For Jenifer D’Elia Paquette. Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting a dragon in here. As Erika would say, I heart your face.
“No,” her brother insisted, “Today it’s your turn to defeat the dragon.”
He did not mean a real dragon, of course. There hadn’t been a dragon sighted in the realm of Catania for a hundred years, only rumors and speculation. But the Greybeards remembered and uttered their warnings in gravely voices, so the villages trained their wizards to fight. Young Fina and Flor D’Elia were the only wizards in the village of Orado.
They stood together in the small clearing, singed tree stumps littering the grass, painted dragons nailed to treetops swaying in the breeze. Flor wore his old blue coat with the hood pulled up. Fina was in a sensible dress, suede boots muddy from the trek up to the practice grounds.
Fina shook her head, dark blonde hair flying over her shoulder. “I practiced all day yesterday. Look. I still have burns on my hand.”
Flor glanced at her scorched fingers and was put out. He brushed hair that was noticeably darker than it had been some days ago out of his eyes. “Right. I just don’t feel up to it today.”
He did look a little flushed and his eyes had an unusual glaze. A stab of worry pierced Fina. Since their parents had died in the fire, Flor was the only family she had and she wasn’t going to lose him as well. Which meant she had to take care of him. She put the back of her hand against his forehead.
“You’re burning up!”
Flor put his own hand up to his head. “It doesn’t…”
Fina gave a cry and snatched his hand, turning it over. The silvery sheen of scales went from the inside of his wrist to his palm and partway up his thumb.
“Flor! When did this start?” Fina asked.
He took his hand back and cradled it on his chest. “A little more than a week, I think.”
“And it has spread so far? We have to go to the Greybeards…”
“No!” Flor’s eyes were panicked. They were a brighter green than normal, the pupil more slitted. “No. I don’t think that is a good idea.”
“They’re the only ones who have any chance of helping you…”
“No one can help me. Please, Fin, don’t tell anyone.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Flor said. “Maybe it will go away.”
He sounded so hopeful, Fina wanted to believe it. Dragon Fever was not common but it didn’t “go away”. No matter what the Greybeards did, they had not managed to cure it. If it progressed too far…Fina didn’t want to think about that. She began to cry. Flor patted her arm and she threw her arms around his neck. Then she remembered what he had and drew back with a gasp.
“It’s not contagious,” Flor said.
“You don’t know that,” Fina sniffed.
“Why are all the cases isolated, never widespread?” Flor countered.
Fina started crying again. “Because they’re killed before it spreads.”
Just last winter in the neighboring village of Kreptin, a man caught the Dragon Fever. The scales crept up his arm to his neck before the Greybeards were called. Nothing they gave him slowed the spread. He was in so much pain his screams could be heard two valleys over. Before spring, they cut off his head and burned his body to prevent it from spreading. Even so, no one went to Kreptin until after the summer cooled.
“I’ll think of something,” her brother tried to reassure her.
“What? What will you think of that hasn’t already been thought of?”
“I have time,” Flor said. “A little, at least. I will have to hide, though, or everyone will panic.”
A crazy thought came to Fina, riding on his words. Five minutes ago, she would have scoffed at anyone who said something like that. But the more she thought about it, the more it seemed like the best thing to do.
“The Hermit,” Fina said. “You have to go to the Hermit.”
The Hermit was an ancient story, a half-human beast gone mad and deformed by the Fever. He hid in the mountains and would carry away bad children who did not listen to their parents.
“The Hermit is a myth. Besides, he cannot be found if he doesn’t want to be,” Flor said. “And what could he do anyway?”
“They say he had the Fever and he survived.”
“They also say he cut off his own leg,” Flor said. “That doesn’t sound appealing.”
“And dying does?” Fina said. “I don’t care if he doesn’t want to be found. I can find him. I will find him.”
They left the village quickly and quietly and journeyed into the wild. They camped under trees and in small caves when the mountain allowed. Fina was mentally scrambling, trying to think of a way to find the Hermit.
They went over ground twice, sometimes three times. Fina used her wizard power to see the unseen and track that which wished to remain hidden, to no avail. A week passed, then a month. As the days wore on, more and more of their time was spent finding food. Flor ate a lot and still complained of hunger. And he grew.
Fortunately, though the Fever started quickly in Flor’s case, it spread slowly. Now the silver scales crept past his shoulder and into his chest. His nails hardened into sharp black claws. His eyes flashed reptilian more often now, but Flor always returned.
They never did find the Hermit. The Hermit found them. He woke them with a rough shake, his eyes stormy. He leaned on a crutch, one leg gone at the knee.
“I have been following you for almost two weeks now,” he grumbled. “If I didn’t do something, you two would wander around here forever while you cleaned the forest out of all easy game.”
“We need help,” Fina said. “My brother is ill.”
“You don’t need help; he needs help,” the hermit said. “Come with me. Quickly, and do not speak.”
He took them along winding trails only he saw, narrow passes that were little more than cracks in the stone, behind a giant waterfall to his home. He lived in a dry cave with no furnishings save one stool and an old chest.
Flor stood, hunching in the cave. He had always been taller than Fina, but now he towered over her. His teeth were sharp when he smiled. “It smells like dragon.”
The Hermit grunted as he hobbled over to the hearth. It was large and filled with glowing coals. He stoked them into a blaze. Fina started to sweat. Flor didn’t appear to mind, and sat close to the flames.
“Though the Fever is gone, I still like the warmth,” the Hermit explained.
“So you did have Dragon Fever!” Fina exclaimed. “How did you cure it?”
“The Fever, it is not an illness that you can cure. It’s a transformation.”
The Hermit raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
Flor and Fina looked at each other. “Dragon,” they mouthed to each other.
“What do we do?” Fina asked.
The Hermit indicated the cave and his missing leg.
“What if I didn’t want that?” Flor asked before Fina could say anything. “You say it’s not fatal…”
“The transformation isn’t. But you would be hunted down and killed,” the Hermit said. “Like the rest.”
“You mean…?” Fina couldn’t finish the question.
“The Dragons were our brothers and sisters,” the Hermit said. “They came from us, our own flesh and blood.”
It didn’t occur to Fina to question the fact; the words struck a chord of an ancient song sleeping inside her and the music resonated to the marrow of her bones. The Hermit spoke the truth. “We have to tell the Greybeards! They have to know…”
“My dear, sweet naive child. They already know.”
“But what about the potions? Why do they…kill them?” Fina asked.
“They try first to kill the victim quietly with poison. But hardly anything thing can kill a dragon. If the Fever is too advanced, the poison won’t work. So they have to do it by beheading.”
Fina stared at him, horrified. “Why?”
The Hermit shrugged. “They weren’t exactly forthcoming with reasons when I asked them. But it is an ancient hurt, I feel, one that has carried down through ages.”
“What happened?” Flor asked.
“In the beginning people, wizards and dragons lived in peace together. But the Greybeards were jealous of the power of the wizards and they feared the most powerful of wizards, those who eventually became dragons.
In an event lost to history and buried by the sands of time, the dragons were betrayed and outcast by the Greybeards. The people and the wizards followed their leaders, certain they would not be misled. The dragons attacked the people of Catania in retaliation for the injustices. And the dragon war has gone on ever since.”
“How does the transformation work?” Flor asked, scratching his shoulder-blade.
“The magic,” the hermit explained.
“Not possible,” Fina said automatically, earning an irritated look from the hermit.
“You shoot fire from your fingers. You have spells to deflect things that come towards you, like a dragon’s scales. Some wizards can even levitate, as a dragon can fly. What exactly is not possible?”
Fina had no answer for that. “Does that mean I’m going to become a dragon?”
The Hermit shook his head. “You have the magic, and your children will have it. But that doesn’t mean that you will become a dragon, just that you could. It doesn’t happen to everyone, obviously.”
Fina’s world was tumbling down, and she tried to find something, anything, to grasp onto that would make everything make sense again. Before she could do that, Flor started to cough with violent heaves. He put his hand over his mouth and it came away red. The Hermit gave him something to drink from a worn clay cup. Flor smiled drowsily and lay down beside the fire, almost in the coals.
“The Fever is too far gone,” the Hermit told Fina, drawing her away. “It has reached his organs. He has only two options: to allow the thing to run its full course or death by beheading. No other way will kill a dragon.”
Fina’s insides crawled around as if she were the one changing. “What will happen if he turns fully?
“That has not happened in a very long time,” the Hermit said. “Most of the Dragonlore has been forgotten.”
“Oh. Do you think it will it hurt?”
“Some muscle cramps, nausea, lethargy but very little pain. The transformation is gradual so the stress on the body is not too great.”
Fina was glad for that. An agonizing transformation was not something she would wish upon her brother, but she would never be able to sentence her brother to death. She would just have to find a way to deal with having a dragon for a brother.
“What will he be like when it is over?”
“He will always be your brother, Fina,” the Hermit said. “The magic changes the body, not the soul.”
“But his eyes, they turn Dragon and then Flor comes back.”
“Because the eyes are different does not mean the person looking out of them is not the one you know.” He paused. “Where is your family? Your parents? They must be worried about you.”
“Our parents died in a fire when we were young.”
“The word Dragon was thrown around, though no one actually saw it. Flor was badly burned but the Greybeards put a poultice on. There’s no scar.”
The Hermit snorted. “The Greybeards are witch doctors with snake oil and rattles. Flor is a wizard; he healed himself.”
“He’s always been strong. After our parents died, we always leaned on each other, but I think Flor did it to make me feel better, to make me feel normal,” Fina said. “He never cried as a child, and he understood things before I explained them, sometimes he knew things even before I did.”
“He’ll be alright,” the Hermit said. “I will do my best to see to it, whatever happens.”
“Thank you. He likes you, you know,” Fina smiled. “He feels comfortable here. See the blond tint to his hair? His hair gets lighter when he feels safe. It was black when you found us, now it is almost white again.”
The Hermit started. “What?”
“It’s one of Flor’s oddities. He had very blond hair as a child. After the fire, it was dark, almost black. At times it lightened. Never as much as before, and then it would turn back, but…what?! What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. It’s just unusual. How is your Dragonlore?”
“Incomplete, evidently. Backwards, a lot of it,” Fina said. “Why?”
“Something…vague. About…shapeshifters, no… changelings! The Lore says something about changelings. ”
Fina didn’t particularly like the sound of that, but things could hardly get any worse. “What’s that?”
“Changelings are very powerful. Not just a dragon or a wizard, but either or both. At will. Maybe…” the Hermit trailed off, eyes pensive as he looked at the bulk of Flor sleeping by the fire.
“Flor is…is a…a changeling as well?” Fina asked, wondering how much more she was going to have to cope with today.
“I don’t know. What you said…the signs are there. We’ll have to wait until the Fever runs its course,” the Hermit said. “He can’t shift in the middle of it.”
“What do we do?”
“Flor will know. The Dragonlore resides within the dragons; a shadow of it resides within wizards. It’s the Lore that tells you I speak the truth. I have the Lore, but it’s faint now, after so many years. Flor…well, he’ll know. We just have to wait.”
Fina shivered despite the warmth from the fire. Flor slumbered, the flames licking his body yet not even his clothes burned. The Dragonlore whispered to Fina, telling her that all their lives were never going to be the same. And she had no choice but to believe it.