Lex Talionis

by

The day I finally returned home, I was bearing my sister’s corpse on my back.

It caused quite the ruckus at the gates, let me tell you. Not because of the body, for it was completely swathed in the finest discarded taters of cloth from a side alley in Meldea, but because I was not someone the Tribe of Atigon expected to find strolling into their village on this fine autumn morning, or any other morning for that matter. This was quite a reasonable assumption, as most people who are exiled and told “never to return on pain of death” would, in fact, never return. Yet there I stood, in my torn scholar’s robes and my mis-matched sandals, with nothing but a rucksack to carry what little I owned, and the corpse of my sister to shield me from the wind blowing through the cold northern mountains. That was Yaline for you… always watching out for me. Some things, I suppose, never change, especially in the village of the Dragon Slayers.

The front gates had not been guarded, which was not much of a surprise. When one took the effort to ring the perimeter of one’s village with the cracked, gaping skulls of your traditional enemies–who just happened to have fangs the size of an oxen’s forelegs–one could be fairly secure that there would not be very many unannounced guests. Oh, there was always a snow-mad bounty hunter or two, paid in barrels of coin to steal a dragon’s tooth–rumored to allow one to raise the dead–or commissioned to exact vengeance on one or the other of the Tribe who had managed to disrespect some lowland merchant who had more gold than wit… So, yes, there were days when the dragon heads in the Circle of Skulls had smaller, fresher companions, but for the most part the outside world left us alone and the Tribe for its own part had little use for the outside world, save as a conveniently large dung pile upon which it could heap its unfortunate undesirables… of which there were surprisingly few, which made me, I suppose, something of a notorious figure in the village. Or so one might imagine from the number of people who turned out to watch me stroll towards my doom.

They came alone, and in pairs–in groups of three, or four,–their eyes wide and jaws agape, quite unlike their normally stoic faces. It would not do to show emotion you see, for Dragons, they say, lived on the fear of humankind, and took from our terrors their sustenance and pleasure. It was why only those of sufficient bravery were allowed to ascend to the high places of the Mount of Girai, to Dance with our ancient foe, and in so doing become true warriors of the Tribe. Yet to suppress fear is one thing, and to mask outrage or disbelief is quite another. Certainly, none of my people had any need to fear the bedraggled, rangy youth who walked so suddenly back into their midst that day– none save one.

Her face was blank, a carving of plated bronze atop a core of pure iron, yet her normally graceful movements were hurried, even panicked, and her sun-warmed arms pushed aside the slow and the stupefied with equal alacrity, until she found her way to my side, leaving my younger siblings behind. My mother did not touch me, for that would be against the Laws, but the pain in her voice wrapped itself around me as tightly as a shroud.

My child, my child,” she whispered, “What have you done?”

I have returned,” I answered simply, for although there was much to be said, I had not the heart to say it.

No–you have died,” she said, and her hand moved as if to touch my cheek, then wisely withdrew. “You have died by your own hand, and your own choice.”

Not I,” and this time it was my voice that cracked. I turned from her, unable to look into her eyes, into the heart I would break, and break twice. “Where is Father?”

You know he will not see you,” she said, and her tone had changed, “What did you mean, ‘Not I’?”

I did not answer. “Where is father?”

Laeth…” she said, with increasing urgency, “Laeth why have you returned?”

I looked at her then, and grit my teeth. “Father should be here.”

Then she saw my burden, and she knew my purpose, and it broke her. My mother’s mouth opened, yet it was the cry of an animal that emerged from it, an animal shorn of its fur, and naked to the elements, helpless and unprotected. It was this cry which finally brought my father, from wherever he had doubtless been watching my arrival, brought him towards the threshold of the village where I had laid Yaline’s body, now wet with my mother’s tears.

He was a giant of a man, with shoulders as broad as a most men were wide, and muscles so defined they had their own peaks, and valleys, and mountain passes. I started to explain to him why I should not be put to death, how our Law required me to bring my sister’s body back home, and that such a mandate took precedence even over my exile–but my father’s gaze slid over me like water over fowl, and he crouched beside my mother and looked upon the cold gray face of his only daughter as if it were the map of a battlefield. He did not weep, or shout, or even frown, for he was the Master of the Tribe, and had learned long ago it was in his interest to suppress more than his fear. But his gaze latched on to my sister’s body as if it would see nothing else for the rest of his days, and so it was with little difficulty that I snuck behind him and toppled him to the ground with the hardest kick my weary legs could muster.

There was a collective gasp of horror at my act, and a second soon followed when I placed a knife to my father’s throat, and pronounced the words he had never expected to hear, and which I had never expected to say.

Ozen of the Tribe, Ozen Heavyhand of the Tribe of Atigon, I am your son, Laeth, your son of seventeen winters and all the seasons between, your son and son of Chire and the son of Raques and yea, even unto Atigon himself. And as I hold your life in my hands, I demand my birthright, my inheritance, and my trial.”

Laeth no!” My mother shouted, but I had senses only for my father, and he said nothing, his eyes burning into mine as if by will alone he could make my sockets as empty as those of the skulls in the Circle. But he said nothing, and made no movement until I had said the final words which the Law demanded.

I am Laeth, your son, and I would Dance with the Dragon.”

And my father said “Today I will mourn my daughter, and tomorrow I will burn her. But the following dawn I will give you your sword, and give you your candles, and you will ascend to the peak of the mountain and contend with our foe, and you will either return a Warrior of the Tribe–or not return at all.”

He smiled as he said the last, and I had no doubt in my mind which outcome he prefered.

* * *

Almost before we’ve sucked on our mother’s teat, we Atigon are taught about the Enemy. The dragons and the Atigon have been foes almost since the world formed itself from chaos. Our legends are filled with the indignities visited upon our people by our winged adversaries–tales of villages razed, women ravished, and children sacrificed to their deities. If the Atigon are cold of heart and brutal of action, it is because only such a people can stand against creatures such as these, whose jaws had rent the jagged mountains, whose scales turned aside the sharpest of blades. More than that, it was the sorcery of the dragons that made them legends, and especially in the lowlands, even men of learning traded tales of the eldritch powers of dragonkind.

Yet, much as the Tribe hates the dragons, there was likewise a level of grudging respect, perhaps because the Atigon can conceive of no other foe worthy of their ire. Dragons, we are told, are not to be treated as mere beasts. Predators the dragons may be, but they have a culture and an intellect more than a match for any human. In the old days, before the dragons had retreated to the snowy fastness of the mountain, Atigon raids had been on entire packs of the creatures, and they would march into cities created by dragons, filled with draconic art, music, and literature. But that had been before the Retreat, before the magic of our forefathers had stripped them of their ability to reproduce. It was then that the dragons became a dying breed, and when the war had become an extermination, then a slow, occasional erosion. For no one really knew what would become of the Tribe, if our great adversaries disappeared from the land.

That was why not every male child of the Tribe was given the opportunity to participate in the Dance. As with many other cultures, the Atigon had a particular ceremony which young males needed to undergo, in order to become men–but in Atigon we had two: the Passage of Fire, and the Dance with the Dragon. The former was what most men undertook, and it involved an entirely unpleasant mixture of rigorous fasting and ritual combat, but in its favor it had an almost perfect survival rate. There was nothing dishonorable about taking the Passage instead of the Dance, and one was not deprived of any privilege because one settled for it.

For those who desired fame and prestige–or, as was more often, for the parents who desired fame and prestige for their children–there was no trial other than the Dance, for in our history, those who had returned from it went on to become the very best of our people. Under our Law there were only two ways by which a son of the Tribe could be allowed to undergo the Dance: the first involved his father or the male head of the family publicly proclaiming his child’s worthiness before the assembled village and giving solemn oath that if his child failed the task, his own life was forfeit. The chances, of course, of this being done on my behalf had always been rather slim, to say the least.

The second method involved the child besting his father in combat, and ritually demanding to participate in the Dance. My father was one of the most preeminent warriors in the village, and he had been since my youth, and while I must admit to youthful fancies of splitting his head with a rock, I had never in my wildest imaginations ever dreamed of actually attempting it. Yet when necessity calls, at times even possibility bows its head. It may not have been my brightest moment, but I had done it, and by some miracle had managed to pull it off… though not, perhaps, in the eyes of all.

My friends say you are a coward.”

Is that so?” I asked my youngest brother Sarn, as he went through the ritual morning motions, on the day my sister was being burned on her bier. “Why do they say that?”

Sarn gave me a strange look, but did not pause in his movements. A disciplined child. Where was that bawling babe who I had left behind six years ago? “I know better than to ask that question.”

Which question?”

“’Why?’” His tone made it a curse, and not an inquiry.

Ah. “I take it there were some new rules put into effect by father after I was set aside?”

Sarn shut his eyes, as if he could shut away my existence. “I don’t want to end up like you.”

Neither did I, I thought to myself, and watched my youngest brother as he mimicked the ancient forms of our forefathers. The two of us were silent for a time–I wouldn’t call it a companionable silence, but it was an accepting one. He was who he was, and I was who I was.

After a while, Sarn spoke again.

She didn’t know any better either.”

I smiled, sadly. “Well I’ve been told weakness of character tends to be infectious. It’s a good thing I left before you could catch it.”

Yes,” my brother nodded, “It’s a good thing.”

Neither of us paid any heed to the thick cloud of smoke billowing in the distance.

What do you think?” I asked him.

“About you?”

“Yes,” I answered, surprised to find that I did care what he thought.

I think… I think that you didn’t fight Father fairly, but that fights aren’t always fair.”

I knew who those words had come from–how often had I been told the same thing? I kept my peace. “That is true and wise Sarn… But it doesn’t answer my question.”

” I think… that if you were a coward, then you wouldn’t be picking a fight with a dragon. That’s what I think.” He paused. “And she always said you were the bravest man she knew.”

He had stopped in his movements, and if Father had been there, Sarn would have received quite the beating. I stood up, dusted myself off, then placed my hand on my brother’s shaking shoulder.

I can’t ask the question…” he said, his voice crackling, “I can’t…but…”

I held him close, as his grief leaked past his eyelids like a breached dam. And then, in the faintest of whispers:

But I want to know why…”

So do I brother,” I said as he finally let himself go. “So do I…”

* * *

The day after most of my sister was consigned to ash, I set out to find a dragon. I had with me my battered rucksack, the incense candles that would draw the dragon to me, and a hideously heavy iron sword which had been immersed in dragons bane for the requisite twelve-hour period. I was also tattooed with the markings of a prospective warrior, an endeavor which had caused no small amount of consternation to the elderly women who had been unlucky enough to be assigned the task, as they had constantly complained that I just did not have the necessary muscle mass for them to properly draw the traditional symbols–for victory, power, and virility. At one point I had quipped that I hardly needed the symbol of manliness, unless I was entirely misinterpreting what I was meant to do with the dragon, but the spinsters had looked so shocked that thereafter I said not a word, for fear of leading them to an untimely end.

Not that their markings seemed to do me any good. I set out shortly after sunrise, but I arrived at the Passage of Fangs in the orange haze of late afternoon. The trek was arduous, and the added weight of the sword on my back made it next to impossible. I wondered anew at how I had managed the long journey from Meldea with my sister’s body, but whatever unnatural strength had borne me then seemed to already have deserted me.

When I saw the snow capped “fangs” which had given the pass its name, I practically collapsed from relief and exhaustion. I wanted nothing more than to curl upon myself like an infant, and pray no dragon came until the morrow. But I knew that if I was do what I set out to do, I must move quickly. For Sarn’s friends were right in a way–I was a coward, and if I did not act now, I might not act at all.

I dragged my beaten body the dozen or so steps towards the rocky shelf that stood like a platform in the middle of the pass. Upon it, inscribed in a red that may or may not have been dried blood, was a circle with designs that matched the symbols painted upon my chest. At eight points around the circle were niches carved into the rock, and into each I placed a candle before struggling with stones and branches to conjure up a tiny flame, with which I lit each wick. Then I set my monstrous sword upon my lap, closed my eyes, and waited.

It did not take long.

It had two great wings, each folded across its great back like a pair of coiled snakes, while its barbed tail swished and swayed in a counterpoint to its elongated neck. It was large, certainly the largest living creature I had ever seen, half and again the height and breadth of the huts back in the village, yet it moved–no, glided–upon the hard packed snow with an ease and a silence which would have put to shame even the shade of an Ice Leopard. But while the big cats were as white as their names implied, the dragon was black, black, black–so dark that even had it been the dead of the night, I had no doubt I would have had little trouble spotting him, for his black was no mere absence of light, but a presence in itself, an obsidian that seemed to bleed the richness from any color that it touched. Even without the tint of its scales, one would never lose sight of this dragon, for its eyes glowed with a hungry, inner flame, orbs of gold that reached out and grabbed the mortal mind as easily as one of its great black claws could grab a mortal body.

I stared at the magnificent creature, the living death that approached so gracefully, so inexorably, and I took a deep breath, gripped my sword tight, and breached three centuries worth of Law and tradition.

Hold,” I called out to the dragon, “I wish to parley.”

The dragon did not pause.

Hold,” I called out anew, this time with a tremor in my voice. Had my studies been in error? “I wish to parley!”

Still the dragon came for me.

In desperation, I stood up, took my sword in my hands, and hurled it as far as I could away from myself and the dragon–which, truth be told, was not far at all, but it was out of the circle, and I turned back just in time to see the dragon lunging for me, it’s maw gaping wide.

Parley!” I screamed, covering my face futilely with my arms, “Parley!”

A second passed, and then two, and when I realized I still breathed, I slowly put down my arms, and found the dragon sitting on its haunches opposite me, not two meters from the circle, with an expression on its saurian face that could only be described as exasperated irritation.

*Well?* It rumbled, in a deep–if slightly peevish–voice, *Get on with it then.*

Incredibly, I felt my ire overcome my fear, “Why did you not halt? I called for parley! Under your laws- ”

*You think my kind foolish enough to respect a parley called by a man with a sword in his hand?* A tongue of flame licked out between razor sharp fangs. *We have Danced with Man a very long time. We are wise to your nature.*

I shook my head, my body still quaking from the aftermath of my fear. “You could have just told me to rid myself of my blade! I had no ill intent. ”

*And I was to assume this–from what? Your warrior’s markings?* Another gout of flame. *Although I confess, that had I truly appraised your form, I would have been less inclined to view you as a threat. You are a rather… scrawny example of your species are you not?*

I looked at the creature, slack-jawed. “I cannot believe I am standing here being insulted by a dragon.”

*Neither can I.* the dragon replied, then it smiled in a manner that was more a display of teeth than of amusement. *I should be eating you. *

I shook my head. I did not come here for this. “I require a boon.”

Once again the dragon sounded amused. *And what would you have to offer me, skinny human, that I could not just as soon take from you?*

I had never thought to see a dragon startled, yet that was exactly how it looked when I had made my proposal. Flame spewed liberally from the dragon’s mouth, but its gold-eyed gaze was calculating, and slowly, it nodded its head in agreement.

*And what would you have of me in return?*

In the low lands,” I began, “there are legends which hold that a fang of the dragon can allow the dead to rise again.”

The dragon quickly shook its head. *Falsehoods and lies! Do you think we would need to make a pact with humans if we could so easily revive our brothers?*

I did not think it to be literal truth,” I said, although my heart was heavy in my chest. Hope finds its way into the tiniest of cracks, no matter how well you think to guard against it. “Such is the way with legends. But from what I have seen, they do contain some truth if only a kernel of it. Tell me then… what is the truth?”

*The truth is that the dead are dead, and not dragon or god or man can change that,* it replied, though the voice was strangely subdued, *but we can, in some small way, converse with those who have gone before, and allow them some passing form on this plane, if we are offered the part of their body that first gave them life. But I do not see –*

I reached into my rucksack, and brought out the heart of my sister, and laid it on the ground before the great black dragon. The creature looked at it silently, then back at me.

*You place more stock in your legends,* it said, *than you seem ready to admit.*

Please,” was all I replied, “Let me talk to my sister.”

The dragon considered, then once more nodded its great head. *As long as you adhere to our bargain human.*

I shall not be forsworn.”

*Then step aside*

I did so, and the dragon lurched forward, and brought its head down above the last that remained of my sister. The dragon took a deep breath, then exhaled, slowly, and a pinprick of flame shot outwards from its jaws, and impaled Yaline’s heart. Within seconds it was consumed in fire, and from the ash rose a smoke that smelled, oddly, of the sea, and the smoke rose like the cloud that had risen from my sister’s bier, but when it reached the level of my eyes it began to swirl, and twist, until I found myself looking into Ylaine’s eyes. Beautiful, stubborn Yaline, who had fled from the village to find me, and found death instead.

Brother…

Her voice was a longing, a hunger that made my eyes water.

Dear sister…”

You found me…

Don’t I always?” I replied. “You’d almost reached me. I was at Meldea.”

A ghostly laugh, which bore only echoes of satisfaction. I knew it would be so. You were ever the little scholar, always with your books, always with your questions. Oh how close I was… How near… It would have been grand indeed if I had found you. I missed you so…

I choked back a sob. I knew if I did not hurry, I would lose myself there, my eyes fixed upon the land of the dead, and all would be for naught.

Tell me why you fled sister. Tell me why you fled the village.”

She paused.

Why I told you dear brother, I missed having you to look after…

I smiled, sadly. “You never could lie to me Yaline.”

Her pause was longer this time and the fear, the hesitation, was palpable.

It no longer matters…

It matters to me.”

Laeth, Laeth… I cannot…I–

Ah Yaline, my sister,” I said, after a deep, calming breath. “Did you think I would not look at your body?”

So she told me then. And the earth gave way beneath me.

* * *

If my people had been surprised when I arrived at the gates two days ago, they were positively dumbstruck when I returned from the mountain, my sword dripping the unmistakable blue-black blood of a dragon. No one had thought I would emerge victorious–and in a way, that made the celebration that followed all the more frenzied. It had been decades since the last successful Dance, and the tribe seemed to forget in that moment who I was–Leth the exile, son of Ozen–and for the first time in my life, I truly felt as if they had accepted me as one of them.

Ah, sweet ironies of life.

My father was the first to reach me, shoving away other would-be well-wishers in a parody of how my mother had met me at the gates. He raised me on his shoulders and proclaimed to one and all how his son, his long lost son, had done what so many others could not, what so many others had not even dared attempt. He carried me all the way to the elders’ hut, where a feast was hastily being prepared, sat me down at the head of the largest table, placed a mug of ale in my hand, and waded into the crowd, presumably to personally rouse the entire village to join in the festivities.

I watched his retreating back, and said not a word, but then my mother was upon me, and Sarn, and my other siblings, and I drowned my sadness in drink and laughter.

Later that evening, as I lay in my own room, my old room, I remembered the day I left, which seemed so long ago, when I had thought I would never return. If there had been one aspect of my childhood with which even my father could not find fault, it had been my knowledge of the Law.

At first the elders greeted my frequent visits with much enthusiasm, holding me up as an example to other recalcitrant youths who neglected the fossilized customs and traditions of our forefathers. All had been well when I had been learning the Law, committing to memory its intricacies and idiosyncrasies. When I had learned all that had been written, however, I had then turned my attention to what had been omitted rather than preserved, the gaps in the tales rather than the stories themselves, and that’s when I outstayed my welcome in the huts of learning. I don’t remember the exact incident which led to my being banned from the sight of the elders, but I do remember the questions which led to my father hurling me bodily from the village. It was an evening much like this one, save that during that night, the young man who had attempted the Dance had not returned.

Why,” I had asked him, “do we not reclaim the bodies of those who have failed the Dance?”

He had given me a ferocious glare, and forbade me to speak of it. But I had known the boy who had ascended the mount, and I would not be deterred.

Why do we permit it? The Law would have us retrieve our dead, wherever they fell, to bring them home to merge with the skies of our ancestors–why should our best and bravest be treated different?”

My father had stood then, grabbed his belt dagger, and warned me in the harshest of tones that I was to cease, or face the worst possible end. But I was aggrieved, and possessed, and would not be silenced.

Why are there even any dragons left? Why are they not dead? Why are there still dragons for us to slay?”

And he had taken me by the scruff of the neck, and hauled me out of the house as I kicked and screamed, while my sister and brother ran behind him and pleaded with him for mercy. But I–I only shouted more questions, asked for more answers. My father did not speak, not a word, until he had crossed the circle and thrown me to the ground. Then he proclaimed my exile, turned and shut the gates behind him, never looking back.

Now, I gazed at him, sleeping by the foot of my bed, guarding me bodily from any who would steal my much needed rest. I looked at him, so peaceful in sleep, as I took out my knife and slashed his throat, and watched his life spill out onto the ground.

* * *

The dragon was waiting for me, as I reached the pass, my breathing strangely unlabored after ascending the mountain for the second time that day. I knew now there were heavier burdens than iron swords, or the bodies of our loved ones.

*Is the deed done then?* it asked formally, as I came to stand before it.

It is,” I told the dragon, “And for that you have my thanks.”

*Strange you are indeed, to thank me for such as this. If I live eight more centuries, I doubt I will ever give a boon which less deserves the name. Were our situation other than it is, I would be tempted indeed to release you from your bargain.*

Even if you would,” I answered, “I would not.”

Another flame lit the air, and flared brilliantly as it died. *No. I suppose you would not.* It paused, and I took a deep breath of the cold spring air. *Are you ready then?*

No,” I said, “but do it anyway.”

The flame came quickly, hot and harsh and hungry, awakening senses I had never known and filling them with pain and agony. It was not a glorious magic, not the type of which songs were sung, or legends made–it was a thing of blood, and sweat, and torment. But so it is with all manner of birth, and when it was over, when my thoughts could do no more than scream, I found myself kneeling on the snow covered ground, heaving for breath.

*Breath deeper. The pain will grow, but for now you need air.*

So I did, and it did, and I threw back my neck and roared to the heavens, but I found that soon I had the strength to stand, my four legs pushing my body from the earth with a power I had never before known. I looked then at my new companion– Zanarat–and unspoken words passed between us, and I knew what ought to be done.

I rose into the air on uncoiled wings, and flew into the snows.

I never once looked back.

Paolo Gabriel V. Chikiamco has placed in the Palanca Awards (Short Story for Children category) and his stories have been published in the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, The Farthest Shore, A Time for Dragons, and Philippine Speculative Fiction V. He is currently the editor of Metakritiko, the arts and culture section of the Philippine Online Chronicles (www.thepoc.net/). Rocket Kapre, his digital publishing imprint dedicated to publishing and promoting speculative fiction by Filipino authors, can be found (along with USOK, his online Pinoy SF webzine) at www.rocketkapre.com.