From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Stable Master’s Tale

I was born a baron’s daughter in a kingdom that no longer exists.

My father’s stables were the most important part of his holdings. By the time I had ten summers, I could soothe a panicked stallion and help birth a breech foal.

By the time I was fifteen, I’d realized I didn’t want to marry into some tedious house where I’d be expected to dedicate my life to child-rearing and embroidery. I knew this fate would inevitably befall me if I stayed, and so I packed a few things and snuck away in the night. I walked alone for days until I crossed the border into the kingdom of Thelden where I submitted myself to the king for a position in the stables. King Eram accepted my petition, not because he suspected I had any talent, but because he found it amusing to insult my former queen by employing one of her noblewomen as a menial.

Over the years, I proved myself as more than a way to annoy neighboring monarchs. When the old stable master died, King Eram appointed me in his place. I wore a long green skirt when I went to attend him. I curtsied. The king laughed. “Wear your riding clothes. A woman like you should bow.”

That same year, invaders took the kingdom where I was born, and put its nobles to the blade. My father’s surviving servants wrote me letters about how it happened. The invaders approached my father’s lands on a cool, autumn day, when he was out working with his trainers to break new foals. The enemy didn’t even recognize him; a foot soldier thoughtlessly cut his throat as they rode past.

The rest of my family died before the sun reached noon.

It’s painful to remember them–my brothers, my sisters, my parents, my cousins. When I do, a single memory dominates. It was summer and I was six summers old, standing in the corral with my eldest brother. The day was hot and golden, the air strong with the reek of flowers and horse droppings. My brother sat beside me, stealing a moment to practice the flute he’d wheedled from our nurse.

A great wind began to blow. My brother jumped to his feet. At first, I thought he was scared; my brother was as lazy as a housecat, and ordinarily nothing but a swat on the rear could make him move quickly. The horses panicked, tossing their heads, eyes wild. The rushing wind gained speed. Yet my brother laughed. He spread his arms to the sky.

“What? What is it?” I demanded.

He picked me up. I saw nothing. “Look toward the mountains,” he shouted.

Suddenly, I saw them: great, golden bodies extending enormous gossamer wings. There were half a dozen flying in a circle, chasing each other’s tails. Sunlight sparkled off their bodies. They were glorious and terrifying.

I whimpered and hid my eyes.

“Don’t worry,” my brother said. “They’re too far away to hurt you.”

The great golden bodies circled in the darkness behind my eyelids. They were terrifying. They were beautiful. By the time I opened my eyes, the dragons were gone.

I did not see a dragon again for many years.

#

I was helping the stable hands muck out the stalls when the king’s messenger rushed in. He was a child, eight or nine, face pink with exertion. “The knights have returned!”

“Already?” I asked. We hadn’t expected them for another season. The king had sent them to clear the southern wilderness so that settlers could build another outpost between us and the ambitious southern kings.

“They brought treasure,” said the messenger. “The king wants everyone to gather in the great hall.”

“They couldn’t warn us? We’ve got half the stalls left to do.”

“They brought treasure!” The boy’s eyes glittered with excitement.

My stable hands had been taken by the same spirit. Jerod and Barr stared at us, gape-mouthed, grips slack on their shovels. They’d be disappointed when they saw the knights’ treasure was only moldy relics and uncut stones.

“Come on then,” I said. “Enjoy your reprieve. You can finish tonight.”

The messenger led us outside, sprinting when we hit the cold air. He crunched a trail in the snow leading back to the castle.

We nodded at the guards as we crossed the drawbridge, our boots trailing snow on the flagstones as we entered the great hall. Courtiers, servants, and townsfolk gathered inside. Noblemen wore expensive fashions, but our homespun fare wasn’t out of place; Thelden was a poor kingdom.

King Eram and Queen Senna sat on their thrones, eight-year-old Princess Amory on a small chair beside them. The princess had caught the assembly’s excitement. She wriggled in her seat, trying to look everywhere at once.

Trumpets blared. The crowd turned. The king’s favorite, Sir Kenley, paraded in and sketched a long, overwrought salute with his sword.

The other knights marched behind him, their armor stained with dirt and rust from long months on the road. The squires entered last, dragging carts of treasure. Everyone bustled. Exclamations of awe pierced the air as the contents caught the torchlight. Gold and silver spilled glitteringly out of canvas sacks, accentuating the sparkle of diadems and jeweled goblets.

Even I was taken aback. Where had our knights found such treasure?

Sir Kenley removed his helm. “Your Highness. We were clearing the southern wilderness by your royal command when suddenly one of our squires was taken by–” he paused, drawing in the crowd’s attention–“a dragon.”

Women screamed. Those in over-tight bodices fainted.

“We followed the creature back to its lair. It was so enormous that it filled the entire cave. While my men fought, I stayed back, waiting for an opportunity to employ cunning rather than brawn. When the beast reared, I aimed my spear at a soft patch on its throat. By God’s grace, I struck true.”

King Eram beamed with pride. Kenley offered a bow.

“I have not yet shown you the greatest treasure.”

He lifted a bundle wrapped in fine white cloth. The bundle squirmed, and the fabric slipped aside to reveal the snout of a baby dragon the size of a housecat. I was jostled from all sides as those around me drew back in fear.

Kenley laid the dragon at Princess Amory’s feet. The princess stepped down from her chair, eyes filled with avarice. She reached out gingerly to touch the dragon’s head.

“Its teeth haven’t grown yet,” Sir Kenley said. “It’s as safe as a kitten.”

Emboldened, Amory grabbed the bundle and clutched it to her chest. The dragon’s snout protruded. It blinked up at her with onyx eyes.

“Precious,” she crooned. “I want to name him Precious.”

#

Princess Amory tied a ribbon around the dragon’s neck and had a stool brought so it could perch beside her during dinner. She fed it mashed lamb mixed with milk.

“Precious is hungry,” Amory said to her nursemaid.

The nurse cowered away from her charge’s pet. The other diners glanced furtively at the dragon as they ate, whispering behind cupped hands.

As the royal stable master, it was my duty to oversee the king’s beasts, so by royal decree, I’d been seated opposite Princess Amory. I sat uncomfortably, ignoring my food.

Amory told the dragon stories as she fed it. “You’re a dragon, and I’m your mother, okay? I’m very rich. I could have everything in the world, but everyone hates me. They think we burn the huts and eat the sheep. But that’s not us. That’s the mean dragons.”

The dragon’s transparent inner lids fell closed as it struggled to stay awake.

“It’s probably full now, young Highness,” I said. “You should let it sleep.”

“Precious is very hungry,” said Amory.

“Even dragons get stomachaches.”

Amory’s brows drew stormily downward. The dragon wheezed. Its eyes bugged out. It wheezed again. It vomited milky mutton, followed by a gust of flame that blackened the flagstones. The nurse grabbed the princess and whisked her back into the crowd of shocked courtiers.

I approached the dragon cautiously from behind. It wobbled on its stool, unsteady with nausea. I put my hand against the soft scales on its stomach. They were hot with indigestion.

The knights stood around me, their swords drawn, ready to dispatch the poor thing for the sin of having been force fed. I looked to King Eram. “Perhaps I should take it to the stable for the night,” I suggested.

Princess Amory had a fit, but it was done.

#

I put the dragon in the stall beside Princess Amory’s pony, Silky, a gelding with a fine red coat. Silky had cost more than five times my yearly wage. Princess Amory had adored him the first month, spending long mornings brushing his coat before taking him out to ride all afternoon in the fields, overseen by myself or one of the hands. Now I groomed him and led him out by the reins a few times a week. He’d grown heavy and lazy. He raised his head wearily as I passed with the dragon.

Jerod and Barr eyed us cautiously. They were finishing the morning’s interrupted work, but it was clear they’d get nothing done while watching the dragon.

“Go up to bed,” I told them. “Go on. Shoo.” Their eyes remained on the dragon as they climbed the ladder to the loft.

The dragon vomited until all the food and flame was gone, leaving only char and embers. “Well done, Precious,” I congratulated it, scratching its head, but I couldn’t stand the too-sweet name. “Let’s make that Ember. Don’t tell the princess.”

It was a sleek dragon, with brown-gold scales. A check under the tail revealed it was a she. I’d learned a bit about dragon lore from a beast trainer who’d stayed awhile in my father’s fortress. He’d taught me that female dragons were bigger and more violent, although peasants often claimed the large, aggressive animals were male. Real male dragons were small and short-lived and rarely descended from their icy mountain lairs.

Ember fell asleep, her chin on my hand. I shifted her head onto the hay. Her tail twitched but she didn’t wake.

She looked a month old, perhaps two. Soon her teeth would grow. By summer, her fire would be at full blaze. I cursed Sir Kenley for a fool. He should have killed the poor beast along with her mother.

#

The next morning, I was called to participate in the royal deliberations.

“As long as the creature can fly, we can’t control her,” said the king’s uncle, a huge man with a thicket-like beard. “We must cut her wings.”

Sir Kenley, arrogant in jeweled rings awarded by the king, pointed at Ember’s massive talons. “Got to get rid of those, too.”

Ember perched on a pedestal, a tray of chopped goose liver laid before her. A silver chain wound around her leg. She split her time between pecking at the food and trying to free her foot.

“What do you think?” asked the king, turning to me.

I’d always respected King Eram. He was an ambitious, intelligent man who spent most of his time searching for ways to strengthen Thelden against its larger, wealthier neighbors. The last time that the great kingdoms had become restless, they’d descended like vultures on the kingdom where I was born. Now it seemed as though it might be Thelden’s turn to die at the invaders’ swords.

“You should have her killed,” I said.

“Killed?”

“A dragon will never be a pet. She’ll be dangerous as long as she’s alive.”

King Eram regarded me from dark eyes shadowed beneath thick brows. “We can’t clip her wings?”

“We can burn the connective tissue between her wing-bones,” I said. “And mountain calmstone will quiet her fire until summer. But she will get bigger, and her fire will grow stronger. We won’t be able to control her indefinitely.”

The king stroked his beard. “Then we’ll settle for controlling her for now.”

“Your Majesty,” I pressed. “Dragons live in herds. They’re social creatures.”

“My daughter can keep her company.”

“Can she fly with her? Speak to her? Some people believe that dragons communicate through vibrations.” I paused. “Moreover, dragons are territorial. During the summer mating season, other females will smell Precious. They’ll hunt her down.”

“We killed her mother,” said Kenley. “We’ll kill them, too.”

“Her mother was on a nest and under a ceiling.”

Ember rumbled. She tried to move toward me, but her leg caught her up short. She flapped to regain her balance.

King Eram laughed at her surprised expression. “Burn her wings and clip her claws. We’ll revisit the matter in summer.”

“Your Highness–” I began. The king’s humor disappeared.

“My decision has been made.”

#

They burned the tender connective tissue of Ember’s wings and crippled her forelegs. When her teeth came in, they pulled out the sharpest and filed the others. They dug out her claws with a knife.

I restrained her throughout the mutilations so she wouldn’t injure herself more than necessary. I covered her eyes with a hood so the men and their knives wouldn’t panic her. She writhed and whimpered while I stroked her back. I tried not to think about my father and my sister as they cut into her flesh. I hated being forced to stand there while they hurt her. Ordinarily, my job was to end animal’s pain; when a horse broke its leg, I was there with the knife to end its misery.

“We’d both be better off if I snapped your neck,” I whispered to Ember when we were alone.

At night, Ember curled against me, whining her pain into my skin. I saw her hurt and her pleading, but I also saw her curiosity when she woke in the morning and saw flies buzzing through the air. She had the vibrancy of young things. She wanted to live. At least, I convinced myself she did.

#

Princess Amory visited daily. She shrieked with delight as she rocked the maimed dragon against her chest. “Precious is getting bigger, aren’t you? What will we do when you get giant? Will you fly around my tower and keep me safe?”

“That dragon will never fly,” I snapped.

Amory looked up, anger and surprise bright in her eyes. “Don’t talk to me like that!”

Behind us, Jarod and Barr laughed. I gave them a dirty look. “Why don’t you take the queen’s mares out for a ride?” I asked, thinking the brisk wind of early spring would give them some sense.

Turning back, I saw the princess pick Ember up. The dragon was almost too big for her to hold. Amory pinched Ember’s wing under her arm. Ember keened.

“Lift your arm!” I cried. Remembering myself, I eased my tone. “Your Highness.”

Glaring at me, Amory shifted her arm, leaving Ember’s legs dangling.

I made my way to Amory’s pony. It tried to nip my hand. I pushed its nose away. “Why don’t you come over here? Silky misses you. Help me get his coat nice and shiny, and you can ride out for a picnic.”

Amory set the dragon on a bale of hay. “Precious wants me to stay here.” She took Ember by the forelegs and began to make her dance. The wound on Ember’s right foreleg cracked open and began to bleed.

“What are you doing!” I shouted. At first, I was too angry to notice my disrespect. Then I decided I didn’t care. “That’s a wild animal! She could hurt you!”

Ember keened. Amory twisted her toward me. “She likes it, see?”

With a howl, Ember launched at Amory, stretching out her ruined wings. She snapped her jaws at Amory’s arm.

I sprinted toward the Princess and pulled her away from the baby dragon. One of Ember’s teeth had been filed jaggedly. It pulled free, lodging in Amory’s arm. Blood spurted from Ember’s mouth and Amory’s wound.

I set the girl behind me and went to face the dragon. Ember hissed, flapping her tattered wings in a threat display. She reared up, her mutilated forelegs clawing at the air.

“Hush,” I murmured, as I did when she was in too much pain to sleep. “Be still.”

The moment passed. Fury cleared from Ember’s eyes. She furled her wings and settled on all fours, favoring her mutilated forelegs. Gently, I picked her up and returned her to her stall, locking the gate behind me.

Amory stood by the hay, watching. She looked frightened and confused, frozen for the moment, like a rabbit confronted by a predator.

I kept my tone even as if I were still working with a wild animal. “Do you want me to take you back to the castle?”

I took a step toward Amory. Suddenly, she began to cry, her body shaking with fierce howls of fear and anger. She turned and fled the stables, her rapid footsteps squishing through the early spring mud.

#

“You will treat my daughter as an extension of the royal self,” said King Eram, voice taut with anger.

I had been granted a private audience. My years of service had earned me this, that I would not be humiliated before his knights and advisors.

I knelt, my head bowed. “Your Highness.”

“Because you are a woman of noble birth, you will not be beaten, but you have forfeited the season’s pay. If it happens again, I will banish you.”

I did not move. It was more generous than I had expected, but I dared not show my relief.

“You may rise.”

I rose slowly, allowing his gaze to linger on my exposed neck as if I were the weaker of two sparring dogs.

I expected to be dismissed but he said nothing. “Your Highness–” I began. I thought better and closed my mouth.

He leaned back, his hands on the carved lion’s heads decorating his throne. “Say what you have to say, stable master.”

“Your Highness, my regrettable behavior was motivated by concern for your daughter. The dragon has struck once. It will strike again.”

I tried to read his expression, but he remained clouded with anger.

“The weather is warming,” I continued. “Soon, the dragons will hunt her down. She endangers everyone, your daughter most of all.”

The king tapped his fingers on the lions’ heads. “The southern armies have made a weapon that can shoot a hundred arrows.”

“I’ve heard the rumors, Highness.”

“They are not just rumors. My knights intercepted a band of merchants who’ve seen the weapon. A flying rain of arrows.”

“Troubling, your Highness.”

“But even the greatest kings cannot tame a dragon. I am the only king with a dragon for a pet.”

I felt ill. “Your Highness?”

“Sir Kenley has a plan to drive away the dragons when they come after Precious. We’ve met with traders from the east and purchased tame stars that can be thrown into the sky where they burst into lights and colors. Kenley’s knights will hurl them at the dragons until the beasts are blinded and confused.”

“Dragons won’t be easily bewildered–”

“–Come summer, we will host a festival for merchants and traveling players. When the dragons arrive, we will array our guests on the fields so they can see how we dispatch a circle of dragons. They’ll spread the news of our prowess like lightning among our foes. No other kingdom will dare to challenge us.”

I could scarcely find my voice. “Your knights will die, your Highness.”

His voice was full of disgust. “You have tried my patience enough, stable master. Be off. Take care of my dragon.”

#

After that, Princess Amory wouldn’t go into the stall unless I was with her. Even then she backed away from Ember like a spooked animal.

I took Ember out in the afternoons while Jerod and Barr exercised the horses. She enjoyed ambling across the meadow, stretching her strong hind legs. She was as big as the princess’s pony. Spring sun gleamed off her brown-gold hide.

I took to grooming her after I’d done the horses. She butted her head against my hand as I rubbed ointments into her hide. Her onyx eyes filled with what I like to think was affection.

The weather warmed. Cicadas took up their mating calls, thrumming into the night. Ember sang with them. The noises she made were throaty and dark. The vibrations in her chest lulled me to sleep as I lay against her, as if I were the baby, and she the caretaker.

#

Summer’s first heat pulsed almost visibly through the air. The horses whimpered and leaned against their stalls. The stable hands and I shared their languor. We labored slowly, drenched with sweat.

I ate nothing. The heat made me sick, but here was a greater worry in my belly. Summer had come. Dragons would not be far behind.

They appeared early one morning, a dozen circling overhead, bright streaks of gold against unending blue. Jerod and Barr went outside to watch them, necks craned, and I thought of my long-dead brother who had lifted me up to watch another dragon circle, long ago.

The king had made good his festival plans. Merchants and commoners gathered on the fields, shielded by canopies from the worst heat of the sun. The princess and her mother sat on beribboned chairs, fanned by servants. Laughter and conversation drifted on the breeze.

My eye traveled toward the castle where the king and Sir Kenley waited. Sunlight glinted off of the armor of the knights who stood on the towers, holding the sparklers for their insane plan.

“Your knife,” I demanded of Jerod.

“What?”

“Your knife.”

He pulled it from his belt. “Why?”

“If the dragons see Ember’s corpse, maybe they’ll relent.” Under my breath, I added, “At least it’ll spare her the pain of being torn apart.”

Ember was as big as the horses now. She sprawled in the back of her stall, trying to cool down. She rumbled when I came in, raising her head. She probably expected me to pour cool water on her hot, aching hide.

I opened the stall and approached. She stood, her neck extended. My boots felt like iron as I took the last steps forward. Ember’s eyes fixed on my face, bright and trusting. But there was wildness underneath.

I knelt, moving slowly to avoid startling her. She rested her head in my lap.  I stroked her long, supple neck, eliciting a thrum of contentment. She held out her cracked foreleg for me to oil. I set it gently aside.

I considered how much easier it would have been to do this when she was still puppy-sized, before I’d known her and slept by her side. “It’s for the best,” I murmured. “Better me than them.”

She rumbled again, content. I drew back the knife.

She sprang up, trumpeting, and kicked me aside with one of her huge hind legs. The knife fell into the straw. She pinned me beneath her declawed forelegs, her huge, tattered wings spreading into a threat display. Her eyes shone with fury.

My breath came fast and hard. My heart pounded. I rolled my head back to expose my throat. “Go ahead,” I said.

She shrilled at me and flapped her wings, and then drove away, barreling through the stall gate and through the stable wall.

I pulled to my feet and raced after her. Outside, the dragons flew in a low circle, their immense bodies blocking the sun. Merchants and musicians cowered and fled, their canopies swept aside by wind from the dragon’s enormous wings. The servants with the fans started to run, but Queen Senna shouted and they returned. Amory shrank in her beribboned chair.

A trumpet played from the castle walls. The knights lit their tame stars and hurled them into the sky. They detonated with a series of pops, bright sparks blinding. I blinked, seeing white. The trumpet bugled and pops heralded a second round. When my vision cleared, I saw the dragons flying unperturbed toward the castle.

Shouts tore the air. The knights pulled out their bows. Arrows glanced off the dragons’ scales and fell to the ground. A dozen angled toward the commoners on the green. One struck Queen Senna’s throne and she fled, screaming. Princess Amory watched her go, but remained, frozen by fear.

The dragons were circling the castle now. They looped closer, breathing hot flame. It seeped through the castle’s slitted windows, lighting a terrible blaze.

Barr cried out. “Mum’s in there!” Jerrod staggered forward, his mouth open, unsure what to do.

“Why are they attacking the castle?” I shouted, regaining my head.

Recalling Ember, I spun, searching. She’d leapt atop a storage shed where we kept spare equipment. She stretched her tattered wings and roared, her cry blending with the noise of the other dragons. One beast turned to look at her. All the dragons were golden, but their hides shone with different hues, their eyes shading from topaz to umber. This dragon shared Ember’s sleek build, onyx eyes, and brown-gold scales. It raised its forelegs to her in salute. They’re family, I realized.

“If they’re not after her,” I said, breathless, “what are they after?”

The other dragons continued their siege, tearing chunks of stone from the turrets. Sir Kenley leaned out of a window to shout at the fighters. A dragon spotted him and breathed flame. His armor melted. He fell, no longer even shaped like a man.

A green-gold dragon ripped the roof off of the great hall and dove inside. When it rose into the sky again, it held a struggling body in its claws. Gold sparkled on the form’s distant brow.

“The king,” I breathed at the same time as Jerod and Barr startled with recognition.

The dragon pulled its victim higher and higher into the air and then released him. As the king tumbled down, the dragon exhaled a fiery plume. When it cleared, there was nothing left of the king, only clear blue sky.

A small voice piped through the wind. “That was my father!” I looked down and saw Amory standing beneath a russet-gold dragon, her hands balled into fists.

The russet-gold dragon gazed at her, hotly. I ran toward the princess, desperate to push her out of the way of those enormous claws, but the dragon only blinked at the girl and veered away toward the castle. I had just enough time to feel relief before huge talons dug into my shoulders and lifted me into the air.

Flying in another creature’s grip was dazzling, terrible.

It was the brown-gold dragon that held me. She swooped toward Ember, joining into a circle with three other dragons already wheeling above the shed. Looking down at Ember from above, I saw her mutilations anew. Her wings gaped with holes; her mutilated forelegs looked like stumps. She opened her mouth to cry and I felt sick looking at her filed teeth.

The brown-gold dragon began to thrum as Ember had to the cicadas. The others joined, the pitch of their combined voices rising.

I felt myself lifted high, as the king had been. I steeled myself for the fall and the flame.

A new note joined the song, higher and sweeter. It was Ember, rearing on her hind legs, her head thrown back so that her throat was exposed as it vibrated with her song.

The other dragons fell silent. Ember’s trill continued, sweet and silvery.

The brown-gold dragon rumbled, questioningly. Ember’s voice grew throatier. She sat on her haunches, baring her blunted teeth.

My stomach flipped as the brown-gold dragon swooped to the ground and set me upright. It glared at me with its onyx eyes so like Ember’s, but wiser and angrier. I regarded its immense, muscular form: this was what Ember should have looked like but never would.

Rearing back, the dragon released a stream of flame. I ducked. It burned over my head: a clear warning. The dragon’s eyes were dark and hard. I knew that if it ever saw me again, I was dead.

Gently, the other dragons helped Ember to mount the brown-gold one’s back. The brown-gold dragon launched into the sky, and Ember trilled brightly, stretching her tattered wings to the sun. She looked down at me and cocked her head. Her eyes held wildness, and intelligence, and splendor.

#

The dragons demolished the castle and all its fighting men.

Queen Senna survived to take her husband’s crown, but she was forced to treat with Thelden’s enemies for protection. Thelden would lose some land, and all of Sir Kenley’s treasure, but it would survive.

I requested an audience with Queen Senna, and suggested it would be best if she terminated my service. She agreed. After all that had happened, I could not remain.

I packed a few clothes and my riding equipment. I said my farewells to Jerod and Barr–surprised at the tears that caught in my throat. I’d seen the boys grow. I would miss them.

There was no one else I wished to bid goodbye. I’d lived in Thelden for ten years, but my closest friends were my horses. Everyone I cared for in the world was years dead, and I would have joined them except for the mercy of a dragon I had helped maim.

I remembered clutching my brother so long ago as he lifted me up, my eyes squeezed shut because I was afraid. My brother was dead now, but dragons had saved my life.

I donned my pack and set onto the road.

Rachel Swirsky’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and the Sturgeon Award. Her first collection, a slim volume of feminist poetry and stories called Through the Drowsy Dark, is available through Aqueduct Press.