There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Despite the legends, the dragons arrived after the hominids within hours of the same day. From the entrance to our cave halfway up the Mountain, my sisters and I saw the woman and her mate arrive. They entered from the western boundary, where the hills had recently, recently in Baba Yaga time, recently in geological time, pushed up out of the original vastness of the Plain, forming the Valley.
Brunhilda saw them first. She was at the mouth of the cave, stirring our midday meal in the pot over the fire, muttering to herself. I could hear her from the back as I prepared my latest attempt at a sleeping draught. Abruptly, the white noise of her voice stopped.
After a few moments she said, “Hecuba. Gwendolyn.”
“What?” said Gwendolyn who was deep in her studio, working on another of her obsidian art forms. I called them tumefactions, bulbous atrocities that looked organic but weren’t. Lately she had begun nailing silver spikes into them.
“Come see,” said Brunhilda.
I was recrystallizing valerian powder. It is true that one remembers the details of what one was doing just before a momentous event. I was stirring the solution as it heated in its water bath and had just noticed a tinge of pink in the liquid indicating the presence of an impurity. The pink grew darker. The next step was to add a bit of charcoal to remove it, but I never took the next step. I only remember the thought, more clearly than any memory before or since. There had been many millions of years of peace. Those were the last moments.
Brunhilda had not called again and the silence convinced me to discover what she wanted. To dampen the flame beneath the flask, my hand, gnarled and tattooed by antiquity, reached for a handful of pebbles and arranged them on the little fire until it turned from white to gold to red. The last minute unfolded, a leaf unrolling to greet a dim sun.
The passageway was dark. We rarely kept more than two torches burning at a time there. At the daylit entrance, the shapes of my sisters were in silhouette. They were both quite still.
“Now what is so important?” I said.
Neither one of them answered and I followed the direction of their eyes. Far below were two figures, more or less like us, upright, hairless. The larger of the two carried a staff. Although details weren’t visible yet, there were obvious dimorphic differences. Indeed, the woman appeared swollen, probably in preparation for birth. I had seen enough of it among the animals. There were several mice imprisoned in my lab in a similar state. On the other hand, it might have been a tumor. I had seen that, too.
We watched them wend their way towards us. The male beat a path through the overgrowth with his staff. The woman carried a basket and picked at the greenery much as we did when we collected.
They were headed directly toward us but they wouldn’t see us; unless they looked up with eyesight as keen as ours, as keen as the raptor which had incubated us. These new creatures were unknown, but I knew the limitations of most mammalian eyesight so it was possible they could see as well as we but not likely.
The man looked up and stopped. I heard Gwendolyn inhale sharply. He pointed in our direction and the woman exclaimed, her dark springy hair bobbing like pistils of jewelweed.
The three of us watched, unmoving. There had been a breeze but it was gone. The bats in the cave ceased their sleepy chittering. The avian life in the trees stopped singing. They sensed our mood and knew enough not to disturb it.
None of us had ever encountered another being remotely like ourselves. We had hatched as three fully formed Baba Yagas eons before. Back then, the Valley had not been a valley, but a vast Plain extending in all directions. There had only been our Mountain with the great Tree at its peak topped by the nest from which we had hatched. The world had greened and groaned, sprouting mosses and lichens, grasslands and jungles. The ground heaved up out of the magma beneath it, exuding hillocks, then hills. The water that trickled from the Mountain grew from a creek to a river. Insects and spiders and reptiles and dinosaurs and flowers and finally, mammals, all came and mostly went. Not a single creature in all that time was remotely like us, until now.
The two creatures below started to climb, the man assisting the woman who, unsurprisingly, often seemed off-balance. We watched impassively.
“What are we going to do?” asked Gwendolyn.
“Perhaps we should kill them,” she said. “They can only bring trouble - and change.”
It was of course an option, but my usual pastime was mining for knowledge. Killing, too soon, short-circuited the search.
“Let’s wait and see,” I said.
We both looked at Brunhilda. In a moment of disagreement, the third among us always stood as the final word. Brunhilda gazed down at the creatures. “They have an odd sort of charm, don’t you think?”
I did not disagree with her because I wanted her to side with me, but no, they were terribly ugly. His appendages were braided ropes with knots in them. She was an overripe fig. Their faces were flat without the interesting protuberances of other creatures. They were furless and scaleless. In short, they looked like us, and we were far from charming. I, alone, had enough of a chin and nose to make an interesting face. My sisters were almost as handicapped facially as the approaching couple.
“We should feed them,” said Brunhilda. “I'll need to collect more fixings; perhaps chestnuts and a toasting of sesame seeds with a side of goosefoot greens . . . ”
I tuned her out. The pair had reached the base of the waterfall that leaked from the rocks a kilometer below us to fall another hundred meters to form a small pool before it seeped back into the mountain. Upon reaching the clearing, the couple broke into a run and leapt into the water, shrieking. They were splashing at each other - perhaps they thought it helped the cleansing process - and their mouths were emitting a bubbling noise. His was deeper than hers but both sounds had a curious resemblance to the splash of liquid. At first, I assumed they were words, but although the volume rose and fell, the auditory variations seemed too limited for a vocabulary. Only later did we find that they were expressions of enjoyment. After a great deal of practice and tutoring, I can manage it now. In fact, sometimes, like them, it erupts spontaneously, but at the time it was an unknown acoustic experience. As far as I know, neither Gwendolyn nor Brunhilda have even attempted it.
“They didn’t see us,” said Gwendolyn.
“No,” I said, relieved, “They saw only the water.”
Brunhilda mewed. The sappy creature couldn’t possibly be disappointed. Sometimes I wondered if Brunhilda was a Baba Yaga at all.
Gwendolyn said suddenly, “Now what?”
From over the western hills, five small black spots had appeared. They grew, expanding like bacteria on a substrate. As they crested the hills, we finally recognized the dragons. Events were worsening. The fate of the Valley grew from uncertain, due to the arrival of the humans, to seriously compromised with the arrival of the dragons.
The hominids tell stories of the bravery of the two humans, how the male turned to face the first demon and flailed at it with his sword with an extravagant name which I never bothered to remember because it never existed. The truth of it was he had a stick, a weapon of sorts which he managed to drop as he fled. It smoldered then burst into flame as the dragon skimmed above it. Dragons have that unfortunate effect; too close and their body heat tends to sizzle its surroundings. Gwendolyn and I had encountered the cretins once before, on a trek to the sea from which we had harvested her obsidian.
In the human legend, the female was not the bulky matron we saw flee into the thicket, but a slim-waisted girl who, with extravagant cunning, had hidden the basket just prior to the dragon’s approach, clutching a small boulder as a subterfuge. It was a perfectly acceptable scenario since dragons were often too single-minded to be intelligent, but it is not what happened. Although it was possible the dragons may have thought she still had the basket - she lumbered awkwardly with her interior burden as she ran - but her skill at deception was not the cause of her gait.
In fact most of the story never happened. There were two human beings. True. There were dragons that were after what the pair acquired. True. The rest was false. They fled. The woman quite sensibly abandoned the basket. In fact, she tripped and fell on it as she emerged from the pool to flee from the fast-approaching threat. Both she and her mate vanished into a grove of sassafras trees, seconds before the first dragon scorched their path. The dragons defoliated the wood into which the couple fled but, like hares, they must have deviated from a straight path once they reached the relative safety of the overgrowth. Despite the tendency for braggadocio, the admirable talent of avoiding death through skillful flight did not make it into their stories. Astonishing.
There were five dragons, which was the usual dragon overkill. Just one was a hundred times the size of the humans. On the surface, there was no reason why they needed five to accomplish their task; except, their distrust often extended to their own kind, perhaps especially their own kind. It was a weakness.
As one destroyed an opening in the Mountain where it apparently thought the pair was hiding, another circled close by our cave. Perching on the ledge, the reptile bent its head down to the cave’s aperture. A venomous eye appraised us. We returned both the appraisal and the venom. The lens of its eye was as tall as Gwendolyn; its iris, flat and gray, the scales on its face black, allowing no reflection. On each scale, remnants of a tattered prism tried to break through into iridescence and failed. A nictitating membrane rolled over his eye and back up again like the tide. Wordless, the dragon flew off.
I considered the now empty pool and its immediate environment. A small pile of sticks lay near the water’s edge. Its previous life as a basket was unrecognizable.
Mr. Gray Eyes was back. He peered in at us again. He would have seen an imperious Gwendolyn, distaste clouding her face, Brunhilda, round and malevolent as a pokeberry and me, a small, wiry crone. Subsequent events proved that he seriously underestimated what he saw.
The cave grew dim as his enormous eye blocked most of the light. This time he spoke.
“Ladies,” he finally said. Pyroclastic possibilities gurgled deep in his throat. He waited for a response from us and received none.
“Ladies, my colleagues and I are looking for a particular item, a small container, that belongs to us, which was stolen, stolen, by the miserable bipedal, begging your pardon, hominid excrescences who have recently entered your valley. The container, a simple box, must be here within the valley for they were seen entering with it. We require its return.” His eye leaned closer. We took one step back, not from fear, but from the heat which was stifling - and there was a distinct smell of sulfur.
“What’s so important about this container?” Brunhilda asked, annoyed at the discomfort. It was worse for her, insulated as she was.
“Ah, well,” there was a long pause from the dragon as he dissembled. “It would be worthless to three distinguished and powerful beings such as yourselves, it would be of great danger to the hominids and a small, inconsequential value to us. Regardless, we are not ones from which to steal.”
We had no reason to reply so did not. After a moment, he removed his eye, rubbing his body against the opening of the cave, marking it, a gesture of threat and domination which had no effect on us at all. The light came flooding back.
“He was lying,” I said after he left. I was offended.
“Of course he was, dear,” said Gwendolyn. She patted my shoulder.
The sun had reached its zenith and began its descent. The stunted fingers of fresh shadows crept from the trees to reach for each other in the Valley below. The Mountain resisted the shade, as it always did, then suddenly embraced the dark doppelgangers of each tree on the slope as its own, as if the shadows grew from its own rock face and had naught to do with the sun.
As the dragons searched for the couple, I made use of the deepening tones to the day and clambered quietly down to the pool. The basket that the woman had carried obviously contained the box for which the dragons searched. They had nothing else with them except for the stick which was now ash. In addition, the slight lean to her posture as she carried it, indicated more weight within than a basket full of leaves warranted.
The small pile of brush that used to be the basket waited by the waterside. I peered at it from behind a lilac, satisfied that the perfume from the blooms would block my scent from the dragons. I had no idea where the man and woman fled. I was far less curious about their fate than I was about the box in which the dragons were so interested.
I could hear two of the reptilian creatures clawing at the mountainside with the insistence of a jaguar after a rabbit in a hole. The three others were circling the valley. I dashed into the open, gathered the remnants of the basket and turned to dash back, only to find myself face-to-face with the woman.
Her eyes, wide with surprise, were the warm brown of the bottom lands and, like the earth they resembled, they hinted at a seething biological network beneath a façade. The sclera was boxed starlight. I was momentarily disoriented. Her mouth opened and she gabbled something at me. Turning, I disappeared into a stand of rhododendrons. She shouted, I heard her crashing behind me, but I was quick and lost her with ease.
I don’t want to talk about this; it is insulting. But it is true they recount this particular fallacy in every rendition of the story, and it is indicative of humanity’s general ignorance so I will put personal vanity aside and report it. The humans and their mendacious tales tell how when the woman came to retrieve the box that she had so cleverly hidden, she caught another in the act of stealing it. The other would be me, but she was obviously nearly blind and insisted that it was stolen by, of course she wouldn’t know a Baba Yaga from an oak tree, but she seemed to think it was stolen by a - a troll.
The stories tell how when the couple arrived to claim the Valley, the winged reptiles had emerged from their caves and attempted their destruction. Nevertheless, despite the ill will of the dragons, the hominids seemed to feel, once the box was gone, they needed to remain in the Valley until they found it again. During an oft-told episode in their travels, they had discovered the importance of its contents.
The dragons, those treacherous, sulfurous brigands, actually moved into every open crevice they could find and settled in that day. They were newcomers. The Homo denisova were newcomers. We, however, the Baba Yagas, had always been here, at peace long before either of them had arrived. It was our Valley; but neither the dragons nor the hominids were leaving until the container was recovered.
They weren’t going to get it.
Their tales were wrong in another respect. I had hardly stolen the box because it was ours in the first place. Gwendolyn had carved the wood from a branch of the great Tree. Brunhilda strengthened it by heating it over the open fire, then oiled it to the tune of her murmurings. The contents were a brainchild of my own.
About the Creator
By wedding two strange bedfellows, bachelor degrees in Biology and Literature, the resulting chimeric offspring are stories laced with science. I publish with thecollector.com and Underland Arcana. Unearth at dthea.com
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab