This story is a preview of my upcoming short story collection Fruits and Finery, which will be available for purchase on January 19. Enjoy!
The small girl pulled her bedraggled, but still fine, shawl closer around her, glad when the echoes of her footsteps no longer came back to her from the depths of the valley. She stood before ancient pillars that curled toward the sky as if they’d been carved from the earth itself and stripped of all color, drained by the eons they had seen, stretching out in solemn pairs of guards as far as she could see.
On the ground not far from her was what looked to be a broken piece of one of the columns. Kneeling to get a better look, she could see the scratches and nicks that centuries of use had imparted on it. She hovered, not quite daring to touch for a long moment, as if what this might have been could still rise up and swallow her whole. Finally, with some force of will, her hand settled on the worn surface. It was colder than she’d been expecting, like touching a river stone in the early spring. Rough, but not uninviting.
Something crackled behind her, making her jump nearly out of her skin and turn on her heel, hands up before her with palms flat out. This might have looked like a frightened plea for mercy if not for the hard-eyed grimace set on her face.
Nothing should still be here. Nothing at all should have been here for centuries. There was no way anything could be here.
“You have tread where none should come.”
She couldn’t move.
The pounding of its feet shook the very stone beneath her feet, not like the fall of boulders in the mountain pass that she had narrowly avoided to arrive here, but like the rumble of the ground when the gods shook the world, or when armies of soldiers on horseback passed by on the horizon. It was a subtle power that spoke of something so much more.
“Tell me, little one,” the silken voice said, with some hint of amusement, “why have you come to disturb my family’s bones?”
“I-“ She choked on her words. The air seemed to tingle with a strange power, stinging her skin. She swallowed, and started again. “I mean you no harm…no offense, at all. I…I came only seeking…”
“Seeking?” The amusement grew sharp. “Do you seek the tooth you dared to violate with your touch? The properties your legends imbue it with?”
The cold shape at her feet seemed to be calling to her, but she did not spare a glance for it, eyes still locked into the darkness they could not penetrate.
“I seek assistance,” she said, voice wavering but not yet breaking.
The rumbling, which had paused briefly with the voice’s questioning, began again, shifting off to her left to come before her, and yet she could still see nothing. She seemed to have its attention, at the very least. “That is…different. Why would you come to this empty place for assistance?”
“I had nowhere else to turn.” She blinked rapidly against the burning in her eyes, and again, her voice wavered unsteadily. “Please. They’re dying.”
“And well they should. Poachers. Desecrators. Thieves and vandals.” There was no malice still in the voice, though the silk of it was turning slowly to stone with her every breath. It said the words as if they were facts, with all the certainty of one who had seen these things first hand.
“We have not seen your kind for an age. My people are innocents, they do not deserve to die.”
“Do they not? They live on the backs of my slaughtered race.” The stone seemed settled in the voice, and the calm of it seemed more forced to her ears. “Why should I help you, when you will take your knowledge of my survival back to your little village, and bring them back to hunt me down for my scales or my blood or my own bones?”
There was a pause, and some of the silken interest returned. “No?”
“Some would. I will not.”
The rumbling grew slightly closer, and from the furthest edge of the low light still spilling into the valley from the setting sun, sulfurous breath swept over her face like a gust of hot wind. “And why is that, little one?”
“Will you allow me to see you before I give you my reasons?”
There was a long pause, then something that might have been a laugh echoed toward her. “Very well.”
The creature that stepped into the light before her might have been made of cast gold. The scales glittered iridescently even in the dimness, shimmering every time it drew breath. It towered over her, looming like the façade of the Baron’s manor if it were twice its size. How it spoke with the jaw of jagged teeth, longer than greatswords, she could not tell. Smoke rose from its nostrils, as if it were already deciding how she would taste well charred, and its eyes...its eyes were fascinating. They oscillated between deepest honey brown and glowing coals, and seemed almost to draw her in as they focused down on her face, sparkling with an intelligence that spoke of a lifetime of knowledge and a newfound curiosity.
The perpetual grin of its mouth opened. “Tell me.”
She stood as straight as she could manage, took a deep breath, and spoke. “I have heard the tales of the days when your kind were free to roam, and dwelled among my ancestors. They speak of raids on your lairs filled with our precious stones, stolen from the bodies of soldiers who came before them, and of burning villages whose smoke filled your wings and whose livestock filled your bellies. They speak of the terrible dangers of your kind, the cruelty and the mockery and the soul-deep evil that dwells in all of you…but I don’t see it.”
The creature tilted its head and nearly seemed to smile. “And why is that?”
She took a shaky step toward him. “I see a race that sought to protect their homes. I see a race beset by mine, who would attack each other for petty differences and squabble over power when food has run scarce. I see creatures searching for food and being struck down for not understanding the concept of an owned field or herd. I see that you have done no wrong by your standard, and we have failed to see what those standards are and explain our own before we acted, and now, when we ruin each other for titles and land, we have no one to turn to, to save us from ourselves.”
“You wish that I should save you?”
“I wish that you should help me save them.”
A long moment of silence passed, and just before she lost all courage she may have had, it spoke again.
“What would you ask of me?”
“Help me protect my home, and I will ensure that they cannot ever hurt you again.”
“How would you propose to do that? You are small and weak.”
Finally, she smiled, and felt her eyes light up with the familiar forest green glow that she had come to love. “I am not as they are. Blessed, or cursed, I do not know, but I do know that I am feared. This time, it will be of use.”