Oh my. This lovely story featuring dragons really caught me by surprise – both the twist in the, um, tail, and how emotional it was. Definitely joy! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and if you fancy finding Jackie’s other books then don’t forget to check out her website.
Ducas left the village before daybreak, quietly, and without the cheers that had marked his arrival. The forest-clad mountains grew ever closer until he found himself under a canopy of trees. He chose a path and followed it uphill, dismounting when the trail became too treacherous for riding. Leading Harun, he picked his way over tumbled rocks and fallen trees, stopping to catch his breath in the small pockets of lush grass and sunshine that broke the gloom of the forest here and there.
No birdsong disturbed the silence under the trees. No breeze rustled the leaves. And for all the hours he walked, Ducas saw not a single animal.
Halfway up the mountain Ducas smelled smoke, not the hot, choking breath of a hurried blaze, but the woodsy aroma of a fire that had been kindled to warm and extinguished when its comfort was no longer needed.
His heart hammered, not with exertion but with a mix of fear and excitement.
After years of searching, he’d reached a place of fire and smoke. Of fire that roused and died at will. Of fragrant smoke and comforting warmth.
A place of… dragons.
They were there, right in front of him, in one of these queer, oddly lush clearings. Four great, towering beasts surrounded a fifth in a semicircle, all multi-hued scales, long necks and eyes that tracked his every move.
Ducas dropped Harun’s bridle, and the gelding stood as entranced by the sight as Ducas himself. This wasn’t a dream, wouldn’t end with Ducas waking cold, alone, and bruised from head to foot. This time, he could step forward and touch the dragons if he dared.
He burned the sight into his memory until the dragon in the centre—the smallest of the five—raised his head.
“What brings the dragon slayer into our woods?” he asked in a voice that was entirely human, though lower and somehow warmer. “You are Ducas, the dragon slayer, are you not?”
Ducas gestured to himself and Harun. “And yet, I bear no weapons.”
One of the larger dragons rumbled – a warning? A threat? – and the small dragon shot him a look. “We noticed you leaving your weapons before you started the climb. It does not explain your presence or your reputation.”
For six long years, Ducas had imagined this meeting. He had planned what to say many times and had discarded the words just as often. Faced with five dragons, all his reasons for seeking them out seemed spurious, futile, insignificant.
He sank to his knees, kept his back straight and settled his hands on his thighs, never taking his eyes off the dragons. “My reputation as a slayer of dragons is undeserved,” he began. “Nor did I earn the title. I was fourteen and not yet a man, when dragons killed my father and older brother. I’ve been seeking those dragons ever since, and knowing my past, people believed I sought revenge.”
“And you do not?” A note of curiosity had entered the dragon’s warm, soothing voice.
“I do not. My father and brother were evil bastards. When they destroyed the one bright light in my life, I wanted to die myself. Instead, the dragons came and killed my tormentors. I’ve been seeking those dragons ever since, not to kill, but to thank them. And to beg them to show me my love’s resting place.”
None of the dragons moved or spoke, but the forest, which had lain silent since Ducas had set foot under the canopy, suddenly rang with the rustle of leaves and sounds of bird calls. Before Ducas’s eyes, the air shimmered. Colours ran together like a spill of milk and water, and re-formed into a white-robed shape and a face Ducas hadn’t seen since the night his father and brother had surprised him and his lover.
“You, Ducas, are a better friend than I,” Xia said. “I should have come to find you long ago, only I was badly wounded and dragons heal but slowly.”
Ducas stretched out a hand and found it shaking with shock and wonder at seeing Xia alive, and with the memories of what he himself had endured to reach the dragons. Unfamiliar emotions burned his chest and clogged his throat, and it needed Harun, who’d been a colt when Xia and Ducas had become lovers to break the stillness that held them all.
Harun snorted and tossed his head, and then he pranced forward and bumped his nose into Xia’s neck.
Xia wrapped both arms around the gelding and swung himself onto his back, so very different from the boy Ducas had known, who’d shied from horses. Then Xia held out his hand and beckoned Ducas to join him.
“You can thank me later,” he said. “Once I’ve granted your other wish and have shown you where I live. You have earned the right to visit with the dragons.”
Ducas stared into the face that was familiar and not, listened to the voice that had deepened since he’d last heard it, and saw the thin white lines of scars that he remembered as bloody slashes. Overcome, he crumpled forward and let great, racking sobs tear up his throat. He hadn’t allowed himself to cry when his father and brother had killed Xia, had shown no emotion when the dragons had taken their revenge and left him behind.
He’d buried the rage and grief, regret and guilt deep inside himself, but he knew that if he ever wanted to look at Xia with equanimity, he needed to purge himself of all this poison.
He didn’t feel Xia settling beside him, didn’t notice when his head landed on Xia’s thigh and his tears soaked the dragon’s white robe. Curled into a ball, he cried as if the world was ending, and when his tears finally dried, he had just enough breath to whisper, “I loved you so much. I didn’t want to go on alone. But neither did I want to leave you to sleep unmourned.”
“And now you’ve learned that you don’t need to mourn him any longer,” an older, rougher voice spoke from behind him. “You’ve seen that he lives and that he is healing. Will you leave him now?”
Ducas pushed himself upright with the careful slowness of one carrying the weight of the world with nothing inside him to balance the load. “I came here to find Xia’s grave and mourn him until my time was done. I had the strength for that.”
Xia cupped his cheek and brushed a kiss across his lips, a barely-there touch that tasted like starlight. “You’ve had the strength and courage to find us,” he whispered. “Can you find the strength and courage to stay?”
Xia didn’t add with me, but Ducas saw the words hang in the air as if they’d been sewn onto a banner and thrust into the space between them.
The emptiness inside him filled with light and colour, and an unfamiliar emotion. He drew a deep breath, and when he leaned forward and covered Xia’s lips with his to accept, he knew that what he felt right then was… joy.