by Naomi Mitchison
It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already near the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.
Now when anyone changes into a bear, it is bearish they become, and the nurse Matulli was the same. Little Halla crawled around with the bear cubs, and many a knock she got from hard claws and many a lick from rough tongues. She learnt to fight the other cubs, and, having the use of her hands, she would get her own back from time to time, pulling ears and scrambling on to black backs, and sometimes she wondered when her claws would grow. She got to know the thought and language of the bears. It was a language that did what it wanted to do well enough, so that there were many ways of showing the difference between one taste and another, the taste of crunched mice, the taste of many different berries and roots and the taste of honey either on the front, back, or sides of the tongue. It did the same for smells, and the forest was always speaking in smells to the bears. It did much for hearing and something for sight, but there was no way, for instance, to think about clouds or the flying of eagles, because the bears did not look up into the sky. And if anyone had wanted to explain to the bears about Halla and her stepmother, they would just not have been able to do it at all.
There were plenty of other wild beasts in the woods, wolves and foxes and martens, reindeer and elks and roe deer and hares. But most of them kept clear of the bears. In summer the woods were full of tangles and hollows and mosses, scented with crushed ferns, rich earth scooped for sweet shoots and young mushrooms, birds’ nests full of warm eggs, and the thick friendly fur of bears. Matulli-bear looked after Halla-baby as well as any bear can be expected to look after any baby. Halla had plenty to eat, a long tongue to wash her and a warm bear to cuddle against all night. But Matulli was a fine figure of a she-bear and the he-bears all wanted her to keep house for them. It came on for winter, and behind rocks and under fallen fir trees were deep and cozy dens waiting for Matulli and her bear husband. The nights got longer and colder and every morning Matulli found it harder and harder to wake up. But Halla woke and fidgeted and pulled Matulli’s whiskers and wanted her breakfast. And it came back to Matulli that one of the queer things about human beings was that they did not sensibly sleep all winter, but instead went to a great deal of trouble to cut fuel and shear sheep and weave blankets and thick cloaks and make themselves hot soup. And Halla, in spite of her excellent upbringing, was going to take after the rest of them. What was a poor bear to do?
And then a very fortunate thing happened. Matulli and her bear husband were walking through the woods, looking for the last of the wild bees’ honey or a late fledgling from a nest, and Matulli’s husband was grumbling away to himself because he could feel that the snow was not far off and it was time to go home to the den and sleep and sleep. But Halla was running around like a crazy butterfly and clearly had no intention of sleeping. Sometimes the he-bear thought it would be both nice and sensible to eat Halla, but he did not dare because of Matulli.
And suddenly a deer came galloping past them, looking back over its shoulder in a terrible fright. And after that a badger which was in a hurry too. But the badger had time to tell the two bears that there was a dragon coming along and they had better get out of the way. The he-bear turned round at once and went galumphing back; never had his den seemed so desirable. But Matulli sat back among the cranberry bushes in the wet moss and pulled Halla down beside her. Sure enough, in a little while the dragon came along, puffing and creaking and rattling. Matulli in the bushes coughed and said: “My Lord.” For she knew in her mind that dragons appreciated politeness from the rest of the world.
This dragon was somewhat startled and blew out a flame which singed the tops of the cranberry bushes and the tips of the fur all along Matulli’s back. But he had meant no harm, and he stopped and listened very graciously to Matulli’s story about Halla Bearsbairn. Matulli was speaking in the language of humans, since the thing could not be explained in bears’ language. But dragons are, within their limits, very intelligent, and most of them understand, not only the language of several kinds of animals, including the birds who have beautiful feelings but few facts, but also the languages of trolls, dwarfs, giants and human beings.
Now, if there is one kind of human being which dragons dislike more than another, it is the kind commonly called kings or heroes. The reason is that they are almost always against dragons. So when the dragon, whose name was Uggi, heard that the poor little pink human had been so badly treated by a king and a queen, he did not hesitate, but said at once that he would adopt Halla Bearsbairn and see that she grew up in all the right principles of dragonhood. “And you will see that she gets regular meals, my lord?” said Matulli.
“Have you ever heard of dragons going hungry?” said Uggi.
“And you will see that she doesn’t fall into the fire, my lord?”
“I will fire-proof her myself,” the dragon said.
“And you will comb her hair every night, my lord?”
“I will comb it with my own claws,” said the dragon, “for I see that the child has hair the colour of gold, which is the only right colour for hair.”
“And you will dry her eyes when she cries, my lord?”
“I will dry her eyes with the silken scarf of the Princess of the Spice Lands who was so thoughtfully offered to my cousin, the Dragon of the Great Waste. For I see that the child has eyes the colour of sapphires, which is the only right colour for eyes.”
“What happened to the Princess of the Spice Lands, my lord?” asked Matulli, for she thought that this princess might be a nice playmate for her Halla.
The dragon coughed behind his claw. “The Princess of the Spice Lands was offered to my cousin by the populace. It was a very suitable and acceptable idea on their part. Unfortunately there was a hero sent to interfere with everybody’s best interests. In the result the princess — and the hero — perished. My poor cousin had a nasty jag over one eye. He gave me the scarf in exchange for a duplicate bracelet which I had acquired. Yes, yes.” And Uggi the dragon held out a glittering claw to Halla who caught hold and swung.
“And you’ll see she’s warm at night, my lord?” said Matulli, anxious to do her duty but thinking more and more pleasantly of the comfortable den and the uninterrupted sleep that waited for her.
“She will be quite warm, and what is more,” said the dragon, “she will always have a night-light, because I am proud to say that we dragons always breathe out of our noses while we are asleep.” He then put Halla up on to his back, where she held on by the spikes and shouted with pleasure because now she could see right up into the trees.
Suddenly the thought of her den and her husband and her long sleep was too much for Matulli-bear, and she tried to curtsey to the dragon, but that is too difficult for bears. So she just turned her large black back and went crashing back through the cranberry bushes and into the forest. Uggi the dragon raised his eyebrows and looked over his shoulder at Halla and winked slowly from the side of his eye across, in the same way that a crocodile winks, and then quickly up and down, the same way as an eagle, for he had something of the nature of both.
But Halla was delighted with it all and dug her bare heels into the scaly sides of the dragon, who went slithering and crackling off through the forest, every now and then accidentally setting fire to a bush or a drift of dry birch or oak leaves, or singeing the fur of one of the animals which was too proud or too stupid to get out of the way.
On his way home that evening Uggi took a short flight to the top of Signal Hill, whose summit was all scorched and scarred so that not even the stillest stones grew moss on them. Here he gave a great blast and flames like enormous golden lilies shot out of his nostrils and vanished into sudden dusk. His cousins, Bauk, Gork, Hafr and Hroar, came flying over, creaking with their wings like a thousand flights of geese. They were told the whole story, while Halla Bearsbairn drummed her bare feet on her own dragon’s back. Very sensibly, they decided to fire-proof her at once, before anything awkward could happen.
The ceremony of fireproofing is a very old and beautiful one, which can only be performed by the Goddess Demeter or by not less than three members of the Ancient Order of Dragons, of whom one at least must be a Master Dragon. Halla, who was used to being licked by bears’ tongues, thought nothing of being licked by the forked-flame tongues of dragons. For a short while afterwards everything that she looked at appeared to have a fine fringe of flame, and indeed this would come back to her afterwards, when she was much older, if ever she got angry.
All that evening and far into the night and long after Halla was asleep, the dragons moved and danced round her in an earnest excitement, spiring up from Signal Hill towards the stars, shooting out bursts of flame which reflected from polished scales and claws and multiplied themselves into hundreds of flashes and twinkles. Sometimes they would spring into the air, clapping their wings together and undulating downwards. Sometimes they would shoot away till they were as tiny as rockets and then come thundering back. And they determined that they would bring up the maiden Halla to do credit to every kind of dragonhood and to be a bane to kings and heroes and all such enemies of true dragons. And carefully, before morning greyed the night sky, or dimmed the frosty stars, Uggi the Master Dragon carried back the sleeping child in his great claws, and her pale gold hair swished and feathered in the flame of his breathing, but was never singed.
And so Halla was brought up by the dragons, and year after year she learnt to think of things in the dragonish way. She had long lessons, specializing in geology, arithmetic, especially multiplication, which led in turn to economics, always an important part of dragon history, and also of course in such elements of magic as were thought suitable for her. When lessons were over she was allowed to play with Uggi’s treasure, go sliding down heaps of pearls and build towers of gold and ivory boxes. She could dress herself up in ropes of jewels and look at herself for as long as she liked in polished silver mirrors; these were held up for her by an admiring young dragon with a fiery smile but only recently hatched and still soft-scaled. She wore cloth of gold, or cloth of silver when she went blackberrying. For, try as the dragons would to get rid of such tastes, she was bearish about berries and honey. Still, she learnt to enjoy dinner parties of over-roasted joints, chops grilled hard, blazing plum pudding and ginger snaps. And of course she had as much snapdragon as she liked.*
Dragons like to live on blasted heaths and desolate, snow-capped, igneous mountains, but Bork or Hafr, who were young dragons, not many centuries old, would often take her for rides down to the deep woods or the rivers and, from a distance, they would point out to her the dwellings of men, the halls with the fields and barns and stockades round them at the head of the fjords, and the boats moored at the jetties or drawn up on land in times of storm. The biggest of these were called dragon ships, but the dragons themselves were never certain how to take this. It might, of course, and properly should be, a form of worship, but with the race of men one never knew.
In summer Dragon Mountain was hot and stuffy, and the Desolate Heath made prickly walking. But in winter all was snow-covered and the enormous northern lights drew curtains of shimmer between earth and upper air or stilt-danced round the Pole Star. The dragons rushed through them, crackling with static. In winter, too, they heard the Fenris Wolf howling, far, far away, yet too near for comfort. But Halla knew that nothing could hurt her so long as she was with the rest of the dragons and diligently guarding a treasure.
In her history lessons she learnt, first, about the beginnings of things, the tree Yggdrasil growing above the first dragon’s nest, before the first dragons had chipped their milky eggs: about the weaving of the Norns and the peculiar habits and preferences of All-Father, who had made men in order to amuse himself. And then she learnt about the rebellion of men against dragons: how men had been taught by the Great Dragon to keep sheep and cows for dragon dinners and not to complain if an occasional shepherd was eaten with his flocks, since that was all to the good when looked at the right way. When flocks and herds increased and over-production was threatened, dragons stepped (or more usually flew) into the breach and disposed of the surplus with no trouble at all. Occasionally, and for everyone’s good, mankind were instructed to offer a fresh and juicy princess to their own particular dragon. It was said that the princesses enjoyed the experience. Certainly the dragons did.
But mankind became rebellious. Kings and champions and heroes, unfairly armed with flame-resisting armour and unpleasant lances, were encouraged by certain underground elements and against the wishes and interests of the bulk of the population, to interfere between princess and dragon. Occasionally this resulted in tragedies, as in the case of the good dragon who was killed by the man George, or of the dragon so cruelly done to death by Perseus when about to make the acquaintance of Andromeda. It could be verified that no princess was ever asked whether she wanted to be rescued and carried off by a dragon-slayer to a fate (no doubt) worse than death. Sometimes, too, a dragon was murdered in cold blood, as happened quite recently to the dragon Fafnir, an uncle of Gauk’s and a Master Dragon, who was rudely awakened and brutally stabbed by a young man called Siegfried, who, however, came to no good end himself.
But more often in the stories the dragon made good and all ended for the best. Sometimes Halla played at Princesses and Dragons, pretending to be tied to a tree and then waiting for one of the young dragons to rush at her with his mouth open, drenching her in delightful, tickly flames. And there would be no horrible hero to interfere. Sometimes Halla found herself wishing she was a real princess, so that it could all genuinely happen.
But the economics were more serious. Briefly, they came to this. The dragons gathered gold. The kings and heroes squandered it. Among kings, the shocking name of praise was bracelet-giver. And from where did the golden bracelets come? Why, from the treasure that some dragon had painstakingly amassed, with what care and thought and industry! Then, in some low way, a dragon would be attacked and murdered and the gold dispersed into the hands of those who had done nothing to earn it. Heroes prided themselves on a thing called generosity. And what was generosity? It was the giving away of something to those that had not earned it, and it was usually done by those that had not earned it. What sentiment or practice could be more revolting to dragons of right feeling? It would then be necessary for the robbed dragon to go over the whole process of collecting, storing away and cataloguing and finally guarding — even with his life, remember! — a new treasure. Every dragon had his cave and, in the order of nature, every cave had its treasure; for was not the sparkle of treasure implicit in the velvet darkness of a cave? This was part of the order and pattern of life, as laid down since the beginning of time.
“Where does the gold come from first?” asked Halla, frowning over it, sitting there on a rock with her hands round her knees and her golden, dragon-combed hair pouring down over her cloth of gold school frock with the great rubies round the neck and weighting the hem.
“It is melted out of the rocks by the dwarfs,” said Uggi, “and in the old days it was only the dwarfs who could work it. But now unfortunately they have taught the art to men. Yet it was always the men who won it from the dwarfs by force and trickery, which is the kind of thing mankind is clever at. And it is always through men that it comes to its home and safe-keeping in some dragon’s cave.”
“Why don’t the dragons get it straight from the dwarfs?” asked Halla, “then there needn’t be men.”
“Because,” said Uggi patiently, “dwarfs live in cracks and holes into which dragons, being of a proper size, cannot get. But men, being halfway to dwarfs, wriggle in after them.”
Halla stretched her arms and the bracelets clinked and the rings flashed in the sunshine. “I’m glad I’m a dragon,” she said.
“Never forget, child,” said old Uggi, “not only to think dragon thoughts, but also that you are part of a dragon’s treasure. My treasure. And remember, if a man were to see you, he would immediately try to steal everything you are wearing and carry it away and probably murder you as well.”
“I’d breathe fire on him,” said Halla, “when will you teach me to breathe fire? I’m tired of history.”
“It is very sad,” said Uggi, “but I cannot teach you to breathe fire.”
“Why not?” asked Halla. “Is it because I was a bear once? If only you would show me how to breathe fire, I would try to stop eating berries and getting my paws full of earth!” For the dragons were always speaking to her about these habits.
Uggi sighed, a hot, hot sigh that burnt a small patch of lichen that had survived so far on the side of the rock. He felt that, in spite of the way he had brought Halla up as a dragon, the moment was come when she must learn the facts of life, hard though it would be for him to tell them to her. He went on: “It is time, my child, that I told you something. Have you noticed, when you look at yourself in the shining mirror, that you are not like me nor indeed like any of the dragons?”
“Not very like,” said Halla, admiring her long toes, which were decorated with gold and emerald toe-rings, but which were not quite long enough, nor nearly sharp enough for claws. “Perhaps I shall be more like you when I am older. I think I can feel my wings growing,” she added, looking backwards over her shoulder and scratching her back.
Uggi the dragon wept a sizzling tear. “My child, I am afraid you will never grow to look like a dragon, for the truth is, you are not a dragon.”
“But–” said Halla, and her lip trembled, “I feel like a dragon. You always tell me I’m a dragon. Oh, I know I’m a dragon!”
“Alas!” said Uggi. “That is not enough. Though it is something. I am afraid that what I have to say will upset you very much, my dear. You must be brave, brave as a good dragon. The truth is that you are a child of man and only by adoption one of us. But never mind,” he said eagerly, “you are quite safe. You shall never go back to them. Unless, that is, you want to do so.”
Halla burst into tears and threw her arms round Uggi’s neck. “I could never possibly want to go back, never!” she said. “Why did you have to tell me? Why can’t you turn me into a dragon?”
“Even the Norns, or All-Father himself, could not do that,” said Uggi gravely.
“But why not?” asked Halla. “You taught me magic. I can make magic frogs out of stones, after all! Can’t I?” It was one of her best learned lessons in magic.
“But think,” said Uggi. “Those frogs only do what you want. Unless you say the Word to them, they cannot jump. If I were to turn you into a dragon — and I very much doubt if I could — you would only be able to fly or breathe fire or gather treasure or do any other dragonish thing if I said the Word to you. You would not be a dragon in your own mind and heart — in the way, my dear, that I believe you are now!” And he planted a fiery kiss on her forehead, and then bethought himself of an ancient carved emerald at the very back of his treasure cave which Halla had never seen. They would go and find it together. So she cheered up, for she was dragon-minded enough to find the thought of treasure above all elevating.
* In case you have never eaten snapdragon, this is how it is made. You get a shallow metal tray (real dragons always have gold) and you scatter blanched almonds and raisin clusters on it, then you pour brandy all over and set it alight. Then you pull out and eat as many almonds and raisins as you can. As I remember it, there used to be a lot of nasty juice left at the end, but it is more than forty years since I ate it last, for people have forgotten to honour the dragons.
Excerpted with permission from Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison.