She still loves the dragon that set her on fire.
The knight-errant who came seeking you prepared so carefully. She made herself whole for you. To be worthy of you. To be strong enough to reach you, where you live, so very high.
She found the old wounds of her earlier errantry and of her past errors, and the other ones that had been inflicted through no fault of her own. She found the broken bones that had healed only halfway, and caused them to be refractured, and endured the pain so they would heal swift and straight, because dragons do not live in the low country where the earth is soft and walking is easy.
She sought out the sweet balms and even more so she sought out the herbs bitter as unwelcome truth, that must nevertheless be swallowed. She paid for both in time, and grief, and in skinned palms and pricked fingers.
She quested, and she crafted potions: to make her sight bright in the darkness; to make her hands strong on the stone.
The knight-errant, when she decides for the first time to seek the dragon, has with her many retainers, loyalty earned and nurtured through heroism and care. She has an entourage, pavilions, a warhorse, and a mare. She has armaments and shields for combat mounted and afoot.
They cannot climb with her.
She leaves them all among the soft grass and the gentle foothills below. She tells them not to wait for her.
She tells them to go home.
She climbed your mountain for you. She was afraid, and it was high.
The winter lashed there. The strong sun scorched her. She ducked the landslide of snow and boulders the flip of your wings dislodged, when you resettled them in your sleep. She smelled the sulfur fumes emerging from long vents, and watched the pale blue flames burn here and there, eerie among the barren rust-black stone.
She drank melted snow; she tried to step around the ochre and yellow and burnt umber ruffles of the lichens, knowing they were fragile and ancient, the only other life tenacious enough to make its home in this place of fire and stone and snow.
The knight-errant sings a song to herself as she climbs, to keep up her courage. It is an old song now, a ballad with parts that can be traded between two people, and it goes with a fairytale, but it was a new song when she sang it then.
This is the song she is singing as the basalt opens her palms:
Let me lay this razor
At your throat, my love.
That your throat my love
Will be guarded so.
But my throat is tender
And the blade is keen
So my flesh may part
And the blood may flow.
No harm will you come to
If you’re still, my love.
So be still my love,
That no blood may flow.
Still as glass I might be
But my breath must rise,
For who can keep from breathing?
So the blood may flow.
Sharp as glass the blade is,
If you’re cut, my love
You must trust my love
That you’ll feel no pain.
So the flesh was parted,
For the blade was keen
And the blood did flow
And they felt no pain.
She is still singing as she achieves the hollow top of the mountain where the dragon nests, glaciers gently sublimating into steam against its belly. No one would bother to try to sneak up on a dragon. It doesn’t matter, however, as she is struck silent by the sight that greets her even as she comes to the end of her song.
How does a dragon seem?
Well, here is a charred coil like a curved trunk that has smoldered and cracked in a slow fire. And there is a flank as rugged as a scree slope, broken facets slick with anthracite rainbows. And there is a wing membrane like a veil of paper-ash, like the grey cuticle and veins of an enormous leaf when some hungry larva has gnawed everything that was living away. And over there is a stained horn or claw or tooth, deeply grooved, blunted by wear, perhaps ragged at the tip and stained ombre amber-grey with time and exercise and contact with what substances even the gods may guess at.
And here is an eye.
An eye, lit from within, flickering, hourglass-pupiled, mottled in carnelian shades.
An eye that as one regards it, is in its turn regarding one as well.
She took off her armor for you. She set it aside, piece by piece, even knowing what you are.
So that you could see her naked.
She showed you her scars and her treasures.
She stretched out her arms to the frost and her tender flesh prickled. Her breath plumed. She shook with the cold, unless it was fear that rattled her dark feet on the ice.
“Did you come to destroy me?”
The dragon’s voice is not what she expected. It is soft and sweet, spring breezes, apple blossom, drifting petals all around. Ineluctably feminine. Everything the knight is not, herself.
The dragon sounds neither wary nor angry. Mildly curious, perhaps.
The woman shakes so hard in the cold that she feels her own bones pulling against, straining her tendons.
“I came because you are the only challenge left to me,” the woman says. “I have crossed the ocean, yes, and sounded it too. I have braved deserts and jungles and caverns and the cold of the North. I have cooked my dinner in a geyser, and I have scaled mountains, too.” Here, she taps her bare heel ruefully on icy basalt. Her toes turn the color of dusk. They ache down to the bone.
She will put her boots back on soon enough, she decides. But she still has something to prove.
She says (and she only sounds, she thinks, the smallest amount as if she is boasting, and anyway all of it is true), “I have won wars, and I have prevented them from ever beginning. I have raised a daughter and sewn a shroud for a lover. I have written a song or two in my time and some were even sung by other people. I have lost at tables to the King of the Giants and still walked out of his hall alive. I even kissed that trickster once, the one you know, who turns themself into a mare and what-not, and came away with my lips still on.”
Maybe now she sounds a little like she is boasting. And anyway, still all of it is true.
And maybe even the dragon looks a little impressed.
“And now you’re naked in front of a dragon,” the dragon says, amused.
“That’s how it goes.” She wraps her arms around herself. Her words are more chatter than breath.
“Am I another item on your list?” the dragon asks. “Will you tick me off on your fingers when you climb back down?”
She looks at the dragon. An awful tenderness rises in her.
“No,” she says. “I do not think I will.”
“Come closer,” says the dragon. “It is warmer over here.”
She chose to trust the dragon.
She chose to have faith in winter. In danger. In the fire as old as time.
She chose to seek you. She chose to reveal herself to you.
She loved you, and that last thing, she could not have chosen.
That last thing just happened.
Things just happen sometimes.
“So you came here,” the dragon says, when her muscles have relaxed and she can stand straight again. She turns, so her back warms, too. The heat is so delicious she’s not quite ready to get dressed yet, and put that layer of cloth between herself and the warmth of the dragon’s skin.
“I came here because you are the only dragon left.”
“I am the only dragon ever.”
The knight-errant turns back to the dragon and stares.
“Dragons live forever,” says the dragon. “It would be a terrible thing for there to be more than one.”
“How can that be?”
“It simply is.”
“But where did you come from?”
“I made myself,” says the dragon. “A long time ago. By deciding to exist, and take up space in the world.”
“Is that all it takes for you to be real?”
“Are you the litany of things you have accomplished?”
The woman is silent for a while. Then she says, “Yes. That is how we make ourselves real. That is what we are.”
The dragon does not need her. The dragon is complete in itself.
One cannot fail to love a dragon. One might as well fail to love the moon. Or the sea. Or the vast sweep of soft silence over a headland, broken only by the unified exultation of a rising flock of birds.
It wouldn’t matter to the moon. And you couldn’t help but love it anyway.
You could not have chosen to love her, either.
That just happened as well.
Her nakedness. Her courage.
Her tender, toothsome fragility.
Her decision to be vulnerable before the perfect terribleness of you.
She was graying. She was dying. You warmed her with the heat of your body, the furnace contained within.
You folded her in wings against your hot scales.
You made decisions, too.
Flight is a miracle.
She cannot breathe, where the dragon takes her. It is too cold, and the air is too thin.
But she is strong, and she is flying, and she can see the whole world from up here.
You were fascinated for a while. For a little while. A dozen years, give or take a little. You are not particular about time. You are a dragon.
It seemed like a long time to her, probably—living on a mountaintop, watching the seasons turn. Singing her songs.
The songs stopped amusing you as they used to. They all sounded the same. They all sounded… facile.
Armored, though she was not wearing any armor. Any armor you could see. Perhaps the armor was on the inside.
The possibility made you curious.
So you set her on fire.
Because you were curious. And because you were a dragon.
She is singing when the dragon sets her on fire. Its head looms over her like a rock shelf. The snow falls all around her, but not behind, because that is where the bulk of the dragon’s body is. It is like being in a cave, or under an overhang.
She never will remember, later, what she is singing right now.
The great head shifts. There is a grinding sound like rockfall. The head angles sharply, and she thinks rockslide, and the snow falls on her body. It vanishes when it touches her, leaving little dots of chill and wetness on her skin.
She just has time to marvel at how cold it is once the dragon pulls away from her, when the muzzle tilts toward her, the massive jaw cracks open, and she looks up, up the beast’s great gullet into a blue-white chasm of fire.
“Why did you set me on fire?” the knight cried, burning.
And of course there is no easy answer.
You burned her because fire is what you are.
You burned her because your gifts come wreathed in flames, and your heart is an ember, and your breath is a star, and because you loved her and you wanted to give her everything you are.
You burned her because you love her, and the only way to love is to take up space in the world.
You burned her because she was vulnerable, and you are a thing that burns.
You burned her because the truth, the nakedness, the sensibility had fallen out of her songs.
You burned her because you are what you are, and because there was no reason not to set her on fire.
It is not a small fire.
It is a fire fit for a dragon’s beloved. It rolls down the mountain in a wave, in a thunderclap. It billows and roils and when it had passed it leaves cooling, cracking slabs of new mountain behind.
She stands atop the mountain, burning. Her skin crackling, her flesh ablaze. She turns; she sees where the fire has wandered. Has swept.
All the trees lie combed in one direction, meticulous. As if a lover had dressed their hair.
Here you are in the wreckage.
You live in the wreckage now.
It is a habitat for dragons.
She doesn’t hold it against you. Well, not for long.
It is the nature of dragons, to incinerate what they love.
The broken woman still loves the dragon. She still loves her. Even though the dragon has broken her.
She can always, and only, be a broken person now.
She can be the woman the dragon burned.
The woman who is burning.
The woman who will be burning still.
The flames were better armor than the armor she took off for you. Nothing will pass through them.
No one will pass through them.
Not even you.
Not even her love for you.
The flames would keep her safe inside.
The burning lasts. The burning continues.
She lives, for she is full of balms, and bitter herbs, and strong. She lives, not yet resigned to the burning.
To the having been burned.
She lives, and the burning continues. The burning continues because having once been burned, if she allows herself to stop burning, she is going to have to think about repairs.
Here you are in the ruins.
The ruins are your home as well.
The woman the dragon burned fears letting the fire die, and the fear makes her angry. She feeds the flames on her anger, so the fire makes fear and the fear makes fire. It hurts, but she cannot stop burning. If she stops burning, she may get burned again.
It goes on like that for a long time.
The fires filled the space around her. The flames were copper, were cobalt, were viridian, were vermilion. They licked your jaw and up the side of your face quite pleasingly as you sheltered her. Not that she needed the shelter now that she was burning.
You wished, though, that she would sing again.
She tried, occasionally. But all that came out when she made the attempt is colored flames.
The woman the dragon burned gets tired of burning. She gets tired of touching the dragon and feeling only flames stroke her hands. She gets tired of touching herself, of dropping her face into her palms and feeling only heat and ash. She gets tired of the little puffs of flame that are all she can produce when she tries to sing, burning will o’ the wisps that are about nothing but the fact that they are burning.
She decides to let the fire go out, but it’s not so easy not being angry. Not being afraid. Finding ways to steal fuel from the fire.
But bit by bit, she does so. Bit by bit, the flames flicker and fade.
Underneath she is charred like a curved trunk that has smoldered and cracked. Her skin is burned rugged as a scree slope, broken facets of carbon slick with anthracite rainbows. She trails veils of debris, like lacy webs of paper ash.
The scars are armor. Better armor than the skin before. Not so good as the flames, but they will keep her safe as she heals.
The scars slowly tighten. Contract. They curl her hands and hunch her shoulders. They seal her face into an expression without expression. She is stiff and imprisoned in her own hide.
She cannot sing now either.
And she certainly cannot climb back down again.
She amuses herself as best she can. The dragon gives her small things. Toys or tools, but bits of its body. Parts of itself. A scale for a table, a bit of claw for an inkwell.
The woman wrote a poem for you.
It was a poem that began, “I am the woman who still loves the dragon that burned me.”
She wrote it on the armor over your heart. She cut it there with a pen made from a sliver of the black glass from your spines, and she filled the letters with your silver blood, and there it shone, and shines.
The winter comes and the winter goes.
There is a curl of green among the ash below, the great trees fallen like new-combed hair.
One day the woman began to dig at her skin. Her nails had grown long and ragged. Blood and lymph welled.
“What are you doing?” you asked her.
“It itches,” she said.
You gave her another bit of spine to make a knife with and watched as bit by bit she peeled a narrow strip of scar away. The skin underneath was new, more tender than her old skin. It did not look like her old skin, either; it was raw, and unpretty, and she flinched at every touch.
She couldn’t bear to work at peeling herself for more than a few inches of scar at a time. It hurt, and you didn’t really understand hurting, but she made noises and water ran from her eyes.
But she had never lacked for courage. The knight a dragon loves must surely have plenty of that. So you watched as over the summer and the spring and the winter that followed, bit by bit, she peeled her corrugated scars away. They had made her look a bit like you.
You did not miss them.
Everything is pain.
Beneath the pain is freedom.
At first she shied away from you, her new flesh rare and weeping.
You flew away. You passed over blasted forests and plains of basalt. You passed over soft meadows, and curving shores. You stood over still water, and looked at the words she had carved into your armor, reflected backwards and still shining.
You tried to understand.
But it was pain, and a dragon has never felt pain.
She still hid when you returned.
But she was a woman who loved a dragon, and such people are brave. Eventually she came and sat beside you on the stone. She rubbed her shoulder absently, fingers moving over scar-laced skin.
“You are because you are,” the woman says. Her hair is growing in again, a thick black cloud that has never pressed beneath a helm. “And I love you because you are. But I fear you because you hurt me.”
“And you?” the dragon asks her.
“I fear myself because I made myself open to hurting.”
“But you flew.”
“And you survived the burning.”
The woman is silent.
“And what you made of yourself this time was not for anyone but you. Now truly you have done what others have no claim to.”
The woman is silent still.
“Are you the litany of your boasting?”
“No,” the woman says. “I am the thing I am. I am the space I take up in the world.”
“And so am I,” the dragon says.
“We should go fly,” the woman says.
Dragons are undying, after all.
You could not keep her.
But she left behind a song. And the space she took up inside you. And the space she left empty in the world.
She still loves the dragon that set her on fire, but the love has been tempered now.
This is how the poem carved over your heart ended:
“As I have been tempered too.”
(Editors’ Note: “She Still Loves the Dragon” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Elizabeth Bear is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 20A.)
© 2018 by Elizabeth Bear