Shredding, whistling noises scraped his ears. It was the tide coming in and the wind picking up. The breaking waves and rising gusts echoed. Familiar odors drifted to his nose – the icy ointment the sibyl treated him with after his first encounter with dragonfire and wafting nearby, her own woody, floral smell.
The salve tingled his skin. He felt it everywhere except his hands and arms, which were numb and constricted by bandages. Though he lay on a bed of soft rushes his entire skeleton ached. The most intense pain shot from his ribs and the center of his back. He forced open his swollen eyelids. Above a rough stone ceiling was lit by firelight.
The sound of rustling fabric pulled his sight to the sibyl's gray robes as she knelt beside him. "Drink," came her voice, accompanied by the scent of roasted flowers. She lifted a ceramic bowl to his lips. He slowly sipped the cool liquid and the lump of baked clay in his mouth became a tongue once more.
"You live, Prince of the Green Isles," she said calmly, "and the dragon has fallen."
He had never heard more beautiful music than her words. "You live," he said, his lips cracking at the edges.
"I closed the cellar and held my breath." She put the vessel down. "I heard it when it crashed on the shore. The monster took the worst of the fall. I brought you into this cave. For some hours I feared you were destined for the Realm of the Dead."
"Am I broken?" With each try it grew easier to speak.
"You have broken ribs. They will mend." Her tone was measured.
"I cannot raise my arms or move my fingers."
"Your hands and arms were burned." Her forehead was not visible yet he sensed her brow tighten. "After many months you will regain some strength and feeling, but things will not work the same. You may never wield a sword again."
"Yet I live."
"Again I owe my life to you."
"The debt is paid. The dragon's talons were tearing into the cellar when you attacked."
"I didn't attack the dragon. Not properly. I stabbed it in the back." His actions suddenly didn't seem particularly heroic. "With less courage than the boy you told me of."
"But unlike the child you had a sword and you knew how to use it." The sibyl arose. "The coast will fill with fishing boats and settlers and tradesmen soon. The people will return from the desert and rebuild the village." She walked to the front of the hollow.
Hal's eyes followed her. "Will you stay here?" he asked.
"I must," she responded, facing the dark sky.
"Why? Is it the waves? Could you live by the shore somewhere else? There are other oceans..."
"It's not just the water. I will no longer be the person you see before you, if I leave these cliffs."
Beyond the simmering coals of the fading fire Hal saw a bright red star burning up the darkness. "It's the Morning Star," he thought. The night was giving way to the dawn. "How long have I been asleep?" he asked aloud.
"I sensed the sun, then it set, now it rises."
"So, sibyl, what will my fate be? You have the sight."
"You will make a decision."
"What are my choices?"
She turned back. "Be a wounded mortal, or live forever." Her voice shimmered off the stone walls.
"You told me I would have to eat the dragon's beating heart. The beast is dead. The choice is made."
"A dragon's heart beats for days after it is slain." Her robes swept the ground as she recrossed the space to his bedside. "It will heal you. You will be stronger than before and you will never die."
"Tesana." He fixed on her blindfold, hoping his gaze might penetrate the material and pierce her soul. "Will you eat of the heart? I do not want to live forever unless you are by my side."
"You do not know me." She straightened. Behind her the Morning Star blazed brighter and a rose-colored glow burnished the horizon.
"I wish to know you. I wish to love you."
"And if I will not eat the demon's flesh? If I do not want immortality?"
"We will bury the heart with the rest of the carcass..." He tried to get up on his elbows but a thousand tiny knives cutting into his muscles made him stop. "Do you think a man who can no longer swing a sword may still cast a fishing net?"
"You will stay here and be a prince of fishermen rather than the Lord of the Green Isles?"
"If you must remain here, then I shall as well."
"Don't you long for your kingdom?"
"I stole away like a thief under cover of darkness, and if I cannot use a sword I am no longer fit to lead men in battle." A pang struck Hal's ribs. "I must tell you why I came here…" He coughed up blood.
The sibyl bent down and wiped his chin. "You said you came to slay the dragon."
"I didn't. I came for her… I came for the Queen of the Dawn. She cursed me with desire. She told me I would never rest until I reached her palace in the clouds at the edge of the world." More spasms rattled him. He waited until they subsided. "Yet now I do not care. I love you."
Tesana's mouth curved into a wide smile that threatened to crack into laughter. "You will have me instead of the Queen of the Dawn?"
"If you will accept a damaged man."
She stood up and stepped back. "You will sacrifice your birthright, never set foot in your homeland again and give up everlasting life? All for my love?"
"There is no life for me without you."
"But you have not seen my face, my eyes. Don't you wonder why I hide them? You don't know what I look like."
"I see your shape and hear your sweet voice. I smell your scent. Your heart shines brighter than the sunrise." As his words rippled the air, red and gold shafts stretched across the stone floor. "These beauties are plenty for me. I care not if your face is scarred, if your eyes were burned by the dragon's breath."
Tesana pulled back her hood and shook out her hair. Blazing sunlight climbed the cavern walls. "Now you must see." Her fingers slipped behind her head.
"You don't have to show me. You…"
"Our eyes do burn." She untied the blindfold. "But with fire of their own." Two flaming stars seared his sight. Squinting, he watched sunbeams rush up her body, setting her tresses ablaze; hues of red and gold consumed raven's feather black as her hair lifted off her shoulders.
She reached inside the front of her robes, exposing luminous skin and pulled forth a pulsing ruby object. "In our hand the dragon's heart is small, but it is powerful." Her words echoed as she held the glowing organ just beyond his mouth. "One taste of its living fire and nothing on this earth can kill you."
The heat of the dragonflesh raised blisters on his lips. "Were you– Are you Tesana?" he asked in a whisper.
"Tesana is one of our names. Thesan, Ostara, Ayos, Aurora, many names. The sibyl is one of our forms. Join us and be prince of our golden city."
"Eternal love and eternal life? I lose nothing and get everything if I do this?" His neck slicked with sweat.
"You will lose the Green Islands. Once you have eaten of the heart and entered our gates you must never leave."
Hal hesitated. The heart flared.
"You would forsake your kingdom for a fishing village and not for the palace of the Dawn?" Her voice expanded, becoming a glimmering chorus. "No realm is more magnificent. You will see miracles grander than anything you could dream of. You will learn the secrets of the ages. You will want for nothing and your greatest desires shall be fulfilled!" She quieted. Softer words came, "And you shall have us. Shall have our love. Forever."
Hal parted his lips and sampled the flesh with his tongue. It was succulent and sweet, more luscious and intense than the wild purple berries he lusted for as a child. He bit and the taste changed, turning spicy and savory like rich wine and tender mutton. He lowered his chin and tore into the meat. Steaming blood gushed down his throat. His tongue boiled in his mouth. His jaw melted as his face and his entire body caught fire.
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