Mansel balanced his exhaustion against the brutal dragonswind. This mountain had a reputation to maintain.
Bruised, maybe broken in places, Mansel staggered into a cleft. With shaking fingers he freed his last fairy. At the bottom of the mountain he had been too free with the 10 sisters. The first trials had seemed like the worst agony, until the next one came to make him say, “I need another sister.”
The irony of a man with ten sisters asking for more! Mansel watched the fairy spread light and warmth around him. At first he had dictated what they should do for him. Now he knew to just watch.
He tried to dictate the order of the fairies too. Now he thanked them for knowing who he would need in this moment.
The dragon’s head rose like the sun amid driving snow. Somewhere in a valley the thing’s body and wings nestled out of the wind. Stretching its neck up the mountain, flaring its nostrils, it found Mansel in his cleft and snorted.
Mansel gathered his body and waved his sword. Why did the valley dwellers think this puny scrap of metal would do anything against the scales of eternity? He let it stink.
He shielded his eyes with his forearm. Legend told of the dragon mating with a fairy, or eating her. She lived in his pupil. A perfect black hole with blue fire around it. Mansel peered around his arm at the head.
“Dragon! I have come for …”
“Second Son,” the dragon hissed like an eon of ice flakes. “You come with the wrong question.”
The head moved and Mansel swayed with motion sickness. The thing had become his point of reference.
He swayed with the sickness of the name. Second Son. No family but his had one, and only then because his older brother had been weak at birth, unlikely to live. He did live. He grew strong and would take leadership of the clan from their father, leaving Mansel to find his own fortune.
He steadied himself and stepped into the wind. Lashed by the rags of his own making, he remembered the miller and the goatherd of his village. His service, looking for his fortune, had bolstered those sonless families. He would ask his question no matter what the dragon thought of it.
“Dragon! Your stricture against Se …”
“You have come for my child.”
Mansel shrank down, feeling the threat. “No, you stupid beast. I only want …”
The dragon lifted its right eyelid exposing the perfect black hole. A white rim preceded the blue circle that circumnavigated the black, but only on the upper third, giving the impression of light hidden behind. On the lower third, the black and blue intermingled like the midwinter midnight.
Mansel’s mouth dropped open. “Would you let me finish?” He murmured the words he had prepared even before he cursed the beast. The blackness of the hole sucked his breath away.
Water flooded the edges of the dragon’s eye, trembled with tension that secured it to the membrane.
“In the cave,” the beast crooned. “You will find a platter. Bring it out here. Make haste. My child births and you must receive her.”
“Where is the cave?” Mansel did not want a dragon’s child, yet he obeyed for decency sake. The dragon was not an enemy, though friend would be too strong a word for its relationship with the village.
He obeyed for curiosity. Who had ever heard of a dragon’s child? Without knowing, he had been summoned to receive it on a platter. Perhaps he would make his fortune with something better than a decree in favour of second sons.
The crack behind him yawned. He squeezed through. A gleam in the darkness that did not compare to the dragon’s pupil guided him to the goat-sized golden platter. He grabbed it and ran back to the ledge. The wind fastened on to him and threatened to whip the platter from his hands.
The dragon lifted a claw and steadied him. “Careful now. Hold it under my eye.”
The wind played with the platter like a wing. Not much of a reception place for a baby. Mansel’s hands and arms ached holding it level.
The water built in volume. The blue fire swam, un-extinguishable. The black hole undulated under a thick layer of fluid, taking on hypnotic, un-circular shapes. Mansel watched the fluid sag from the rim of the scaly eye and rebound.
Each time it sagged it hovered a little longer. The weight of the water teased the air and the blue fire bent into its funnel. Water oozed ahead of the black hole, clearing a path to the platter.
At the last possible moment, when the water suspended the black hole and the misshapen fire above the platter, when Mansel’s hands shook with more than the windplay, the opaque membrane of the dragon’s lid descended, wiping the water off its eyeball and delivering the water and the child to the platter.
The dragon’s pupil returned to what Mansel had grown up expecting it to look like. Like what he thought he would see if the dragon brought its other eye to bear. The dragon’s head began to sink.
“Wait! What do I do with it?”
The sinking halted. Mansel might have walked out upon the bridge of the dragon’s snout. He braced the platter with his hips, hunching over it with a protective spirit.
The gelatinous liquid continued to rebound with the energy of its fall. The blue ring cossetted around the black hole with encouraging nudges, like a mother ungulate with her wobbly legged newborn. The raised edges of the platter barely held the volume of its load.
Both reptilian eyes focused on him.
“Walk her down the mountain. Collect her aunts that you wasted on the way.” The voice receded with the head into the depths.
Upon the height, Mansel stared at the swirling snow. He stepped backward and braced against the rock.
The tenth sister floated near, enveloping him and the dragon’s child with warmth and tender light. She flitted in and out above the platter like a thirsty hummingbird.
“You are the first aunt.” Mansel whispered. “Help me find the others.