as it raised the sickle up above her left. But her slanting motion downward was swift and sudden. Blood spurted, and her little finger went flying.
She made one small, sharp cry, like a seabirds, and no more.
“I am satisfied,” the dragon said. Then, without transition: “My pilot is dead and he begins to rot.” A hatch hissed open in his side. “Drag him forth.”
“Do you wish him buried?” a tusse asked hesitantly.
“Bury him, burn him, cut him up for bait—what do I care? When he was alive, I needed him in order to fly. But hes dead now, and of no use to me.”
Will knelt in the dust beside the dragon. Hed been standing in line for hours, and there were villagers who would be standing in that same line hours from now, waiting to be processed. They went in fearful, and they came out dazed. When a lily-maid stepped down from the dragon, and somebody shouted a question at her, she simply shook her tear-streaked face, and fled. None would speak of what happened within.
The hatch opened.
He did. The hatch closed behind him.
At first he could see nothing. Then small, faint lights swam out of the darkness. Bits of green and white stabilized, became instrument lights, pale luminescent flecks on dials. One groping hand touched leather. It was the pilots couch. He could smell, faintly, the taint of corruption on it.
Clumsily, he climbed into the seat. The leather creaked under him. His arms naturally lay along the arms of the couch. He might have been made for it. There were handgrips. At the dragons direction, he closed his hands about them and turned them as far as they would go. A quarter-turn, perhaps.
From beneath, needles slid into his wrists. They stung like blazes, and Will jerked involuntarily. But when he tried, he discovered that he could not let go of the grips. His fingers would no longer obey him.
“Boy,” the dragon said suddenly, “what is your true name?”
Will trembled. “I dont have one.”
Immediately, he sensed that this was not the right answer. There was a silence. Then the dragon said dispassionately, “I can make you suffer.”
“Sir, I am certain you can.”
“Then tell me your true name.”
His wrists were cold—cold as ice. The sensation that spread up his forearms to his elbows was not numbness, for they ached as if they had been packed in snow. “I dont know it!” Will cried in an anguish. “I dont know, I was never told, I dont think I have one!”
Small lights gleamed on the instrument panel, like forest eyes at night.
“Interesting.” For the first time, the dragons voice displayed a faint tinge of emotion. “What family is yours? Tell me everything about them.”
Will had no family other than his aunt. His parents had died on the very first day of the War. Theirs was the ill fortune of being in Brocielande Station when the dragons came and dropped golden fire on the rail yards. So Will had been shipped off to the hills to live with his aunt. Everyone agreed he would be safest there. That was several years ago, and there were times now when he could not remember his parents at all. Soon he would have only the memory of remembering.
As for his aunt, Blind Enna was little more to him than a set of rules to be contravened and chores to be evaded. She was a pious old creature, forever killing small animals in honor of the Nameless Ones and burying their corpses under the floor or nailing them above doors or windows. In consequence of which, a faint perpetual stink of conformity and rotting mouse hung about the hut. She mumbled to herself constantly and on those rare occasions when she got drunk—two or three times a year—would run out naked into the night and, mounting a cow backward, lash its sides bloody with a hickory switch so that it ran wildly uphill and down until finally she tumbled off and fell asleep. At dawn Will would come with a blanket and lead her home. But they were never exactly close.
All this he told in stumbling, awkward words. The dragon listened without comment.
The cold had risen up to Wills armpits by now. He shuddered as it touched his shoulders. “Please . . . ,” he said. “Lord Dragon . . . your ice has reached my chest. If it touches my heart, I fear that Ill die.”
“Hmmm? Ah! I was lost in thought.” The needles withdrew from Wills arms. They were still numb and lifeless, but at least the cold had stopped its spread. Pins and needles tingled at the center of his fingertips, an early omen that sensation would eventually return.
The door hissed open. “You may leave now.”
He stumbled out into the light.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Swanwick. All rights reserved.
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