8. The Golden Virgin
Abrimel and the prince walked up the rocky slope to a ledge where they had an excellent view of the dragon's cave. "I've observed this dragon all my life," Abrimel said. "As a shepherd, there's not much else to do. I noticed he has certain quirks that render him vulnerable."
"Such as?" the prince said, as sheep baahed around them in low, discrete voices. As this was not a rich land, they were as thin and scraggly as the vegetation, and their wool, when shorn, yielded thin, scraggly garments as well.
"He never flies at night or when it is overcast," Abrimel said. "I believe he needs the sun the same way a plant does. Should the shadow of a cloud fall across him, he quickly flies to where the sun is bright."
The prince remembered the line of fire the creature had created with its metallic mane. "He needs the sun to create his fire?"
"Yes. I've seen him toast members of my flock many times, and he does so by focusing the sun's rays like a lens. But if there is no sun, he cannot use his fiery weapon, and is therefore helpless."
The prince glanced up at the clear, cloudless sky. Rain and clouds did not come often to this desert land. "There is little chance of that," he said.
"Contrary, there is a very good chance," Abrimel said. "Through discussions with my uncle the sage, I have learned an eclipse of the sun is to take place tomorrow. First Moon will cover the sun and shadow her completely, and should the dragon be caught unawares during that time, he will be helpless." He stood up from the rocky ledge, lending a hand to the prince so he could do likewise. "Come, let us go see him."
The two left the view of the dragon's cave and hiked down the slope to a crumbling stone villa that squatted by a stream. The ancient building sported a number of telescopes, astrolabs, and sundials on its roof, all suited for tracking the progress of the heavens. "Uncle!" Abrimel shouted.
"What is it, boy?" the sage creaked. He looked up from his solar observations, parchment and quill in hand. He was an imposing figure, dressed eccentrically and shabbily as philosopher-hermits usually are; his nose was beaked and his eyes vague and watery, as if used to reading ancient texts in weak lamplight.
"I've brought a visitor. This is Prince Lassok, of the Caliphate of Carsimbad, a great state on the far side of the Dry Sea."
"Hmm," the sage said, unimpressed. The prince was not annoyed, for after nine months in the desert he knew he did not look very impressive. The coddled health of his young adulthood was being replaced by something harder and tougher, though not as fine to look upon. "I've heard talk of you at the village, Prince. You intend to fight this dragon, I hear."
"Yes," the prince said, his grip firm on the magical sword. "Your nephew tells me an eclipse will occur tomorrow that will greatly affect my chances of succeeding."
"Ah," the sage's weak eyes lit up. "That is true. The exact time I will tell you, in exchange for a favor."
The prince sighed through his nose. It was the same thing the Sand Gorgon had said, and he was growing tired of sealing bargains. But he did not show his annoyance, for if Zairbhreena was ever to be flesh again, the dragon would have to be defeated. "That I will grant you, if it is within my means. What is it?"
The sage rubbed his bony hands together. "The blood of a senmurv, which is what this dragon is, is the greatest of all alchemical treasures, for with it a man may transmute lead to gold. The blood must be collected immediately or else it will boil off into the air, as all dragons are creatures of heat and fire. Procure me a good amount, and I will help you."
The prince frowned, but the request didn't seem too extreme. If he killed the dragon there would likely be plenty of blood anyway. "All right," he said. "Provide me a proper flask, and I will collect you some blood. Now, what of the eclipse?"
"It occurs near noon tomorrow, just before the sun is at her full height," the sage said. He gave the prince a miniature sundial that contained a compass. "Use this to gauge the time. Hold it before you, making sure it sits level, and make sure the arrow is aligned to the north. When the shadow of the gauge touches the numeral twelve the eclipse will begin."
The prince stared at the object. He had never seen a sundial before; it seemed almost magical to him. But the principles of its workings seemed simple enough. "My thanks, wise sage."
The sage waved them off, chortling and chuckling over his good fortune.
"The dragon usually flies out at mid-morning," Abrimel said as they walked back to the village. "I'll drive my flock to the upper slope to distract him; few dragons can resist an easy meal. Situate yourself among them and wait until the proper time to make your challenge. If you catch him while he is feeding, you have a good chance of succeeding."
"You may lose a few members of your flock," the prince said. He looked hard at the youth, used to now by mutual favors. "What do you want in return for all this?"
Abrimel shrugged. "The excitement. Nothing else ever happens around here. And perhaps, my prince, the chance to find myself a stony maiden in that cave who is as luscious as yours."
The prince spent a fitful night in the village on the shepherd's dirt floor. Try as he might, he could not fall into a restful sleep. He trusted the eclipse would occur on time. But even if the beast lost its fire, how could be prevail against its teeth and talons, and its scaly brassy hide?
The next day Abrimel disguised him with a cured sheepskin so he looked like just another member of the herd. The youth couldn't help giggling as he crouched low among the rams and ewes, trying to keep pace with them as they capered up the slope. "Take care the dragon doesn't eat you, Prince Lassok. You are by the far the slowest member of the flock."
"I am better armed than they, though," the prince said, touching the magical shield and sword he had strapped to his side.
"True. Remember not to fall too far behind, though."
They soon reached a patch of grassy ground. "I'll be taking my leave now," Abrimel said, a discrete way of letting him know he planned to be well away from the battle scene. The prince didn't blame him.
"Thank you for all you've done," he said.
Abrimel made a disparaging gesture with his hand. "Posh. What's the price of a little adventure?"
For the rest of the morning the prince baahed and bleated with the rest of the flock, following them as they wandered up the slope. It was uncomfortably warm under the smelly, scratchy sheepskin, but he kept his head low and his body concealed. He periodically glanced at the sundial, but the shadow moved as sluggishly as he did. The dragon must be biding his time, waiting for the flock to come closer.
In fact the dragon was engaged in a long conversation with Princess Zairbhreena, his petrified companion, that morning, and he noticed the flock only when they came within earshot of the cave. *That shepherd grows careless,* he said in his mind-speech, eyeing the tender young lambs as they romped among the rocks. *I think it is time for breakfast.*
*What about me?* the princess said. Like the prince she too had experienced a disturbing night, full of portents of doom and forgotten faces from her past, and she clung, as a child does, to the reassurance of the present.
The dragon curled his talons about her waist. *Come with me, then,* he said, and unfurled his wings. In one majestic leap he cleared the cave entrance and was honing in on the helpless flock below. He picked out a particularly plump young ewe as his quarry and stooped like hawk, claws extended for the killing blow.
The prince saw the dark shadow flash over him and turned swiftly. The remainder of the flock scattered, bleating in fright. But the dragon took no notice. It hunkered over the slain victim, tearing it into bloody chunks with the workings of its jaws. To the prince, it looked utterly preoccupied. He saw also the creature had brought a guest to its horrid feast: Zairbhreena.
The dragon had poked her in the dirt feet-first as if she was a stake, her slim golden form stoic and motionless. She was as beautiful as the last time the prince had seen her...so near, yet so far, a prisoner of the brutal creature that fed before her. Had she been flesh, she might even be its desert. The blood suddenly boiled in the prince's veins. To think his future wife was a captive of...*that!*
Staying the violent motion the situation seemed to call for, he threw off the sheepskin and armed himself with his weapons. He glanced at the sundial, then to the sky. Before First Moon covered the Golden Virgin of the Sun he would bite her, taking a dark, smile-shaped chunk out of her side as he passed. But the sundial's shadow had yet to reach the proper position. The prince girded himself. Time to make his approach, then, if not attack.
He crept from bush to bush, from rock to rock. Abrimel waited well away, peeking out from behind a sturdy boulder. The dragon was larger than the prince remembered, a sleek breast in its prime of life, its crescent-shaped scales throwing off iridescent flakes of curry and apricot. Its wings, neatly folded on its back, were a pair of silky fans the noble ladies of Carsimbad might envy. Indeed, it was beautiful creature, it spite of the horrible destruction it caused. But it had to die, so Zairbhreena could live.
The prince's eyes swept to the sun. First Moon had taken the tiniest bite out of the sun. It was time for battle.
He rose to his full height from the bushes, sword held high. "Foul beast! Prepare yourself to die!" He knew it wasn't particularly original, but something had to serve to get the creature's attention.
The dragon lifted its dripping snout. The prince thought he saw its golden eyes widen as it registered a challenger. Its tail twitched in agitation, coming dangerously close to bowling over the helpless Zairbhreena. *What fool is this?* the dragon grumbled. *Princess, shall I slay him?*
But Zairbhreena was momentarily without words. Before her, holding a shining silver sword and shield--obviously magical, from the sparks of light that shot off them--was her erstwhile lover, the unfaithful Prince Lassok, who she thought had abandoned her months ago. The sight went to her head like a deep draught of strong liquor. Old feelings rushed back to her, strengthened rather than dulled with time. She sorrowed a little that his journey had treated him badly. But he was here now, he had been braving the harsh desert sun for her all this time. Yes, yes! Let him rescue her, take her back, make her his wife! She would eagerly melt her marble limbs into his, soften her cold shell of stone, if he would but take her away!
The dragon snarled, immune to her happiness. *Wait here,* he said, forgetting that Zairbhreena could do nothing but wait. *I'll take care of him.*
*No, dragon, no!* Zairbhreena shouted. *Don't hurt him! If you harm him, you will be harming me as well!*
But the dragon was fired up by the imminent battle and did not hear her. He rounded on the prince, tail switching like a cat's, and raised his head high, the metal mane splaying out like the petals of a flower.
But First Moon continued his journey. The land fell into chilly shadow, and though the lens was focused, the fire did not come.
Zairbhreena trembled in fear, not having experienced an eclipse before; it seemed an apocalypse out of her worst nightmares.
But the prince knew what to expect. He took advantage of the dragon's confusion to dart in close, shield raised, to plunge the magical sword deep into the creature's ribs.
The dragon regained its senses and parried him with its thick-taloned forearm. The blow might have sent another warrior sprawling. But as noted, the prince's weapons were magic, and they, along with his sheer determination, enabled him to fend off the blow and hold his own. The two fought under the hot noonday sun, the dragon coiling like a pretzel, the prince darting like a swallow. The sword chipped loose scales off the dragon's legs and face, yet the greater prize, the heart, remained protected.
Zairbhreena waited helplessly on the sidelines as the two beings she loved most in the world tried to butcher each other on her behalf. Yet her expression remained composed and serene, for being a statue, she could take on no other.
Meanwhile Abrimel watched in terror behind the boulder. He had never seen combat like this before, a whirl of flashing silver and liquid gold. He muttered a string of prayers to his gods, hoping to call some of their power down upon the prince.
First Moon straddled his lover for several minutes, then climaxed and moved on. The Golden Virgin of the Sun was virgin no more. A bright spark of light, the god's seed, appeared at the edge of the solar disk, then brightened further as First Moon moved away. Darkness began to recede from the land.
The dragon knew nothing of eclipses, only that something strange had happened to the sun. But now the sunlight, and his strength, was returning. Roaring with triumph, he reared his head back, stretching his mane-petals to collect the lengthening rays.
"No!" the prince shouted. Quickly he charged, the point of the sword pointed like a spear. As if guided by magic--which it may have been--it slipped between the heaving ribs of the beast clear up to the jeweled hilt and struck its heart.
The dragon screamed, fatally wounded. Zairbhreena screamed as well. She had not wanted it to die, for all her loyalty to Lassok; she had hoped by some chance things would resolve peacefully. The prince looked amazed as the creature tottered backward, easing itself off the long, sharp blade. Its blood spurted into the air like bright molten gold smoking from the furnace. It splashed on the prince's shield with a noisy hiss, steaming, as the creature continued to fall. He did not die quickly, the dragon. Heartbroken he was, for he had lost his princess, and broken in heart, literally, he writhed in agony on the hard stony ground. His smoking blood sprayed upon the princess, rendering her a deeper gold than the gold she already was.
*Zairbhreena...* he cried, one last time, before his large topaz eyes went dead. His massive tail flicked in a death-throe, sending the prince tumbling down the slope before he could regain his wits.
The golden blood smoked like steam into the desert air. The dragon settled, no longer brassy and magical but contained, contorted, inert...a great heap of dead meat.
Abrimel peered out from behind the rock. The dragon lay still, but the prince had been hurt; he lay sprawled against a large rock with an egg-shaped lump on his skull. Abrimel splashed some water in his face and roughly massaged his temples. "Prince Lassok! Prince Lassok!"
The prince groaned and his eyelashes moved a little. Abrimel pulled him into a sitting position and poured some water in his mouth. The prince coughed, his eyes opening. His look was blank.
"Prince Lassok, are you all right?" Abrimel said anxiously.
"I..." the prince began. He looked very muddled. "Prince Lassok? Is that me? I--" he shook his head. "I am confused. Do I know you, young friend?"
Abrimel shot off a string of colorful invectives. The prince had lost his memory with the blow! "I'm Abrimel, my Prince. Your friend. You killed that dragon over there but were hit on the head. You seem to have lost your memory."
The prince looked at the sword he was still gripping. He relaxed his fingers, letting it fall, and frowned. "I have no knowledge of this."
"Of course you wouldn't, you have lost your memory!" Abrimel shouted. He hauled the prince to his feet, discovering that, aside from the bump on his head, he was uninjured. "You fought the dragon to rescue your fiancee, the Princess Zairbhreena, who was turned into a statue by an evil sorceress. Look over there, she still waits for you!"
"She is gold," the prince said in awe.
With some shock Abrimel realized he was right; the magical blood of the senmurv, washing over her, had turned her hard marble flesh into the softest, purest gold. His uncle's hunch had been correct after all. The prince might have been a gold statue as well, had his shield not protected him. Now it, and his sword, were golden treasures also.
But the sight of Zairbhreena sparked no recognition on the face of the prince. "You spin a strange tale, my friend. Why should I want to marry a statue?"
"She is no statue!" Abrimel said. "She is a girl magicked to that form. By your kiss, you can free her!"
The prince only scowled at him. But there was no time left for further persuasion. The villagers, having been alerted to the battle by the noise, were now running towards them. They had thought to glean the gems from the prince's roasted corpse but were now faced with a hero, and a hero under the protection of the gods who had hidden the very sun for him. Indeed, it must have been the Golden Virgin herself, for she had left a statue of herself behind!
The villager's eyes grew round with fear and awe. There was little doubt the prince was not some avatar, a demigod at least. They fell to the ground in worship.
"Why do they kneel?" the prince asked in puzzlement.
Abrimel had caught on to the situation quickly and saw that he had to do some fast talking if the prince was to emerge unscathed. "You have defeated the dragon," he said. "Therefore, they think you are a god. Go along with them and you will rule a great kingdom, for the dragon's treasure is yours now."
"But I--" the prince protested.
"Listen to me," Abrimel insisted. "Go against their beliefs, and you may find yourself an outcast, or worse, a sacrifice. Pretend, for the moment, that you are their new god-king. I know you remember nothing and that you are very confused. But if you want to recover your true self and your memories, you must survive *now,* and this is the way to do it."
The prince closed his eyes. He *was* very confused and his head throbbed like a waterfall. It was as if he'd been born a grown man, standing before a dead dragon with a golden shield and sword in his hands. He was a hero, but it didn't make sense. He had the nagging feeling he had failed to recount something, something very important, and that something was the linchpin to his identity, but the ghostly memory darted away like a frightened fish.
He looked at the villagers. There were many of them, and one of him. He made his decision. "All right," he said. "I will be their god, king, or whatever. I will go along with this ruse. But you must help me! I understand nothing!"
"Don't worry," Abrimel said. "Just go along with whatever I say." He led the bruised, disheveled prince to the crowd. "Here is your great king!" he announced "He has delivered you from the dragon, just as the prophecies have said. See his golden sword! He will be a fair ruler, and a just one, for he is the son of the Sun Goddess herself. Bring some refreshment and some royal robes, and take him to Lakthira so he can claim his kingdom."
"The dragon is dead! Hail the new king!" the villagers cheered, and all that followed was noisy chaos as the prince was scrubbed and shaved and arrayed in the finest robes the village had to offer. Crews of villagers worked the mountain cave all night, groaning under the loads of treasure it produced. In the morning a great caravan set off for the city with drums booming and horns at full bay, as lithesome maidens sprinkled mica dust and rose petals on the road ahead and bards composed songs of praise for the new king that recounted his mighty deeds. No king had ruled in Lakthira for nine centuries. Now one would, and since he was of the royal lineage of the Sun, things would change.
In all the rush the princess was forgotten, having been categorized as just another piece of loot. She watched the prince with despair from her perch in the treasure wagon. Look at me! she wanted to shout. It is I, Zairbhreena! You have rescued me! Please look at me, touch me, turn me back to flesh! But the prince didn't even glance at her. From the look in his eyes she knew the blow on the head had disoriented him. He didn't remember her. She hadn't wanted either the prince or the dragon to die; now, it seemed, both had.
But the dragon had left her a final gift. Marbelized, she had been cold and hard, yet alert and ironic; golden, she felt rich and heavy and sensuous. For the transformed, each substance has its own timbre; as gold she felt far more solid and languid than stone. But no less vulnerable. The sage, having been cheated by fate of his dragon's blood, stole her away from the procession to have his reward: in his workshop, she would be smelted down into many gold ingots, to fetch for him a fortune in the markets of the east.
Luckily Abrimel noticed him missing, and a few inquiries brought up the fact the statue of the Golden Virgin was missing, too. Reassuring the prince he wouldn't be long, he left the procession to catch up to him.
However, the sage had a good head start, and by the time Abrimel burst through the doors of the villa the preparations were already underway. Zairbhreena was laid out like a golden corpse on a metal bier, about to be placed in the kiln that would be stoked up around her, rendering her to molten liquid.
"Uncle! What do you think you're doing?" Abrimel said sharply.
"I am claiming my reward," the sage said peevishly. "The fool prince failed to get me my dragon's blood, so I am taking my share of gold now."
"You can't do that!" Abrimel said. "She's a princess under a spell, not a statue. She was his fiancee, she was going to be his wife! What you are doing would be murder!"
The sage glanced at the statue, and shrugged. "Have you proof of that?"
How like his uncle to go the logical route. But Abrimel had to admit he was right; there was no way to test the story's veracity. Still, it would a cruel blow to the prince, when he did finally remember his petrified fiancee, to discover she was now a pile of ingots. "Leave the statue, uncle. There's other gold treasure. I'll get some for you."
"You? Hah! No, I will keep this statue. It looks to be of pure gold, unlike the coins and jewelry I saw. It will melt down very easily."
Abrimel was at a loss. He felt loyalty to the prince, yet he had been taught in the village to have respect for his elders; besides, his uncle had summoned an efreet, which was how he had stolen the heavy gold statue in the first place, and the fiery genie now waited at alert for the order to place Zairbhreena in the kiln and make the flames crackle high around her. One did not cross supernatural creatures lightly, or those who controlled them.
"Should the prince find out about this, he will be very angry!" Abrimel shouted as a last resort.
"The fool can't even remember his own name, much less some ridiculous folktale," the sage said. He gestured to the efreet. "*Sa'jeed!*" The creature began to slide Zairbhreena into the kiln.
So this is the way it ends for me, the princess thought. Helplessly she watched the flames draw near her gilded toes. She knew she would melt quickly. What would it feel like, she wondered. Would pain consume her as she liquefied, or would her consciousness just gradually fall away, as if dissolving into a dream?
The door closed. The flames leapt high around her in many shades of tangerine and marigold.
She began to feel warm, but not uncomfortably so. In fact, it felt rather pleasant, like the rays of the sun. When she had been marble her many brushes with destruction had brought only panic and fear. But now she felt only a sad, final acceptance. The dragon had left her, the prince had forgotten her; she was no longer even a girl, just precious metal to be refashioned at will. Perhaps that was all she ever had been. As a princess, her wishes and desires hadn't mattered; her job had been to please her father, then please her husband. It was the logical end for her to become a puddle of gold. Reformed into rings and crowns, she would be precious and pleasing forever, to a great many more people.
The crackling grew louder, the light became a white-hot fog. So it ends. Lost in her own desirability, she fell into fantasies. At least she would be become objects of beauty. The traces she left in this world would be positive ones.
"Quench the kiln!"
"Wha--?" the sage sputtered.
"You heard me. Quench the kiln!" The high priest of Uyandha Devi, the Golden Virgin of the Sun, strode into the workroom, his entourage behind him. "How dare you smelt down a holy relic of the goddess! You will pay dearly for this!'
The sage realized he had been caught and that his dreams of wealth were over. He bade the efreet to quash the flames. He could have used water, but that would have created clouds of scalding steam; he had no desire to be poached like a dumpling.
The efreet hauled the princess out of the kiln. She was hot to the touch, but undamaged; she gleamed as if polished, bright as the heart of a phoenix.
To the golden-robed priests and monks, she *was* the goddess. They conversed in wonder among themselves. They had heard of the dragon's demise, yet, having to trek all the way down from their mountain monastery, they had reached the scene too late to verify the miracle for themselves. They had heard about the statue from the villagers, though, and had quickly gone to the sage's villa to claim the holy relic before it could be melted down. That the sage had even tried to do so was apostasy, a blasphemy of the first order.
The high priest examined the statue for damage. Satisfied there was none, he dismissed the efreet himself with a ward against evil, then turned on the sage with the righteous fury of the goddess in his eyes. "You will be roasted alive over a slow fire for this!" he said.
"He's only a foolish old man," Abrimel said, feeling obligated to help his uncle. After all, he had helped the prince defeat the dragon in the first place.
"It is you who are the fools," the sage said in a calm voice. "This statue is nothing but a statue, and likewise, your sun goddess is merely a ball of flaming gas hung in the airless void, and your First Moon, an orbiting piece of rock that merely passes before it from time to time. Such things all sages know."
"He is mad!" the high priest exclaimed.
"We must reeducate him," another of the shaven-headed monks said.
"Yes. Bring him to the monastery so he may witness the Goddess's true mercy," said a third.
"No! You cannot do this!" the sage cried. As a learned man, he had nothing but contempt for religion. "Get out of my house!"
But his protests went for nothing. The monks took him away, as they took away the slowly cooling princess, to make the journey back to their monastery at Palampang. On a flatbed wagon they settled her, a stately golden dreamer, and lashed the mules forward. At the temple she would be installed in a place of honor, surrounded by flowers and offerings, her face to the mountain breezes as incense burned and acolytes chanted.
Abrimel watched them go. While for his uncle poetic justice had been
served, he worried about the princess. Still, she would be safe; when the
prince recovered his memory, he could claim her easily enough.
To be continued...