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From Cradle Came Flame

This morning, like the old winters, smells of prayer and blood.

By Laura PresleyPublished 7 months ago 6 min read

Hope is the last inch of her. She lays it at the altar with an addict’s trembling hands.

They’re an hour from the rest stop's poorly staked fence, her clothes sweat-soaked from struggling through the forest: the path no longer has so much as a mention, its every memory erased after a dozen lifetimes. Ivy climbs the stone pillars, hiding prayers carved in dead languages to gods whose names have never known English. Underfoot, spiders hurry away. The air is heavy and dew beads every leaf, although beyond the trees the day carries the brisk, crisp edge of autumn.

Her arms prickle with gooseflesh: within this hollow is a beautiful, terrible place.

She is not alone. The boy’s pants are too small, baring dirty ankles above cheap, slick-soled sneakers. There’s a fresh bruise purpling above one elbow, another just below his eye. Snot trails yellow from his nostrils to his upper lip.

She wipes patiently at it with her own stained sleeve. He doesn’t fuss. He never fusses, even when he falls. A good boy.

She would never hurt him.

The child seizes her wrist with both hands and plants a wet kiss against her skin. No one else has kissed her in years. The boy is the last person on Earth who still loves her. If she waits long enough, that will change, too.

He’ll never outgrow the weight of being shackled to her. Love is cruel that way: for all its promises, it can’t save you. You can love a thing so much it kills you both.

Of all the true things, perhaps she knows that one best.

She runs her fingers through her hair, which hangs in long, greasy coils, heavy with the shelter’s cheap shampoo. Her toenails are long, her neck caked with dirt. She is buying time. Not long. Just another minute. She will never again be beautiful, but her child is the most beautiful thing in the world. Not one of his bones have ever broken. He has yet to learn fear. Or malice. Or hate.

The sun climbs, stretching her shadow long over the cold grass.

She kisses her son. Her breath is sour. She presses her palms against his cheeks.

Close your eyes, she says, and her voice catches. There’s a dull ache at the back of her throat. She won a singing contest once, as a child in a soft velvet dress. She ate strawberries by the fistful, greedy and hopeful and bright with life.

Close your eyes for Mommy, she says. And, because he loves it: Peekaboo.

His hands flutter open and she smiles at him. Her cheeks are wet.

She prays he remembers her. She prays he doesn’t.

She just needs one last look.

She presses his palms over his eyes again and plants a firm kiss on his soft brow. She hugs him, too tightly, her heart beating hard.

Nothing great is gotten freely, she tells herself. And as little as she has, she will give everything in exchange for her son’s salvation.

These last few moments are an eternity. The sunlight drapes golden on her shoulders: the wind lifts her hair. She removes one shoe, then the other, before peeling away her threadbare socks. The grass is lush beneath her toes, the dirt soft and cool.

She is so full of joy, and pain, and sadness, and guilt.

Her hope rests bright-eyed on the stone.

Close your eyes, she says. She waits, patiently. The toddler claps his hands together and turns his face to the sky.

I love you, she says. And, without much hope: forgive me.

The gun makes a sound like the end of the world.

Miles away, the dragon wakes.


The drumming in the dragon’s skull casts a spell older than the humans’ cities, their songs, their gods. The altar has stayed silent for centuries: since man came to worship steel and silicone, since they turned their eyes to their own reflections instead of the sky. Their hearts have no room for magic. Instead, the humans try to fashion crude souls from cheap thrills.

And without their offerings, the dragons sleep: deeply, and undisturbed.

But this morning, like the old winters, smells of prayer and blood.

The dragon comes cold and emerald through the forest. Years ago its wings would have lifted its hollow-boned body effortlessly; now they drag low and thin, tapering like tissue behind its willowy frame.

By the time it breaks the treeline, the child’s cries have become short and uncertain.

Where the woman’s face is turned up, her eyes are wide and brown. The dragon lowers its snout, inhales deeply and huffs. There’s poison in her blood and on her lingering breath. The cheap sort that you feed yourself rather than face your sadness. Far too much for a creature so young.

Humans. Forever drinking from tainted wells.

But beneath that is something strangely perfumed, her short life seasoned by heavy musk. Thrones crumble, but royalty stays in the blood.

The dragon meets the child’s eyes, finds them brimming with stardust. The soft skins might be careless, but the best of them are beautiful.

It looks back at the shell of a woman, still cooling. If the dragon turns its back, the child will die as well. When they are discovered, their remains ravaged and pitiful, the other humans will forget ever exiling her; they will spit at her sacrifice and curse the bloodline. There will be no retelling of her story.

But the dragon knows differently. The woman who couldn’t save herself gave her life for her young prince’s passage: paid the blood price out of desperation to seal a boon and forge a bond. The dragon can’t remember the last time a royal traded their years for another’s toll.

The boy’s mouth hangs open, exhaustion outweighing shock and fear. His thighs are dark with urine. His knees sway, slightly, and the dragon presses forward, folds its hot, dry body against him.

The tiny fingers that close tightly around one pitted horn are a shock. It was so certain it had outlived ever witnessing another Herald, sure that Elune had been the last.

For one more moment, it considers turning down the offering and vanishing the way it came. As the child fades, the drums will quiet, leaving the dragon to sleep again. It could spend another lifetime dreaming, no need for the headache of humanity.

Where the woman’s blood has reached the altar, the ivy blooms in thick, white satin petals.

The dragon coils its way around the boy and feels his body sag. It hums, briskly, and its scales shine copper. His knees fold: he lays one cheek against the dragon’s belly. The prince's fear is spent. He’ll spend years outrunning the ghost of today.

As the child closes his eyes, his breath short and catching, the dragon takes a long breath. Where its heart is not, the endless knot of flame expands. Flames trickle from behind its blackened teeth.

May your sleep be long, the dragon says: in the Old Tongue, the speech that makes the trees bend their trunks and tremble. Flame gathers in its throat.

The young prince gives a long, shuddering sigh. He will never see his mother again. Not in this life. Not in this world. Come tomorrow, he will have no need of his name. Soon enough, he will have no memory of it.

The dragon has given its word.

It sighs, and the dead woman’s clothes hiss as they catch fire. Her arms blacken; her hair turns to ash. She burns so quickly. Vanishes so easily.

While the boy sleeps, the dragon chews at her marrow. It marvels at the taste of her memories, rich and complicated.

Alight in her glow, the dragon says, May you find your peace.

FantasyShort StoryYoung Adult

About the Creator

Laura Presley

Laura Presley is a firm believer that magic is real and birds are not. She lives and works in Ohio with her husband, their brood of wildlings, and their excessive number of rescue animals.

IG: @makeshift.martha

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