~2300 words, approx 14 min reading time
In a village of dragon-slayers, you must be tough to survive. Our lives are carved into the rocky hide of the Boneback Mountains, where the clay earth refuses to be tamed into farmland. There’s only one path to greatness in a place like this: killing dragons.
The dragons feed on us, and we feed on them. Their hollow-boned wings become our beads; their teeth become knives; their scales become armor. As my father would say, the only good dragon is a dead dragon—and they taste best when the meat is young and soft.
My earliest memories are studded with the scent of salt and dragon jerky, as my father cut flesh into strips and told me how the first dragons entered this world. How a man became so consumed with hatred, he coughed up his own burning heart, and it hardened into an egg that hatched one of every color dragon. Now those monsters haunt this mountain, carrying an evil fire, with no purpose but death and devastation.
But I intend to give the legend a new ending. I’m going to be the best damn dragon hunter to walk these ancient cliffs. I want to be extraordinary.
Today is my first hunt without my father, and my stomach hasn’t stopped beetle-buzzing all morning. I’m anxious to return triumphant, a daughter worth bragging about. I want a necklace full of dragon claws, like the one my father wears, so heavy it clicks when he walks. It’s bad enough that the Butthole Twins are leading this hunt. Beryn and Borin are smug, obnoxious, self-obsessed—but, dammit, they found the dragon egg first. Of course, they immediately lost it and blamed each other.
Still, tradition is tradition. They won the right to organize the season’s first hunt: find the mother dragon. Those devious jerks packed our group full of youngbloods, to increase their odds of killing the dragon themselves or blame the rest of us if we just come back with dust and ash.
There are twelve of us, all armed with dragonbone swords and scaled, fire-resistant shields. I should be up front, scanning for tail-drag marks and scorched grass. But I’m a soft-hearted idiot, so I’m in the back with the village weirdo, Hana, because everyone else refused.
Nobody likes Hana. She’s a chicken hatched among hawks. She even bobs her head like one. When we were kids, she was studying pond scum and waving her fingers in front of her eyes while the rest of us tore through the trees, playing dragons-and-hunters. She’s useless with any weapon you give her and wastes most of her time wandering in the woods, following brambling trails and never returning with anything more useful than some feathers, shed scales, an occasional lost tooth.
Hana is extra strange today. I try to focus on crushed grass, smoke-stink, any hint the others up ahead might have missed, but Hana is dominating my attention. She clutches her satchel like it’s a baby and keeps peeking inside it, then scanning the surrounding trees. It’s bizarre—and suspicious.
I wait until she does it again, then whirl around, scowling. “What are you doing?”
She blinks like I flicked water in her face, then hides the bag behind her back.
“Hm? What?” She won’t meet my eyes, but that’s normal.
“Everyone’s way ahead of us, and you’re acting weird. Not your usual weird.”
Hana’s nose crinkles. I feel guilty for being mean, but I can’t tell if she’s upset. Her intonation always has a strange rise and fall, like an irregular mountain peak.
“I already said you can go ahead, Awa. I’m fine.” She’s been telling me to go on without her ever since we left the village, but I’ve been resolutely ignoring her. Even if she is a chicken, she doesn’t deserve some dragon roasting her into a Hana-sized snack.
But gods, it’s tempting. I still remember the sting of Beryn smirking and saying, “At least the best hunters are up front.”
I look at the trail ahead, shrouded in long-fingered pines, leading up the humped spine of the mountain, then back at Hana.
And that’s when her bag chirps. It’s almost catlike.
“What was that?”
Hana shuffles backward, eyes widened in obvious panic. “Oh. Nothing. Definitely nothing.”
I don’t waste time on more questions. I just lunge at her.
She spins away, her black braid whipping her face, and squeaks, “I said it’s nothing!”
“It’s clearly something!”
And it’s like we’re little girls again, Hana yelping and stumbling the few times I took pity and tried to teach her how to fight. The chase only lasts a few seconds before I out-step her and yank open her bag.
“Wait—” Hana says.
A little green head pops out. It’s scaly, with orange eyes and a fuzzy cowl of golden down feathers. Its nose has a rounded nub that will grow into a palm-sized spike.
A baby greenhorn dragon.
My hand darts for the dragon-fang knife at my belt, but Hana’s gasp stops me. We gape at each other. It’s the longest Hana has actually held my eye contact. For the first time, I see that her eyes have something magic to them. Flecks of gold in dark earth.
Then she blinks fast and does that finger-wave thing. Two fingers in front of her eye, lifting and rising, a frantic wingbeat.
“Don’t tell,” she says.
“You stole the Butthole Twins’ egg?”
“You still call them that?”
“That’s not the point. That thing is going to grow up and eat you.”
“Actually, greenhorns are herbivores. They have primarily flat teeth, and their front incisors are for ripping off leaves and—”
“I don’t want a Hana-rant.”
“Well, you were wrong.”
I scoff. “If plant-eating dragons were real, my father would have already told me about it.”
“Maybe your father doesn’t know everything.”
An indignant fire sparks in my gut. “What makes you think you know better?”
“I watch them instead of trying to kill them. I found the egg first, but I left it alone.” Hana tugs the bag back. She coos at the dragon, and it trills, nuzzling her chin. “Beryn and Borin were going to make a stew out of him, and I couldn’t sit back and watch. I slept on his egg for two weeks to keep it warm.”
I catch myself smiling, then smother it instantly. That’s ridiculous.
“Are you trying to lure the mother out?”
Hana’s mouth opens in a horrified O. “No! I’m trying to bring him home.”
I glance around the dense walls of conifers and underbrush sprawling around us, broken only by our hunting party’s narrow trail. The others have already left us behind, seeking open sky, smoke, skeletons—telltale signs of a dragon’s path. Maybe they’re glad to move faster without Hana.
An idea gathers within me.
“You know which way to go?” I say.
“You mean you’re going to help me?”
My hand itches for the bow on my back. I can already imagine the outrage on the Butthole Twins’ butthole faces when they reach the dragon’s nest and find me waiting beside its corpse. My father would belly-laugh and slap my back and tell that story for years to come. A surefire, foolproof plan.
Nobody becomes extraordinary by listening to their weak and gentle heart.
I put on a fake smile. “I’ve helped you before, haven’t I?”
Hana calls the dragonling Stubs. It gazes from the bag in wonder, which is admittedly a little cute. But even the most brutal predators start out cute—and then they grow up.
The entire time we walk, Hana tells me nonstop greenhorn facts.
“Greenhorns are shy and polite. They bury their feces and cover it with pine needles. Their horn looks fearsome, but it’s actually used to dig for insects, roots, and vegetables. I know people say that dragons live among boulders and caves, but I’ve observed that they actually lay their eggs on rocks for insulation from the sun, and then relocate their babies to permanent nests after hatching. Baby greenhorns prefer soft foods like berries, slugs, worms—”
I interrupt her. I can’t help it. We’re halfway up the mountain, climbing at a steep, near-vertical angle, using shrubs to pull ourselves along.
“You hate touching slugs. And worms.”
Hana pauses. She and the dragonling give me the same surprised, wide-eyed stare.
“You remember that?”
“Yeah. Everyone made fun of you.” And then mocked me for baiting her fishhook while she flapped her hands and cried. I felt bad for her, but I felt worse when my father told me, his voice soft and grim, You don’t help her by letting her stay weak, Awa.
“Everyone always makes fun of me.” She pushes back a juniper bough and gestures at the three-toed gouges in the clay, an unmistakable greenhorn track, hidden in vegetation. “This is how I found her nest. Do you see how the base of the branch bends down lower than normal?”
I snort-laugh. “No. How do you see that?”
“It’s a pattern. Well, it breaks the pattern. We should be quiet. We’re getting close.”
We climb for a few more minutes. Every time she reaches for a new grip, Hanna swipes her palm along the juniper bristles. I try it, just to feel what she feels. It’s as ticklish and shivery as the dragon claws on my father’s necklace.
Finally, we reach a plateau in the mountain, still densely clustered with brush. It’s nothing like the caves, strewn with bones and rot, that my father described. Still, I can see the break in the foliage, narrow but unmissable: a dragon trail, with a thin curving line of pine needles disturbed by its tail.
Hana and I trade grins. She kisses the top of Stubs’s head. “Almost home.”
I follow her, my stomach twisting.
Beyond the brush, we find it. A crushed circle of sedge grass, big enough for a cow to rest in. I expect human bones in a dragon’s nest, but there’s nothing except the trampled grass and horn-gouges on the trees. Oddly similar to an elk or a stag. Doubt stormclouds across my mind, but I hide it well. I always hide it well.
Hana steps into the nest and sets the dragonling down. It’s pudgy, round-bodied, with comically oversized wings, like a puppy’s ears. It tilts its head and chirps.
“Bye, Stubs,” she whispers. “Stay here. Mama’s coming.”
“I don’t even hear anything.”
“She’ll come. It’s her baby. She’ll come.”
Then Hana tugs on my sleeve, and I follow her. We keep going, up an embankment, and crouch down above the nest to watch.
Hana presses her shoulder against mine. “I don’t usually like to touch people.”
Neither one of us moves.
Below us, Stubs snuffles around a little, unsteady on its chubby legs. In the sunlight, its downy head looks like a dandelion, about to lose its seeds. But the grass is too tall, and it stops to look around, feathers flopping. Its wings twitch. And then it cries, low and bleating. Anyone close enough could hear it. Even the other dragon-hunters.
We’re still shoulder-to-shoulder when the trees begin to tremble, the thudthud of its footsteps like low thunder. My whole body tenses as a huge head emerges from the brush. A massive chipped horn on the snout, intelligent orange eyes, mottled green-and-brown scales.
The mother. And I have a perfect shot. Already, I can imagine my father’s smile, the way he will palm the back of my head and tell me, I knew you would be the one to bring home its claw.
I reach for my bow.
Hana gasps, entirely focused on the dragon circling the nest. “She’s amazing.”
I look over. Hana’s waving her fingers in front of her dewy eyes. She’s crying and smiling. The mother greenhorn snuffles her baby, then nuzzles it, wraps her tail around it, and pulls it tight to her body. She tears up a cluster of grass and holds it for Stubs to gnaw at.
“We did it,” Hana whispers.
My hand slips off my bow. “No. You did it.”
All this time, I’ve hunted for the monsters from my father’s stories. And here I am, with our village’s greatest dragon hunter, who will never wear a dragon-claw necklace, who can’t make eye contact, who can’t touch worms, who can’t possibly know she’s given me a new story to tell.
I offer my hand to Hana. She looks at it, puzzled, the gold glinting in her brown eyes. There really is something magic in them.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“For everything. For not standing up for you. I’m sorry.”
Hana hesitates, then slips her fingers into mine. “Help me lie to the Butthole Twins, and I’ll forgive you.”
I stifle my laugh, so it doesn’t scare the dragons. The mother is already prodding her horn into the dirt, and Stubs watches, hungry-eyed, tiny teeth peeping over its upper lip, learning how to hunt. I think of my own father. My chest aches with memory and guilt, and I hope his heart is not too hardened to understand.
We climb down together, breathless and whispering over our new secret, when we find our hunting troupe, headed our way. I wave and call, “Nothing up here. We checked all over.”
The twins scowl up at us. They’re sweaty, filthy, the entire hunting party wilting like old grass.
One of them hollers, “What were you weirdos doing up there?”
Beside me, Hana flinches back, flicking her fingers in front of her eye.
“Looking for dragons, idiot,” I snap back. “And stop calling her weird.”
Hana covers her ears when I yell, but she’s smiling. Really smiling.
The others scoff but turn back to keep searching. Hana and I take up the rear, our fingers hooked together, and she tells me all about greenhorns.
I drink up every word.
Taylor Rae is a professional mountain troll, hidden away in the wilds of North Idaho. She does most of her writing in a refurbished chicken coop, surrounded by cats. Her autistic hyperfocuses include dinosaurs, semiotics, and (of course) books. She edits Space Fantasy Magazine, and her work appears in Flash Fiction Online, PseudoPod, and Fit for the Gods from Vintage Books. More at www.mostlytaylor.com