by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
The dragon wanted to raise a toast at her first meeting with our coven, and what the dragon wanted, the dragon got. She held up a golden goblet in her claw and glared at the rest of us until we held up our mugs, teacups, and glasses.
I glanced at the other eleven members of the coven. We had gathered in the biggest room of my house’s basement, since that was a room that could accommodate a dragon. It was lit only by candlelight, so it was full of shadows. Everyone had brought stumps of candles, though, so there were lots of flickering flames, and a strong smell of earth, burning plants, and buried secrets.
Amardi, the coven leader, was an elder who had been witching since her twelfth birthday seventy years earlier. She sat at the table’s head, near the flat-topped column where our ritual objects lay — the ceremonial dagger; the small brass cauldron that hosted a fire in which herbs burned, sending up fragrant smoke of rosemary and sage; the glass bowl that held waters of the world; the cupped clay hand with a mound of earth on its palm. The other witches ranged in age from mid-sixties to late teen (that would be me). We dressed however we thought witches should dress — cone-shaped hats? Black tulle tutus? Steampunk vests and skirts? Striped stockings? Or just jeans and a T-shirt? A little of everything. (I went with all black, a ninja minus the headgear.) Everyone else was alike, though, in their expressions of fear. This was the first meeting the dragon had attended, and they weren’t sure what to expect.
Clovialla used the pointed tip of her tail to nudge me in the back. I was the only one in our coven who understood dragon, and I’d recruited her, so I was her translator, which made me happy. Words were my gift, and I loved crafting dragon speech into standard. I liked knowing things none of the others knew. I was the youngest witch in the group. The others were all spell-deep in magical theory and practice.
I was a legacy recruit. When my mother died, her spot came open, and they invited me in, not realizing that my mother had passed on none of her knowledge to me.
I had one inborn skill. I had been able to understand every kind of language from my cradle. Mother hinted she had done some dangerous spells while she was pregnant with me. Father blamed her for everything he didn’t like about me. By the time I was twelve, he had left.
Mother died when I was sixteen, long before she could tell me everything I needed to know about her and myself.
* * *
I met Clovialla the dragon on one of the many qualifying quests Amardi, the head of the coven, gave me, even though I was already a member. Once she found out about my lack of magical knowledge, Amardi said I was a probationary member. I went on the quests she gave me hoping I’d pick up knowledge and magical ingredients, and often I did.
Clovialla guarded a hoard of gold and gems in a cave behind the Falls of Forgetfulness. Amardi had sent me to get some water from the Falls. Most of the time, people who went on this quest drank from the Falls and forgot what they were supposed to do. I figured this out ahead of time and brought my own water supply.
And I found Clovialla. She flamed. I saw the fire through the water of the Falls, and I found there was a narrow path that led behind the curtain of water and into the cave. I followed it, and there I found the dragon, a vision of gold and smoke perched on a pile of treasure.
There were a lot of bones littering her cave, some of them human skulls, so I knew she ate people. But she spoke, and I understood her. “Come closer, Morsel,” she said.
“I don’t know if I should,” I said.
“What? What?” she cried, and lifted her head on her long golden neck and bugled. I had to cover my ears, even though it was a beautiful sound, a trumpet solo that ranged up and down the scale. It filled the cave to overflowing.
“I apologize if I offended you,” I told her when the sound finally died out.
“Offended me?” she said, and laughed. She crawled across her pile of treasure, crushing the more fragile items and popping gems from some of the others. I would have backed out of the cave, only the Water of Forgetfulness was at my back, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if I immersed myself in it. She was between me and the path.
Clovialla’s whiskers were long, mobile, and muscular. Their fringed ends reached out and touched my cheeks. “How is it you have the gift of tongues?” she asked.
“It’s a mystery,” I said.
“You haven’t offended me, little appetizer, but you have made it unlikely I’ll eat you. I enjoy conversation, and there has been no one in an age I could speak with.”
* * *
I brought home the Water of Forgetfulness for Amardi, who looked disappointed when I handed her the sealed jug — confirming my suspicion that she sent me on these quests hoping I wouldn’t return — and I brought home Clovialla, with her hoard on her back. The house I inherited from my mother had a deep and extensive system of basements, and Clovialla made her nest there.
She knew much of magic, and accepted me as a student. Amardi stopped sending me on quests when I demonstrated my first mastery of the element of fire by lighting our summer bonfire with a snap of my fingers.
When the coven’s oldest member died, I invited Clovialla to join the coven, and the others couldn’t say no.
“Say this for me, Snackling,” Clovialla said now as the others waited nervously. “I salute all creatures of power who work together, and I promise not to eat those in this room, who are now my sisters.”
I held up my wooden cup and repeated Clovialla’s words in standard.
Everyone else blinked and smiled.
“I’ll drink to that,” said Amardi, and we all did.
* * *
About the Author
Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for many major awards, and she has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award.
Nina’s novels have been published by Avon, Atheneum, Ace, Scholastic, Tachyon, and Viking. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.
Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and teaches writing. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.
For a list of Nina’s publications: http://ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.