If you don’t behave, the dragon will get you, people used to say to Yare. Whenever xe was too loud, got carried away during playtime, did not eat something xe was supposed to, when xe didn’t pay xer elders the respect they felt they were owed. Later, when xe struggled with the learning and tasks xe was assigned, when xe wasn’t fast or strong or clever enough, the other children would taunt, Dragon Child! Dragon Child!
The words always made Yare look around anxiously. Not for the dragon draeself – that was still a good few years away. Yare was seeing if there was anyone in the vicinity who might be worse than xer. Sometimes there was: a child screaming and crying, a sullen teenager throwing down the shovel and mouthing off to their parents. Yare would breathe a sigh of relief then, the tension in xer stomach would dissipate slowly. Another target. When there wasn’t another option for the dragon’s offering, a cold dread would lodge in xer insides, a dread that, with time, became a sad resignation. Still, xe tried xer best to please xer elders, do exactly what they demanded without delay, without complaint.
All of that turned out to be for nothing. No matter how hard they tried, in xer sixteenth year it was decided that Yare would be the one offered to the dragon.
* * *
The day was warm but overcast. Yare was led outside the village, along a path leading to a rock outcrop. And there xe stood, the whole village behind and below xer: xer parents, xer teachers, xer friends, such as they’ve been.
Yare wondered, briefly, whether there was anything xe could do to make them all change their minds. But if they did, someone else would have to take Yare’s place and xe couldn’t think of anyone who deserved that. Maybe the village chose right after all.
The dragon came quickly. There was a rustle, a swoop, a blow of air, and there drae stood, towering above Yare, iridescent.
The dragon looked at Yare, narrowed draer eyes, sizing xer up. Imagine if drae rejected the offering! Please, take me, dragon. Don’t make me more of a failure then I already am.
The dragon looked beyond Yare and xe couldn’t help but look too. Was drae looking for another victim? Draer shadow fell over the village. Yare’s peers looked at xer in fright. The elders of the village showed a stranger emotion, something between sadness and fear. Were they sad to see Yare go, after all? Were they afraid the dragon wouldn’t keep draer word? But drae did, year after year, or else the village wouldn’t sacrifice its children. Yare frowned, thinking, but couldn’t quite tell what it was xe saw in xer village’s eyes.
Xe was still looking when the dragon scooped xer up and carried xer upwards. They flew low, carried by the steady beat of the dragon’s wings. Yare saw the ford across the river that led to the market town, the grassy lowlands beyond. Soon they flew beyond the small world that Yare knew. Despite going to xer doom, Yare felt secure – surely the dragon wouldn’t let draer dinner fall onto the ground.
Soon, they reached the rocky highlands. The dragon’s lair.
They landed on a rock jutting out above a clearing in the woodland. The dragon didn’t let go; drae simply shifted Yare so that xe was held in one hand – paw? – and slithered nimbly down. Yare’s head spun as xe hung upside down, looking onto the ground. The dragon lowered xer gently onto xer feet and climbed down draeself.
There was a cave behind them and in front … huts. The dragon yapped – a strange, high-pitched sound coming from such a massive body – and people emerged. First older, then younger, their hair a multitude of vivid colours, blue to purple, red to orange to yellow, and green, and every hue in-between. Yare recognized one of them as Dara, the thatcher’s son, sacrificed to the dragon a year earlier. And over there, with green locks … that must be Ayna, the miller’s daughter. She was the offering of two years before. Yare looked around in growing astonishment.
“I thought it might be you this year,” said Dara, approaching. “No offence.”
“None taken,” said Yare, xer voice trembling a little. Dara seemed different than back in the village: he stood up taller, spoke more freely. Yare started thinking xe might not get eaten after all, but the implications of what was happening seemed at once tremendously important and too vast to comprehend. “Wha- what’s going on here?”
“We are the dragon children,” said Ayna. “In times past, the village would leave their most troublesome children out in the wilderness. Until the dragon found one of them. Drae tried to return it, thinking it lost. When drae found out the truth, drae took the child with draem. And kept draer eye on the villagers. Until gradually the custom shifted and people started giving their children to the dragon. Drae took everyone in.”
Yare thought back to the scene on the clifftop. It wasn’t difficult to read the dragon’s gaze as judgement, Yare was just mistaken to think it was directed at xer. And the emotion in xer parents’ eyes, the one between sadness and fear, was shame.
Because the dragon knew what they were doing.
“What now?” xe asked.
“We’ll find you a hut. You’re free to go at any time, though rarely anyone does. You know what our parents used to say: your community is your strength.”
She winked and Yare smiled. Xe turned to thank the dragon, but drae had already disappeared inside draer cave.
* * *
When xe heard the woman, Yare was selling knitwear in the marketplace. People were giving xer a look because of the bluish, almost indigo tinge of xer hair and nails – being close to a dragon changed you – but there was no finer knitter than Yare and whatever xe brought with xer, they bought.
“Stop crying!” whispered the woman angrily to a child she dragged behind her. “If you don’t behave, the dragon will get you.” This only made the child cry louder.
Yare stepped out from behind xer stall and knelt in front of the child.
“Hey.” Xe gave the child a knitted ball, which made them blink their tears away and gaze in wonder first at the gift, then at Yare. “Don’t worry. The dragon’s nice. You’d have friends.”
“How- how do you know?” the child asked, in barely a whisper.
The mother stared at xer, angry and shocked. Did she recognize Yare? Probably not; no one paid xer any attention unless it was to scold xer. But she had to know. Yare was part of the group the people from the village avoided, the reason they didn’t bring older children to the market.
Yare returned a stare that was calm, defiant, blazing.
“I’m a dragon child myself.”
About the author
Artur Nowrot is a Polish writer and translator. Their poem ‘Dunwich and Other Cities’ was published in Pantheon Magazine. They tweet @joyfulrivers.
Note: A Polish version of this story, translated by Magdalena Stonawska, has previously appeared in Tęczowe i fantastyczne, a Polish anthology of queer science fiction and fantasy.