by anne m. gibson
First, I strip off the overalls that I wore in the stables, or what remains of them. The left sleeve is gone, the torso is crusted with blood (some of it mine), and the muck has soaked through the rest. The clothes I wore underneath go next; they’re also ruined. They will be burned by the castle staff later.
Then I start the shower, cold water, and step under the stream. The slime on my skin reacts with the water. It hisses and burns. The pumice stone rubs the slime off quickly enough, except around the bite on my shoulder and the solid crusts below my knees. I put away the stone and grab a bar of lye soap to wash my injuries. I start to shiver. The hair left on my arms stands at attention.
I shut off the shower. There’s no point in drying off. It would ruin the towels. The bath will be ready soon.
Stepping to the tub, I run the water hot, and I fill it to the height of the roundness of my calf. I add the bath salts and the flower petals and the special oils that dissolve the crusts on my legs and I wait impatiently, shivering, while the bath fills.
Then I step in and let the heat shock me, rush the blood back into my extremities. I feel my toes swell. The arch of each foot erupts in sharp tingling. Worn muscles cry out from sudden comfort.
I sit on the edge of the bath, wrapped in a towel. The tiny room above the stables is obscured in scented steam. I cough up gobs of ash-filled mucous, and blow black snot from my head onto a nearby handkerchief. I sweat foul odors as the heat pushes poisons out of my pores.
Sometimes, I read a book. Sometimes I doze, my worn out body propped against the only smooth spot on the rough-hewn wall.
Tonight, I stare into the fog and think of the men I prepared for war today, feeling nothing for their deaths. The young ones spoke only of glory of battle. The old ones saw no glory in killing, just duty. They all believe in a better life, a vision that I no longer share. I strapped both kinds of men on their steeds, buckled the leather harnesses that made the knights one with my dragons. I wished them honor, but saved my prayers for the dragons.
Some of the dragons I sent out to the front lines today I raised from the shell. Some I nursed back to health two or three times already. They fight for the King and for their knights, but when they come home if they come home—it’s to me they flock for food and comfort and help with their injuries. The paddocks’ doors aren’t there to prevent dragons from escaping; the doors prevent ten dragons from trying to cram themselves in a single stall just to be near me.
The oils in the tub begin to break down the muck. The dragon urine mixes with the water; the excrement begins to burn. Occasionally a flower petal floats too close and ignites. The process was excruciating when I began training decades ago, but now it is just pain. I’ve learned to work through it, even sleep through it.
The dappled young one I sent out three days ago returned today, her wings shredded from serrated-tipped arrows, a leg broken, and half her head blown off from the explosive charge that took out her rider. It was my job to un-cinch the body of the knight while the squires tried to distract her and my journeymen restrained her in the death stall. She panicked, chomped down on my shoulder with her remaining incisors, used my collar bone as a bit while I inflicted horrible pain on her wounds in an effort to free her from the tack.
When the deed was done and her injuries catalogued, when it was clear she was never going in the air again, it was my job to draw the sword sharp enough to penetrate her scales and plunge it through her breastbone into her heart. My job is to get them in the air and keep them in the air. Their job is to fight. The kingdom doesn’t have the resources for an egg-raised crippled dragon with one eye, no matter how soft and kind she is, no matter how well-mannered with the new recruits, no matter what a good foster she is for orphan hatchlings.
Perhaps the tears that fall are for her, perhaps they are for me.
I soak in the tub until the water is black. I swing one leg out of the tub, then the other. They’re beet red, the red of dragon’s blood, and the skin is crusty at the water line.
I reach down and peel the skin off like giant rubber boots, first one, then the other. The new skin underneath is pink and tender and hairless. My toenails are gone, but they’ll be back by morning.
I dress in the soft, clean, warm flannel bedclothes the staff left out for me, and stumble down the hall to where a dinner of smoked fish and crackers and a mug of ale await. I barely wipe the crumbs from my lips before sleep overtakes me. I sleep like the dead, knowing well that the keening of the dragons in the stables below will wake me at morning’s light.
In the night, the servants will scrub away all signs of the bath, the muck-encrusted clothes I left behind, the skin I shed. My dragon’s blood will heal my shoulder, my legs, and my feet, but not my sorrow, grief, or guilt.
Those I must sponge away, myself, over time.
anne m. gibson is a ux designer and general troublemaker just close enough to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to think a wander through a revolutionary battlefield is not noteworthy. In addition to designing websites, she writes science fiction and fantasy, runs a small publication about web design, plays competitive pinball, and watches the terriers destroy things.
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