One Dragon at a Time“Take life one dragon at a time.” That’s what my Da always said. I used to think it was a metaphor. You know, “Don’t count your troubles until they come,” something like that.
It wasn’t a metaphor. It was sound advice for a member of our family and our profession. I didn’t know that until much later, in part because I didn’t learn for many years what my father’s—and thus my—profession was.
I grew up in the kingdom of Battorn, and since I was my parents’ only child, I began my training as Da’s successor at an early age. For the first 10 or 12 years, that training was pretty ordinary, not much different from what all the boys learned. Of course, me being a girl made for some raised eyebrows, but Da just shrugged.
“We’ve no choice,” he said. “The position is hereditary, and I have no other heir. Calla must learn.” And he went back to teaching me to use a sword and spear, ride a horse with and without saddles, and all the other warrior arts, plus a few extras.
What was odd, I figured out around age 12, was that Da wasn’t a warrior. At least, he wasn’t one of the King’s Guard, or in the army, or anything like that. He didn’t go off on campaigns when King Kor marched on his enemies. Besides, none of those things were hereditary, and neither the army nor the Guard took girls.
Da just disappeared from time to time and came back looking battered and singed and worn out. And he never told me what he did, what I was training to be. I tried asking questions, but if anyone knew, they weren’t telling me.
In the end, I stopped asking and learned what I was taught. At last, when I turned 18, Da began to teach me the rest of our job.
He took me to a locked room in the castle, and there he showed me shelf after shelf of books. Every one was about dragons. “You must know everything there is to be known about dragons,” he said, and then he was called away, leaving me to a task for which I wasn’t well suited. Too many years of running and fighting and sword training had left me impatient with sitting and reading. But I was beginning to get an inkling of my future, so I sat and I read.
Two days later, they came and told me that my father would not return, and that I was now the kingdom’s chief dragon fighter and emissary to the dragonlands. If there was an afterlife, I was pretty sure my Da was there, kicking himself for not teaching me more, sooner.
I assumed a dragon had killed Da. I found, among the books, the logbook of the Dragon Emissaries, and, reading it cover to cover, decided that the job was half diplomacy, half battle. I entered the date of Da’s death, and the words, “Presumed killed.” That matched what ended each emissary’s section. Da’s handwriting began with those words, about his father.
Then, hands shaking, I turned to a clean page and wrote “I, Calla Daughter of Kellan, am the new Dragon Emissary. I know nothing, and I must travel to the Dragonlands to complete my father’s task, and I must avenge his death.” The book told me what Da had gone to do—to collect payment of damages from one Skycloud, a male dragon of three and a half centuries—just middle-aged—for destruction of a farm on the border with the Dragonlands.
Skycloud was the obvious suspect in Da’s death, so I had no need to remember Da’s words to me, for I would deal with only one dragon in both matters.
Only, when we stood, puny human face to vast dragon face, Skycloud was flanked by his brothers. Then I remembered my father’s words. “Take life one dragon at a time” suddenly looked like survival advice, not a pretty aphorism. I might be able to negotiate or fight with one dragon, but not three. I had to find the way to separate the brothers.
“Come walk with me, Skycloud, and we can discuss this matter of the Hillborn Farm.”
“My brothers may hear all you have to say.”
“So say you. But I say otherwise. You wish to intimidate me, but I am the Dragon Emissary, and I am not intimidated.”
That was a lie. I was very intimidated. I was also getting a bit angry. “Are you a coward, that you will not meet alone with a single human?”
That didn’t sit well with the dragon. “Very well. We will walk.” We strode off in the direction of the woods, a ridiculous pairing of a skinny girl in armor and an immense dragon with armored scales. But I knew the woods were the best place for us, because the thick trees limited the dragon’s movements more than my own.
So I told Skycloud he must pay, and I told him he must also pay for my father’s death. He laughed.
“I gave your father the gold, and he left with it. It is not my fault if he proved unfaithful, or careless.”
I contained my anger, and thought of Skycloud’s brothers. “The ancient agreements say you pay, and give safe escort to the border. Were you that escort?”
“I sent my brother.” And before I could react, Skycloud called, and his brothers came. “This puny human creature accuses us of treachery,” he said. “As though what any mere man thinks could matter to us.”
I’m no man, I thought. I’m a girl, and what I think is going to matter a whole lot.
It did, but not quite how I intended. As the three dragons closed in on me, I thought of my father’s advice. Take life one dragon at a time.
It was good advice, if you could find a way to follow it.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015