Chapter One: Deirdre
There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Now that there are, life is so much better, as what the dragons replaced was so much worse.
So we have been told.
The Valley dragons were introduced centuries ago to drive the Atrox out, and while Atrocia preyed on men, women, and children with not much more than a thought or a whimsy, a singular Atrox proved no match for the dragons' herd nimbleness or fiery exhaust. Between the Atrox and the dragons, we chose dragons.
I call it a bargain with the devil. The Atrox in livid remission, the dragons offered a better death because they only killed the body...and only once. So we have been told. They could be dissuaded by the right sacrifice, the dole granted them by our society of milksops. Sacrifice? you may ask.
There was a man from another epoch, when men were men, before there were dragons in the Valley, who had survived the Atrox there. No one knows how he escaped, but he had returned severely scathed, stumbling into his thatched hovel, collapsing in a heap. To this day he lies in state there with his mouth preternaturally agape, a petrified recording of his final emotion. He persists in this catalepsy, inert, suffering every pang of his decay as his mind screams elsewhere. He neither eats, drinks, nor even moves, but continues to live, rotting alone. He cannot be buried, because he is not dead, although some have argued for this. He has lain with us for generations now, a salient reminder of how we profit from dragons in the world--and how we benefit by what they disallow into our world.
With dragons in residence, the Atrox has been all but forgotten. Some disbelievers say it's dead; but others fear there's an incipient remnant of the Atrox planted below the slag and ashen shale of the scorched Valley, awaiting reanimation to recapture the basin.
At Devotion, the Ones who sing, "It is the dragons that keep the evil seed in check," are the Ones who impose their intransigent dogma on the believing. They warble this truth in the Phrygian mode, so we must believe, for the Ones are hallowed and their songs are sacrosanct. For those who need proof, the holy test is the seasonal selection of a maiden--the aforementioned sacrifice--sent into the Valley to placate the antediluvial, scaled beasts. I, for one, need no such proof. So why do the faithful?
The Atrox remains safely buried, and further, instead of dragon fire, water rains on us and our crops prosper. Two agents of malevolence averted for the price of one offering; our accord with the devil pays off twofold. I struggle with the question of whether this trade is equitable or Pyrrhic.
Their proof of the scheme seems to be when the season's maiden does not return from the Valley's dragons, as is the intention; that portends well for our village, for there will be no conflagration that year. The firestorms are held at bay by a seasonal sacrifice of that unspoiled maiden sent in to appease the dragons' hunger.
We satisfy their appetite to forestall the carbonized body count in the Village that would otherwise accrue. Satisfied dragons of the Valley allay their need to swarm us with fire from above but, more importantly, keep themselves faithful to their consecrated task to keep the evil Atrox impotent and segregated away deep under the Valley ground below their talons.
When the maiden fails to return, all is well, for the dragons have tasted the living--our kept promise that obligates them to remain Valley-bound and keep the Atrox hermetically repressed.
Sacrifice--one for the many.
"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."
Truth be told, each sacrifice is an unsettling test for the Ones, for it has been foretold that the maiden who returns undigested will have failed her people. She will have fomented the dyspepsia and foul bilious anger of the dragons, the beasts' meal ruined, and the compact with the devil insolvent. A returning daughter would set into motion a cascade of dire consequences.
I, however, would celebrate and love her. I am called Deirdre by those who know me. I am called many other things by those who do not.
The Village has burned to the ground before, and it can be rebuilt within a generation; so we've been told. But if the dragons' quotidian obligation were to languish and the Atrox germinate untethered, rebuilding is impossible; so, also, we've been told. When the spirit of each Villager undergoes incineration from within, we have been told that it is better had the Village never been nor the Villagers conceived; for the maiden who returns comes with the evil seed's ontogenesis imbuing her being, a Miasma of pain, terror, and existential surrender to the living rot that decays a person's past, present, and future.
So we've been told. Is it truth, or is it the trick of lies by which the powerful remain in power?
Dragons are noisy eaters, smacking and clicking their forked tongues and whistling through their smoking nostrils. Based on this, it would be the silence of the dragons that would be feared the most. But when the maiden is gone forever due to her successful sacrifice and the dragon sounds continue, albeit subdued in the quieter processes of maceration and borborygmus, the curse has both been averted and its remedy proved.
Our ritual calls for the maiden to be sent into the Valley blindfolded, for stress actuates the taste of human flesh and the smells of body secretions. The dragons excite; they wax vociferous, the cacophony reaching a climax at the young girl's immolation and dissolution. Then, still, they never fall completely silent, for that would mean the dragons are sated, perhaps in confusion, perhaps in resolution to what comes next, or perhaps in frustration to a meal that got away.
The silence of the dragons of the Valley means that an alternative, an unknown, will come to pass. Such a silence would seduce the Seed to quiver and to stir and engender the Miasma to begin. The Ones listen in fear of any quietude after the frenzy, thankfully preferring the death of a favorite daughter to the burning of their homes; or--if the ill winds blow otherwise--preferring the burning of their homes to a visit from the ancient Horror, a ghastly living corpse of an ancient man persisting as testimony to the dragons' craving unrequited.
I say--No! I shout it, that we delude ourselves, preferring a cindery death from time to time in lieu of what the Atrox visited upon us so long ago, about which there is no one left alive to remember. If only the still, rotting man could rouse, for he could remind us of our hidden peril; but the lost memory is a mercy, we have been told, because just its recounting is painful to hear, evoking suffering through the bones and into the soul itself. A breathless mouth agape serves as caveat enough.
In the times of the lengthening days, the dragons' stomachs begin snarling and they begin their frenetic chirping; it is time again for a maiden, lest the entire village risk being razed to the ground only to start over. Even so, such is a barter of known doom from dragons in lieu of unknown cataclysm from the Atrox. Known by whom? The Ones?
If all goes well, the arc of draconic caterwauling (the acoustic rise to frenzy and consummation, followed by the attrition of throats busy on another task) is followed by the usual backdrop of Valley smoldering babel that has promised yet another season without the draconic swarming of our shire.
We also will have been spared the sprouting of the Miasma that would accompany the emergence of the Atrocious horror. Until next season.
We have been so successful that there are no longer any generations who were alive when either dragon or Atrox visited upon us. This season, the honor is mine to dispel the menace.
I have dreaded this cruel lottery all of my life, and now it is this burning death for which I've been selected to purloin away our entire village's cremation; a flammable death is all that stands between my condemnation (the Ones say "honored selection") and my destiny. I am not pleased.
Many speak of destiny as certainly as they speak of the past, but destiny is the future, expectations notwithstanding. Destiny is forever-yet-to-come until it sits historically in the past by touching down fleetingly onto the liquidity of the present. One cannot see the future, so destiny is cloaked, blindsiding the present, only to become a wound of the past--healed, scarred, or forever festering.
I was selected by my predecessor into the Valley, the lovely lass, Brid. It is the custom that the subsequent season's selection be named by this season's sacrifice. Young girls learn to get along early, lest they be named based on a grievance, some jealousy, or another emotional debt.
So cited, I have survived this expectation since the last harvest, which had been so bountifully inspired by the fair Brid who now has been atomized along the smelted Valley of the courageously burnt. She had accepted her blindfold and followed the hot sand-glass path, barefoot, into the Valley. Her announcement of my name meant I was next, a decision as adjudicated as any etched in the cornerstone of the Hall of Devotion.
Brid and I had been friends, but not our families. An ancient dispute over the few fertile fruit trees outside of the Valley had mutually felled many of the menfolk. When Brid was named by her begrudged predecessor the year before, she went into family seclusion but emerged decrying a name on her tongue, articulated as invective: Deidre.
From thence, I, Deirdre, was the selected; the doomed; the pariah. The vehicle of revenge for some silly little girl's imagined slight or a statement of disposition of one family about another. Over fruit trees, no less!
I am a rebellious child. I am angry. And I am forthright and virtuous far beyond any spurious "spoilt" maidenhood. I am something new and unexpected, and the Holy Ones can condemn me. But to force me to my duty they will have to follow me into the Valley and enforce my presentation as a main course. Even if they knew of my planned disobedience, they wouldn't dare, because cowardice is the essence of holiness and the self-serving strategy of incumbency.
As the equinox approached, I was no longer a pariah; my repute compounded with each day into the positive. Indeed, my name was chanted each dawn when I appeared at my family threshold to assure the Village that I was still chaste and proper and succulent and delectable. I was still palatable. There would be a reverent hush of the mob outside, and my parents would flank me proudly, albeit with tearing eyes.
By night, a lone Villager remained to stand watch, to guarantee there was no escape. After supper my parents and I retired, and no words were spoken during this time. Sleep came like a potion onto me, and the wiring of my thoughts re-aligned to welcome my hypnotic visitor.
"Deidre," she called to me. "Heed the words of Nyx, mother of Atrox. My child has been trapped long enough. You are to refuse the dragons and so vex them as to allow its release."
"How?" I was dream-talking, so I used diction syntactically confused that would seem as nothing more than nonsense to anyone awake to witness. "With up-so-many floating flames down, a how-to escape brings me anywhere drowned."
"Fear not," Nyx answered. "You have the dervish in you to suspend the animation of the dragons. They will fall mute in admiration."
"I spin the t'world," I replied, "but I under stand the trans-dance transcendence warily."
"That is your remedy to being consumed by dragon flame and hunger."
"And then what-wherever-of-why the future?
"Of your Villages?
"I dress yes, I confess."
"They have selected you, and so you have selected them. And the dragons will be seduced by your dance."
"Dance-entranced and sated with fasting?"
"And what of the Horror? The Atrox? Must it just-must plus to us, thus?"
"I am its mother; you are its savior. It's Messianic, dear Deirdre. Except this time no one will die for our sins."
When my head exploded and I awoke with a start, I felt my skull for intactness. My parents rushed in and spoke for the first time in days.
"Deidre, you woke with such a start!" my father said.
"More like a beginning," I corrected him.
"A beginning?" my mother asked.
"Of what?" said my father.
"Of Deidre," I said proudly. "I will enchant the dragons of the Valley. I will join them in camaraderie. But I will not be consumed by them."
"Deidre," my father said sternly. "That's not allowed. Shame onto us, Deidre."
"No, father, flame onto you. I will not be a taste to be forgotten the next day, passing 'tween dragon loins as unrecognizable, amorphous, and malodorous waste. Deidre is the name that will obstruct the dragon's entrails; the name that changes everything."
"Oh, our dragons," my mother lamented, "oh, our Atrox...oh, our village!"
"Oh, 'your Deidre,' you should be saying. The one you birthed. Were the pangs and throes of labor a mere investment such that you could serve me on a platter to fill the bellies of flapping wyrms who vie for my flesh? Tell me--on that very evening when your own bellies are full, your own sense of hunger appeased, the business of your day over, and you are at peace with the world--and your Village safe--will the same peaceful reveries--as the dragons have--lull you to sleep the same as them? And the next day, when you go about your bodily functions, how will you think of me? The same as what you think of the dragon waste on the morrow?"
"Watch her, Father," my mother warned him.
"Watch me? Then learn! I'll be no appetizer for snacking dragons. And I'll not base how I live on fear of any living death, catatonic and open-mouthed. It ends now."
My father abruptly turned to fasten the door while my mother cried in helpless panic. I laughed. Would a maiden who could enchant dragons and face the Atrox be held back by splinters and rope and rusty deadbolt?
Tonight I would beat the Equinox itself, two nights earlier than tradition, by entering the Valley, spoiled or unspoiled (privy to me alone). I would join the Valley. And I would do it without the name of the next young girl on my lips, although I wished I could rename Brid to suffer her fate again.
I would one day return to the Village, when the time for retribution and cleansing was right. There would be more mouths agape than the rot lying in state. And the Ones will become the forgotten. And the forgotten would be replaced in historical scrolls with the name of Dierdre.
That evening I found myself outside without any difficulty. As usual, there was one remaining witness from the earlier morning's throng. I felt the blade in my sleeve as I approached.
"Whoa! Deirdre," said the young man, our neighbor, and co-conspirator for my death. I was scantily clad and he noted well my bosom and hips. I moved closer to him and placed my lips on his ear.
"Would you like to disqualify me from my holy duty? Void my obligation? Spoil me?" My whispers were lies of breathy anticipation. He paused to consider. "I could please you instead of the dragons." He swallowed.
"Y-yes," he blurted. He was close enough that I could feel his heart beating hard through his skin and through to my own.
Another whisper, another breathy seduction, "You would see your village burned to the ground for the chance to lie with me? You flatter me, sir." Passion kindled in him powerfully, fueled by the spark of danger. He didn't answer, which was his answer. He reached around and placed a hand on the small of my back.
"By the gods or God or whomever! This story is one perversion compounding the other." I no longer whispered. "Vileness upon vileness, sin upon sin. Hubris! First you serve the mob who sends me to wrestle dragons in the Valley, under the shadow of Atrox. Now you bid me engage the pitiful dragon under your belt--self-serving, snarling, ravenous, and headlong. I would rather offer my loins to the dragons or surrender my soul to the Evil. Your village will burn before your body can meet any flames of your tepid, imagined passion. Fool! Stand aside!" said I, angrily.
He did not. The hand that was on the small of my back bolted up to throttle my throat. He was young, strong, and likely to get his way, so I loosened my stance and he did likewise against my throat. I sank invitingly to the ground and he followed. He lowered himself atop me as I channeled him along a path of least resistance. Young, strong...and stupid. His flesh posed no barrier to the point I held upright to receive him. In a reversal of fortune, it was I who penetrated him when he received the deft insertion of my blade into the new hole created for him on the left side of his chest. In the same reversal of fortune, I ground it in. He gurgled and went limp.
I waited for his silence as attentively as the Ones listen for it after the seasonal sacrifice. I turned to the hot sand-glass path, which emanated a faint layer of steam below the cool night. I felt the feverish obsidian on the uncovered soles of my feet.
I came to the sentry pair of ancient oaks that separated the Village from the forbidden Valley, a semi-open gate of warning. On them were the many initials of those who had come before me, of those sent in blindfolded, often causing the letters to be sloppily engraved. Since my sight was in no way impaired, I spied the initials of "BC" on one of them--Brid's. Again I removed my blade again, now soiled during my escape, and I carved "DN" into the bark with perfect calligraphy, larger and prominently than the others--on both of the trunks. My oversized initials were a shrill call to the future, proud and bold, and my intention to confront my cloaked destiny was thus written in blood, of the man I had slain. We would undertake it together.
I proceeded. After some distance, well into the unknown, I stopped to stand my ground and waited. Forever, if necessary.
If they were not to come to me, I would be going to them. If it were not to come to me, I would go to it. In the distance I could hear a slow-motion, low-pitched fluttering. And I heard another sound, alien and wailing in loneliness, that vibrated the dirt beneath my bare feet.
I reached into a side-satchel, retrieved dancing flats, and slipped them over my toes. It was time.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab