Perisval climbed the ash-blackened trail of Gray Mountain for three days and three nights. At the summit, he found Princess Elanere, shivering, her silk gown caked with sooty residue from acid rain. Many moons had he sought her, after falling in love with her image on an ivory cameo necklace. Upon reaching her kingdom, he’d discovered she’d been given up to a dragon, and marched hard on her trail.
He knelt before her chained form. “Princess, I am Perisval, your rescuer.”
“My fate is already written,” Elanere said, and without looking at him, jingled a silver chain attaching her wrists to a basalt pillar.
Perisval unsheathed his sharp sword. “Hold your wrists against the rock, and I will split the links.”
She glanced up, her face smudged. “Mortal steel can’t break this chain. And even if it could, if the dragon discovered me gone, he’d wreak vengeance upon my people.”
Heart quickening at her courage, he sheathed his sword. “And if I slay the dragon, then will you consent to be rescued?”
“Not by the likes of you. I have a beau and other suitors richer and more powerful. No, sir—go home to your cruckhouse and leave me my dignity.”
Elanere, thin and ragged, drew herself up on her boulder. Her words stabbed deep, but not as deeply as seeing his beloved condemned to such an end.
“I understand, and will trouble you no more, Princess.”
She nodded haughtily and turned away from him. He placed his coat around her shoulders, and then marched toward the crack in the mountain a bowshot beyond them, from whence wisps of black smoke trickled.
“Idiot!” said Elanere. “You’re going the wrong way. That’s where the dragon lives!”
Perisval paused and smiled at her. “A year ago I was shown a brooch in your image, and instantly lost my heart. It shall be my pleasure to destroy the dragon and free you to seek your happiness. Wish me luck, Princess.”
He’d ascended a dozen paces up the slate trail when her voice called out raggedly.
“Perisval, you fool! Every year, champions go into the dragon’s lair, and never return. The elders say it has been so for five hundred years.”
“If the dragon’s that old, surely its bones are weak and its eyesight blurred. With your leave, I’ll begin my task. I carry only a week’s worth of water.”
With a wink, he marched on.
Her silence made his throat tighten, but finally, she said, “I lied about having a beau, to dissuade you from your impossible quest. Yet since you’ll not listen, if you succeed, I am yours.”
Perisval turned, placed his hand on his heart, and bowed low. With that, he plunged into darkness.
The cave walls sucked up torchlight hungrily as he snuck deeper into the hole. It went on for a long time, and was quiet but for the echoes of his footfalls and the scraping of the bones and blasted armor he pushed aside. Perisval counted the dead, in all their various states and styles and eras of armor, but soon lost track. He began to suspect the dragon had been killing champions for more than five hundred years.
How could be succeed when they had failed? He didn’t know; in fact, after passing hundreds or thousands of knights, he realized quite soberly that he would not. Yet he could no more turn back now than a stone rolling down a hill reverse course.
After days of descending through caverns and tunnels and stalactite-haunted vaults, Perisval came to a chamber which surely must be the dragon’s lair. The way his sounds got lost in the distance suggested the size of a coliseum, a cavern obscene and unnatural in its size. He willed his muscles into readiness, unslung his shield, and advanced into the light-swallowing darkness. As he pushed forward, heart slamming in his chest, he kicked aside rusted swords and split skulls. He walked in a half-crouch, ready to spring forward for a decisive stroke.
After an hour of this, he relaxed his posture. Still he moved forward.
When a rush of air stinking of reptile wafted over him, he froze, trapped. Behind him, at the height of a church tower, two luminous green eyes burned. Also visible was a claw, each nail the size of an elephant tusk.
“Welcome to your death, champion,” said a voice like the movement of the earth. “If you answer my riddle, you may return to the world.”
Perisval had gone cold, and the strength drained out of his hands. It was all he could do to keep his grip on the sword.
“I didn’t come to answer riddles, but to slay you, dragon.”
“Even so,” said the dragon, and then it told him the riddle.
Perisval wasn’t clever enough to answer it. He backed away from the dragon, away from the green eyes and the unimaginable bulk lurking in the darkness. The dragon made no move to follow.
After some minutes, and sensing no pursuit, he turned and walked normally. The detritus underfoot showed no sign of lessening, although there was now more dust and fewer bones, more crusted bits of rust and less intact harnesses. He walked for hours, sipping from his canteen, awed by the cavern refusing to end. At some unidentifiable point, the darkness began to lighten.
There were hills, and rivers, and mushroom forests, lit with a dull green light to the intensity of a cloud-darkened afternoon. Mounds of parts rose on each side. He walked on a path lined with skulls, and saw cottages made of human thigh bones, and gray men who tilled the land with implements made of old swords and spears. Women squatted on porches and ground grain or washed clothes in buckets. Morose children hunched in the fields.
Perisval clutched the cameo of Elanere.
“Am I dead?” he wondered aloud.
“Not yet, dragon-slayer,” rumbled the dragon. Perisval spun around, and saw the eyes looming above, attached to a monster so enormous he could make no sense of it. Let us say it appeared to be a roiling black storm with wings and claws.
“Some that have come to slay me lived and mated with others who came to slay me, and these are their offspring,” said the dragon. “These you see before you come from stock you would consider very old. The ground they stand on is made of the dust of other dragon-slayers, and that rests on the bones of others, and many others. You could shovel for decades and never reach the bottom of their remains. As long as there have been people, they have come here to slay me, and I have roasted them in their armor and eaten their hearts.
“Have you the answer to my riddle?”
Cowed, Perisval didn’t answer for a long time. When he looked up, the dragon was gone. He turned back to the landscape of mushrooms and skulls, the people who stared at him with hollow, dull eyes, the cottages, the hills, the yellow fringes growing on the ground. He walked away from the dragon and further into the land.
Prehistoric coastal peoples sometimes ate so much shellfish that the resulting middens became geologic features, changing the shape of the coastline by the accumulation, year after year, of discarded shells. You may be living on the calcium carbonate remains of millions of creatures consumed by humans tens of thousands of years ago. This story is a riff on this concept, imagining the intersection of the fantasy world, which often seems to involve a curiously static technological and cultural level, and geologic time.
Michael W. Cho