THE MAGIC IN THE MOUNTAINS
by Regina Jade
Content Warnings: none
Once upon a time, a girl climbed into the mountains in search of a friend. She had already sailed the great seas and traversed the endless plains and walked amongst the oldest forests, yet she had found no home among them and no family to call her own. The fish had fled from her steps, the birds had flown from her shadow, and the deer had bounded away at the sight of her.
And yet still the girl persisted, for although her own society had cast her out for the curse laid upon her, she had found other cursed children living in harmony with the creatures of the deep and of the woods.
Those same creatures had run from her, but perhaps, she thought, the mountains might be a different story.
The mountains, after all, were ancient, as old as the seas and taller than the forests, vast and endless and terrifying. If there were creatures that would accept her presence among them, perhaps she might find them here, in these steep, rocky slopes where few humans dared to tread.
Or, at the very least, the girl might find a place in the mountains where no humans would bother her. A small cave, maybe, where she could find food and shelter in peace without the mockery and the fear inspired by the curse she bore upon her lips. It would be lonely, but magic was different in the mountains. Magic was calmed in the deep forests and lessened by the great seas; not so in the mountains, where the peaks reached towards the sky, and the roots travelled deep into the earth. Perhaps here, where magic lived in every wisp of wind and danced in every sunbeam, the girl’s curse might not seem so out of place.
The girl walked and walked and walked, all through the day, past the steep paths and over the crumbling rocks. She battled thorny vines and sharp stones. She braved the powerful winds and the merciless sun beating down overhead. And still she climbed until, at last, she came to a small cave.
The cave was tiny and dark. The girl tapped on the wall, tap tap tap, but there was no furious roar from an occupant inside and no emergence of an animal intent on defending its territory. It was small enough that bigger predators would not be able to enter and long enough that the chill of the night wind would not bite into the girl’s clothes. It was high enough in the mountains that few humans would stumble across it, yet not so high that the air would be thin and hard to breathe. It was perfect to rest in for the night.
So the girl dug into the satchel over her back and took out a pouch. Inside was a small collection of precious gems, which the girl had used to barter for passage and trade for goods. She hunted now for a topaz, for it would reflect the light of the sun it had absorbed throughout the girl’s travels and therefore would serve as a better guide than any torch.
Upon finding it, the girl held the great stone up to the air and stepped inside the cave. The light of the topaz gleamed off the walls as the girl walked inside, and she found no old bones, no cold fires, no hints that anyone had ever lived inside. And the girl thought, Perhaps this can be home.
The girl walked until at last she came to a small branching in the tunnel. The left passage went sharply down, deep into the dark belly of the mountain. The right passage, the girl saw when she extended the hand with the fire gem, led to a small, round alcove. It had been gouged out of the mountain by some distant, long-ago creature, and time had worn down the walls into smooth surfaces. It was relatively clean, just large enough for the girl and her satchel of precious keepsakes, and above all else empty, with no signs of anyone or anything calling it home.
The girl closed her eyes and thought of home. The memories were distant and hazy, but the girl could still remember the warmth of the fire, the softness of her blankets, the scent of fresh bread and hot drinks. The girl gathered up all of those memories, inhaled, and spoke.
‘Home sweet home.’
Plink plink plink. The girl winced at each sound.
Three gems had clattered to the floor. One was a topaz gem, dull and shadowed. It would take time in the sun before it would show its true radiance, bright yellow or orange. Another was an amber gem, one of the softest stones, glittering like honey. The last was a tanzanite gem, light blue like cold, fresh streams, and already a small puddle was forming underneath it.
The girl knelt on the floor and gathered the gems up. Sometimes the gems came forth easily, and sometimes they did not, no matter how the girl focused. But the mountains were steeped in magic, and here they had come as easily as a thought.
The girl then set about making the alcove into a home. She set the tanzanite on a small ledge and lodged her canteen below it so that the slow drips of water could gather there. She lined the entrance to the alcove with the topaz gems to light the way. She took the amber gem and placed it carefully in her pouch, where it could stay until she had need to trade with it.
The girl hummed tunelessly as she worked – she had learned the hard way that singing would clutter up her workspace and delay her tasks – and in short order, she had laid out blankets for a bed, filled her canteen with water, and dug out her provisions in order to have a meal. She was just about to have her first bite when a sound echoed in the tunnel.
The girl froze. At first, she thought it might have been the wind, but then the sound echoed again, scraping against the wall like scales on rock.
And it was coming closer.
Against the beating of her racing heart, the girl tried to keep her breath steady. She thought of her desire for a home, her yearning for safety, her memories of being driven out and made an outcast. She whispered, ‘I am strong.’
Plink plink plink went the diamonds, clattering to the floor. The girl gathered them with shaking hands. At best, they would serve well as weapons. At worst, she might be able to throw them at her attacker and get away.
The scraping sound came again, louder and more terrifying, and the girl braced herself.
And the shadows resolved themselves into a tiny little creature. From nose to tail, it was barely the length of the girl’s arm, and its face was so small it could have rested easily in her palm. While the girl stared, the creature rose on its hind legs and beat tiny wings, letting out a small screech. It had scales, and a long, winding tail, and two beautiful wings. When it huffed, steam blew from its nostrils.
A small one, to be sure, but none of the old gods were to be taken lightly. The sky dragons had called the mountains home longer than the giant wolves had the forest, or the ravenous leviathan had the seas.
The dragon beat its tiny wings again before landing back on its legs. It snuffled curiously at the two topaz gems, nudging the glowing one with a paw.
The girl swallowed hard and mustered her bravery. She thought of the long climb up the mountain, the trek to the far seas, the plunge into the night when she ran from her village. She took a deep breath and said, ‘Hello.’
A tiny ruby fell. It rolled across the uneven floor to the dragon.
The dragon made a soft sound. It did not seem aggressive, just curious, but then again, baby dragons often had little to fear. They were usually guarded by fierce parents.
Of course, this tunnel was far too small for a full-grown dragon.
‘Where are your parents?’ the girl asked. Plink plink plink plink. ‘Did you wander from your hoard?’ Plink plink plink plink plink plink.
The dragon pounced upon the gems as they rolled to it. It pawed at them, rearranging them as if trying to make a nest, and made happy sounds as it tucked the new gems under its wings. The girl knew that dragons hoarded gems and gold, but they never started new hoards when they had an existing one. The baby dragon was small but not so small that it couldn’t carry a few in its mouth.
Yet it did not leave and curled up upon the little pile of gems like it had found a new nest.
‘Where’s your home?’ Plink plink plink.
The dragon fixed one eye upon her and did not answer. It chirped softly, sadly.
The girl knew that sound. She had used it herself, for she rarely spoke within human lands. There was a deep sadness that came with loss, and all who felt it knew the pain that reverberated deep in their bones.
‘Are you alone too?’ asked the girl.
More gems fell, but the dragon ignored these. It focused its eyes on her, unblinking and serious, as though it could understand her, even if it could not speak. The girl picked a diamond up off the floor and held it out in her palm.
Slowly, the dragon edged close, step by step. Its wings unfurled against its back, like shields, and it snorted smoke at her when she moved her hand.
‘I won’t hurt you,’ the girl told the dragon.
The dragon eyed the gems that fell. It cocked its head, tail swishing on the floor. Perhaps the dragon understood the girl’s curse more than anyone else. The old gods had always been steeped in magic in ways humans did not understand. Perhaps it was why so many human magics went wrong and turned blessings into curses.
The dragon sniffed at the girl’s fingers. Tentatively, it nudged at the diamond before it swiped it off her palm and retreated, claws firmly closed around its prize.
The girl scooped up another diamond and held that out too.
Three more gems later, and the dragon no longer flinched when the girl spoke or moved. It rumbled in pleasure when she sang little lullabies and herded the gems that fell to the floor into a growing pile in the corner. When the girl went to start a fire, the dragon breathed tiny sparks until the wood ignited.
‘I am alone, just like you,’ the girl said after they had shared her meal. ‘Will you be my family if I am yours?’
When the girl reached out again, the dragon let the girl pet its smooth scales. It purred in pleasure and arched up under her touch. There was no fear or hesitation, no rage or hatred. Just pure and simple acceptance.
‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ the girl said, smiling.
Plink plink plink plink plink plink went the gems, but this time the girl didn’t notice. The sound was drowned out by the rumbling purr of the dragon at her side. Her new family, as magical as she was, and neither of them alone ever again.
Regina Jade is a writer and poet who lives in the US. She loves chocolate, custard tarts, and cats. In her spare time, she can be found trawling the depths of libraries for new books to add to the to-be-read pile, which never seems to get any smaller. Her love of writing fantastical creatures comes from her times cat-sitting, because somehow the cats always managed to magically appear in the strangest of places.