Dragons of Verandering

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sf_wk6There are flames in the distance. There is a dragon in the distance. We must ride out to meet him.

It is said that the first dragon was born of hatred. And all of the things that follow hatred. Envy and greed. Bloodlust.

It is said that the first dragon was born from a person, right here in this very village. It is said that the first dragon was born of a curse. A curse that was meant to save, for some curses can save.

 

*****

Long ago, a traveler encountered an old beggar on the road. The traveler’s name was Ver, and he treated the old beggar as a fellow traveler, sharing his bread and sour wine. Then he remembered charity, and he gave the beggar some stone chips, the currency of the time. In return, the beggar asked if he might give Ver a blessing.

Ver laughed and said, “Why ever would I turn down a blessing?”

“If I give, I do not give only half,” warned the beggar. “I give the whole.”

The beggar explained to Ver that if he took the blessing, he must also take the curse, for curses and blessings, if given properly, always must be given together. One could not be without the other. The best the beggar could do was to contain the curse, but it would forever be a part of Ver’s life and his family until his line ended. When it did, both the blessing and the curse would end.

Ver was greatly troubled by the beggar’s words. The beggar was so bedraggled and mysterious, he could not even say if it was a man or woman who spoke. He suddenly wondered who the beggar was and how he had come upon such great and terrible powers. At last, he accepted the gift and the two parted.

Ver wandered for many, many years. Often did he call upon his blessing for comfort and protection. Though he recalled on occasion that the blessing had an ominous partner in the curse, time tempered his fear. He began to think about settling down. He was growing older, and he had amassed knowledge and riches on his tumultuous travels. He desired peace and quiet, home and hearth, and time to pass on that knowledge and enjoy those riches.

So he found a faraway but rich valley. He settled in the valley and founded a village with his riches. He named the village Verandering, only partly out of vanity. The name meant “change” in the language of one of his favorite places he had visited in his travels.

***

In time, Ver married a woman who was as brave as he was true, and they had a child, and then another. The village grew for many other settlers brought their families or started families as Ver had done. They were happy and prosperous for a while, but soon the village attracted the attention of their sovereign.

Verandering was far from any land governed by the sovereign’s subordinates. It had been the last adventure of Ver, to found and settle a village where none had yet settled. He knew there was a reason none had settled there, though the land was fertile. There were dangers from the wilds and from brigands, and they were far from aid. But after many seasons of rich harvests, it seemed the sovereign had taken notice of the village and the surrounding region. He sent a baron to settle in the closest manor, which was more of a distant fortress, built during times of strife and war.

But when the baron came to visit the village, he expressed a motive of his own. One that puzzled the other villagers, but shocked Ver. The baron had heard that someone in one of the outer villages of his new barony was in possession of a curse.

The curse belonged to him, so he said. He was its keeper and it was his burden, for he was powerful enough to bear that burden. It had been stolen from him by someone disguised as a beggar. He believed that beggar may have passed the curse on as a way to throw the baron off the trail, but would certainly return for what he had stolen, so the current keeper of the curse was in danger.

Ver had almost stepped forth at the mention of the curse and its danger, even though he knew that his fellow villagers would feel angry and betrayed that he had kept a curse in their midst all that time. The baron must have been telling the truth, for none save Ver and his wife knew of his blessing and his curse. He had not yet told his young children of their future burden. But through instinct honed from all his years of travel and meeting all manner of folk, he sensed something amiss with the baron.

The baron, surrounded only by a retinue of guards, though he was rumored to have a wife and at least one child, continued to explain. Protecting the barony from danger and tracking the curse was not the only reason he had come to visit the village. He had come to meet his people and show them who it was that governed them and how he would govern them.

The baron picked up a rock and before their very eyes, transformed the rock into a white rose. He handed it to one of the young women of the village, who blushed modestly and appropriately.

The baron then picked up a real flower and attempted to transform it, but all he managed to do was turn it into a swirl of dust.

He admitted to the people of the village that the rose he had made from the rock was but a pale shadow of a real rose. That he could only transform non-living things. He could not transform anything that lived or once lived. But he sought to do so, for if he could, then their lands would prosper.

Never would a harvest die because of drought or an orchard fail because of frost. If he could regain the power he once had, all any of his people need do would be to call upon him for aid, and he would come, and he would transform their crops. He would revive their livestock. But he could not do so while the curse lay outside of his possession. He had to contain its danger to free his own powers.

There was hope, but also doubt, among the villagers. For the baron’s powers seemed at once wondrous and blasphemous. The baron said that he understood why he, being a stranger, might seem untrustworthy. Though he was their baron and could command them to bring forth the curse, he sought to be a fair and merciful ruler. He proclaimed that if any in the village had the curse, they should bring it to him before the next new moon.

Ver wanted to be rid of the curse, to unburden himself, but more so, he wanted to unburden his children. He began to believe the baron, because he needed to, so that he might feel that it was just to pass the burden and danger of the curse onto another.

Before the next new moon, he brought the curse to the baron’s manor and in what was a quick and simple matter, handed it over. He was at once relieved and uneasy as he rode away from the hulking towers where the baron dwelled. But Ver was weary from bearing conflicted feelings. He had settled down to live a peaceful life, and he wanted to return to it as soon as he could.

***

It began with rumors at first, after the new moon. The new baron was a warlock, it was said, and he was casting wicked spells in the dark fortress towers. Young boys and girls would go missing from villages. The villages would call upon their baron for help as he had asked them to. He would find their children, but the children would be…changed. There were stories of seeing figures moving past the windows of his towers. His prisoners, it was said. Young men and women, children, enemies. There was one tale of a young man who decided to jump to freedom, or perhaps to his death. Before he reached the ground, he transformed into a raven and flew away, as the other prisoners gazed on in envy.

Though Ver felt a lurching in his gut when he heard some of the tales, most in Verandering thought they were only rumors.  Whenever the baron visited their village, he was harsh but fair. With the curse contained, he demonstrated his power. He transformed flowers into other flowers and revived any sick pets for the children. He praised Ver and the other leaders of the village when harvests were good, and offered what aid he could when they were not. He visited once each season.

There was one visit when a child asked the baron if he could transform people as he transformed flowers, birds, and dogs.

The baron bent over the child and asked her, “If I had the power to transform you, what shape should I twist you into?”

His tone was playful, filled with false menace, and it made the grown folk around the child chuckle. The child gasped, but then she giggled and ran away to hide behind her mother’s skirts. The mother gave the baron a quick curtsy as if to thank him for acknowledging, nay, indulging, her child.

Only Ver seemed troubled by the exchange, and by the words that the baron had used. His wife suggested that perhaps Ver simply did not like the baron.  The baron-mage some were calling him, as if he were one of the mages of old, who guarded all knowledge in the world and were tasked with the keeping of all beings in the world.

Before too long, a time came when the village fell upon hardships, and they could not pay their taxes and tributes, for they had spent all they could. Even the coffers of excess that Ver had wisely stored away became used up. The baron came to the village each season, trying to revive the crops, but he found he could not. At last, he proclaimed that if the village could not pay with coin or even grain, then they would pay with time and labor. He would take some of their youngest and brightest, and he would have them work at his mansion.  But they would be surrounded by marble and lace instead of mud and brick. They would be educated alongside his own children. They would be returned once the village’s debts were paid, unless they chose to stay.

Again, the villagers were conflicted as they had been when he first displayed his powers. Many considered sending their child into such favorable circumstances, and to do so as payment for a debt was doubly agreeable. But they also knew that it would mean they would not have their children close, for the children would go alone, and would go far. They may be able to visit but once or twice in the year, if that.

A few families were eager to send their children, and the children as eager to leave. So it was that the baron collected the first of his wards from the village.

***

It did not take long for even more rumors to reach the village from passing travelers, rumors now of their own children suffering abuses from the baron. Strange sounds were heard in the towers. There was no screaming. But there were cries. Cries of beasts the likes of which none had ever before heard. Travelers called him a warlock. They were shown hospitality but kept in a part of the grounds away from the towers where the baron-warlock practiced his craft.

One night at the village’s largest inn, a traveling merchant spoke of seeing a girl who much resembled one of the village girls taken by the baron. He tried to speak of her kindly, as her mother and father were in the crowd. He had seen her in a pool in a part of the grounds that he was forbidden to traverse. He was certain that she was trying to call his attention with much splashing. So he investigated and found the poor creature, for that is what she was, in a clear pool. Most of her face was still that of a girl’s, but her hair was gone, and her body like that of a great fish. One of the fish’s fins appeared to bear a set of gruesome twisted fingers, which gripped a note.  The merchant produced the note for the despairing mother and father to read, and they knew that the merchant spoke truly.  The merchant had tried to find a way to smuggle the girl out, but she could no longer survive outside of the water.  He was forced to abandon her.  She made him promise to deliver the note.

Ver was sickened by the tale.  For no longer did he believe that all such tales of the baron were rumor.  Indeed, he feared that the baron’s gruesome deeds were possible because of what Ver had done.  None in the village knew that their founder and lord mayor had been the bearer of the curse that the baron sought. None knew that Ver had delivered that curse to the baron, and by doing so, had delivered that curse upon them. For though he had no proof and knew naught of sorcery, Ver was certain that the baron—the warlock—was using the curse somehow to transform people. The baron was twisting people, as he had playfully told that little girl he would do. He had likely never had the power to transform living things before. Ver had handed him that power.

The curse’s power had been contained. Ver was sure of it. He had possessed the curse for many years, and he was sure that the beggar had told the truth. For he had felt the workings of the blessing, but never did he feel the workings of the curse…until after he surrendered it to the baron.

***

Ver could think of only one way to stop the baron-warlock. He went to the baron’s manor to bargain for the curse. In return, he would give the baron his blessing. He hoped that the baron, being a warlock, would know how to remove the blessing from him. Then Ver would take the curse with him, and he would leave the blessing with the baron. He knew it would mean he would be destitute and perhaps forced to wander again, leaving his family.  He knew he was breaking the rule that the beggar had set for keeping the curse and blessing together and whole.  But he had to get the power of the curse away from the baron.  If he could do that, then whatever happened to Ver, at least his village would be safe.

Ver hoped that the blessing would change the baron’s life as it had changed his. That it would fill the baron’s heart, mind, and soul with something other than the always-hungry, never-quenched, ever-seeking void within him. That he would repent and offer himself up for punishment and penance for the crimes he had committed against the people he was meant to protect. Or perhaps, most wondrous of all, that he might gain the power to reverse all that he had done. That he would transform all his prisoners back to their proper selves, whole and unharmed.

Ver expected to be cast out of the manor at once. He expected the baron to be inhospitable and cruel. For he announced why he had come. But the baron welcomed him warmly. He offered refreshment.  Ver did not partake.

He told the baron what the beggar had told him, of the blessing and curse coming together. He spoke of how well he had enjoyed the blessing. Knowing that the baron would suspect, or at least question, why Ver would be willing to sacrifice his blessing, Ver had prepared a careful answer. The baron still believed, or claimed, that he sought to be his people’s protector. Ver could not tell the baron that he was tormenting his people. He instead told the baron that he himself had become a far better lord mayor to his village with the blessing than he would have been without it. He could not keep the blessing from the baron any longer, and apologized for not sacrificing it to the baron when he gave the baron the curse. Ver ducked his head, trying to look sheepish and weak. In truth, it was not difficult to feel cowed by the burning gaze of the baron.

After a moment of silence, the baron stated that since Ver had come to him with the curse, the baron would come to Ver for the blessing. With no further words, the baron left the room.

***

Ver waited for many days. Of the bargain he’d made, he had told only his wife, who bolstered his wavering heart with brave words. Then one day, late in the afternoon, a great commotion drew Ver and his family outside.

The baron had come. His guards had dispersed among the village to gather everyone in the square. Ver, as the village’s lord mayor, came forth before all the others. His family stood with him. When all who were present in the village were standing in the square, the guards surrounded them. Ver heard sobbing. He heard the heavy breathing of young men and women who’s fists were clenched and jaws set, who were held back only by fear for those dear to them. He felt the warm hand of his wife slip into his and squeeze firmly.  But then she let go. She would be holding on to their children, trusting that Ver would take care of himself. He saw the look of eager greed on the face of the baron.

“One of you has offered me a blessing,” the baron said. “If you remain silent until I come to you, I will accept that blessing from you.”

He passed by an old man and placed a hand upon the man’s shoulder. In an instant the old man seemed to twist and crumple, his form changing until it turned into a bright yellow canary. With a tweet at the baron, the canary fluttered away. A gasp passed through the gathered villagers. The baron smiled.

He fingers brushed the hands of a maiden. Her hands were folded before her respectfully. She bowed her head as he passed. She too began to twist and crumple, but something was wrong. She sprouted dark thick fur from her dress, her face, and her head. Ver heard the snapping of her bones as she transformed and she cried out in a moan that sounded like the scream of a girl caught in the throat of a boar.  Eyes sprouted from her shoulders, swelling and popping, bubbling. Many looked away. Someone asked the baron to kill the creature for pity’s sake. The baron next reached for the man who had spoken.

Ver’s heart beat faster and faster as the baron moved closer to them. His daughter was behind him. His son. They would be transformed. They would all meet fates filled with torment and death. He could not bear to think on what the baron would do to his children, not just the children he had sired, who shared his blood, but the children of the village.

He had failed to protect them all.  He had brought them all to their fates. His heart became filled with such sorrow, fear, and rage, that it twisted and turned into hatred, and he regretted that he did not have the curse that the beggar had given him, for he would have lain that curse upon the baron.

The baron touched the villagers one by one. They either transformed correctly, turning into deer, ravens, sparrows, wolves, squirrels, beetles, and fled. Or they transformed incorrectly and fell to the ground dying, as suffering masses of feathers piercing through flesh, scales bursting through skin, bones breaking and merging. Those who tried to flee met death at the hands of the baron’s guards.

Ver could not let the baron touch his wife and children, only hoping that they might transform into animals and escape. But he was not a warrior. He could not fight through the guards. He had only one way he could protect his children now.

A great pain overcame Ver as he reached for his son and daughter, laying his hands on their heads, just as the baron lay his hands on their shoulders.

The children were struck at once by both the baron’s curse and their father’s blessing. Overwhelmed, they collapsed, and their mother ran to them. Ver felt that great pain again. He looked down and saw that he was struck. There were blades in his chest.

Ver still had his hands upon his children. He had collapsed with them. He saw that they had no breath. He felt that the warmth was leaving their bodies as it was leaving his.

He heard a cry of anguish and his wife was above him. He tried to warn her that the baron was behind her, but she rose. Before the baron could touch her, she spun around and caught his hand in hers, clasping it to her chest as greeting a comrade. There was fear in the baron’s wide eyes. She pushed him away and dropped to her knees beside Ver.

Her eyes, filled with tears, turned red as blood. Again he tried to warn her, with breath he no longer had, that a guard was raising his sword to her back. He heard it strike, and it rang out as if it had struck metal. For his wife too was transforming. She was growing larger, looming over him. Her face was hardening with layers of glistening hard red scales. Wings sprouted from her back, as they had from some of the villagers, but these were not the feathered wings of a bird, but membranous wings like those of a bat.  She too had used the curse, channeled it, to transform into a creature such as no one had ever seen.  A creature that would come to be known as a dragon.

As he lay dying, Ver watched his wife whip her neck toward the guards and knock them over. Her jaws clamped around the fleeing baron. Shapes whipped past him as the villagers fled. Poison dripped from the dragon’s mouth, and mingled with the blood of the baron, and where that poison fell to the earth burst flames, red and raging flames.

Ver was given a last curse, and a last blessing, a vision of his wife’s fate and his children’s destiny.

***

The great red dragon, blind with hatred, destroyed the village, crushing it, setting it aflame. The baron escaped.  Though he had been held between the jaws of a massive beast, pierced with burning poisonous fangs, he lived. So too lived Ver’s children, for they had only fallen into a deep and near impenetrable stupor. The dragon tore apart the baron’s guards, and crashed through the valley and the forest toward the baron’s manor, seeking retribution, red eyes filled with eager greed.

The poison red dragon bearing all the hatred of all those who suffered at the baron’s hands, made dumb by that hatred, would come to savage the land, and battle her enemy for a century, siring six more dragons from the only six tears she wept. Those dragons were not born of nature but of pure curse, and they ravaged the barony and the people in it even as their mother troubled the baron.

After a century passed, the baron, as long-lived as his enemy, at last killed the red dragon. He had stolen her children, her true children, but he could never harm them, for they were protected by their father’s blessing. With her dying breath, the cursed red dragon, gazing upon her enemy, raised her gaze from him, and remembered the love she once lost. She remembered her husband’s dying deed. She uttered a blessing to her children, and she died.

***

And her children woke.

They too transformed into dragons. Two dragons whose scales were black as night, whose eyes glittered like the stars. They heard their mother’s blessing.  Upon it, she had uttered their names.  Valor and Victory.

They did not seek to kill or destroy the baron. They knew how best to avenge their mother and father. They escaped from the manor and hunted all the hateful dragons in the land, killing and destroying them. They knew that they too would be hunted, by the people who thought that all dragons were evil, and even more evil than the baron. For they had come to the baron for his protection, though he still maimed and twisted them.

The curse that Valor and Victory bore was their fearsome forms and the great power of those forms, a power they would always be called on to temper. But their blessings were many. They were blessed with far longer lives than they would have had as people. The blood of Valor could heal most any wound or illness. The flames and tears of Victory were the forge upon which unbreakable tools and weapons could be forged.

They sought first to break the baron’s hold on the people of the barony.  They began first with their own village, with the brave few who still held to the ground that their father had found for them. The villagers were wary, but so too were they weary, too weary to fight the two dragons that suddenly arrived and made their nest in their village. Valor and Victory healed and built and forged. They guarded the village from brigands and from the baron’s guards. Verandering became a haven to which many from the surrounding villages fled. An impenetrable fortress guarded by two great black dragons.

Soon, Valor and Victory did not just protect their own village. They swooped across the land, patrolling all the lands that the baron ruled, and guarding all the people that the baron had once promised to guard.

Soon. the sight of dragons was a welcome one.

But it was not the dragons who led the march to the baron’s manor. When the day came for the baron to be overthrown, the dragon’s brought up the rear. They would be called upon if needed. But the people of the barony, though broken and tired, were also strong and hopeful. They were wiser and cleverer than the baron knew. They were greater in numbers than he could have imagined.  They brought sorcery against him.  Some say he turned into a raptor and escaped in the chaos as his fortress was breached. Some say he was crushed beneath the stone of his towers of torture as they were brought down.  If he survived, he was never seen again.

Many were rescued. Many were lost. Many were healed. Many remained broken.

But all were free.

The faraway sovereign, who had been troubled by the baron, but too fearful to oppose him, and who now feared Verandering’s dragons, sent a beneficent baroness to rule. As for Victory and Valor, they could never again be people, but the curse of transformation would let them transform people into dragons. Some of the villagers chose to become so, to defend Verandering, for the barony came to be named after the village that led the people to their freedom.

*****

We ride out now, toward the dragon in the distance. He is descended from a line of dragons that have guarded the barony of Verandering for countless generations. He told me the tale of his ancestors, so that I would know that like men and women, dragons can be a curse or a blessing. They can be heroic or villainous. Friend of foe. There are dragons who are our foes.

This dragon is our brother. This dragon was born to save. He has sent up his fire. He has called for aid. He has always come to save us. We will always go to save him.

 

Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Verandering” by Sanjay Patel.

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