Memoirs of a One-Time Dragon-Slayer’s Apprentice
By George Nikolopoulos
The dragon slayer who arrived at our village on that windy Wheelsday looked nothing like the one who had come after the death of my mother. He‘d been a burly guy with a long black beard; this one was slight and beardless, almost feminine-looking, and wore a peculiar conical hat.
As we all stood in the village square waiting, I was enraptured when he chose me to be his apprentice. I could almost hear in my mind the shocked whisper of the schoolmaster: “But she’s only a slip of a girl—and an orphan at that!”
True, I was the shortest one in the group, but I felt ten feet tall when he said, “Come, little girl, let’s go catch us some dragons.”
“Are you tired, little girl?” The Master’s voice seemed all too thin for a man.
I’m not that little any more. “My name is Ilaria, Master,” I said a little more brusquely than I intended; but he just nodded solemnly.
“I’m Leoni,” he replied. Even his name was strange.
We walked in silence for a while. Then he said, “Your mother was burned to death by dragons. Do you seek revenge?”
Revenge for what? Dragons are mindless creatures. I couldn’t hold them accountable. “No,” I said.
“Good,” said Master Leoni.
We heard the singing from afar. It was the most magnificent sound I’d ever heard; it made the nightingale’s song seem like the cawing of crows. Master Leoni took a long glass cylinder from his backpack and motioned me to be silent. We sneaked up to the clearing and then we saw it: a young dragon, no bigger than a lamb, green and amber and vermilion, perched on a sturdy oak limb, singing its heart away.
It saw us too, and then it stopped singing.
“Careful,” the Master whispered, “it breathes fire;” as if I didn’t know. I took a step towards the dragon, and as the jet of fire left its mouth I somersaulted to the right and it missed. Then I heard a popping sound and the dragon seemed to elongate and lose its substance, until it became nothing but a long thin line of smoke that flew into the cylinder. Master Leoni capped the cylinder and sealed it; then he wrapped it carefully in cloth and put it away into his backpack.
That night, as we sat by the fire, I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I mastered all my courage and asked: “Master, are you a man, or…a woman?”
Master Leoni laughed, a musical, trilling laughter. “Neither. I’m sexless. I’m an automaton, a golem as they call us in Silverport.”
I’d never heard of an automaton, but I’d read plenty about the golems of the Western Cities. They were said to have sunflower hearts in metal bodies. I was entranced.
Catching more dragons, we moved further and further into the seemingly endless woods.
“What are you going to do with all those dragons you collect, Master?” I asked. “Slay them?”
Master Leoni laughed again; I’d started to love that sound. “Slayer’s just the name of my profession. I will deliver them to my own Masters, in Silverport.”
“And what are they going to do with them?”
Master Leoni frowned. They seemed a little sad. “I’d rather not talk about that. Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Ilaria?”
This sounded ominous, and the dragons sang so pretty I’d hate it if they suffered, but I had to obey the Master so I did talk a bit about myself.
Not that there was much to say. After Mother died, I went to live with my great-uncle Jeremiah who detested my presence and mostly ignored me; but I loved living in his house because he had the biggest library in the village—make that the only library in the village. I devoured book after book until there was none left; there wasn’t much else to do.
What I didn’t say: I miss my mother like the dry summer soil misses the rain. Sometimes I wake up at night and I feel my chest so constricted it seems like it’s going to burst. I can’t even bring to mind my father’s face, but I remember he smelled like fresh-baked bread.
That night I dreamed of my mother after a long time. She brought me a warm cup of milk and tucked me into bed and kissed me goodnight, like she usually does in my dreams. Only this time she had Master Leoni’s face.
My father was there, too; I couldn’t see him, but he sang me the sweetest lullaby. And he had Master Leoni’s voice.
As another sweet little dragon singer was sucked into Master Leoni’s cylinder, I felt a terrible pang in my chest.
“How long will this go on, Master?” I asked.
They seemed tired, black rings around their eyes getting more prominent with each passing day. “Until all my cylinders are filled, my dear Ilaria,” they said. “Look; we’re almost finished.”
Somehow this didn’t feel comforting enough. “But why, Master? Why are we collecting dragons for those people?”
Master Leoni sighed. “Those people are my Masters, Ilaria. I have no choice but to obey them.” They hesitated. “I don’t know how to explain this to you, but we’re somehow connected. If they sense that I disobey…” They let their voice trail. Then, “have you started to love them, Leoni? Have you started to love the little dragons?”
I blushed. I didn’t know what to say. “They killed my mother, Master,” I said without conviction. I hadn’t realized it before Master Leoni asked, but I was falling in love with the dragons. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, though, so I nodded.
“Because I have started to love them too,” said Master Leoni, so softly that I barely heard.
And I thought, maybe I’m falling in love with more than the dragons.
“I sense another dragon,” said Master Leoni, “a more sinister presence than any we’ve encountered so far. Ilaria, you must be very careful. Maybe I was wrong to bring you this deep into the woods.”
“Don’t worry about me, Master. I can take care of myself.”
“I know, my dear Ilaria, but… I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Then—before I even had a chance to grasp the Master’s words—we stepped into a clearing and we almost walked into the dragon.
This one didn’t sing. It was black, and barbed, and as big as the village temple.
Master Leoni reached for their cylinder, but as the dragon locked eyes with them they became immobile. Then the dragon looked at me and I couldn’t move either.
I heard the dragon’s voice inside my mind. “You have killed my children. I am too old to bear another; I am the last of the dragons. After me, there will be no more.”
I never knew dragons were sentient. I thought of Grandmaster Sermandini’s History of Arram. Dragons are the magic of the world; without them the world would be a smaller, sorrier place.
“Please don’t hurt Master Leoni,” I said. “They mean you no harm. They serve cruel Masters, that’s their only fault.”
“Your Master is a golem,” the dragon said. “A magical creature like me, albeit of a different nature. I should destroy it, for killing my children.”
Your children killed my mother, I thought. But I knew they were only children; they didn’t know any better. Their mother was old and wise, but she didn’t seem cruel, only angry and desperate and sad, so terribly sad. I hadn’t lied to Leoni; I never wanted revenge.
“Your children aren’t dead,” I said. “Turn me loose and I’ll show you.”
As the dragon released me I rushed to my Master’s backpack. I picked up a glass cylinder and smashed it on a stone. Smoke whirled and began to dissipate. Fear caught me; had I killed it? I hadn’t known what to do, I just acted out of instinct—I am never that foolish. I was already regretting my impetuousness, when the smoke began to coalesce, in the end turning into an azure and gold little dragon that soared into the sky and broke into the sweetest song before perching on its mother’s shoulder.
I broke one cylinder after another; when I finished, seven little dragons danced around in the sky, singing in chorus and breathing fire on their mother. I could almost feel her happiness.
Then they all took flight to the east. The mother dragon turned and looked at me for one last time. “Farewell,” she said in my mind. And “thank you.”
Master Leoni was unharmed, but they seemed befuddled.
“The dragon severed my connection with my Masters,” they said. “I cannot go back to Silverport; I’d be branded a rogue automaton and destroyed.”
That scared me. “Why would they want to destroy you?”
Master Leoni’s expression was a study in puzzlement. “It seems that I have free will now. It seems so strange… and bewildering.”
So maybe there was a way around it, and it might even work out. My mind raced. “That’s great. So now you’re free. You don’t have to capture dragons anymore. It was never what you wanted. You just never go back to that awful place, and you’ll be safe.”
“But what am I going to do? I was made to be a dragon slayer. I don’t know anything else.”
Well, I knew what I wanted. What I needed.
“Leoni,” I said, “will you stay with me and be my parent? You can be my mother and father both.” No more Master Leoni, just Leoni.
They smiled sadly; their voice caught. “My dear little Ilaria, I do love you; but I don’t know the first thing about parenting.”
I thought of Morius Segundus’ Ten Steps to Successful Parenting.
“Parenting is easy,” I said. “You just have to take it step by step.” I smiled. “And you’ve already taken the first step: Have a child.”