by Emily Randolph-Epstein
The dragons have a direct line to my mind. Their voices enveloping, filling, as though their warm, scaled bodies are at once wrapping around me and within me.
They pull me now from deep dreams. “The Red Dragon passes. Attend at dawn.”
A check of the weather app warns of snow today and dawn in an hour and ten minutes. There’ll be no lounging in the dark, warm bed this morning, not if I’m to clear the snow from my car and make the half-hour drive to Ashport. If I’m late to the Passage, then the Red Dragon won’t be able to reach the Eternal Sky. I cannot condemn her to that fate.
There’s no time for a shower or breakfast either. I’ve just enough time to brush my hair (finally to my shoulders), shave, and place a new estradiol patch on the skin of my lower belly.
There isn’t really a dress code for attending the death of a dragon. Once upon a time, there were robes. My mother may still have them, but she’d never give them to me. I settle for a heavy fisherman’s sweater that still smells of lanolin, flannel-lined jeans and a knitted cap.
Half an hour after the dragons pulled me from sleep, I’ve cleared my car and driveway enough to pull out onto the road, not yet plowed. But enough early risers have driven past that I can follow the ruts left by their wheels. The snow in my headlights is a constant streak of flakes, like entering hyperspace. Will forty minutes be enough time to make it to Ashport in this weather?
“Hurry!” The dragons’ pleas ring through my mind.
* * *
The house – four times the height of any other two-floor house – is near the village center, across the street from the brick-built library. It perches on a cliff overlooking the harbor – snow-covered to hide the black dragon bones seared to the gray granite. The door looms, the lintel neck-craningly high above me. It opens on a sliding track like a boathouse door, with a smaller, human-sized door inset at the bottom.
The boats, hauled up on land and wrapped up for winter, are visible by the light of the streetlights, and the docks are stacked in the harbor parking lot just as they were the first time I ever glimpsed the Red Dragon. She was flying over the harbor then, swarmed by seagulls, crying their nasty seagull curses. I had gone out to one of the cliffs, barely visible in the gloaming, bent on throwing myself into the sea. My toes were curled around the edge, my stomach lurching with survival instinct, my eyes squeezed shut when she gave me my true name and pulled me away from the cliff.
“Dagny.” The Red Dragon’s voice is weak now, weaker than it’s ever been before, but still, she calls me back from that miserable, miraculous memory.
“I’m here.” Light bleeds across the horizon, weak and watery. Sky and sea the same dark shade of steel. The storm hasn’t reached Ashport yet; it waits on the air, a copper taste in my mouth. Dawn is minutes away.
Mrs. Ash opens the smaller door, hair the same copper as the Red Dragon’s scales with flashes of silver by her temples, eyes red-rimmed and tear-filled. “Thank you for coming.” Her voice is nothing like the clear sweet voice I’ve heard when she takes her guitar out to the shore and sings to the dragons as they wheel above the Summer harbor.
“Of course.” Seeing her tears, hearing her voice chokes my own voice in my throat.
The mournful whines of the other dragons carry from the depths of the house, and there is a shaky womphing sound of air being forced into and out of lungs.
Mr. Ash appears behind his wife, a tall man with black hair and a mostly white beard, his eyes are much the same as hers: tear-filled and reddened.
“You remember Dagny, dear?” says Mrs. Ash. I still feel a thrill whenever someone who knew me before uses my name.
Mr. Ash squints at me, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to delve into the past, into the me that wasn’t me yet, but he just purses his lips and nods. “Of course. She’s always liked you.” His frown deepens. “She hasn’t eaten in two days. We’ve had to carry her outside to do her business.” He looks too small a man to carry a dragon, but then he isn’t human, is he?
Somewhere inside a clock chimes, and even the dragons fall silent listening, counting. Seven chimes. Ten minutes to dawn. Ten minutes to sing the Song of Passing or else trap the Red Dragon here forever.
“It’s time.” Mrs. Ash opens the door wider. “Please come in.”
“You’re certain?” I shouldn’t be questioning her. Of course, she knows. Knowing is a part of her business.
“As she was born at dawn, so too will she pass.” A little bit of the clarity of her singing voice returns. “Hurry.” And the dragons echo her, their voices caressing the inside of my skull.
Inside, the dragons greet us. There are three or four others depending on how you count: the twin blacks can meld into a two-headed, two-tailed dragon when they wish, though now they are separated: Daughter of Joy is glossy black; the other, Gift of Sky, is matt, light sinking into his scales, lost. They move as though mirrors of each other.
Shy, champagne-colored Shield of Pearls keeps her distance, amber eyes worried. The hatchling, Army of Peace, holds no such reservations. He has not yet reached his full growth and stands no higher than my knees though no doubt he will tower above me before he’s done. The young dragons mob me, except for Shield of Pearls, rubbing against my legs with their sinewy necks, licking my face with giant tongues, long spiked tails whipping against the reinforced walls. It might have been overwhelming if they weren’t a part of me.
“Away, my loves.” Mrs. Ash pushes through the mob of tails and scales, and the dragons fall away, lining up behind their mother like the world’s most enormous ducklings as she leads me down the cavernous hall through the kitchen, past a walk-in freezer full of hanging pig and cow carcasses, a tithe the local farmers happily pay to the Dragon People, to keep their livestock unmolested.
The air grows hotter as we progress through the kitchen to a door on the far side. Mrs. Ash pauses. “She’s through here.” There’s a weight in her words, dragging them slowly from her tongue.
The Red Dragon’s presence presses on my mind, burning like I’m standing too close to a fire. “Dagny.”
Dragons only talk to girls, my mother’s voice in my mind.
What am I doing here? It shouldn’t be me here, doing this. It should be my mother or my sister, not me. Dragons only talk to girls.
I am a girl. I put my hand on my belly, over the estradiol patch. I imagine the hormones spreading through my body, the magic potion that will allow me to shed my old skin and let my true self shine through.
I glance at my watch. “Five minutes.”
Mrs. Ash nods and pulls in a ragged breath. Her husband has gone on ahead of us, and his deep voice carries through the door. “Dagny’s here, Old Girl. You can rest soon.”
I fight the tears laying siege to my eyes.
* * *
A fire blazes in the sitting room in a hearth large enough for someone twice my height to stand straight without bumping their head. Whole tree trunks burn behind the fire screen. The heat dries my skin and burns the tears from my eyes. And there she lies before the fire: Born of Dawn – the Red Dragon.
She doesn’t lift her head as we enter, but her eyes follow us, mirrored by cataracts. Mr. Ash stands beside her, stroking her head covered in scales that once glistened in the sun, now the dull copper-brown of dried blood. Next to her, the tall man is dwarfed, delicate.
The younger dragons stampede into the room, curling up beside the Red Dragon. The twins merge, Daughter of Joy resting her head on the Red Dragon’s stomach, Gift of Sky licking at her lips. “Come.” The Red Dragon’s voice sounds in my head.
I can’t move. My knees are locked, my feet nailed to the floor. I can’t do this. I shouldn’t be here. I’ll fail. My voice will falter, and dawn will come and go, and in failing, she will be barred entry to the Eternal Sky.
The clock ticks closer to dawn. My fingers brush the patch through the thick knit of my sweater. I breathe, and I go to her.
I kneel at her head, laying my hand against her broad expanse of snout. It’s so cold! Her internal fire has burned down so low that she can’t maintain her own body heat without the inferno burning in the hearth. A wordless shudder wracks my body, spasming across the mind link I share with the dragons.
Army of Peace whines, twining around Mrs. Ash’s legs. “Hush, little one,” she kneels and strokes his head, then turns to me. “It’s his first time. Root of Purity passed nearly five hundred years before he was hatched.”
I nod. My mother used to tell us stories of the great dragons our ancestors had helped to pass. Root of Purity died suddenly of a disease that snuffed out her internal fire four hundred years before her proper time. My many-greats-grandmother had been too late to sing her passing. Root of Purity’s bones still mark the cliffs of Ashport, her soul still haunts the harbor. That is not a fate the Red Dragon should share.
Dragons only speak to girls. My mother’s voice, even imagined, send needles into my skin. What if she’s right? What if I’m not female enough to do this? I shouldn’t be here. My hands freeze as cold as the Red Dragon’s skin. My throat tightens, too narrow to sing. The clock ticks another minute closer to dawn.
“Dagny,” the Red Dragon speaks, voice almost gone, almost faded. “Sing to me, Dagny.”
I lay my head against the Red Dragon’s, close my eyes. I breathe through the lump in my throat.
I open my mouth, but what are the words? I’ve known the Song of Passage all my life, and now it’s gone, evaporated, an ashen shadow on the wall of a bombed-out building.
“Sing to me, Dagny.”
And the words return. I sing. I push down my mother’s voice. The world starts to swerve away from me, and I follow the careen, letting it carry me, and the Red Dragon with me, on my voice. The hearth and the young dragons and Mr. and Mrs. Ash disappear until I’m alone with the Red Dragon, Born of Dawn.
We lie together on a field of stars. No up, no down, a void of dark and light.
The Red Dragon lifts her head. Eyes bright, reflecting starlight. Warmth radiates from her scales, beneath my hand. She stands and shakes out her wings, stirring a wind that blows my hair back from my face. Her copper scales shine and sparkle with stars.
“Goodbye,” I say.
“Thank you, Dagny.” She flaps her great membranous wings and rises away from me, vanishing into the stars. And the Red Dragon passes beyond life into the Eternal Sky where someday, I too will go.
Returning is hard. My body doesn’t want to accept the weight of the world.
I return to tears, and a room that seems smaller, emptier for the Red Dragon is gone, flown into the Eternal Sky. Dawn lightens the cloud-dark sky, and the first flakes of the storm flutter to the ground.
I smile through my tears. Dragons only talk to girls.
* * *
About the Author
Emily Randolph-Epstein was raised by a pack of wild poodles in small-town America. She spent her childhood LARPing, reading fantasy novels, and writing Tamora Pierce fan fiction. She’s known since age eleven that she wanted to be a novelist. After failing most enthusiastically to grow up, she is now a writer and musician living in Perth, Australia with her husband. Her short fiction has appeared in Hybrid Fiction and Infinite Worlds Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @emrandep or check out her blog www.emilyrandolphepstein.com.