In a thousand years, we will not remember these days. What Calla said to Mor, what secret loves were stamped upon trees.
What will be remembered is the scent of daffodils in damp spring ground, the fire of the ship as it burned through the atmosphere and tore pockets of earth. The particular pang of losing our last dragon.
Everyone will say they were there; how they'll remember it! The little dragon, stunted and jewel green, mewling as the Other Men dug it out of its bern and broke its neck. It was placed in a bag and taken back to their ship. No one will remember how we crouched, frightened, with our useless amulets and half-formed prayers in the heaps of our houses. They'll all recollect marching against the interlopers, the dragon thieves. They all bore weapons, but were struck down. Some died. Who? No one recalls.
It is the peculiar trait of our people that stories alone are passed along through the centuries; audible and embellished, whispered and shouted and turned into dance. But never written. A piece of the soul is taken with each written word, it is said, and our souls belong to the dragons.
Who do they belong to, now that the last dragon is dead and carted off to the world of the Other Men?
When I was a little mewling thing, I studied the way my finger dragged through dust. Mor said, Better you not do it at all, but if you must (perverted thing), do it on water. Let the traces disappear as soon as you make them.
Ah, but they lived in my mind. For a few years, anyway. And when I realized I could not make my mind remember everything I had ever inscribed in water, I turned back to dirt.
Deep in the woods, where wolves and bears live, I first used a stick. Then the knife of my brother, upon the bark of trees up high, so that my people would not see. For they forage, and hunt the small game. They only ever look up to see the dragons flying across the sky.
No one looks up anymore. They surround the charred bern and hold hands, and tell stories of their bravery on the day the Other Men came. I write on the trees deep in the woods, up high.
One per tree: the names of the dragons. There were five hundred. And then, more trees for us: Calla, sister to Jena. Wife of Mor. Another tree: My name, brother of Mor. Nothing else on that oak.
Five hundred of us. Our names peer at the dragon trees through the branches, a labyrinth of memory in the deep woods. After half a year, I climbed down and began again, brazenly low:
Felix, born when the crocuses were yet buds. Calla saw the steam, brought us all to see the acorn in the earth. The acorn that would grow to be a mighty dragon. His nostrils were still closed, tail wrapped tight around, a sticky mess. In a week, he was unfurled, dry as old timber, bright as the new grass.
Too small. No one mentioned it. Old Martyam was dying on the mountain, her body part and parcel of the granite and snow. Mor said, She still breathes! Only I said, It is clouds. Mor threatened to take his knife back. I shrugged, and said maybe it was steam and smoke after all.
Calla drew us back to the infant dragon. Our hopes lit like sparks, though it crawled on oddly bent legs.
We all remember when we were a great race. Everyone rode dragons; we flew all over our planet, and returned with more stories. There was even one dragon, a behemoth that could fly among the stars. Nahan rode him. Nahan, who has not been seen in half a millennium. Was there ever such a dragon? Or even a Nahan?
Perhaps, it occurs to me as I etch on a piece of cedar bark, Nahan rode away on the magnificent star-traveler and brought the Other Men. Perhaps Nahan is enslaved somewhere, along with his dragon, Gabriel. Perhaps he is not enslaved, but lives as a king. Perhaps he sold us.
Felix was to be mine. This was known. I was the only one who had lived without a dragon; the others had known them, had flown on hot, scaled backs. But for centuries, the dragons had grown smaller, so that we carried them. I didn't care that, now that my time had come, my dragon was barely larger than a squirrel. Who needed to fly? I could climb trees and taste the high winds, with Felix clinging to my back.
His wings weren't strong enough to lift him when the Other Men came and broke his neck and took him away, and I am not standing around the charred bern where he crawled.
Calla came to tell me she was going up the mountain to be with Martyam. She is ancient; they are ancient. But still beautiful. She found me with knife and birch; she saw her name but did not recognize it.
Your soul, she said.
Gone with Felix, I said, if it ever existed in the first place.
I wanted to know. Why tell me, and not her husband?
She was silent, and after a while, she asked me to teach her to write her name. Then she left. She will die with the old dragon on the mountain, or die with the corpse of her. For those are clouds, I'm sure.
Four-hundred-and-ninety-nine, where once there were a thousand. I have discovered a way of heating the blade, to make the mark deeper and more permanent. It is not like breathing fire, not exactly, but here in the deep woods, I am the first of my people to do this. We will not wither, and when the Other Men come again, I will hold up my blade and mark them like trees.