Author's Note:Yes, I realize this is - somewhat extreme, as AUs go. Blame my thesis, there's just something weirdly inspiring about all that early medieval Latin...
those who will glorify dragons
You go to the desert to find monsters.
This was not always true.
Before your people herded fat-tailed sheep and horned goats, before honey flowed from domed beehives and fine-woven wool brought foreign wealth, even before golden barley and wheat grew in tilled fields, the speakers went to the desert to find gods.
The distant, distant ancestor of your speaker brought back a fine god for your home; she is not loving, but she is fair. She will not heal the sick or find a lost animal, but the seasons for growing and harvesting are regular, the rains neither drown the seedlings nor leave them thirsty, and she gives your warriors courage and strength against the monsters of the desert and the raiding tribes of the north. As a child you watched your father's shaggy brown goats, and as a youth, like all youths of your home, you served the god for a year. You filled her lamps with the clearest oil from the olives that grow in the hills, you brought sweet figs and date honey and fragrant resin for her stone altar, and with the other youths you chanted the syllables of her name at dawn and dusk in the eternal overlapping chorus: la el lee la el lee la el lee la el.
When the year ended, the speaker took you aside and said that the god was pleased with you. The speaker's brown, wrinkled hands trembled on her staff, and you saw green shadows in the twists of her white hair as she said, There can be a place for you here.
You neither hated nor loved herding goats, but you had no desire to wear a speaker's linen robe and malachite collar, either. Besides, your father had died during your year in service. Someone had to feed your family, and so your younger sister took the work of watching the goats and you joined the warriors.
You are a very good warrior.
In the first season of your training, the tilling season, snakes that were not snakes slithered in from the desert. Their mouths opened wide to swallow sheep and fill their garnet-red gullets, and their white scales gleamed like alabaster. Even some of the grown warriors were entranced by the lapis lazuli of their eyes, but not you. You took up a wooden training sword and you slew every serpent you met; their poison blood ate at your blade, but their bodies blew away in the night air like smoke from a fire. After the snakes that remained had fled back to the desert, your fellow apprentices and the grown warriors alike praised you, your courage, your steadfastness.
When you had cleansed yourself and gone to the altar to offer thanks, the speaker again took you aside. The dawn's rosy light shone on you both as she said, The god favors you in this service as well, it seems.
You were more pleased to hear it, then.
In the planting season you trained. Your fellow apprentices complained of their bruises and headaches as you walked away from every practice unhurt.
In the growing season you grew into the tallest of the apprentice warriors, and the traders from the rich river-country of the south began to pass through on their way to the east and north. From them you bought a fine bronze knife for your sister to carry as she herded the goats, and your mother bought you a talisman: a round disc of oxbone carved with the picture-writing of the river-country, each small symbol stained red with ochre. Your god is not a jealous god and she does not object to foreign charms, and you wore the talisman every day.
In the season of harvest, there was a plague of owls that were not owls. They ate neither mice nor rats but the grain from the fields; their cinder-soft wings spread a coughing sickness among the children and the old. Your sister was among the ill, and the poultices and potions of the healers could do nothing. Again without bidding you took up your training sword to fight along with the full warriors, and though the owls snapped at you with curved beaks and raked your arms with copper talons, you cut the wings from their bodies and they, too, became smoke in the wind. When the last of them had vanished or flown back to their abode in the sands, the sickness lifted, and your sister embraced you and thanked you.
In the cold fallow season came the raiders. For the first time you held a metal blade instead of a wooden one and drew human blood instead of monster's ichor. The way of it came to you as easily as the other battles, but pleased you less. After you and the others had driven them away from the pastures and storehouses, you found your sister with the goats and sent her home; then you sat with the old stripe-faced nanny goat who had ruled the herd before you could walk and you cried to be so skilled at such ugly work.
Yet you put away your tears when you brought the goats home, and when the tilling season came again, you let the speaker anoint you with scented oil and accepted the bronze sword you were given, and your training was ended.
You do your duties as a warrior well. In the day and in the night you defend your home from raiders and the demons of the desert. You help to train the new apprentices in the ways of the sword and the shield and the bow. You travel with traders to guard them on the dangerous roads, and on your safe return you go to the god's altar every time to bring her offerings and sing her holy name, el lee la el lee la el lee.
You watch the desert, often, that land which once held gods and now brings forth monsters. It lays to the west of your home; the fields and orchards fade into it, the dark fertile earth becoming lighter and rockier and sandier until, at the edge of your sight, nothing but scrub grass and brush grows. According to the traders there is an ocean on the other side, one which touches on the river-country and the countries of the north, but no one has looked upon the desert's coast and lived, and even in your travels with the traders you have not seen the sea. Sometimes you dream of it, though: sunlit water sprawling out before you and disappearing into the far corners of the sky, the roar of salt waves crashing against a stony shore, and the dark depths where the unbound leviathan sleeps.
Your captain sees how you look to the desert and speaks to you one night, when the sky is clear and the bright stars fill the dark canopy of heaven. Sometimes a warrior will go into the desert to fight monsters, she says. They do it for glory, or because they love the battle too much, or because they think they must prove themselves. Sometimes they come back and we praise their bravery. Usually they don't come back.
Then she claps you on the shoulder and smiles as she says, But I don't have to worry about you, do I? You have a family to see to. You're not going to run off and do anything foolish.
You nod, and she leaves you to your watch. She is right; you have your family, and whatever it is that pulls your eyes to the desert is nothing as strong as your duties, to them and to the altar of the god and to your home.
And so, when the king of your land calls for warriors to fight the new raiders from the islands, you march with the others to do your duty.
"Hold them down! Keep them both still, you worthless crow!"
"I'm trying! I'm trying!"
Someone is screaming and it isn't you. It can't be you because your mouth is filled with thorns and your eyes are weeping fire and you are burningyou areburning youareburning.
Release me! Let me go, you wretched apes, you shapeless clay children, let me go!
"Get the salt ready - where's the yew wood? I told them to bring yew wood!"
Your hands are nothands your handsarehorns and you drive them throughstonethatrustsand shatters you are boneandbronze you aredustandashand sand youareburning.
"I've got the charm off -"
"Good. Now hold them down, damn you, and don't forget the name!"
You think you forge yourselves a weapon? You create your doom!
yourbloodrunsinthecourseofthestars youareburning yourbreathlightsthepathofthemoon youareburning yourhandsbreakthebonesoftheearth youareburning you arefalling
you are falling into the water
youareblood and bloodiswaterand water isthewayout you arefallingandyou areflowing youare escapingyou escapeyou escape you escape
into the waves.
When you return to your home after the war, your sister has married a man who bakes bread. He is kind to her and respectful of your mother and he fears you, you know not why. The war could not have changed you that much. Your mother cries a little when she sees you and claims it is only because you lost the talisman that she gave you years ago.
You take up your old routines as if you had never left. You stand guard against demons in the night and raiders in the day, though there are fewer of those now, thanks to the war; the traders hire you to escort their caravans; you train the youths who want to join the warriors. You go less to the god's altar, but you are busier than you once were, and the god's name no longer comes so easily to your lips for a reason you cannot name.
And, of course, you look to the desert.
Before, you looked west no more than once every other day or so. Now the desert draws your eye two or three times a day, wherever you are, and when you stand watch you hardly look anywhere else. You hear people whisper of your strangeness sometimes - that you do not marry, that you do not show age as others do, that you no longer worship the god properly - but their words mean little to you.
The first time you go to the desert, you return after two days. Your arms are pitted with little scars where your bronze armor could not protect you from monster's blood, and the other warriors wonder amongst themselves what beasts you fought. They never ask you directly.
The second time, you are gone for seven days and seven nights, and on the eighth morning, when you come back to the warriors' quarters dry-throated and burnt from the sun, your sister is waiting. She cries and scolds you and asks why you would go - I was afraid, she says, I was afraid you left for another war and this time you wouldn't come back - and you have no answer for her. What answer can you give? Your eyes are filled with glittering sand and red rocks, your muscles ache with the need to fight, and inside you the desert pulls at your heart like the tide (but you have never felt the tide). Instead you kiss her forehead and say you are sorry to have frightened her, but when she begs, you cannot promise that you will never go back.
The third time, you are careful to carry more water.
The fourth and fifth and sixth times, you bring hard-won trophies from the desert back with you. A cluster of crystals growing from a dry, brittle branch of wood; a blunt, yellowed claw as long as your forearm and half again as thick; a broken clay tablet impressed with tiny wedge shapes that has embedded in it a piece of flat green metal traced with geometrical designs in silver and copper. The other warriors marvel at these wonders and praise your daring, but behind your back they whisper their fears: reckless, foolhardy, bringing us bad luck. The desert does not like to give up its treasures.
The seventh time you leave, you eat breakfast at your sister's house with her and her husband and your mother. It is a light meal only, bread with a little goats' cheese and fresh figs, and if you ate alone you would hardly notice it. Your sister's smile and your mother's wandering conversation give it taste. Before you depart from the house you embrace them both, and your sister kisses your cheek and tells you Take care, wherever you go.
A day's walk takes you through fields and orchards, past wells and herds of grazing animals, to the gradual edge of the desert. To your right rise red cliffs; to your left lays low, tangled scrub brush; before you is cold, dark sand, the ashes of a fire set by the sinking sun. You take shelter for the night in a small niche in the cliffs where you have slept before, and in the early morning before the sun's rising, you wake and walk into the many-colored sands of the deep desert.
Although you have walked this way before, you see nothing familiar, which is in the nature of the desert. You keep the sun at your back, and when it nears the heights of the sky's arch you rest again in the shadow of a red dune. The sand at your feet has the natural tint of ochre, but above you its color deepens to the hue of fresh blood, and so you move on perhaps a little earlier than you should.
As you begin to climb the next dune a streak of grey darts past you, and your hand goes to your sword. You hear others before you reach the dune's crest, and when you reach it you see them as well: fat bees the size of your head that squeak like mice as they fly on creaking wings in and out of a colossal, misshapen brown hive.
They are monsters, but not the monsters you seek, and you leave them to their hive. As you pass it by you see the curved bones that support it, a giant's ribcage picked clean of flesh.
You walk on into the setting sun, keeping your eyes fixed on the clear evening star, until you stumble over something round in the sand. The jasper dune shifts and heaves and collapses, and from its remains an enormous beast with skin like spring flowers rises. You have fought such beasts on your other journeys, but this one makes no move to attack you; the green eye in its chest is dull, its pebbled skin sags, and a moment later it sinks to the sand, moaning. Behind it pace three gaunt lions with flies buzzing in their rough manes and six red eyes in their snarling faces.
You hesitate, and then you kneel beside the flower beast to give it a little of the water you carry. Its white mouth opens and drinks. You step back and the lions spring towards you, but the beast moves first. With one blow of its clawed hand it knocks two of the lions aside, and the third leaps onto your sword. The lions shred easily into tufts of tawny hair floating on the breeze, and for a moment the flies swarm you, stinking of rot, before they too vanish.
The beast turns back to you and roars in your face, and then it plods away towards the south, dragging its feet and leaving deep tracks of mingled colors in the sand.
When true night falls you are still walking; you tire less often than you once did, and the cooler air delights you, as does the spread of brilliant stars above your head. In their faint light all the colors of the dunes are shades of grey and black, rippling out under the sky to the dark horizon. As you round the base of a dune that seemed too large to climb, a brighter light washes over you: the rising moon, a slender crescent when you left, now only a hair away from full.
Such is the way of time in the desert.
The land opens up and flattens here, and the dunes are lower, with gentle slopes. All but the brightest stars pale beside the moon, but its light pulls out hints of color from the sands: a royal purple, the deepest blues, dark-shadowed crimson. You stand in the midst of faded gold and all the silent desert stretches out around you, clean and empty and endless and pure, the cold fingers of the wind chilling your skin and whispering in your ears you are blood and bronze youare ash you areburning...
You walk on and again the land changes. Dawn blooms in rose and gold over smooth-worn canyon walls layered with the colors of fire, and as you climb from between the flowing cliffs, the sun rising behind you gleams on metal.
There is a sword standing upright in the sand.
When you draw closer, you see it clearer and know it is like no sword you have seen before. Its hilt is long and curved at the end and made of gold wrapped in leather, a round grass-green emerald embedded at its top like a staring eye. The blade too is curved in a long graceful sweep, and it does not shine with the richness of bronze, but a strange silvery color, a metal you do not recognize. It is beautiful, and it is surrounded by bones: broken, deformed three-eyed skulls, half-buried in the sand.
Your bronze sword, so long a reliable companion, now seems only a shadow of a sword. You draw it and start to lay it aside to take up this new blade, but again you hesitate with its old familiar weight in your hands, and in that moment the curved sword speaks.
There are many ways in the desert, it says. But there is only one way that will find me.
Strands of grey smoke flow from the black sockets of the skulls and twine together, and a monster you know but have never seen curls around its hoard of bone. A tremendous four-legged serpent, sleek-scaled and glinting with the same polished silver as the sword, claws of gold and eyes of emerald, the thin wings of a bat, and you speak its name, Dragon.
That is only a part of my name, it says, raising its head high above you. I am the devote, the hallowed, the one who endures - and you - In an instant its head darts down and its neck winds about you, a single great eye hovering so close to your face you can see yourself in its reflection. - you served my sister, once. Does it no longer please you to sing her name and play the good soldier? Its mouth widens in a grin and it chants in mockery, lee la el, lee la el, lee la el.
The dragon's breath has the cold tang of moonlight. You hold fast to your stance, and the dragon unwinds itself to pace the sands before you, its wings stirring swirls of honey and blue into the air. Did you come to find glory in fighting? it asks. Or seek wisdom from the voice of a demon? Or is it -
Its scales break apart and scatter and a glittering darkness descends over you, whispering, I know you.
You let the bronze sword fall from your hand. Shadows crash against you like the waves you've never seen (but yourblood is water and water iswaves) and the dragon draws itself together again around you in serpentine coils. Yes, it hisses, I see now. You came to return this to me, didn't you? and cold golden claws close over your shoulders, one tip tracing the outline of your heart on your armor. I've missed it so, the power they stole...
It dissolves into smoke that sinks into the sand, and again the emerald in the strange sword's hilt stares at you. But it would mean your death, to claim it now, the sword sighs, and I have more power yet than you can dream of. You may as well keep that trifle.
You step closer to the sword, close enough to reach out and grasp it if you dared. The risen sun burns hot on your back and the wind whistles and cries through the cliffs behind you.
Still, the desert brought you to me, says the dragon's voice. So what shall I do with you? The sand around the sword roils and claws into the air, building itself into a rampant lion. Take up your bronze sword and fight me, it roars, rattling your armor, and if you survive, when you return to your little home you will be a hero for a day.
You pull off your helmet as the lion stretches and becomes smoke that becomes an eagle with wings spreading over half the sky. Take up your sword and fight me, it cries, and if you slay me, you will be a hero for a lifetime.
The eagle's claws clasp the hilt of the curved sword; its wings beat once and the sand leaps up like a fountain, half-blinding you. All your sight is filled with colors, and in their wild spray you see stars and monsters and shackles and the red of flowing blood before golden teeth in a silver-lined mouth snap through the whirlwind.
Take me as your sword, the dragon says, and you will be a hero for all the ages of the world and beyond.
Your blood burns. Your hands burn. Your armor is melting from you in slow, heavy drops but it leaves no mark on your skin and you are burning. You are done with duty and the ties that bind you to the well-worn earth, your bones burn and your eyes burn and the flames in your body rise and fall with the tide of your breath. You want to see the ocean. You want to (escape) fall into the waves and let the water quench you as you burn.
What way will you follow? What path will you take?
Your fingers close around the sword's hilt, and the dragon laughs.
Some time later you stand at the edge of a grey cliff. Above you the sky is clear; below you is the sea, green and bright under the sun. The air is rough and heavy with the taste of salt and a harsh scent that you have never encountered in the desert or the war or the town of your birth. White birds shriek as they dart across the shimmering waves, and a rhythmic rushing noise pounds in your ears as the water throws itself again and again against the rocky base of the cliff. In the distance, sky and water blur together into the same infinite hazy blue. A steady wind tangles your hair and cools your sun-scorched skin.
The gold and leather hilt in your hand warms, and talons settle around your bare shoulders with the most delicate of pressures. Does it please you? the dragon asks. You see what no human has ever seen and lived; no ships sail this sea. All that you see is yours to take if you reach out your hand and strive for it. So, hero, does it please you to strive?
The light on the water blinds you; the roar of the waves deafens you; the scouring air bears the metallic scent of the chains you chose.
Once the speakers went to the desert to find gods.
Sometimes a warrior goes to the desert to fight demons.
When you go forth from the desert, you carry the monster with you.