Birthnight, p.1Michelle Sagara
by Michelle Sagara
Rosdan Press, 2011
SMASHWORDS EDITION: 978-1-927094-14-3
Copyright 2011 by Michelle Sagara
All rights reserved
Cover design by Anneli West, Four Corners Communication
Dragon: photoshop brush by Rob Marks/Breezy.com
Palm trees: photoshop brush by horhewbrushes.com
“Birthnight” Copyright 1992 by Michelle Sagara. First appeared in Christmas Bestiary, ed. Rosalind M. Greenberg and Martin H. Greenberg.
Introduction Copyright 2003 by Michelle Sagara. First appeared in Magical Beginnings ed. Steven H. Silver and Martin H. Greenberg.
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Novels by Michelle Sagara
The Book of the Sundered
Into the Dark Lands
Children of the Blood
Lady of Mercy
Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light
Chronicles of Elantra
Cast in Shadow
Cast in Courtlight
Cast in Secret
Cast in Fury
Cast in Silence
Cast in Chaos
Cast in Ruin
Cast in Peril (September 20, 2011)
The Queen of the Dead
*Forthcoming in 2012
Table of Contents
Other Stories by the Author
Memory is a tricky thing. When I decided I would reprint all of my short stories as individual ebooks, I also decided I would take the time—and space—to write introductions for each of the stories. But Birthnight had been reprinted once, in 2003, for a collection of first stories by various authors. So I already had an introduction for the short story. Except, rereading it, there are things I don’t remember, in 2011, the way I did in 2003.
Other things have changed. I am not, obviously, working on the fifth book of The Sun Sword now. I am, on the other hand, working on the fifth book of House War now, and I thought that would be two books too, and I am reading a new Tanya Huff novel, one chapter at a time—and Tanya actually doesn’t write quickly when a book is being read that way—so I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve been nagging her. I did that back in 1990 as well, but it was easier as she was in the store thirty-six of the same hours a week as I was.
“Birthnight” was the first short story I sold. It’s not the first short story published—that was “Gifted”, because they moved the anthology which contained it up a month to coincide with the Disney Aladdin movie that was being released that month. But I was probably more nervous and more worried about “Birthnight” than I was about the novel which would see print in the same month.
I wrote this story twenty years ago. It has some of the wildness and some of the sense of elegy that I feel I absorbed from the books I loved in my childhood—Lord of the Rings, Forgotten Beasts of Eld—and while it is not the story I would write today, I can honestly say I still see the heart of it clearly.
Toronto, August 2011
There are a number of loosely related facts that underpin the writing of this story. First: I love Christmas stories. The story of Santa Claus, the jolly, white-bearded whimsical gift-giver, coupled with the certain knowledge that my parents had lied to me, deliberately about his existence, is probably chiefly responsible for the way that love is expressed; there is both giving and losing, gift and loss, inherent on the occasion.
Second: Although I’m not what anyone rational would call a religious person, there’s a certain element of Christian myth that I find fascinating, in almost the same way that I find Tolkien fascinating; it speaks to me in a way that resonates, that feels true, and that I rationally would never defend as reality, no matter how much it can inform my own.
Third: When this story was written, I knew almost nothing about the short story market, because my first attempt at a short story was what eventually became the Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death duology; my third attempt was what eventually became the four book Books of The Sundered tetralogy. Just for the record, I originally thought that the Sun Sword series, of which I am currently working on volume five, would be two novels—so I admit up front that I don’t always understand the concept of “length” when it comes to number of words. Mike Resnick, who had written more novels than I, and vastly more short stories than I, and with whom I’m never likely to catch up – and who has also won almost every award known to man for the writing of those – informed me of the anthology for which Birthnight was originally written—one which Marty Greenberg was editing. He also had a lot of advice to offer, and if I wasn’t afraid of embarrassing him with what is admittedly my terrible memory, I’d probably attempt to reconstruct it all. Suffice it to say that if it weren’t for Mike Resnick, this story and most of the others over which he has no direct bearing, would probably not exist.
Fourth: I was working with Tanya Huff when I wrote this story. She had written a story for the same anthology a month or two earlier, and as I pretty much got to read all of her work before she submitted it – which was wonderful for short stories because she handed me the whole thing at once, whereas with novels it was one chapter at a time—and she likes to end her chapters in a way that will “keep people reading”, but I digress—I had actually read the story in question. It was, of course, excellent, and had all of the earmarks of a Tanya Huff story: It was funny, it made me sniffle in places, and it was completely rooted in contemporary culture from beginning to end. So when I realized that this fledgling story would be in the same book as her story, I knew damn well that I wasn’t going to write a contemporary piece. She laughed when I told her this. She laughs when I remind her of it. But really, it was true, and it still is; I love her writing, and it is just so different from mine that I always feel nervous after finishing something she’s written because I know my work won’t evoke the same response.
I was living in my first house, and the room that I worked in—which was my office until my oldest son was born -- was painted bright pink (a leftover gift from the previous owner of said house—we had always intended to repaint that room, but we had never gotten around to it, and in the end, my mother painted that room pale blue while I was in the hospital delivering my first child because she wasn’t going to condemn a child to that despised and loathsome pink), and the story was written on a Mac SE30, and it was many, many months before Christmas, but all of that story came to me in a sitting, in a mad rush of messy words and the emotions that come out of that particular time of year.
I tweaked it afterwards, of course, poking and prodding it, and stripping out words so that I would actually come in at the right length, but I was happy with the story as it came out, and it was this story that I chose to read at Harbourfront, when I was—as usual—petrified about having to do anything in a public venue.
I really hope you like it.
On the open road, surrounded by gentle hills and grass strong enough to withstand the predation of sheep, the black dragon cast a shadow long and wide. His
Below, watching sheep graze and keeping an eye on the nearby river where one of his charges had managed to bramble itself and drown just three days past, the shepherd looked up. He felt the passing gust of wind warm the air; saw the shadow splayed out in all its splendor against the hillocks, and covered his eyes, to squint skyward.
“Clouds,” he muttered, as he shook his head. For a moment, he thought he had seen ... children’s dreams. He smiled, remembering the stories his grandmother had often told him, and went back to his keeping. The sheep were skittish today; perhaps that made him nervous enough to remember a child’s fancy.
The great black dragon circled the shepherd three times; on each passage, he let loose the fiery death of his voice—but the shepherd had ceased even to look, and in time, the dragon flew on.
* * *
He found them at last, although until he spotted them from his windward perch, he had not known he was searching. They walked the road like any pilgrims, and only his eyes knew them for what they were: Immortal, unchanging, the creatures of magic’s first birth. There, with white silk mane and horn more precious to man than gold, pranced the unicorn. Fools talked of horses with horns, and still others, deer or goats—goats!—but they were pathetic in their lack of vision. This creature was too graceful to be compared to any mortal thing; too graceful and too dangerously beautiful.
Ahead of the peerless one, cloaked and robed in a darkness that covered her head, the dragon thought he recognized the statue-maker from her gait. Over her, he did not linger.
But there also was basilisk, stone-maker, a wingless serpent less mighty than a dragon, and at his side, never quite meeting his eyes, were a small ring of the Sylvan folk, dancing and singing as they walked. They did not fear the basilisk’s gaze; it was clear from the way they had wreathed his mighty neck in forest flowers that seemed, to the sharp eyes of the dragon, to be blooming even as he watched.
And there were others—many others—each and every one of them the first born, the endless.
“Your fires are lazy, brother,” a voice said from above, and the dragon looked up, almost startled, so intent had he been upon his inspection. “And I so hate a lazy fire.”
No other creature would dare so impertinent an address; the dragon roared his annoyance, but felt no need to press his point. It had been a long time since he had seen this fiery creature. “I was present for your last birth,” he said, “and you were insolent even then—but I was more willing to forgive you; you were young.”
“Oh indeed, more insolent,” the phoenix replied, furling wings of fire and heat and beauty as he dived beneath the dragon, buoying him up, “and young. My brother, I fear you speak truer than you know. You attended my last birth—there will be no others.”
The dragon gave a lazy, playful breath—one that would have scorched a small village or blinded a small army—and the phoenix preened in the flames. But though they played, as old friends might, there was a worry in the games—a desperation they could not speak of. For were they not immortal and endless?
* * *
“They do not see me,” the unicorn said quietly, when at last the dragon had chosen to land. The phoenix alas, was still playing his loving games—this time with the harpies, who tended to think rather more ill of it than the dragon had. They screeched and swore and threatened to tear out the swan-like fire-bird’s neck; from thousands of feet below, the dragon could hear the phoenix trumpet.
“Do not see you? But sister, you hide.”
“I once did.” She shook her splendid mane, and turned to face him, her dark eyes wide and round. “But now—I walk as you fly, and they do not see me. I even touched one old woman, to heal her of her aches—and she did not feel my presence at all.”
Dragons are proud creatures, but for her sake, he was willing to take the risk of exposing a weakness. “I, too, am worried. I flew, I cast my shadows wide, I breathed the fiery death.” He snorted; smoke cindered a tree-branch. Satisfied, he continued. “But they did not even look up.”
“And,” one of the Sylvan folk broke in, “my people cannot call them further to our dance without the greatest of efforts.”
The dragon turned his mighty head to regard the small, slender woman of the fey ones. And what he saw surprised even he. He lowered his head to the earth in a gesture of respect for the Queen of all Faerie.
“Yes,” she said, with a smile that held the ages and used them wisely, “I too have come out on this road. Something is in the earth, my friend—and in the air. There is danger and death for all of us.” She reached out and placed a perfect hand between his nostrils. He felt a thrill of magic touch him.
He snorted again, and the fire passed harmlessly around her. “I am no foolish mortal.”
Her smile held all the beauty and danger of the reaver of mortal men. “Ah? No, I see you are not, mighty brother.” She turned, swirling in a dress made of water and wood, fire and wind, and walked away to where her people waited to pay court.
“She is not without power,” the unicorn whispered, long after her presence had faded.
“No, little sister, she is not. Nor will ever be, I feel. But she, too, is worried.” He walked slowly and sinuously by the unicorn’s delicate path until the sun splashed low upon the horizon; the wound of the sky, and the beginning of day’s death. Then, he took to air, that his wings might hide the stars and bring the lovely night to those below.
And in the sky, shining as it had been for these past few days, a star burned low and impossibly bright. There was magic in it, and a fire, that the dragon envied and feared. And he had been drawn to it, as had all the immortal kin.
* * *
Although they all, in their way, could move more quickly than mortal man can imagine, they chose the road that only they could see, and followed it in a procession not seen since magic’s first birth. The harpies became hungry and vexed, and in time even the good-natured bird of fire grew weary of their company. He never landed, although occasionally he elected to skim the surface of grass and tree alike, touching just enough to curl, never enough to singe.
The unicorn and the dragon kept company on the road during the day; only at night did the dragon yearn for, and take to, the open air. For there, hovering by the strength of his great wings, he could see the star that never wavered and never twinkled. Days they travelled, and those days became weeks for any who cared—or knew enough—to mark time’s passage, but the star never grew closer, never larger.
Others joined them in their strange, unspoken quest; the hydra with his nine mighty heads, the minotaur with his one, and Pegasus, creature of wind and light—a rival to the unicorn’s beauty and grace; a thing of air. Each asked, in whispers, why the others walked, but no one had any answer that they cared to give; immortals seldom speak of their own ignorance.
Last came the Sphinx, with her cat-like gait and her inscrutable features. For so mighty, and so knowledgeable a personage, the dragon came down to earth, although it was starlit night.
“Sister,” he said, touching ground with a beard of scale.
“Brother,” she answered. “What is old as time, yet newly born; brings life to the dying and death to the living; is born of magic and born to end magic’s reign?”
The dragon sighed; many years had passed since he’d last seen the Sphinx, and he had forgotten how she chose to converse. Still, her riddles held answers for those skilled enough to see them, and the dragon had lived forever. The game of words distracted him for many hours—well into the sun’s rise and renewal, before he at last shook his great head. “A masterful riddle, sister—that is the one you should have asked.”
She glared at him balefully, and he did not further mention the single failure that marred her perfect record.
But she did not speak it; instead she looked up and into the daylit sky. There, faint but unmistakeable, the aurora of a single star could be seen, pale twin to the sun’s grace.
* * *
“But what does the riddle mean?” The unicorn asked quietly; she did not have the black dragon’s pride behind which to hide her lack of knowledge. “And what was the answer?”
“The answer?” He snorted; he did that often, and the trees bore the brunt of his mild annoyance. “She does not give answers for free—and only mortals have the coin with which to pay her.”
“Oh.” The unicorn cantered over to the unfortunate tree that had stood in the path of the dragon’s fire. Very gently, she laid horn to burnt bark—and slowly, the black passage of his breath was erased. “Maybe mortals have the coin with which to pay us all?”
It was a foolish question—one unworthy of an immortal. But as it was she who asked, he thought on it—and when night returned, and the sky beckoned, he was no closer to a comfortable answer than he had been to the Sphinx’s riddle. But he felt that he preferred the latter’s game to the unicorn’s open vulnerability.
The night brought answers of a sort, although not in the way that the dragon had expected or hoped for.
As he flew, he watched the road below—and saw, at the furthest reach of his vision, three men on camel-back. They were dressed against the chill of the night, and they passed between the trees of the road-made-real by the Queen of Faerie, as if those majestic trees did not exist. They had retainers who travelled on foot; at their beck and call were wagons and caravans fit solely for mortal kings.
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