When my turn came it was a beautiful day, sunshine and blue sky. Talora must be pleased. I briefly wondered if her pleasure might come somehow from my upcoming demise, but decided not to think on the weather. My hard gift was a wizard's book. It was well made and precisely scripted, but useless to any save Itharias. It was useless now too even to him. The dead don't read. The gown was one I had once coveted when worn by the Mayor's daughter. That was three years ago. There still might be none better to be found that would fit my scrawny frame, but none would mistake it for Shanna's work. The jewels were ancient heirlooms from the human time of glory, one item from each family in Manchester that had still had one. I could find no two that matched. I who took pride in my silence, clanked. My horse too was from the mayor. In his Sunday harness he might pass for handsome young and strong, but one could see he more commonly hauled a plow than carried dragon gifts. We hadn't had time to train him for strange sight and smell, which was a minor worry compared to all else.
And there was myself. Perhaps in the old time, I might have been viewed as pretty. When food was plenty, it was a mark of the wealthy to starve themselves to skinniness. When labor was done by machine, humans lifted weights in their abundant leisure time to develop muscles. No, in spite of past standard and padded extra layers, I could only be seen as a half starved over worked peasant farmer girl. That, or perhaps for what I was, a warrior.
A beautiful day. Talora must be pleased.
Beautiful? The best materials? Unique? A sad collection of dragon gifts we presented, coming from a sad countryside. The sun beat down on burnt fields and cottages. But I was a warrior. The warrior, perhaps, as far as New Hampshire and it's new worm were concerned. I was the one who led the last fights, rounding out those too foolish to refuse. I had watched them die, then used my illusion talents to crawl into the shadows and vanish for the next futile effort. He was a young one, this dragon. He should have been lightly armored enough that our weapons could sting, new to the sky, and weak enough that his claws might not kill in a single strike. All those weaknesses he had, but he was clever. The unexpected was expected. The radical maneuver resulted in ambush. When I knew his mental talents would expose any organized plan, I was suddenly alone.
How fortunate that I was a female, a maiden, and sworn to give my blood to protect the people of New Hampshire. No need for a lottery. The last mage, the last warrior, the last commander, and a meat gift too... A beautiful day. Talora must be... Talora's Law. A dragon must be challenged only by those within it's territory. There were wizards enough, other than my dead teacher, Itharias. They were numerous, the dragon young, and rail tickets cheap. He should be killed now, while it could still be done, rather than waiting for full adulthood when it would take an act of the Sidhe. But no, Talora's whims are not so easily crossed. The law enforced itself. If a man chose to seek this dragon, crossed the territory of another, his life would be at hazard. Perhaps such a one would find himself roasted by a young drake. Perhaps, in the vicinity of an older, more subtle worm, he would merely encounter a fatal accident. The result was the same. Cross Talora's whim, and find death.
She must be very pleased.
I bent the sunlight about me. My short black hair took the semblance of length, floating free down my back. My eyebrows thinned from their true straight slashes to delicate arching lines. The gown gained luster, and the jewels grew brighter. I could even improve the lines of the horse somewhat.
"Not wise," said a voice in my ear.
"What use have I anymore for wisdom?" I gave the voice a shape too. Beside me rode an old man with white robes, white beard, and white horse. Itharias had loved the fantasies of the old time. He had pushed his wizard's image too far, dear, vain, clever man. A long beard and flowing whites robes look good at a banquet, but are poor when fleeing from a dragon at night. The dragon had been beyond him too, as he had been beyond me. Still, even after death, my imagination gave him the power to prod and demand, to push and criticize.
"I taught you better! You play the hand you are given. You play it well. You play it to the end. No pride, Boy. Not now."
I smiled through tears at a joke from my own memory. It had taken him a rather long time to figure out that the small lost prisoner kid dumped on him to serve public service time wasn't quite what he had expected. Now, even decked as dragon food, I was still 'Boy'. I let his image fade, and slipped myself back to country garishness. "You should have waited," I pleaded to my dead companion. "By day... Both of us together..."
"Night flyer. You won't catch this one by day. This one is beyond you. You weren't ready for this. Now, you never will be. You saved the book, before he burned the tower. You have a hard gift now. Perhaps now you can save a few people, rather than kill more with your foolish persistence."
I bowed my head before the judgement of my imagination. Itharias would not let me alone. He went into my training game. Were he alive, I'd be taking image and form of the various roles. Dead, and approaching a dragon's lair, it was in my head. He had me playing the prosecutor at my own trial, under the unlikely event that I survived this. He had me play the judge's role, and worse still the poor defense attorney. What would Jacob have said to you if he had lived, or Farin? How about little Jessica? What would you have said about her father, had you the chance, and how much of it would she understand?
Please, I asked my imagination, I won't be able to work this game again. I replayed the good times, and the not so good. Mutual scepticism as a tower wizard tried to convince a New Jersey ruin rat to cut wood and shovel snow. The first time I'd solved a criminal case listening at cracks, where all his spells had fallen short of the mark. The beginnings of our role switch game. I had shifted using illusions to his face, and given his argument. He had just as deftly responded with mine. We'd then skipped merrily around Manchester, giving voice to everyone in town, and letting them have their say in the matter. Later, riding side to side before or after some mischief, playing the role of noble prince to Itharias' gutter rat, playing, probing, hiding the laughter inside. Victory purchasing cabbage. I'd not let Itharias dicker me down beyond a given price on the road, playing the role of market woman, and in town he hadn't bettered the exact same price. A similar, more tedious victory at court. I'd have to predict arguments for the persecution for each case we'd break, arguments for the defense, and the precedents they'd call. Then a humorous defeat, when he'd finally assigned me the role of princess rather than prince. I had not been convincing, and he knew not how to improve things...
And the bridge. A rusting leviathan that meant rail service between the mountains to the north and the remnants of 'civilization' to the south. Itharias' fire didn't come close to the heat required to reforge and reinforce irreplaceable cold iron. My own feeble light beams added nothing. I was the subtle one. Itharias had always been power. But the bridge problem needed solution. Bending light, not creating it, had proven to be the answer. I'd spent a long hot filthy summer hugging rust high over a dry stream bed. Bending sunlight had forged and transformed me far more than the bridge. For the first time, I was not dreaming of serving my punishment time, and returning to Jersey for revenge. I could hope now to own a tower myself, some day. If by night I was only a shadow rat, I could get by on my head. By day, depending on the weather...
But I must not dwell on the past, what might have been. I had been a fool. If the tower was mine, it was also blackened and broken. The dragon had always seen into our heads, read our intentions, and blocked them. I was dead, still riding. The role now to be played was that of a defeated sword captain, clumsy in skirts woven of real cotton, not illusions. Rifle and sword had been left behind. The battle is over. Stubborn foolishness and pride carried it on longer than it should. It is over. I would be privileged to be the young monster's first gift, token of his premier conquest. I would be first to hear the dragon's choice of adult name and honorific. I would not live to tell anyone.
A beautiful day, sunlight all around. Talora must be... Here!!?