They could not see the sun by the time they reached the precipice. Elynir judged it was early in the afternoon. Ludyrr had stopped close to the top, not emerging from the crevice but only peering her head past its edge.
Elynir came to a stop an arm’s stride from her feet. She whispered, “What do you see?”
“Dragons.” She answered. “Hundreds of them.”
Hundreds of them? Elynir did not believe that. She thought that at the most, only five dragons could exist, and at a stretch, ten.
“The edges of the plateau are higher than the center.” Ludyrr whispered to her. “The center dips very low. We can see plenty from here. Listen. There are bumps and crags all over here. I will go and hide behind a large one. You stay here and have a look. Count to twenty or thirty, then run behind a hiding place, but not the one I’ve chosen. If a dragon sees us, we will look like two fat grubs to catch and eat.”
Before Elynir could utter a reply, the taller woman pulled herself away from the crevice and was gone. Elynir climbed the last of the distance to the top.
It was true; all of it. The plateau showed tremendous rot, turning dark brown as an apple would when cut and left to sit. From the center out, the plateau had sunk, now appearing as a wide bowl, so concave that Elynir could sense, as Ludyrr had, that at a short distance the edge would begin to drop, but from where she was she could not see how steep the angle would be. And it smelled bad, like old vegetables given over to their chickens and goats, back when they had such livestock, but a hundred times worse because of so much rot.
Most shocking of all were the dragons. She expected they would look robust like chickens or some other fat fowl, grouse perhaps. Instead, they were long and lean creatures, like lizards that Elynir had only seen a few of in her lifetime. The dragons came in every color her mind could imagine: light brown, gray, gray with a bluish tinge, or a reddish tinge, or a purplish tinge. They had small heads and long necks and swelling bellies, and thick tails trailing behind. She witnessed small flocks of them, five, ten, fifteen to a flock, perhaps only one litter or a few born at the same time. They were as large as ten men put together. Elynir observed a flock high in the sky, and another at the top edge of the plateau, skimming across, and a third flock of smaller dragons, each only the size of a human, only that size, coming up and dipping down into the concavity of the plateau and lost from sight until they flew up again.
Elynir thought that was the biggest dragons grew, until she saw two bigger ones, one after the other, fly up from the depths of the concavity, flapping their great wings so loudly she could hear them, scattering the flocks of smaller beasts like a hawk would finches. These larger ones, these great beasts, could have been as long as fifty men lying down head to feet. She wondered how such large creatures could exist.
Elynir did not want to leave the crevice for fear of being seen. Even the smallest dragons looked easily capable of killing her. For a moment, she resisted the idea of joining Ludyrr. In the end, she summoned her courage and pulled herself out of the up-climb, hurrying to the outcrop that looked the largest to hide her entire body behind.
Fear crept through her, as she peered across and down, seeing the severe slope of what she’d thought was a largely flat plateau. Her first impression was correct: the rotting remains of the giant tree looked like a giant soup bowl, large enough to fill the belly of the hungriest god. She’d seen dozens of dragons already, all in flight, and now she saw more, many more, eating away at the walls of the giant tree, chasing other dragons away when they moved too close, like dogs growling at other dogs during feeding time.
Hundreds of dragons, she saw. Hundreds of them.
And she was very afraid.
The climb down, by good fortune was much easier than the climb up. Their arms burned less while their legs burned more, but their legs weathered the ordeal much better. Neither of them wanted to walk when they reached their original path, but they did not want to spend the night out on the path, not after seeing so many dragons. And it was night, and cold, but thank god not so windy they’d risk being swept away by a sudden burst.
The ancient builders had taken precautions when they first designed the path, or else god had done it. With the villages being half a day apart, or a full day or more, and the wind prone to fits that were unpredictable, they’d dug short tunnels along the way. These tunnels were simply that: a short stretch of path with a passage bored through wood. Travelers could rest there if the weather was throwing its brutal intensity at them. They reached one such tunnel.
“We must stop.” Elynir said. “I cannot take another step. I don’t know how you can keep going the way you are.”
Ludyrr did not speak, only dropped her equipment on the ground and gasped in relief.
“How tired are you?” Elynir pressed.
“I could fall over and be asleep before hitting the ground. I waited for you to give up.”
“You waited? Why?”
“Because I have to outlast you.”
“You have to?” Elynir lowered her weapons and pack. “What do you mean?”
“No golden girl is going to outlast me.”
Elynir found a place in the center of the tunnel and sat down. It was still freezing cold, but at least she would not roll over in her sleep and tumble down to her death. “A golden girl? What do you think I am? Tell me.”
“A golden girl, face kissed by the sun and all that.” Ludyrr admitted. “The boys in my clan, they all wanted their wives to be golden girls like you. This boy I liked, that’s all he could talk about; how much prettier golden girls are.”
“Are you stupid? Our village is gone, we are in exile, and all you can think to do is show jealousy over my hair?”
“Whatever we do, I will do it better than you.” Ludyrr replied.
“Go on, play stupid games while we’re out here risking our lives. What makes you think I would have married a brown-haired man?”
“Do you see? You do think you’re better than us!”
“Think what you want. When I looked at my husband, I saw a man with golden hair. When I looked at my daughter, and my mother, and my aunts and uncles, I saw all of them with golden hair. The only person who ruined it was my father with his brown hair. I am better than you, and do you know why? Because I am not jealous over another woman’s hair!”
“I saw how you looked at my breasts. What was that if not jealousy?”
“Your breasts are as rotten as the plateau up above. Why did you pull your trousers down to show me your butt-end? Answer me!”
“I wanted to feel hands on my body.” Ludyrr admitted. “Even your golden hands would have given me a good orgasm. I’ll tell you. I grew excited when you rubbed your hands on my head and face. I wanted to be touched all over, but not by those old women. I could feel the wrinkles on their ancient fingers. Your hands are much softer.”
That subject was one Elynir had put at the very back of her mind. Since she’d waken first, and had been oiled first, she’d heard each of the other five women having orgasms the same way she had. It was shameful to make such noises.
“Did you like it?” Ludyrr asked.
“When the old women rubbed your woman’s petals. If you tell me you didn’t have orgasm, I won’t believe you.”
“I did. I am ashamed of it.”
“Ashamed?” Ludyrr laughed. “It was the magic that made us so sensitive. After being in its glow for so long… You were first. Nobody heard you except for the two old women. You heard me. You heard all of us having such spectacular orgasms!”
“Be quiet.” Elynir said. “Do you want the curse to follow us down the mountain?”
“We’re not traveling. If god can hear us, he must know we are close to our village. That’s where we are expected to be, isn’t it? You’re stronger than I thought you’d be. I thought you would whine all day and be as weak as Afiruk.”
“Be quiet.” Elynir repeated. “If we sleep apart, we might freeze out here. We have to sleep together for warmth.”
“I know that.” Ludyrr admitted.
The tall woman came to sit next to Elynir. They tried to nest in their extra clothes, covered over with their cloaks, but they still shivered throughout the night. At least Ludyrr wasn’t talking anymore, because Elynir was tired of listening to her.
Model for character Afiruk.