Peace Be with You, Friend
In the early days of Litalle’s life, the sun climbed the sky to provide warmth, sometimes more than was required. That same sun buried itself beneath the horizon each evening, giving life a chance to cool off beneath twin moons. Sleep and rejuvenation were words worth knowing, as were family and friends and community.
But with each year that passed, the haze outside her village engulfed an increasing amount of blue, leaving behind a sky of ash and ice. This annual eclipse shifted to seasons and then to months as Litalle’s words gave way to terms like hunger and thirst and loneliness.
Words carried power, or they had before people stopped using them altogether. Solar flares rendered the world useless until her sun waned. Breezes that had once carried cherry blossoms and marigolds, stilled, leaving stagnation in their wake. Speaking became dangerous, even with face masks.
Somewhere in Litalle’s memories remained words like Mother and best friend, but both figures had died back when the summer rivers froze. She’d been sixteen when their deaths added two coats to her young shoulders. More to carry and a burden at first, but now…
Litalle tugged the coats tighter about her shoulders as she shivered. With each death in her village, she’d inherited what remained: a few scraps of food, a canteen of water, clothing riddled with holes, and sometimes their last words.
“Peace be with you, friend.”
Somewhere during the village’s drawn-out death, days bled together as the gray and white permeated everything. Maybe she’d left its remains a few days before her eighteenth birth year, a rather solemn event celebrated not at all, with strangers at her side. Now nineteen—at least she thought that might’ve be her age—she walked across the land with no direction, no company, and no purpose beyond staying alive.
Four hundred days since her last encounter with a living person. Four days since her last encounter with a living animal. Four hours ago, she’d uncovered a dragonfly nymph settled beneath the frozen pond while filling her canteen, a tidbit to be tucked it into her backpack for later.
She glanced at the gray sun in the distance. One hand, maybe two above the horizon, gave her an hour until the sun slept. Maybe tonight would be the night it finally died. Litalle shrugged as she climbed up the hill.
A chilly wind sent the forest’s dried up limbs clattering like an old set of bamboo wind chimes. Their hollow, mournful cries forced her steps faster. The tree remnants shivered with her, and when they stilled, darkness hovered beneath their empty canopy. A cave or an overhang? She hoped for the former.
Her fingers curled tighter around her crossbow as she tiptoed towards the shadows. Rather than a slight overhang of branches, the trees gave way to a large cave—large enough that the rear of it was lost to more shadows. Taller than her by two, its mouth promised shelter, but she swallowed back the urge to rush inside. If she sought shelter from the night, so did others, assuming anyone or anything else was alive to do so. If bullets remained for her gun, perhaps her limbs would tremble less, but the last time she’d stumbled upon spare bullets, the stench of death surrounding them had driven her away.
Something glinted within the blackness, and she slowed her steps. She remained silent and still, and when nothing happened, she opened her mouth. At first, nothing sounded other than a slight croak. So long had it been since she’d spoken, and she swallowed hard.
This time a light alto rang out and bounced around the cave, too loud for ears used to silence, and she clapped a dirty hand over her chapped lips.
Whatever inhabited the cave flickered but remained present. She unclipped her flashlight from her belt and cranked its handle a few times to give it juice. Light hit the side of the cave, and as she walked, several somethings flickered ahead of her, their golden hue like autumn leaves back when the seasons shifted and green still grew. Beneath her feet, a deep rumble shook her, and she stopped, shining her light straight ahead. Her mouth fell open.
Not just any dragon, but a bone-thin, scaley dragon. He enveloped gold in his wings as he watched her, and when she didn’t flee, he grinned a mouth full of yellowed, sharp teeth.
“Greetings, child. Or I believe you to be a child. So bundled are you that scarcely an ounce of you shows. Is it the cold you fear, or do you disguise your wealth beneath such covers?”
“Cold, sir. I lack your wonderous scales to keep me warm.” She pushed several scarves aside to better show her gaunt face. When her stomach grumbled audibly, the dragon’s tongue flicked the air.
“How fortunate for me that you have stumbled upon my home, here at the end of time.” His voice’s deep rumble set her knees and the trees outside to rattling.
“My name is Litalle, sir.” Though she bowed her head as was proper, she kept her eyes on his feet. She’d never outrun a dragon proper, but this one being half-starved…perhaps she could lose him in the dead forest. “I meant no harm, sir. I only sought this cave as shelter for the evening.”
The dragon spread out his claws and gold coins skittered across the cave’s floor. He remained firmly on his hoard. “My name is long forgotten, child, though it matters not. Tonight the sun will wither and die, and the land will fall into permanent slumber. Perhaps if I am to join it, I would do so with a full belly. Come here, child.”
His attempt to give her his name was close enough to meeting protocol, and she dared meet his gaze. If he took offense, it hardly mattered if he spoke the truth about the world ending. Either way she’d die. The thought nearly took her breath away as she stared at the dragon. “Are you not content to pass into the Everlands with your riches?” she asked.
“I can’t eat gold, child, and my belly rumbles as much as yours. Maybe more. Here at the end of the world, at the end of time itself, all this gold has given me is a crick in the neck. But you? You shall make my belly warm again.”
As the dragon slid one shaky foot to the ground, she held up both hands. Eyes wide, she called out, “But, sir, I’m barely an appetizer. You’d eat me and find yourself hungrier rather than sated.”
He tilted his head at her, his green eyes glinting yellow in light. Her flashlight flickered as its battery screamed for energy, and she gave it a quick crank.
Don’t die. Not now.
“Sir, I’ve heard it said that dragons hold the knowledge of the world, of all Tarrah, and if that’s true and the end is truly nigh, would it not be better to die in the warmth of a good fire with a…f-friend rather than fighting an enemy over a tiny morsel?”
The dragon eyed her flashlight and laughed. “Your tiny light dies even as we speak.”
“True, but if you promise not to eat me, I’ll make us a large fire where we can be warm together. The trees outside are as dead as we will be and would burn nicely. I’d be honored to use this fire to make us a proper, fulfilling meal.”
He sniffed the air, then stepped forward to sniff at her backpack. Whatever scent he found gave him pause, and as the sun crawled closer to the horizon, the dragon gave a single nod. “I know not what a friend is, but if you can make me a proper meal, perhaps I won’t eat you. Perhaps we can be this…friend you speak of.”
Litalle’s hands trembled as she turned her back on the dragon. No hot breath ruffled her hair, nor did anything sharp render her end-to-end. The dragon had kept his word thus far, and she shuffled outside into the trees. She could run… Maybe she’d make it down the hill before the starving dragon found the energy to catch her, or maybe he’d let her leave, knowing that the cold would kill her without any effort at all.
She spied glowing green flickers now and again watching her from the cave as she collected a large bundle of tree branches, much larger than she would normally gather. Several trips inside the cave brought them something more bonfire than fire pit, and she used her emergency fire starter to light the kindling. The clacking of dragon claws made her smile as he approached the flames, though her smile faltered as she glimpsed ribs prominently displayed through almost translucent scales.
The dragon really was starving to death.
Her fingers dug their way through the layers of clothing she wore until ice cold, they found her skin. She bit her lip as she counted the ribs that ran across her own frame. So similar and yet so different.
The dragon curled his body around the warmth like a kitten, and then tapped one claw on the ground. “I will wait here for your fine meal.”
Inside her backpack, various bits of food and survival gear swam in a large pot. She hadn’t needed it in ages—not enough food to warrant its use—but she fetched it now, upending the last of her water supplies into it, along with the dragonfly nymph, some dried jerky bits, and a few frozen worms. As the dragon watched, she scooped up a few gold coins and tossed them in for good measure. When the dragon arched a brow at her, she said, “It’s for flavor.”
Maybe it would fool him, but in truth, the pot held little more than flavored water. It held everything she had, and she shivered. If the dragon was wrong and the world continued beyond tonight, she’d have nothing to eat or drink come morning. Provided the dragon didn’t eat her. But if the dragon was right…
For a moment, her mother’s words rippled through her mind and swept away all doubt. “If you are ever so lucky as to encounter a dragon, know this—they are the masters of all knowledge. They see what has been and what will be, so treat them with dignity before you flee back to me!”
As she stirred the soup, Litalle allowed her mind to drift. Better that than fear. So many had gone before her. How’d she out-survive them? Was it luck, or was she unlucky, left alone to see the end and its approach? For all that the dragon scared her, at least she wasn’t alone.
She pulled her thermal jacket closer about her shoulders, the one with the hole in the pocket that her mother had worn worrying its edge. Its zipper had long since failed, but its woolen insides still added warmth to the other layers.
The sun froze against the horizon as Litalle scooped a small portion of soup into her cup before passing the entire pot to the dragon. While she sipped hers in near silence, the dragon slurped the broth with a recognizable desperation.
When the pot was cleaned of every droplet, the dragon set his short arms on his belly and shook his wings once before curling up again beside the fire. “What magic was that, child?”
“That soup was both filling and tasty. Was it the gold? Did I have food beside me this entire time?” Before she could answer, the dragon picked up a gold coin between his claws and tossed it into his gaping gullet. His sharp teeth made quick work of the old coin, but upon swallowing, he frowned. “This tastes nothing like your soup.”
Litalle’s limbs felt heavy as she shuffled closer to both the fire and the dragon. “No magic. If I had magic, I’d summon a grander feast than this, I promise.”
The dragon blinked slowly at her as the bitter cold crept its way across the cave, and the fire shuddered in response. “Then I ask again, what magic is this that turns a few grubs into such a meal?”
“Friendship,” she said as scooted between the fire and the dragon. When he remained in place, she leaned against his belly for warmth. It was a foolish move perhaps, but as frost gathered on her brows and eyelashes, she snuggled as close as she could to his warm scales.
“What is friendship?”
When the dragon said the word, he frowned. Perhaps it didn’t taste the same on his tongue as it did on hers, and she tilted her head in thought. The cold fatigued her mind, but after a long moment, she smiled. “Before all this, there were other dragons on Tarrah, right?”
When he nodded, she asked, “Were there any that you lived with?”
“There might have been one. A green little thing who spun rain in the spring and gave me an egg in the summer.”
“You had offspring?”
The dragon nodded. “She was the first to die. We…we were very hungry.”
Litalle suppressed a shudder. “Where there any others?”
“At one time. We would hunt together on the Hills of Horick and chase sheep across the plains.”
“That sounds very much like a friend,” she said. Her eyes grew heavy as the air grew thin, and the sun’s light faded one last time. “We’ve both been alone for s-so long. Any meal flavored with h-hunger and friendship will taste like f-fresh made bread and wine.”
A deep rumble sounded within the dragon as he wrapped his massive tail about her. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps you are a…friend. After all, you brought a warm light and a fine meal to one who would’ve eaten you.”
“And you’ve provided warmth and conversation in return. If it’s the end, let us fade together, sir.”
Another rumble of agreement as outside, life fell silent.
The girl in his arms fell asleep first as the frost creeping across the cave floor thickened. When her breath stopped, the dragon licked her face.
“I could eat you now. You’d never know. But I did promise that I wouldn’t…”
Ice as thick as his wrists covered his scales and his wings, which he could no longer spread. He curled his claws around the girl to form a protective circle about her and grinned.
“’Twas a fine meal, child.”
The firelight faded along with the heat, and the dragon’s lids fell heavily across his glittering eyes. “Goodnight, Litalle. May we rest well. Peace be with us, friend.”
This time when he said the word, it hummed with power. The sound and the cold lulled the dragon to sleep, the hum only fading when Tarrah heaved its last, cold breath.