Image: William Blake
The fog rolled on over the lake of Silene, casting a little wet coldness across the seaborne air, and causing the fish to hide.
Apart from the wreckages of boats in the water, by the shore, and deep under silt far in the lake, the water was unpopulated – not a soul sailed, and yet the water lapped the rocky shore from splashing far out in the fog…
Bones, could be found farther out in the water, where villagers and townsfolk had feared to retrieve bodies in time. And still the water lapped the shore, like a heartbeat reminding the terrified people what lived beyond.
But as the winds shifted, drawing the air from the far salty shore, and light finally broke over the dun-coated trees and houses, the villagers woke and spoke of a common complaint, like a running sore that would not heal was their wail.
“It’s the day.”
“Prepare the lots.”
“Who will go?”
The murmuring as of a man sick with fever swept the town on waking, like a nervous energy that permeated walls of stone, and doors of wood. “Who’s next? Who’s it going to be?”
And in the background, a helpless, hopeless plea – “Not me.”
The dragon heard all, deer-like ears cocked to the sound of misery, floating across the lake, over the mild cliff and behind the trees. He shuddered with diabolical glee. The sheep had been delicious, but instituting that sacrifice of their own sons and daughters was a stroke of sheer genius, scarcely remembered from the pagan era, and hopefully resurrected by this wayward dragon, in the meagre hope that the fear-tossed populace would once more take on the mob-fueled murder of their own.
Glee within and glee without. It was one thing to hunt them, as he did when he first arrived, to garner their outward veneration and worship – the Deity surely did no less – but that made them band together, made their bonds stronger; he saw them turn their faces to each other for strength!
It sickened him, even to see it in weak humans.
Now he had broken them, cast their minds to fear, and distrust, by the first cowardly betrayal of their own. No longer could one look with faith to another, without fear that they too might be surrendered, or without mild self-centred hope at a potential scapegoat.
His guffaw broke through him and rippled out to the village, causing a momentary disquiet and quiet. He restrained himself. He wanted to enjoy this.
The lots were being cast. Shoes ground and scuffed and kicked the dust impatiently, restlessly, fearfully. There was a scattering – what was going on? – Shouts of fear, consternation – joy? He had never heard that before, and it gave him pause. But cunning worm as he was, he waited and listened.
People were running. Where were they running? A tirade of footfalls, recklessly pounding the earth – two camps dividing and people shoving – then the voice of one raised up in protest revealed all: “The King! Protect the King!”
In an instant, the life came into his eyes, and the lava glow of his irises darkened. The princess… the princess was chosen.
The realisation hit home, and caused a cataclysm of laughter to roil from his belly, shaking the water surface. He almost deigned to glance disapprovingly up to Heaven – “You should know better”, but he resisted – not yet.
“Not yet.” The silent continuous guffaws shook his belly, causing the waves to reach the shoreline taller, flatter, in fat sickly-slopping ripples. The villagers were corralling the king – or their noblest member with some royal blood- and he could see through the tears in the mist his bloodshot eyes above an ermine trimmed coat. “You-” “Why-“, and animal sounds floated like soap bubbles to him, and his eyes grew large like a child looking at candy. His daughter was being manhandled, forced from strong hand to strong hand, till she cried out for bruises, made to traverse the hundred feet from the cobbled road to the sandy beach by shoves and by force.
At last she stood defiantly before the mob, who stared back at them fearfully yet angrily – and all kept a distance from the water. Her father held her hand, and carefully positioned a rotton Elderwood tree between them and the lake.
“My daughter, your grace.” An elderly man whose eyes seemed the most aged part of him walked forward with hands in entreaty. Please.
“My son…” An old woman, but she was barely thirty-five, pushed past the crowd and pointed an accusing finger, though words failed her.
“My niece…my nephew…my grandchild!” The cry of the crowd was insatiable, calling and calling on the king to make a ‘fair’ sacrifice too many had endured.
“He is coming … He is watching,” said the town pessimist, and the whispering increased in urgency and anger. Some threw stones into the pond and ran back upslope.
Without a word, the princess turned her head and embraced her father whose arms hung limply by. He hugged her with his chin, beard overflowing past her shoulder, and cursing his own store of age and experience that amounted to nothing. The dragon almost cackled when he perceived his thoughts.
The princess walked toward the lake, alone, and with shaky feet, and the dragon allowed the fog to close around her. He would enjoy his meal in peace.
To be continued…