I told you the history of our village, Bevelle, a modest farm and fishing village built upon the ruins of an ancient city. I told you of that city's great war a thousand years ago against the city across the bay, Zanarkand, and how our ancestors laid waste to it with fire and dark magics. I told you how ruined Zanarkand still lies across the bay, its ancient towers and ruins become a city of the dead where spirits go, from which the living do not return.
I told you of the great dragon that arises after a ten or score of years to decimate our land. I recounted how it comes to terrorize the children of Bevelle and lays waste to our houses and fields, livestock and our people, so that we are a folk grown few and pious. The dragon is punishment for our sins, some say. Others call it the vengeance of Zanarkand.
I told you of the art of Summoning by which a gifted few can charm down hawk on the wing or leaf from the trees, and the greatest Summoners, they say, can draw the moon down from the sky. I spoke of how the Summoner must go and do battle with the dragon when one arises. I spoke of how each Summoner has a guardian, a brave warrior skilled with sword, to defend him in that battle of will and steel. The Summoner uses his will to lull the dragon into slumber, and the warrior slays it, and then people sleep in their beds without fear for a time. But neither Summoner nor guardian has ever returned from their great quest.
I told how my father was the last Summoner to go, the last time a dragon was seen in the sky. I described to you his guardian and friend, the grizzled man in an old red cloak with a black sword and an unmarked shield upon his back. I recalled my last glimpse of them, setting forth in a borrowed boat across the bay. They did not return. Nor did the dragon, for ten long years.
But now the dragon is come again and I, the Summoner of the village, am dancing for the newly slain. Their corpse-boats dot the bay and float westward on an unseen current towards distant Zanarkand. The sun is setting, and I am singing a song to send them home. But one boat is coming back, a boat that we did not launch with wails and sighs.
My father's guardian stands alone at the prow and carries no oar, but it slides ashore. He is unchanged, save that his hair is a little grayer. He bows to me. "My lady. Are you a Summoner now?"
And I say yes.
"The dragon has returned," he says. "Do you mean to face it?"
And I told him that I wished to, but no one in the village was willing to stand guardian for me, so I must go alone.
"You must not," he told me. "We shall leave at dawn."
And that night he told me much I did not know about my father, his wandering years, his travels in many lands, how he came home to woo my mother with songs and tales and a secret of the magical land where birds go in winter, a secret which she took with her to the grave. He told me that my father could dance upon the water, and make the fishes sing. My father's guardian spoke many stories, but never of himself, nor of the dragon.
"You will see soon enough," he told me. "Sleep now."
In the morning we set forth. The villagers came out to see us off, or rather, not see us. Every one of them stood along the shore, every one of them with their backs to the west, to the water, to us, to Zanarkand across the bay. We belonged to the dead now. My father's guardian pushed us out into the water in an old fishing boat, with his sword at his knee and his shield upon his back.
For a few hours we skimmed across the water, riding a current the fisherman had never mentioned in all their salt sea tales. The spires and towers of the ruined city jutted out of the water, and strange ghost-lights hovered in the sky. Still he would not speak, and I gave up asking, instead reciting to myself every charm and spell I knew. The snake-charm, the dragon-charm, I had never tested on anything so large.
At last we came to Zanarkand, and the lights danced for us as we climbed up the broken rubble of the shore. My guardian pointed. "Yonder the dragon's lair," he said, "in that old temple. He mostly sleeps by day."
The temple's façade had fallen, and the dome formed a great dark cave. As we drew near, my guardian took me aside and hid me behind a pillar, then propped his shield against a great stone out in the open, facing it towards the dragon's lair.
"Now," said he. "I know what you have learned from the ancient texts. But it always fails. Summoner and Guardian die, and the dragon always returns. In the name of your father, I ask you to trust me, and do it a different way. Sing your charms as you were taught and draw the great serpent from its lair. But never look it in the eye. Keep your gaze upon my shield, and watch the dragon that way. No matter what happens, do not turn to look until you are sure it is slain. Else you will be held by the dragon's gaze, even as it is held by yours, and the cycle will continue."
So he spoke. I wanted to ask him what he meant, and what the cycle was. But at that moment we heard a stirring, a ponderous groan within the temple's walls. He nodded to me, and straightway I began to sing. I sang as if all the spirits of the dead were singing through me, of every joy and sorrow they had known. I sang of summer and winter, and the water beneath the stone. I sang of my father dancing upon the water, and fish that answer. And the dragon came.
I heard it, booming hollowly in its temple cavern like a drum. I heard the hollow rumble of great wings and the grating of claws on shattered stone. Then I saw it. From my hiding place behind the pillar, I gazed upon the dragon's face, mirrored in an unmarked shield. Its head seemed formed of of crags and sharp horns as ragged as the broken skyline of Zanarkand, and it was very terrible. But it had my father's eyes.
Almost I turned to stare at the dragon's true face, and my song faltered. But my warrior gave a great war-cry. So I kept singing, coaxing, wheedling. Foot by foot, the dragon came tamely, fixed upon the reflectiion of my face and the work of my spell.
And now I heard the swordsman running, gravel crunching under his boots, and a great clang went up as the black sword smote the dragon's hide. The dragon screamed a man's scream, writhed and twisted, and its great tail swung around, knocking the shield aside. I closed my eyes and kept singing for the dead who have no voice, and covered my ears against the awful din of metal on scales, crunching bone.
At last the city grew silent, and the stones underfoot ceased to shake. I turned around. In the mouth of the temple, dragon and my former guardian were locked together, the man's crushed body beneath one of its hewn limbs. Red blood mingled with black, and the warrior's head lay against the dragon's sword-pierced breast. I ran to him.
"It is finished, Lord," he whispered. His eyes did not see me, but another. "The cycle is over and your chains are broken. Now in death I have freed you, who could not save you while I was alive. And your daughter will not suffer a Summoner's fate, nor will she ever slay a friend."
And as he spoke the final word, their bodies shimmered, turned clear as glass, and broke into jewels that floated skyward, to join the dancing lights of the city of the dead.
And upon the stone his shield had covered, I found this verse inscribed in the old tongue, which I translate clumsily so that its secret may not be lost:
He who is a Summoner and can hold a dragon's gaze
Himself will be a dragon, and thus live out his days
And he who is a Guardian will die by his lord's hand
And this shall be the vengeance of fallen Zanarkand.