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Altar of Aligore

When dragons are involved, people will demand sacrifices

By Shaun WaltersPublished 3 months ago 17 min read
<a href=" silhouette moon&position=0&from_view=search&track=sph">Image by</a> on Freepik

Worn smooth from years of rain and mother’s tears, the altar in the clearing glowed under the light of the full moon like it was a missing piece. The old priest limped to the stone and ran his hand down the edge from above his head down to his waist, forgetting about the small procession behind him for a few moments. Maeve stopped at the border between woodland and glade. Her husband, Caleb, placed his hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her. She shook him off.

“I’ll go when I’m ready.”

Caleb shrugged and joined the priest. Father Drake smoothed his simple vestments and tugged at his beard. He knew it would not do to push her too hard. The tea he made for her will have…calmed her, and dulled her senses, but even a blunt instrument can cause a lot of damage. He watched her sway in the dark to a lullaby he couldn’t hear. She was strong enough to bear this, he was sure of it. And clever enough to see reason. Or at least to see when there are no other options. Caleb never spared a glance for his wife as he wandered the clearing, looked up at the stars and wondered. Which way would the beast come from? The forest? The mountains? The stars? The glory he could have if he found the beast’s lair and killed it. The riches.

Father Drake raised his arms to the sky,” Oh great and generous God, we have come here this night to give both thanks and sacrifice. We thank you for the love and bounty you give us and, even though we must sacrifice something we love, as you once did for us, we still thank you. Now please place the child on the altar.”

Maeve stared at the ground, grinding her teeth, and closed the folds of her cloak tighter across something much closer to her than God ever could be. She looked up at the ancient trees and felt their judgment. They had sentenced her long ago to return and she had just been serving her time. But who were they to judge her? Killing their own younglings season after season, except for those that could escape to find emptier pastures. Why couldn’t I have ridden the wind? Found a new place for my roots. She shivered. Caleb’s wandering eyes had found her again.

The old priest scratched his bald head,” My daughter in Christ, please come. It does not behoove us to stay in this clearing for long on such a night.”

“It behooves no one to be in this devil’s place. Ever. Especially for such evil as this.”

Father Drake sighed. It was not the first time he had been accused of such and, if God willed it, there would be more recriminations in the years to come. He leaned against his walking stick and rubbed his right leg. Walking the forest at night was getting harder and he kept praying for a new priest young and trustworthy enough to leave this mission to. The sacrifice of children took a deft and loving hand.

“I will not argue with you, Maeve. A mother’s love cannot be reasoned away. I can only ask you to extend that love to your village and all of the others. Spread that love to all of the other children that would suffer the dragon’s wrath. Much like the sacrifice God required of Mary and her only son.”

“The blessed mother only had to do it once and she got to see her son three days later. That’s not going to happen for me, is it? Elliot will not be coming back to me. So, no, not again, Priest. I won’t do this again.”

Caleb stepped close to his wife and grabbed her arm, “We don’t have a choice. It’s our village’s year and they chose the boy. The boy who’s barely useless. Probably won’t make it anyway. At least this is for the good of our land.”

“You mean for the good of you.”

“Money and food ain’t something to sneer at. We can make another.”

“You think I will let you anywhere near me? If you make me do this again?”

Caleb’s lip snarled. He drew himself up like an angry bear and pulled his arm back to strike. Father Drake grasped it lightly.

“No violence, my son. Not here. The dragon does not appreciate the violence of man. If you strike her, the beast may take both you and the boy.”

“Then let him,” Maeve said, under her breath.

Caleb stared back at her and dropped his hand. “You’re right, Father, some lessons are better taught inside a man’s home.”

The priest felt a chill across his neck and looked up at the moon. Something, maybe, circled the edge of it. The steady stars blinked in and out of existence. Better to hurry this up.

He whispered into Maeve’s ear, “Your husband is rarely right. However, in that you have no choice, he is perfectly correct. If you do not do this, the villagers will make you and your child suffer. They will steal the very food you grow, they will accept nothing from you in barter. While not a great loss, your husband will abandon you to their depredations. No other village will take you in. Or, if they do, it will be for only one reason. Then you and I will be here yet again. If you willingly suffer now, your boy will not have to.”

“We are giving him to a beast of hell, how can you say he will not suffer?”

“I have never told this to anyone. But when I was younger, and just taking on this mission, I stayed behind once, hidden in that tall oak. My leg was bad then. The dark beast, blacker than the night, landed at the foot of the altar. Its great wings stretched out, the skin of them so clear I could see the trees behind it. A deep scar stretched from above an empty eye socket, down to the edge of its lip. No doubt from the sword of some brave knight that never made it back to his hearth. Teeth, like long blades of onyx, protruded from the top of his mouth, even while it was closed. And, when it opened -“

“Is this supposed to be helping?!” Maeve said, pulling back towards the forest, clutching her child until he might bruise.

“Sorry, sorry, I’ll get to the point. At the end of its great, powerful arms were dagger-like claws that glowed like silver in the moonlight and he touched the child on the altar. And, I swear to you, the child died. It was swift and painless. So while you must endure this pain, this horror, he will know nothing. Feel nothing. And if you do this, then the dragon will leave the village alone for another year. It will not raze their fields, devour their flocks, or burn away their flesh. It knew I was there that night. I fell out of that tree and broke my leg. I screamed and the monster was upon me in a second. It’s one good eye staring into mine, the heat of its breath making me sweat like a summer’s day. It brought that long, silver claw close to my chest. I closed my eyes and prayed to God to forgive me my sins, giving myself the last rites when I felt a rush of air. Like a great storm was blowing in. But when I opened my eyes, the dragon was gone, and so was the boy. The dragon had accepted his sacrifice and kept his part of the bargain.”

“Why is God asking this of me?”

“We cannot know. All we can do is follow his plan and hope, have faith, that all truths will be revealed to us. Sometimes in this life, but I think it is more often in the next. But you know the truth of what you must do, right now.”

Father Drake noticed a blur at the edge of the moon as he softly pushed Maeve toward the glowing rock. She let the outer part of her cloak slip away to reveal her sleeping son. As small as he was for a five-year-old, her arms were burning from holding him this long. She took him from his bed after he took the sleeping draught, then carried him through their village. The village where every other person, every other family, had their doors and windows shut tight so that they did not have to see their sad procession. Where they all gathered around their dying coals and thanked God it was not them. Not this time. Then she carried him through the forest of true night, where darkness had gone to hide from the moon. Where only a few shafts of dulled light stabbed their way through the canopy. Her arms were burning, but it was not a pain she wanted to let go of yet.

Caleb stepped closer,” If you can’t, then I’ll put him on the rock. “

“No. If I’m to betray my son, I will be the one to see it through. ”

Gently, slowly, she laid him out on the altar. She leaned over and kissed his left hand. “I helped feed him so much longer than the last one. Even his good hand didn’t obey all the time. Oh, the messes he would make. I couldn’t help but laugh as I wiped away the bits from his chin, his shirt, the table.” She straightened out the fabric on his right leg, “I would watch him run behind the other children, dragging this foot through the dirt as they disappeared over the village walls to play their games and hide from him, hide from the weirdling child. But he always found them. Down any hole, inside any brush. They laughed and called him Lamb and he thought it sweet because he was too wonderful to understand, despite that clever streak. Too loved to notice the other parents grimacing in disgust as he passed. To notice them yanking their children from his path so his fate wouldn’t rub off on them. Oh, why wouldn’t they just let us be? Why won’t they just let me love him?”

“Because this is too hard a life for most people to be open to such things. And when people have a hard enough time, they demand sacrifices. Even when dragons aren’t involved. They want to know others are suffering more than they. In their minds, what better way to satisfy their obligation than getting rid of something broken? Dress something up in tradition and many sins can be forgiven. If I was not a priest, my limp would mark me out as someone to leave behind.”

“But it happened when you was already a priest,” Caleb said. “Ain’t that what you said?”

“Hmm, oh yes. That was what I said. Well, we must leave, and soon. The sleeping draught I gave you will only last so long, and I do not want him to wake to the fearful sight of the dragon looming over his tiny frame.”

“I’ve been grieving this moment for five years. Five years of neighbor’s pitying glances. Five years of heart-wrenching pain every time I fell in love with his smile and almost forgot another’s. What is a dragon’s hunger compared to that agony?”

Maeve held the limp hand against her damp cheek. Caleb came from behind and ripped her away, holding his large hand across her mouth to stifle the sobs and screams that still frightened the forest into silence. The priest looked back up at the moon one more time and noticed an extra blemish on the face of the moon. He followed behind the beast and his bride, his own tears softening the forest floor. Once again, he had broken her heart, even if God and a dragon were as much to blame as him. He wished he could tell her something to mend her heart, to heal it of all wounds. But breaking sacred vows, well, that would be as safe as putting your hands in an unknown dragon’s mouth.

Aligore traced the moon one more time as the tiny creatures made their way back into the forest. Finally, he thought, I am hungry and the flight home is long. Wings folded, he dove like a black meteorite, flinging them open at the top of the tree line and landing on the grass with a soft whump. He stalked over to Elliot and leaned in close, the boy’s hair billowing under his hot breath. Absentmindedly, the dragon picked at his scar and scratched at his belly.

“So small,” he said and brought a long silver claw, glowing in the moonlight, to the boy’s chest. “And still they think such minuscule offerings would appease one such as me. Despite their blades, these humans are not the sharpest.”

Elliot’s eyes began to flutter and his fingers opened and closed. The dragon’s claw shone brighter than the moon’s light it reflected as he touched the tiny sacrifice. The boy’s eyes flew open and his mouth gaped, but he could not scream. Elliot tried to crawl away, up the incline of the altar, but his body still would not obey him, even in such dire times.

“Be gentle with yourself, child. I’ve taken your voice for a moment. I find it best that mothers don’t hear their children scream. It makes them foolish. Now, quite simply, I am very large and you are very small. And your one leg is lame, so running away is not in your future. Settle down, and I will make this as quick as I can. Some have even told me it is quite enjoyable.”

Elliot froze as Aligore reached out with those deadly claws, grasped his whole shaking body in one palm, and lifted him from the cold stone. Pulled tightly to the dragon’s chest, he could feel the heavy beat of a heart the same size as him. Scales shifted like tectonic plates, catching part of Elliot’s clothes between their edges. A shiver ran along the surface making his teeth chatter as Aligore stretched out his massive wings and leaped into the air. The wind rushed in between the dragon’s fingers, cooling him down from the heat of the dragon’s body. Elliot felt the scales, mostly smooth but rough in spots, like the rusted plow. The skin of its fingers was much rougher, like the tongue of a giant cat.

“If you are not too afraid, little human, look down. It is a sight few of your kind will ever see.”

Elliot shifted and tried to open his eyes. He took a few deep breaths like his mother had taught him and willed them to see. The dark green mass of the forest had faded into middling, lone stragglers that grew between moss-covered boulders as they soared between a mountain and its little brother, a low peak covered in bright evergreens. Valleys appeared and disappeared before he could blink. It seemed like a length of dark glass wended through them, reflecting the moon and stars. Once, the dragon dropped down and shattered the glass, gulping down three pails worth of water in its open maw, spraying Elliot in the process. Aligore rose up and Elliot could feel all of the great beast’s muscles undulating, straining to carry its own bulk back up into the sky.

After too many peaks to count, they landed at the edge of a cave and walked into the darkness, the moon’s light stuck at the entrance. Deeper and deeper they went. Elliot could see nothing and could only hear the swishing scrape of the dragon’s tail and the steady click of its claws. Then, there was light. Small torches lined the corridor, next to small wooden doors that he doubted the dragon could ever fit more than his head through. A young man walked up to them, leaning against a walking stick nearly as tall as him. His right arm was burned and a small part of his cheek was scarred. Elliot held his mouth. Is this what awaited him? Made into a slave, burned if he misbehaved?

“Is this him?” the young man asked.

“Yes, Addison, this is your brother.”

Aligore placed the small boy on the rock floor, smoothed from centuries of the dragon’s use. Addison lowered himself to the floor and offered his burnt hand to Elliot. He stared warily, then he looked closer at the young man’s face. Elliot could see a bit of his father in the big eyebrows, and the ears, but his mother’s kind smile overtook all of that, softening everything. Grasping the offered hand, he stood up and stared at Aligore, then back at Addison. He kept opening and closing his mouth, but he made no sound.

“Ah. I forgot,” Aligore said, He touched Elliot’s back with a glowing claw and the boy’s voice slipped out in a thousand questions that bounced off the walls.

“There will be a long time to answer all the questions you have and all the questions you’ll learn to ask.” Looking over his brother, he said to Aligore,” He seems a little worse off than me. Will you be able to help?”

The dragon sniffed Elliot’s arm and leg again, “A small amount. Noticeable, but small.”

“That’s all we can ask.”

The large dragon began to turn away, “I am very hungry. Drake took a long time getting them to the altar and then getting them to leave. Must have felt the need to tell one his stories.”

“Drake is getting old. And he likes to embellish.”

“Then you should get older and take his place.”

“You know I can’t go back there. Not yet.”

“No, and now you have your brother to raise. I think I will have to deal with you for a while longer.”

“I love you too, Aligore. Happy hunting.”

The dragon lumbered away and Addison led his brother into one of the rooms. Fitted with a small cot, a trunk for clothes, and a small desk. There was also a shelf of codexes, similar to some he’d seen in the Priest’s home. Simple, but warm for a cave. Just another question he would have to ask.

“I’ll move a cot in here for you until you’re old enough for your own room. So we can get to know each other. Tomorrow, you’ll meet the others Aligore has rescued and we’ll start your lessons. I know, I know. From what I remember of our father, he did not look fondly on learning. But here, Elliot, here we can work at being what our mother wanted for us. And you’ll miss her, I know I still do, but she would love how fortune has smiled upon us.”

Elliot poked at his brother’s burnt skin and looked up, eyebrow raised and looked out at the hall after the long-gone dragon. Addison laughed.

“I was a clumsy little thing when I was your size and father was not always careful with our coals. Or his temper. Aligore did his best to heal it, but he can only do so much, and it had been a while by the time it was my turn to be sacrificed. Now, if I remember correctly, that sleeping draught Father Drake hands out makes one very, very hungry. And I think your stomach agrees.”

He pulled a small basket from his trunk and handed out a few small parcels. “Tomorrow there’ll be a proper meal. I’m glad you’re here, Elliot. And I’m glad I can be here for you. This will feel like a very different world from the one that was willing to throw you away. And it can be hard to accept that they were wrong. For now, we hide away, but someday we’ll head back out there. Like Father Drake, doing what we can for others like ourselves. Here, it’s about love, not just usefulness. Long ago, Aligore taught a few humans that love begets love. It’s hard for humans to take advice from people different than us, let alone a gigantic dragon dark as night. Even if he doesn’t want to eat them. Even unfounded fear can end with scars. So, he’s hopeful we’ll have better luck teaching the rest of them. Now, let’s get some sleep. There’s always a lot to do when you work for a dragon.”

FablefamilyFantasyLoveShort Story

About the Creator

Shaun Walters

A happy guy that tends to write a little cynically. Just my way of dealing with the world outside my joyous little bubble.

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