Summary: The last five dragon slayers died. Kalla is good at solving problems, but her skills will be tested as she embarks on her journey with the very dragon she is expected to kill disguised as her guide. Some interesting surprises are just around the corner…
Note: Sexually explicit with lengthy erotic content. Contains a non-consensual kiss.
History: I wrote this gentle, fun, slow-paced romance in 2011. In the five years since I wrote it my skills have grown, both as a writer and in my ability to recognize and remove oppressive patterns. There are aspects of the story which I now recognize as problematic. To address this I heavily altered one scene, made changes to a second scene, and made minor language improvements in the rest of the story. For plot reasons I left the non-consensual kiss in this story. The changes I made and my reasoning for them are discussed in detail in the discussion following this story.
No artist springs out of the ground fully formed and ready to do amazing, radical, anti-oppression work. We are all imperfect humans slowly growing and developing our skills and knowledge. This means that we need to ask ourselves a lot of important questions: As artists, how do we ethically deal with our mistakes and our older works? How do we make room for the fact that none of us, no matter how deeply we care or how hard we try, is going to be able to avoid mistakes and blunders, while still holding ourselves accountable for the oppression we recreate? As artists, how do we deal with our mistakes and keep going without being crushed by the fact that in five years we may look back on the art we produce today and recognize that some of our choices are reinforcing oppression?
The dragon slayer arrived at dusk.
As the light faded, Yakahar watched the townspeople gathering for the meeting. She dug her claws into the granite hillside. This was getting annoying. Three dragon slayers had already tried to kill her this month and now here was a fourth. And this one had the reputation of being a professional!
The chattering from the center square quieted. The meeting was starting. It was time for her to slip in and get a good look at the professional murderer. With a soft hiss and the slither of scales, Yakahar slid off the rock and poured herself headfirst down into the meadow below, slowly focusing her essence down, down, down into the tiny, fragile form of a human man.
There was a small pop and Lance the Trader was ready, once again, to help the dragon slayer find the dragon.
* * * * *
Attempting to sort through the townsfolk’s jumbled mixture of fact and fiction almost made me wish I hadn’t decided to help them with their dragon problem. “Look, I don’t want to know what the dragon might have done. I want to hear what you know for sure it has done.”
“It has killed the last five dragon slayers!” defiantly cried Town Representative Number Two. If I recalled correctly, her name was Marta, and her strident tone and obvious bias were rapidly eroding my ability to stay calm. She was almost as frustrating as Representative Number Three, whose name I had completely lost track of. Marta continued in impassioned tones. “Last year, it destroyed everything east of the river. Five farms along with acres of crops and pasturage, all gone!”
There were murmurs of outraged agreement from the crowd. For a town of this size, five farms represented a significant loss.
Still, they were missing the obvious. I carefully kept my tone neutral as I said, “That is bad, but did anyone die in those raids?”
No longer content to remain quiet, Mr. Town Representative Number Three butted in. “It wasn’t for lack of trying! The dragon chased those five families all the way to the river! They narrowly escaped its fire by diving into the water! It is clearly a killer!”
I sighed. I’d been doing this for over an hour, and it had only gotten worse. Fear was bringing out every irrational, monster-hating bias these people had ever had. That dragon could have easily killed those five families and destroyed their entire town. Obviously, the dragon had chosen not to kill them. Unfortunately, this dragon’s indirect form of communication left a lot of room for misunderstanding.
The townsfolk were working each other up to a fever pitch. Then a woman from the middle of the crowd shouted, “Why should we even bother with you? You don’t have any weapons or armor! You aren’t strong or tough! You are less prepared than the five dragon slayers it already killed!”
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said icily, but the damage was already done. The crowd’s fear turned to anger at me, the expert they had sent for who looked, to them, nothing like an expert.
“Then show us!” shouted the woman. “Show what you can do!”
This demand was echoed by crowd. “Why should we give you supplies for your journey when that bloodthirsty monster is just going to kill you?” someone cried.
My patience snapped. If they wanted a demonstration that badly, I’d give them one! Looking up at the night sky, I saw that the afternoon clouds had completely blown away, leaving a clear sky full of gleaming stars. Perfect! I raised my hand and shouted “Behold!” Calling on the power in the air, I brought forth an illusion designed to inspire awe.
There was a sudden, stunning clap of thunder, and then the stars flared into fiery brilliance. All at once, they started falling earthward, blazing down like comets that turned into glowing hailstones. There were surprised shouts as the people instinctively ducked and tried to cover their heads. Then the illusory hail became large, angular crystals, each of which flashed into a little burst of fire on impact. There were more surprised shouts.
Only one person was unaffected by the illusion. A man in the back of the crowd stood staring at me with perfect calm. He watched me with keen interest, unconcerned with everything around him.
I studied him carefully, noticing that the clothing he wore was quite different from the townspeople’s. While each of them wore intricately patterned clothing, this man wore only one solid color from head to toe — a vibrant cobalt blue. Also, his features and complexion were different. His face was smoother than the angular faces of the townspeople, and while they all had golden-brown skin and dark hair, his skin and hair were both deep red-brown.
This man was definitely not from around here. Add to that his familiarity with magic, and the conclusion was clear. He was Trader Lance. Who else would have the courage to go near a dragon?
At this point, the little flares of fire had become a mass of slithering snakes, and the townspeople were now thoroughly frightened. This was going too far, and it was time for me to end it. I raised my hand and called a halt to the illusion with my mind.
Into the dead silence that followed, I said, “I will solve your problem, and then you will pay me the fifty gold pieces you promised. That is all.”
The meeting broke up rapidly, each person retreating to the relative safety of their home as quickly as possible. Now I felt guilty. I had let my frustration get the better of me, and I had made things worse for them. After all, these were good, kind, hardworking people. Their bias and fear may have grated on old wounds, but they were still understandable.
The three Town Representatives grabbed the man in blue and brought him to me.
“Trader Lance.” I smiled. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” I offered him my hand, but he didn’t take it.
Representative Number Three pushed Lance toward me. “He will take you as close to the monster as he can,” the man said. Then all three representatives disappeared.
Lance looked at me icily. Finally, he said, “We will meet at the gates at dawn,” and then he turned on his heel and walked away, leaving me alone in the deserted town square.
* * * * *
Just as he’d said, Lance was waiting for me outside the city gates the next morning. He looked quite dramatic with the rising sun burnishing his hair into a flaming red that contrasted sharply with the deep blue he was wearing. Oddly, although every article of clothing was the same color, each contained elements from a wide range of different styles and cultures.
The humble brown travel-pack sitting on the ground next to him surprised me. “That’s rather small,” I said.
Lance glanced down at the broad, tightly packed bag and then gave me a quizzical look.
“For a trader, I mean.” I said uncomfortably, trying to give him a friendly smile. “What do you trade in?”
“Gems and precious stones,” he answered gruffly.
“Well, that explains it. It’s small, but heavy, then?”
Obviously, Lance was not much of a talker, but his hostility confused me. Maybe he was afraid to get to know me. Everyone else he’d led on this journey had died, after all. But whether that was it or not, standing around wouldn’t solve anything, so I said, “Well, let’s get moving, then, shall we?”
Lance answered by hoisting his bag onto his back and walking off toward the river. He didn’t look back to see if I was following. Not that I had really expected him to.
The town was situated at a bend in the river that created a natural harbor. One shallow little section held a row of small skiffs for crossing over and we grabbed a sturdy-looking one and hauled it into the water. I was going to help row, but Lance grabbed the oars before I had a chance. He wasn’t a particularly expert rower, but he made up for it in strength, pulling us across the rain-swollen river with a confidence that I found intriguing.
After beaching the boat on the other side, we followed a small track across the fields. These were the same fields that the dragon had burnt last year. Now they were lush and full of spring flowers. Seeing them, I could understand the frustration of the townspeople; the town had expanded as far as it could on the west side of the river and here on the east side was so much fertile land. Of course, it was the magical effects of dragon fire that was making these fields so rich, but I doubted that the townsfolk knew that.
Lance walked in an exaggerated stony silence — probably trying to discourage conversation. However, he wasn’t as hostile when he thought I wasn’t looking, and once or twice I caught him eyeing my own deceptively small travel-bag curiously.
* * * * *
We followed the trail for an hour before we climbed the first real hill. As we crossed over its crest, Lance let out a sigh of relief.
“Glad to be away from town?” I asked.
“No,” he responded curtly.
“Oh, come on. There is nothing wrong with that! I’m glad too. Towns can be so confining.”
He glanced back and our eyes met. For a moment a shared understanding passed between us, and Lance gave me a wry smile. “I suppose I am glad … a bit.”
I gave him a knowing look. “This is one of the reasons why you are a trader, right?”
“You might say that.”
I smiled warmly and for an instant his face softened, before cold neutrality settled in again.
That was a hopeful sign and after a moment’s thought I decided that it was best for me to tell him right now, even if it did upset him. Better now than later. “Lance …”
He looked back at me sharply.
“You should know that I can always tell when someone is lying.”
“Really?” His face was guarded, but suddenly full of keen interest.
I smiled awkwardly. “There is a discordance that is created when people don’t believe what they say. I can feel that.”
His eyes bored into me. “What about when someone is hiding something?”
I looked back steadily. “It depends on how they hide it.” I answered levelly. “Absences are harder to detect than discordances.”
His eyes searched mine for a moment longer, and then he gave me a curt nod, lapsing into silent thought. I held back a sigh. Everyone has secrets, and each person seems to think that theirs is the biggest and most important.
* * * * *
We hiked for several more hours before I decided to break the silence again. I was well and thoroughly tired of Lance’s surly mood and I had a new idea about what might be making him so hostile and distant.
“Lance, I’d like to ask you a personal question.”
“You aren’t human, are you?”
Lance froze and then slowly turned to face me, a dangerous look in his eyes. “What do you mean by that?!” he snarled.
Startled, I stepped back. “I’m not accusing you of anything. It’s just that I can tell because I’m not human either.”
“What?” Now he was simply surprised.
“I’m not human,” I repeated.
“You look human.”
I snorted. “So do you.”
A wry look crossed over his face, and there was a crinkle of humor in the corner of his eyes. “I suppose I do,” he said.
I held back a smile. “I can always tell when a person isn’t human.”
“Just as you can always tell if someone is lying?”
This time I did smile. “Yes.”
“Do you know what I am?” Lance asked casually. His eyes were sharp and measuring.
“No idea.” I laughed. “But you do look vaguely were-like. Of course, you could be a nyxx, yapotyll or a male siren for all that I can tell.”
He smiled, looking pleased. “Good.” He started walking up the trail again.
I almost sighed. Some people were so touchy about keeping their nonhuman identities hidden. I just found it annoying. There was nothing to be ashamed of and hiding was a transitory protection at best. Allies were much more useful if trouble went down. Watching his back as he walked, I measured him. Lance was well-muscled but not bulky, and he had an attractive kind of self-confident power that made me think of independent predators like werewolverines or werecougars.
For the next few minutes, Lance kept glancing at me curiously out of the corners of his eyes. Finally, he asked, “So … what are you, then?”
“How about we trade identities later? You tell me and I’ll tell you.”
He gave me a strange look. “If you want,” he said noncommittally and then went back to walking silently. He kept on glancing at me, though.
With great difficulty I waited him out. At last, he said, “You’re not very much like the other dragon slayers.”
“Besides being a lie-finding, nonhuman magic user?”
Another moment of humor flickered in his eyes. “You’re not as rude.”
He smiled back, but the warmth drained out of his face as he asked. “Are all professional dragon slayers like you?”
“Well, they’re all different, but … I’m not really a dragon slayer.”
“What are you, then?” His eyes were piercingly intense.
“I’m a problem solver.”
Lance sneered in disbelief.
“I fix a whole range of magical problems! Everything from ghosts needing to be laid to rest to cursed forests and orc-goblin border disputes. I have even synchronized all of the clocks in the Wizard of Time’s tower.”
Lance did not smile.
I sighed. “Look, I am here to take care of this situation, but it is my goal to do that through negotiation rather than fighting.”
“There is nothing to negotiate.” His voice was ice.
“I think there is. This dragon is clearly not the sort of person who heedlessly goes about slaughtering people. If it was, the town wouldn’t still be here.” I took his arm. “Every conflict that has two sides, and I am going to work with both of them!”
Lance shrugged off my hand, but looked at me thoughtfully. Then he sunk into a deep silence.
* * * * *
Over time, the country got rougher. Steep hills turned into ridges that we climbed up and down. As we progressed, Lance seemed to get increasingly unhappy as he brooded. The beauty of the wilderness did nothing to soothe him and I decided that grumpy or not, I had to talk to him again. It was hardly possible to make things worse, and maybe I could distract him.
“Do you have any hobbies?” I asked abruptly.
Lance turned to stare at me. “What?”
“You looked so unhappy. I thought that you might want to think about something else.”
A strange expression crossed his face. “That’s … that’s really rather … nice of you.” He gave me an odd smile, as if he were totally unaccustomed to smiling.
“So … is there anything you like to do for fun?”
Lance looked away, but grunted, “Music.” There was a darkening to his cheeks that made me think he was blushing.
“I like to … sing.”
“Really?” I gave him an encouraging smile. “That’s nice. Do you have any favorite songs?”
“I don’t really sing songs. Not ones with words, anyway … I just try to capture some of the beauty of the wilderness.”
“That sounds lovely.”
Probably not a werewolverine or werecougar, then. What the heck was he? The way he described singing made me think of a bird more than anything else.
He interrupted my musings with a question of his own. “What do you do for fun?”
I smiled. “Sewing and embroidery.”
That made his eyebrows go up. I hardly seemed like the type, especially with the hodgepodge of clothing I wore. Each item had been picked up in a different place, and while some of them were well-made, others weren’t.
“What do you make?” he asked in a carefully neutral tone.
“Oh, different things.” I smiled mischievously. “Elaborate pieces, usually, but I give most of them away. The only finished piece I have with me is my cloak.” I pulled back the edge of it so that he could see the bold black and white embroidery on its sturdy red wool.
Lance stopped to look, carefully examining the little symbols I had worked into the leaf pattern. “That’s a quality piece of work,” he said as he continued to look. I took the cloak off so he could see all of it.
“Hmm … It’s waterproof, fireproof, always warm enough, long-lasting and it aids in path-finding!”
Handing my cloak back to me, Lance gave me a real smile. “That’s an unusual combination and not easy to pull off. In fact, I’ve rarely seen better.”
Now I was blushing. “Thank you.”
“If you have that kind of skill, what are you doing out here?”
Smiling teasingly, I asked, “You mean, why am I not living in a big city, making magical cloaks and scabbards for princes, heroes, and war leaders?”
Lance actually laughed. “Well, when you put it that way, I guess I know.”
I smiled back at him and for a moment, he reached out and touched my hand. A sudden wave of warmth went through my body and I saw it reflected in his eyes. Lance was so close I could almost feel the heat coming off his skin.
My heart started racing.
Lance swallowed. “I never thought I’d meet someone like you … especially not like this.”
Then, suddenly, he pulled away.
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding and put my cloak back on, trying to collect myself. A sudden thought struck me. “Lance?”
He didn’t look at me. “Yes?”
“Is Lance your real name?”
Surprised, he glanced back and I smiled.
“No, it isn’t.” There was an appreciative sparkle in his eyes.
“Then what is?”
He paused for a moment and then said. “You can call me Har.”
“Har …” I tested it out. “I like it. It suits you better.”
I was rewarded with a small smile, before he turned away and threw himself into hiking. It took some work to keep up with him. Right when I thought we were going to go back to silence again, He asked, “What about you?”
“Yeah? I …” He blushed. “That’s … um … nice,” he finally managed.
“It means sea hawk.”
“Yes, I know.” His voice was soft, but distant.
* * * * *
At dusk, we stopped to eat supper and rest on a hilltop overlooking a broad valley. Despite the fact that we were here to find a dragon, we both preferred the windy vulnerability of the hilltop to the blocked view from the valley floor. Once we finished our thick smoked-beef sandwiches, I brought out my sewing project.
Its silver thread sparkled like a thousand stars in the light of the setting sun. Har gasped.
“I thought I’d show you my current project,” I said.
Har reached out to reverently stroke the delicate swirls and coils that twirled and spun over the sheer blue silk.
“It’s almost done,” I added.
“What will it do?” he whispered.
“It’s a veil that will allow the wearer to hear the voices of the evening spirits.” I paused, looking at him inquiringly. There was so much I didn’t know about him. “Have you ever heard them?”
“No. Have you?”
“Once. Normally to hear them you have to find and sit in a perfect circle of naturally growing moonflowers to do it, but it is the most amazing thing. It’s indescribably beautiful.” I smiled, carefully folding up the silk veil. “You’re a singer. Maybe this is meant for you.” Tucking it back into my bag, I looked up at Har. “I never know who they are for until my projects are finished.”
Har pulled back, looking faintly sick. “I couldn’t possibly accept a reward for … this.”
I gave him a searching look. “Har, it wouldn’t be a reward. It would be a gift. Something I give to you because it would add to your life.”
Har still looked extremely uncomfortable.
“Well, as I said, I won’t really know for sure who it is for until it’s finished. It might not be for you. I mean, it is very feminine and you don’t present that way, so …”
Har shook his head. “I don’t know … I mean it’s perfect how it is, but I …” He seemed almost speechless.
I put my hand on his arm. “It’s all right. Why don’t we talk about something else?”
He hesitated. “Well … I have been meaning to ask you something.”
“Your human form is a bit unusual.”
“Ah.” I grinned. “A bit of a hodgepodge?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“But it’s true. I naturally pick up physical traits from those people I’m around and when I’m in human form I pick up traits from the humans I spend time with.”
“Like a chameleon!” Har smiled at me and I smiled back. Then he slid his eyes thoughtfully over my features, taking in my dark skin, sharply pointed features, curly black hair and warm golden eyes. “You look like you have been all over the lands to the south.”
“I have, and it sounds like you have traveled there, too.”
He smiled again. “I lived there for many years. Eventually it got too crowded, but I miss it.”
“I know what you mean, but I like it there. I only came north to deal with this dragon business.”
Har’s face instantly became hard.
That was strange. Everything had seemed to be going so well. I looked at him closely. “What’s wrong?”
He turned away. “It’s nothing.”
“Obviously it is something, or …” A thought struck me. “You don’t actually like the idea of me confronting this dragon, do you?”
“It has a right to live.”
“It does, and I don’t want to kill it.”
He turned to me angrily. “What are you going to do then? Drive it away?”
A flash of rage went across his face. It was both surprising and alarming, but it gave me an idea about what might be bothering him.
I gently reached out and took his hand in mine. “It’s all very unfair, isn’t it?” I said.
“Hey.” I squeezed his hand in mine. “It’s my job is to be fair and I’m going to do that. That’s why I came here, because I could be fair when others wouldn’t be.”
Har grabbed my hand, giving me a searching look. “Even though the dragon has killed people?”
“That was in self-defense.”
He kept ahold of me, continuing to search my face.
“Har, how did you get mixed up in this?”
He dropped both my hand and his eyes at the same time. “I … I …” His body shivered with intense emotion. I reached out to touch his shoulder.
“Are you trying to keep both sides apart?” I asked gently.
“I … don’t want it to get worse,” he whispered.
Taking both his hands in mine, I held them firmly, trying to will belief into him. “I can help.” For a moment warmth flickered in his eyes.
“You are an extraordinary woman.” His voice was soft.
Our eyes met and I smiled. Finally, after a long moment, he smiled back. The wind blew a piece of hair into his eyes and I reached up to brush it away. My fingers brushed his cheek.
Har reached up and caught my hand.
“I like you,” he whispered, warmth shining in his eyes.
“I like you too.”
“No, I mean … I want you.”
“I … oh!”
That was a sudden shift, but appealing and certainly one I could work with. Smiling, I leaned in to give him a long, slow kiss. At first he responded tentatively, but then, as the kiss went on, he relaxed, becoming increasingly enthusiastic. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. I crossed my arms behind his neck and let myself get lost in the sensation.
After the kiss ended, he pulled back, face worried. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”
Har looked away. “It can’t work. The dragon is old and powerful. She’s not just going to leave.”
“You don’t want to see me get hurt.”
“I like you too much already.”
I smiled and pulled him to me. “I’m good at this. I’ve done it a lot before. Let me try. I’ll be careful.”
His eyes were vulnerable. “You’ve killed dragons before?”
“I’ve never needed to.”
For a moment there was wonder in his eyes. “Truly?”
“But what if —”
“Look, Har.” I caught his eyes. “The only thing we can really control is right now. I want you and you want me. Share that with me.”
He touched my cheek. “Oh, Kalla, I want to.” For a moment I saw lust flash in his eyes. “I really do, but I’m afraid.”
I tightened my grip on him. “You can choose to let that go.”
“You mean surrender to the moment and let the future take care of itself?”
“That could cause some serious complications.”
“I’m all right with that if you are.”
A slow smile spread over his face. “As you wish, then.” He pulled me into his arms, heat warming his eyes. “No regrets.”
I kissed him enthusiastically, pressing my body into his. The stiffness in Har’s body melted into me. I slid onto his lap and wrapped my arms and legs around him, reveling in the delicious sense of anticipation. Har kissed me again, stroking my back and sides with his hands. I grabbed him firmly, lowering my mouth to his neck and licking and sucking all along his throat. Then I started nibbling and he let out a low moan and pulled me closer as he rubbed his hands all over me, grabbing my back, ass, sides and thighs.
Soon I became anxious to explore more of his body, so I sat up and started untying his belt, gazing lustfully into his eyes. Har laughed and leaned back so that I could unwind his belt and pull his tunic off. He wasn’t as hairy as I had expected. I tossed both belt and tunic aside and let my hands start roaming over his chest.
Meanwhile, Har removed my cloak and vest and began untying my blouse. Ever so slowly, he pulled it open, revealing my breasts, which he gently cradled in his hands. Then he lowered his mouth to lick and kiss them hungrily. I moaned as he swirled his tongue over a nipple, then I pushed him back onto the small pile of clothing we had accumulated. Leaning into him, I kissed him while grinding my cunt against his thigh. He moaned and pulled me down next to him, rubbing his hand over my crotch, feeling the dampness that had soaked through my pants. With a smile, he undid the laces and slipped his hand inside. Sensitive fingers explored my wet slit, probing around until they found the touch that made me groan happily.
Har gave me one more kiss, then pulled my pants down. Pushing my knees apart, he tucked his head between my thighs, teasing and probing first with the tip of his nose, then his slippery tongue. I also wasted no time in pulling him around so that I could yank down his pants, starting my own game of kissing, licking and sucking as I savored his tender ministrations. Bobbing my mouth up and down his shaft, I searched until I found the movements that made his body rock against mine. His hands gripped my hips and held me close as he continued to lick harder and faster.
I ecstatically rubbed into him and he thrust into my hands and mouth. Har’s breath was coming fast and I felt warmth building in my groin. I rocked and rubbed against him, feeling the bubble of warmth expand into pure pleasure. I moaned and ground into him and he shuddered in excitement. Then, as my body relaxed, his gasps built into moans as his own orgasm took over.
In the moments after our passion faded, I became acutely aware of the chill in the breeze. Quickly grabbing my cloak, I pulled it over both of us. Har was shivering so I wrapped my arms around him, pulling him close. He sighed in relief.
I let my body relax into his as the warmth sank in, feeling Har’s heart beating in his chest. Slowly I drifted off to that steady beat and the sound of the tree trunks creaking in the wind.
* * * * *
The next morning I woke up stiff and alone. I sighed.
Stretching, I sat up and looked around. Har was sitting on a large rock, gazing out over the valley. He was brooding again. I should have expected that. It also made me wonder about him. Not only didn’t I know what he was, but I also had no idea what his relationship to this dragon was. There obviously was something going on, but whether it was a passionate love for fairness or something more sinister, I had no way of knowing. Was it possible that in some way Har was bound to the dragon? Perhaps held in its thrall?
I stood up and walked over to him.
“Go home.” His voice was cold and hard again.
“You can’t be serious.”
He turned to face me.
“Leave! Go away from here!”
“I can’t do that.”
Har jumped up, grabbing me by the arm. “Please! Kalla, I like you. I don’t … I don’t want you to die.” His voice was thick with emotion.
I reached up to touch his cheek. “Har, I can’t go. There is a problem here that needs solving.”
He turned away from me, snarling, “I thought you said you cared about fairness!”
“Then leave. Leave the dragon in peace!”
“Gods above, Har, I’m not going kill her. I just want to talk to her!”
He turned and glared at me. “You want to tear her from away her home! That’s just as bad as killing her! She was here first, not those cursed humans!”
I stepped back from him, alarmed by the intensity of his passion. “I’m sure she was, but things change and right now both this dragon and the human townsfolk are trapped in a rapidly escalating confrontation.”
Thankfully, that caught his attention. Setting the some of his anger aside, he gazed at me intently. “What do you mean by that?”
“Five years ago, there was no conflict. Then there were a few minor incidents, and last year, the dragon started burning crops and killing livestock. Now the humans have retaliated by raising enough gold to tempt a steady stream of dragon hunters into trying their luck, which has caused the dragon to start killing. Unless someone does something soon, this won’t end well for dragon or human.”
“So you are going to solve it by forcing the dragon move?” His voice was harsh.
“That probably is the best solution, but I’d like to start by talking.”
Har turned away, tone icy. “If you aren’t leaving, then we should get going. We have much rougher country to travel over today.”
* * * * *
It was indeed very rough going. This was volcanic land, carved by glaciers, and there were many ridges, rocky ravines, sudden drop-offs, winding gullies, precipitous slopes and steep valleys. The most impressive obstacle was a sheer cliff that dropped five hundred feet straight down.
When we came up to its top edge, I saw that the rock below was jumbled and broken, especially on the right side of the cliff. I could also see parts of a narrow track that wound its way down that side. The thought of that being our trail was not particularly encouraging. I turned to look at the trail we were following, and sure enough, it led to the right and down. I could even see the scrapes and scars that Har and the previous dragon hunters had made on the mossy rocks.
Out of curiosity, I looked at the tracks more closely. Every mark that wasn’t Har’s was heavy and showed the sharp scrape of metal. They had all worn full armor! Considering that they had gone up against a fire-breathing dragon with considerable magical prowess, that was absolutely ridiculous. No wonder they were all dead. Protection from sharp claws was nothing if you couldn’t dodge a lightning bolt.
I turned back to look at the spectacular view of the ravine below. I wondered how many of the dragon slayers had done the same thing. It made me wonder about them. Had they known how hopeless their attempt was? Did any of them appreciate this wild beauty, or did they simply think of it as an obstacle? I looked down and saw marks left by their steel-clad feet.
I followed them with my eyes. There they were on the rocks at the edge, and there were Har’s boot prints beside them, and there was … a sharp metallic scrape going over the edge.
A few feet down, there was another, similar scrape.
I turned to stare at Har. “You pushed two people off the cliff!”
He stood behind me, face still as stone. His voice was calm. “Yes.”
“They were annoying me.”
Now some life came into his face. “It’s not like they weren’t going to die anyway!”
I looked at him incredulously. It seemed almost evil, except that there was something here that I didn’t understand. I had no idea what situation Har was actually in. It was also clear that, whatever he was, he was operating from a very different moral system than I was used to.
As I continued to stare at Har, a faint glow started emanating from his body. I could feel him pulling magical power into himself as he glared at me defiantly and said, “So, what are you going to do about it?”
Surprise caused him to release his magic. The glow stopped.
“Har, it’s not my place to judge you or your choices. Just … just don’t push me off the cliff, okay?”
“I … um … no, I won’t.”
Then, to his utter amazement, I turned and started off toward the precipitous path down.
* * * * *
We were about halfway down when I asked, “Har?”
“Where were you born?”
“What?” he asked incredulously.
The going was easier than the first half of the way down, and I had breath to talk, but it was still precarious. I stopped and looked back at him. He was lowering himself down a steep little slide of rocks. “You are still thinking about pushing dragon slayers off the cliff, aren’t you?
“Umm … yes. Doesn’t it bother you?” There was a strange expression in his dark eyes.
“Of course, but as I said, I’m not here to judge you. You will do that for yourself.” I gave him a dry smile. “I just thought you might like a chance to talk about something not cliff-related.”
A faint smile ghosted over his lips. “You are either very wise or completely lacking in common sense.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
He dropped the rest of the way down and stood up next to me, a smile widening on his face.
I smiled back. “I do know one thing, though.” I grabbed his arm. “You care about making moral decisions.”
“Yeah.” He swallowed, leaning close for a moment. “You … um … wanted to know where I’m from, right?”
I gave him another smile. “I thought that would be nice, if you don’t mind talking about it.”
“I don’t.” He went ahead of me to continue the climb down. “The island of Huapa.”
“That is really far to the southeast.”
“Well, I have done a bit a traveling in my time.”
“Really? I hadn’t guessed.”
“I’ve never been that far off the mainland before. What is it like?”
“Beautiful black gravel beaches with cliffs — ones even taller than this one — and lots of trees and waterfalls. The white ocean foam and blue waves contrast dramatically against the dark sand.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“It is, especially under the full moon.” He smiled, then sighed reminiscently. There was a short pause, then he said, “You know, Kalla … I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Did you really synchronize all of the clocks in the Wizard of Time’s tower?”
I laughed. “Yes, actually.”
“How did you do it? There must be over a thousand clocks in there.”
“You’ve been there!”
“Once, long ago. I do remember that about half of the clocks in there are constantly phasing in and out of different time realities. That is why I’m so curious.”
“It’s impossible unless you know the secret.”
He glanced back at me and I gave him a teasing smile. He obliged me by asking the obvious question. “And that is?”
“The secret is finding the right two clocks to synchronize.”
“That sounds surprisingly easy.”
“Really? Well, one of them one of them is the little black master time-shifting clock that hides behind the clockwork griffin on the third floor, and the other is the main tower clock, which, I’ll remind you, is about a hundred feet tall and built into the side of the tower.”
“Not trivial, then.”
“If you’re clever.”
He turned and smiled at me. “You are very clever.”
“And you aren’t watching where you’re putting your feet!” Just as I said it, he skidded. Fortunately, he only went a few feet before catching himself. I reached down and grabbed his left arm for good measure. “Please be more careful. It’s a long way down.”
“I have noticed that,” Har said dryly, and then he laughed and looked up at me. He seemed completely unfazed by his near fall. Suddenly he reached up and kissed me. “Kalla, you are the most amazing person I have met in a long, long time.”
“Thank you.” I looked down at his feet. The gravel under them was starting to crumble. “We should probably keep moving.”
“Probably,” he said with another laugh. Then he started climbing down again.
* * * * *
We talked companionably until we made it the rest of the way down. The smashed rock and torn-up bushes that marked where the two former dragon slayers’ bodies had hit put a temporary stop to all conversation, but it eventually recovered as we crossed the center of the ravine and made our way up to the top of the next ridge.
It was another amazing vista and we took a break to rest and enjoy it. The valley ahead was very different from any of the previous territory; it was clearly marked by a dragon. Instead of continuous rows of trees, there was a patchwork of knocked-down wood, open fields, regrowth and ancient stands. Here and there, areas were charred and there were patches of brilliant flowers where old dragonfires had been. Dragons certainly did mark the land they lived on. In this case, I was pleased to see that the valley also had the abundant wildlife that such places could to attract when the animals weren’t being overhunted. It seemed that this dragon was a good custodian of her territory.
It was also clear that we were rapidly approaching the limit of where the previous dragon slayers had gotten to. As far as I could tell from the tracks, only one of them had even gotten this far. Har was not talking about it, but he was clearly worried, and now he was sitting on the rock next to me, deep in thought, tension making his whole body rigid.
This couldn’t go on. We needed to talk.
I reached out and touched Har’s shoulder. He jumped. Twisting like a cat, he turned and caught my wrist. As he raised his other hand to strike, I spun and raised my hand to block.
Then we both froze.
“You have good instincts,” he said stiffly, releasing my arm.
“So do you.”
“You shouldn’t startle me like that.”
“Kalla.” His voice was rough. “I can’t stop thinking about last night.”
Suddenly his lips were on mine, hungry, demanding. His arms wrapped around me and I wrapped myself around him, eagerly opening my mouth to his probing tongue. With a laugh, I began untying his belt.
Suddenly, he jerked away, crying, “I can’t keep doing this!”
“Because I like you!”
I was getting really tired of this. “Har, what is going on?”
“You want to know?!” Rage and pain filled his eyes. “Do you really?!” Smoke started curling up from his body and a glowing sheet of power washed over him. His form became liquid. “I’ll show you!” he shouted as he reached for even more magic.
Whatever was happening, there was too much emotion for clear thought. I knew I had to stop it, so I grabbed my own fistful of earth power.
“I am the dragon!” Har shrieked as his form twisted. Red and blue swirled round, becoming brighter; scales grew over skin and her facial features became narrower, tighter. Then Har was expanding, starting to grow in size.
I rushed Har and knocked her to the ground. She tried to twist away, but before she could, I dissipated most of her accumulated power into the earth. There was a deep rumble and Har shouted in anger, now trapped in a two-legged, human-sized, part-dragon form.
But she was a very strong two-legged part-dragon, and she was able to wrench one of her hands free. Snarling, she slashed her claws across my cheek, sending a spray of blood showering down around us, bursting into fire where it touched the ground. I grabbed her wrist and we struggled. Fortunately for me, Har was not used to fighting in this form and I was able to pin both of her arms, getting my weight over her upper body.
Har snarled, kicked and wriggled, but she couldn’t get free, so she started screaming. “It’s my territory! I’m not leaving! You can’t make me!”
She was a dragon in a territory defense frenzy. Holding on tightly, I shouted, “Okay, fine, you are not leaving!”
“I’m not leaving! I’m not leaving! I’m not leaving!”
“Har, listen to me! You don’t have to leave!”
She paused for a moment, breathing hard, rage still in her eyes.
“You don’t have to leave,” I repeated firmly.
Har glared at me. “Then why didn’t you go away when I asked you to?”
“Because you have a problem! The townsfolk are upset and the dragon slayers aren’t just going to stop coming.”
“Then I’ll kill them,” she growled.
“Who, the dragon slayers or the townsfolk?”
“However many it takes!”
“That is not an acceptable solution!”
She glared at me. “I don’t care. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Neither do I. Maybe we can come up with a solution together.”
“There is no solution!” she shouted as she started struggling again. She was getting stronger, but I managed to hold her down until she stopped. Already I could feel myself tiring. If I was going to save this situation, I needed to do something soon. A distraction was my best bet – something to surprise her out of this mindset.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I leaned down and kissed her.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded.
“To distract you in the hope of being able to talk with you more calmly. Also, you are beautiful.”
She glared at me suspiciously.
That made me laugh. “You are! I’ve never seen such a striking combination of red and blue before, and your body is all silky smooth and strong.”
Her muscles relaxed as her confusion increased. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Because you aren’t what I thought you were?”
“Well … yes.”
“But I never really knew what you were.” For a moment her eyes traced my features, then she looked away. “I like you this way,” I said.
“I don’t believe you,” Har replied.
“I’d be happy to prove it.”
“Then prove it!”
I couldn’t let that challenge pass. With a smile, I leaned over and kissed her again, long and slow this time. After a moment’s hesitation, she kissed back. When it ended, Har’s eyes were dilated and she was breathing heavily.
“Believe me now?”
“You are just trying to distract me!”
I leaned over her, smiling, not holding her down as firmly. “That doesn’t make it any less true. You are damn gorgeous and I’d fuck you any time.”
She looked unsure.
“However, I would like to let you up sometime soon, if you think you can stay calm.”
“Not if you don’t want to die!” she snarled.
I sighed dramatically. “All right, then! We’ll just stay like this and talk.”
“But I am curious as to why you turned yourself into a male trader.”
She glared at me, and then looked away. “It’s obvious.”
“Not to me.”
“Male traders are normal here and I wanted to be as normal as possible.”
I smiled at her. “So no one would suspect what you really were? It certainly fooled me. I thought you were some kind of werebeast.”
“Yeah.” Now Har just looked sad.
“Are you sure I can’t let you up?”
“Why would you trust me?”
“Because I know you are trustworthy.”
That melted the last of her anger and her body completely relaxed. I released my grip and sat up, rubbing my left shoulder. Har lay there, staring up at me, different emotions chasing themselves across her face. She really was gorgeous. I particularly liked the way the long, thin red stripes accented her deep blue scales.
Her face settled on one confused emotion. “Kalla —”
“What is it?”
“You said you wanted me. You wanted to have sex …”
“I do, but I’m not going to force you to —”
Suddenly Har grabbed me and kissed me passionately. I went limp with surprise and that made her freeze. She trembled. “You said —”
“And I meant it; you just surprised me.” I wrapped my arms around her and smiled at her. “I didn’t expect you to want sex right now.” Then I pulled her into another long kiss. Har’s hands grabbed my vest and pulled me tight against her as her mouth opened. She had sharp teeth and a long tongue that stroked the roof of my mouth. Her claws ripped holes in my clothing as she pulled at me.
My hand found its way between her legs. Her clothing had turned back into scales, so she was completely naked, giving me room to explore freely. My probing fingers found a slit rimmed by tough scales. I slid my index finger inside and found warm, soft skin in delicate frills. Probing further, I found her clit. Har moaned and pressed against me. Sliding more fingers inside, I dipped into the wetness of her vagina and spread it outward. Har groaned impatiently as I teased her clit with tip of my finger. With a growl, she grabbed my hand and pressed into it, sliding and rubbing hungrily. Smiling, I turned my hand and started stroking hard and fast. She moaned eagerly and ground into me, panting. Moments later, she came hard as she grabbed me, claws tearing at my clothes. Then she relaxed into my embrace, gasping for breath.
I tossed off my clothing before she tore it all to shreds, then straddled her, gently pushing her back onto the ground. I stroked my hands in broad sweeps over her chest and small breasts. Her scales were warm and flexible and I enjoyed the way they moved under my fingers.
“Why do I have to be on the bottom again?”
I smiled down at her. “Because you’re the one with scales and all I have is fragile, unprotected skin.”
“Put your magic cloak on the ground, fragile girl. I’m tired of being on my back.”
“All right.” I reached over and grabbed the cloak, snatching kisses here and there as I did so. Just for good measure, I grabbed my bag.
She shoved me onto my back, straddling me. “That’s better.” She eyed my bag. “What’s in there?”
With a smile I reached over and pulled out the box that contained my dildo collection and handed it to her. She opened it, revealing the souvenirs of my travels. There were two dozen toys in every shape, style, and material: sculpted wood, curving steel, firm mage-elastomer, brightly colored ceramic, thick tooled leather, sleek vibrating crystal, lovingly painted porcelain, spiraled meltstone, brilliant swirling glass, intricately carved jade and springy rubber. “Mmm…” she said. “I knew your eye for beauty had to come out somewhere.” Looking through them, she chose a medium-sized dildo made of spiraling blue and gold glass. She ran her claws over its ridged surface. “These should feel nice” she said with a smile.
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“Good.” She said as she pushed me back down and spread my legs wide.
I gasped and then shivered as she stroked my stomach and thighs with her strong clawed hands. Then, with a wicked smile, she turned one hand over and slid the backs of her fingers over my inner thighs. Carefully curling her claws toward her palm, she used her knuckles to part my lips and slide down into my vulva, rubbing gently against my clit. With her other her hand, she slid the cold glass deep into my cunt. I groaned as I felt its spiral moving in. Then there was a deep fullness that was accentuated by the friction against my clit. She started gently rocking the dildo in and out, causing waves of pleasure that made me moan and squirm against her.
Har let me rock against her for a few minutes, then slowly pulled the dildo out. I sighed in longing as she balled my clothing up into a pad that she placed under my butt. She started repositioning my legs and I sighed impatiently.
“Oh, really!” she said, but she stopped any further impatience by dipping her knuckles into my wet cunt and then catching my clit between two slick fingers, which she gently squeezed and rubbed together. I melted into ecstatic moans, letting her move my body any way she wanted. Har pushed my legs up and back and interlaced hers with mine.
“Let’s see how you like this,” she said with a lustful grin as she pushed the long-handled dildo back into my cunt, angling it up and forward until she found the spot that made me howl.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
I leaned back, moaning, rocking, and writhing as she rubbed my trapped clit and thrust the dildo over and over into that magic spot. My body became a growing wave of pleasure that she pushed forward, harder and faster.
“Yes! Like that! Don’t stop! Like that!” I cried as I bucked and writhed into my climax. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
It crashed through me, then flowed away, leaving my body tingling as Har looked down at me with a self-satisfied smile.
I reached out a hand to her. “Come over here so I can hold you.”
She curled up next to me, grinning, and I relaxed against her warm shoulder with a happy sigh. “I have to say, this is definitely not how I expected things to turn out.”
“Me neither.” She paused. “It was unexpected, but I like it.”
I pulled her close. “I do too. This is far better than simply making it through alive.”
Har smiled wryly and said, “Yes … but, Kalla, what does this mean? What do we do now?”
I grinned at her. “We’ll figure that out together.”
Changes to the Original Work
There is value in both leaving older works unchanged and in updating them.
The value in leaving things unchanged is that it means that all of my available time and energy will go into new works. I grow more as an artist when I am making new work and it is only by doing new things that I have grown to the point where there is a lot I would change in my older works. In addition, old works can be challenging to improve because even seemingly minor changes can alter the balance and the flow of the piece and many changes aren’t possible without reworking the entire plot (this is probably why so many artists who do want to improve their older works end up doing re-boots). Leaving older works untouched also provides a record of artistic growth and development.
The value of making changes is that it means that all of the work I present to readers is the best quality I can make. This particularly matters when it comes to oppression. If I am putting work out there that furthers a type of oppression, even if I later add a discussion section focusing on that, the oppression will still impact people. Also, some changes are relatively quick to make, like substituting alternatives in for ablest words like “crazy.” If I can spend five making changes that reduce harmful impacts on people’s experience of my writing, that is well worth my time.
So, when it came to publishing “Dangerous Company” online I decided to focus my changes on anything that furthered oppression, making both those changes that were easy (small language changes) and those that were the most important (rewriting the two scenes that I considered the most problematic). The rest I left relatively unchanged.
The first of the two scenes that I altered was the scene where Kalla interacts with the townsfolk. One of the big themes of this story is pushing back against a lot of common tropes in stories about monsters (this is explored in depth in the themes discussion section). This theme came out in the way the townsfolk were portrayed as frustrating and ignorant in their desire to have the dragon killed. Another important aspect of this story was that this story was one of my first attempts to de-center whiteness and oppose the common pattern of fantasy stories set in medieval-type settings having all white casts. In this story I reversed that pattern by having a cast that was all people of color. Unfortunately, these two aspects of the story came together in a very unfortunate way. The depiction of the townsfolk came out as matching stereotypes of rural people of color being ignorant.
Five years later, I’ve grown as an artist and I now recognize how important it is to avoid reinforcing stereotypes, even in stories where other characters counter those stereotypes. Because oppressive stereotypes have so much power, it is not enough just to have diverse representation, it is important to avoid reinforcing those stereotypes. This doesn’t mean that I need to only have positive portrayals of characters who are members of oppressed groups. It simply means that I need to put more awareness into how I craft these characters and how my choices as a writer interplay with oppressive stereotypes.
In this scene I decided that a big part of what was reinforcing harmful messages was that the townsfolk were being portrayed dismissively. To correct this I made their portrayal more detailed and sympathetic. The new version of the scene now puts greater emphasis on the validity of many of the townspeople’s concerns. In addition, I have clarified that it is the townspeople’s behavior that Kalla finds upsetting, not who they are. This also gave me the chance to portray Kalla more sympathetically by showing that what upset her wasn’t some trivial behavior, but the assumptions the townsfolk were making about the “monster” (assumptions which significantly impact her as a fellow non-human).
The second scene that I altered was the non-consensual kiss from the ending. I’m not sure what exactly to say about this other than if I was writing it now it would be a totally different scene. The only forms of non-consent I would currently write would either be specifically depicted as wrong or would be within the context of a consensual agreement between partners. This scene is a reminder to me of how continuous the process of identifying and removing oppression from myself and my work is; it is a never ending growth process.
At the time I wrote this I was aware of and avoiding many other types of non-consent, but didn’t recognize the problems with this one because of the context. Since then I have become more aware of the fact that in mainstream USA culture there is a mythology around non-consent, particularly as it is portrayed in the media, that creates excuses and attributes false meanings to it. For example, a blatant version of this is the numerous stories and films in which a man becomes overwhelmed by his attraction to a particular woman and non-consensually kisses her, which she likes despite her protests. Of course, it is pretty clear that the experience of a non-consensual kiss like this in the real world is totally different. Sexual assault is about power and entitlement more than anything else and sexual assault is not enjoyable. I now recognize that while my depiction of the forced kiss in this story avoids the worst of this, it contributes to an overall mythology of there being situations that justify non-consent.
The changes I have made to this scene have been limited by its role in the plot. I have focused on reducing the impact of the non-consensual kiss and handling it in a way that limits its contribution to justifying non-consent. I have also made changes intended to clarify the interaction between Har and Kalla in that scene.
Because “Dangerous Company” contains two scenes that I now recognize as deeply problematic and because, as a five year old work, it is less skilled than my current work, it is hard for me to put this story out onto the internet and into my podcast. There are, however, important reasons to put it out there. This story explores certain themes (monsters and character-focused romance) more directly and deeply than my current work does. It also has a slow-paced sweetness common to my older works. Part of my development as a writer was first exploring these themes and then moving on to exploring new themes. That means that the central themes to this story are things that are most fully expressed in my older works and the only way to share them with people is to produce some of these older works.
There are also timing reasons to produce older works. I am currently working on a fairy tale novel that will ultimately be released chapter by chapter on my website and in my podcast. However, even though the first quarter of the novel is mostly written, for consistency’s sake I can’t complete it until I have a rough version of the conclusion of my novel written (this is important for crafting the themes and style of the novel). In addition, producing the Writing Alchemy Podcast has taken up a big chunk of my creative time and energy. This makes now a good time to produce an older work so that I have time to focus on completing my novel.
In addition, painful as it is for me to put my imperfections out there in so public and vulnerable a way (I desperately want to be perfect!), I think this is also a valuable process to delve into for myself and others. No artist springs out of the ground fully formed and ready to do amazing, radical, anti-oppression work. We are all imperfect humans slowly growing and developing our skills and knowledge. This means that we need to ask ourselves a lot of important questions: As artists, how do we ethically deal with our mistakes and our older works? How do we make room for the fact that none of us, no matter how deeply we care or how hard we try, is going to be able to avoid mistakes and blunders, while still holding ourselves accountable for the oppression we recreate? As artists, how do we deal with our mistakes and keep going without being crushed by the fact that in five years we may look back on the art we produce today and recognize that some of our choices are reinforcing oppression?
I think these are important discussions to have, particularly in a culture where it is the norm for privileged mainstream artists to deflect and deny when confronted with the oppression they are reinforcing while radical artists are often held to standards of perfection that they can’t possibly meet with their limited resources and personal struggles against oppression.
The Growth of My Creative Process
One challenging aspect of editing and republishing this story is that coming to terms with its flaws also means coming to terms with internalized ableism within myself. You see, my brain is very good at tracking processes and complexity. It is constantly thinking about things from different angles and predicting a wide range of possible outcomes. This can be very useful but it comes with a cost. I am easily overwhelmed, and I live with high anxiety.
In my daily life I care for myself by limiting the amount of news I read and listen to. I also carefully structure the ways in which I involve myself in politics and social justice work so that I am not overwhelmed by all of the obstacles and suffering in the world. That is one of the reasons why I focus on creative work; imagining magical worlds without certain types of oppression is healing for me. This is something that I can give to the community that takes advantage of my strengths while simultaneously supporting my own well-being.
Knowing that, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that my neurodiversity also has a big impact on my writing process. As a writer I find it important to limit the amount of feedback I get from others on my writing. To me even mild criticism can be significantly discouraging and make it hard for me to keep on writing. I’m not completely sure why this is. I do know that I am frequently on the verge of being overwhelmed by the number of things I am already trying to do with each writing piece, so adding one more thing can be more than I can effectively process. It probably also has to do with my drive to be perfect. In addition, writing often requires me to put myself deep into my work, a process that can be disrupted by outside input.
What I do know is that limiting feedback works for me. I am writing a lot and my skill is growing quickly. However, this is not the standard model for how to create a finished piece of art (at least not for the types of art I’m doing). I feel a great deal of pressure and judgment (a lot of it internalized) for not making feedback a bigger part of my process. Because of this, I get into dialogues with myself that are about me justifying doing what works for me.
If you don’t invite lots of feedback how can you grow as an artist?
I am growing as an artist!
But wouldn’t you grow faster if you got more feedback?
The fastest way to improve is to keep on writing and limiting feedback is how I support myself in doing that.
But getting lots of feedback is essential to being a good artist!
Wow, that is a lot of judgment! It is important to remember that artists are a diverse group. Some thrive on collaborations and feedback while others make their art in private. Limiting feedback is just as valid as any other way of working.
If you don’t invite feedback how can you avoid reproducing oppression?
This is the question that really gets to me. This is a big reason why it is so hard for me to put older works out there; doing so brings this question up front and center. Could I have caught the oppressive aspects of this story sooner if I had invited feedback? However, I’ve come to realize that this way of thinking (the mindset that is implicit in the way this question is framed) is rooted internalized ableism.
You see, there is nothing inherent in getting feedback that means that an artist will magically be able to catch all of the oppression (or even flaws) in a particular piece. Mainstream movies, TV shows, video games, books, and other art are full of oppression. Many of them are projects that were worked on by a large group of people with tons of revisions and feedback. The reason these finished pieces are still full of oppressive crap is that all of the people who were involved in the project had a similar lack of awareness.
This means that every artist, regardless of their process, needs to ask themselves “How can I use the strengths of my own particular artistic process to find and dismantle oppression within my own work?” For a person who thrives on feedback this could involve making an effort to get feedback from a diverse group of people who are aware of oppression and intersectionality. For someone like me who needs to limit feedback, this can mean frequently reading short articles on social justice topics (in fact, this is what is working really well for me right now).
It is so easy to get trapped into one model for doing things that doesn’t really work for you, or to feel shame for doing those things that do work for you. I now recognize that my self-questioning was heavily influenced by internalize ableism — the feeling that the way my mind works is somehow less valid than the “neurotypical” way of thinking. Once I realized that ableism was making me question my own highly effective artistic process, I was able to change the conversation I was having with myself. Rather than attacking the artistic process that works for my brain with questions aimed at invalidating it, I now am able start from the perspective that my artistic process is valid and then I ask how I’m going to accomplish the things I care about using my system. Once I started doing this it suddenly became clear to me that questions of how to grow as an artist and how to dismantle oppression within art are questions that every artist has to address, regardless of their process. There is no process that is exempt or that has a special advantage when it comes to answering these questions. There is no process that is more valid than the others. It is about finding the one that is right for you.
Fun fact: During the time when I first wrote this story I was in the nascent stages of my experimentation with using dice for character creation (Gamer Writing Solutions: Using Dice to Create Better Characters). This was probably the stage where I was feeling the need for it, but hadn’t yet started. I do know that the next fairy tale I wrote after this one I was using dice to help me make choices about minor character traits.
“Dangerous Company” Themes
The depiction of monsters, and the human relationship to monsters, is a major theme that I was exploring during the time period in which I wrote this story. The symbolism of monsters is rich and contains many layers. Because of this, I believe that this symbolism has far reaching impacts on the way we view and understand ourselves and the world around us.
In mainstream USA culture monsters come up particularly often in the fantasy genre. There they are favored plot elements in movies, video games, table top RPGs, comics, and novels. However, plenty of other genres like horror, science fiction, and action also use monsters as well. When they are brought up, monsters are usually invoked as enemies and obstacles for heroes to overcome. Very commonly, the only way to overcome a particular monster is to kill it. This is often done with the invocation of a good verses evil justification for the necessity of killing it.
There are a lot of troubling things about this. The first is that whether the monster is sentient or not does not significantly affect the way the heroes go about solving their monster problem. Because of the invocation of good verses evil, it is seen as just as valid to kill a sentient monster as one incapable of reason. The way that narratives with sentient monsters are set up, there is usually no way to stop whatever harm the monster is causing without killing it. If there are multiple monsters of the same race, then it is usually necessary to kill all of them. This is genocide. In the real world there is no situation where this is justified, so why are there so many fictional scenarios where genocide is “justified” in our culture’s stories and games? And some of these monsters look awfully human (zombies), look like racist characters of real human ethnic groups (goblins and orc), or literally are human (bandits).
Clearly one big reason for the number of scenarios with “justified” genocide is that it makes the violence in these stories and games possible. And I admit that I play some of these games and that, at times, the simplicity of killing zombies (they are already dead, after all) is nice. But I also like games where you do have to think about your “enemies,” as people — games where you can slip past a dragon without it knowing, or take a bandit captive and turn them over to the local community’s justice process. And I am deeply concerned by the ways in which these “justified” violence narratives show up in our real world.
Far too much of USA foreign policy rests on conjuring up ideas of “good” verses “evil” as a justification for undermining local governments, invasion, and war. This goes along with the idea that killing “evil” people is justified and the only way to deal with an “evil” person, creating tragic consequences and sadly little concern (within the USA mainstream) about those deaths. These same ideas show up in the criminal justice system, the creation of laws that attempt to legislate morality, mass incarceration, and the treatment of prisoners, just to name a few things. I also believe that this idea further entrenches multiple forms oppression. This is why I feel it is so important to create stories and symbolism that challenges, unpacks, or dismantles these easy justifications for simple, unthinking violence and genocide within our stories and games.
When monsters are not sentient they are usually portrayed as hungry predators that view humans as food. Again, the solution to this problem comes down to killing the monster. This is part of a larger Western cultural tradition of viewing nature as something to be conquered, dominated, and controlled. Within this tradition predator species are seen as a danger to humans and domesticated animals as well as competition for prey species, such as deer. One of the big problems here is that science is only beginning to understand the complex connections and interdependence within nature. The history of Western attempts to dominate and control nature is full destruction, mistakes, and things worth regretting. The treatment of predator species, in particular, has often been campaigns of extermination that have had a lot of far reaching harmful impacts. Science shows us that predator species are important for the health of prey populations (often stabilizing prey populations) and predators play a very important role in their ecosystems. In fact, many predator species are considered keystone species that are crucial for the health of their ecosystems.
I’ll use one example to illustrate the positive impact of predators on ecosystems: the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. When a small number of wolves were reintroduced it started a cascade of events that has resulted in a dramatic revitalization of the valleys and overall ecological diversity. This is because the deer were over-grazing the valleys. When the wolves returned the deer started spending less time in the valleys. This allowed the valley vegetation to grow back, increasing the number of songbirds, rabbits, mice, weasels, badgers, hawks, bears, and beavers. When the beavers moved back into the rivers they created dams which then created wetlands which supported an even greater number of species, including waterfowl, otters, fish, amphibians, and muskrats. In addition, carrion from wolf kills sustained many predators such as hawks and eagles through the winter. The growth in vegetation also stabilized the banks of rivers, making them more stable and reducing erosion, something which further improved the aquatic habitats. All this because a handful of wolves were returned to the park (How Wolves Change Rivers).
Going even deeper, the symbolism of killing and dominating non-sentient monsters has connections to (and symbolically reinforces) ideas that are part of the bedrock on which oppression is founded. This includes the separation of humans and nature, the idea that there are living things that have no inherent value, the idea that the response to fear is to kill what you fear, and the idea that violence and domination are needed to create safety (another connection to mass incarceration). Thinking about this, I don’t think it is any surprise that monsters are often depicted with physical traits that are reminiscent of oppressed groups, particularly people of color and people with disabilities.
Battles with monsters can also be viewed as metaphors for struggles with oneself. I can see the utility of slaying one’s internalized oppression, but, in general, the idea of having a violent conflict within oneself as a way of resolving something seems saturated in a way of viewing the self that stems from the hierarchical domination model that underpins oppression. I can certainly say that this is not the relationship that I want to have with any part of myself. For me, my frustration, grief, anger, and fear may be difficult, but they are a natural response to all of the suffering and oppression happening in the world and dominating them doesn’t feel an appropriate model for dealing with them.
How do I explore these themes in “Dangerous Company?” In this story I wanted to create a scenario where the “monster” was a sympathetic character and where the solution to the problem posed by the monster’s actions was a process of negotiation, rather than that of violence. This is a core concept to the story and the development of Kalla’s character. Symbolically this is the change from destroying what we fear to learning from it. It also inverts the symbolic justification for domination and violence as we observe that unthinking violence failed where negotiation succeeds.
A theme that is connected to the portrayal of monsters is the portrayal animal-like characters. These can be people that are part human, that shapeshift, or are non-humans with animal traits. In mainstream USA culture, animal-like characters are often portrayed as “bestial,” out of control, and unconstrained by social rules. Now, there is a certain appeal to a character that isn’t constrained by social rules and I can certainly understand why a human feeling overly constrained by the requirement to be nice to their mean boss, for example, would enjoy a depiction of an animal-like character who doesn’t follow those rules. However, this portrayal of what it means to be an animal (out of control) is very common and I believe that it is based on a historical Western understanding of animals that comes from the concept of humans having dominion over animals and nature (which are messy and out of control). This understanding views animals as lesser beings that need to be controlled, that are objects that can be owned, that have natures which are different from that of a human, and whose suffering matters less than that of a human. This understanding of animals frequently serves as a justification of the inhumane treatment of animals.
Connected to this view of animals as lesser is the long history of viewing certain groups of people as more animal-like and less human. Multiple racial and ethnic groups have struggled with this, as well as people with disabilities and mental illnesses. Particularly in historical documents, there are very direct portrayals of these groups being depicted as animals for the purposes of dehumanizing them and justifying their mistreatment.
Because of this history it is important to be really careful and intentional with modern portrayals of part-humans in fiction. I think that the view of animals as lesser, “wild,” and out of control (thus needing to be controlled and dominated by those in power) feeds directly into the dehumanization of those groups depicted as animal-like. It is this idea about what animals are that makes being compared to an animal so dehumanizing. That is why, for me, portraying animal-like people in an anti-oppressive manner means opposing these core ideas about animals.
In my experience, this idea of animals has little to do with what animals are actually like. Yes, they are a different than the average human. Animals are more up-front with how they feel, focus more intently on what they want, have a different sense of time than us, and often act in ways that are unexpected to humans, but they aren’t out of control. And while animals may not recognize and follow human social rules, they are still following the social rules for their species. They are not the same as a human, but they are also not completely dissimilar. And the more scientist study animals, the more we discover that certain animals have traits and behaviors that were once thought uniquely human.
This is where I need to bring up neurodiversity in greater detail. As I have mentioned, in the history of Western society there are connections between the degrading ways in which animals were viewed and treated and the ways mentally ill people were viewed and treated. However, even depicting a positive portrayal part-human and part-animal character who thinks differently than the average human (based on study of the ways animals think and behave) can stray into the realm of depicting neurodiverse people. In fact, certain neurodiverse traits and experiences have been positively compared to those of animals in recent years. For example, the children’s book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome makes a positive comparison between cats and the experiences of children with Asperger’s Syndrome. For me, this is one more reason to make sure that portrayals of part animal characters are done well and that these characters are depicted sympathetically as whole people with identifiable experiences and stereotypes about neurodiverse people are not recreated.
“Dangerous Company” being an older work, doesn’t do this with Har as well as I’d like. She is definitely portrayed sympathetically and there are reasons for her belief that the territory is hers (she was there first, she is a good custodian for her territory, and she is a large part of why that region is so fertile). I do feel that her territoriality and how that affects her mind wasn’t done as clear as I’d like it to be. It is intended to be a trait she has which has beneficial aspects and less helpful aspects. I believe that the beneficial aspects (being a custodian to her territory, for example) weren’t effectively connected to her territoriality in the text, while the unhelpful part (reducing her ability to problem solve when she feels her territory is threatened) was connected to her being territorial. This is unfortunate and if I had it to do over again I would delve deeper into how her mind works and show that they are both different sides of the same trait so that her territoriality is clearly an important part of her uniqueness and an equally valid way to experience the world.
As I’ve mentioned before, I both enjoy romances and have a lot of frustration with mainstream depictions of romance. In far too many romances the entire conflict could have been solved by open communication. This is why a big theme in my writing (particularly at this time I wrote this story) was creating romantic conflicts that weren’t just miscommunication, but that were actual challenges that came from the situation or the conflicting needs, desires, and motivations of the characters.
In my stories I’m not trying to make everything perfect communication-wise, but I want to depict healthier models communication. I want it to take work and compromise to for my characters to resolve conflicts, rather than having them face problems that are magically solved by a small amount of honesty. Sure it is useful to have a message about how important communication is in relationships, but conflicts that are entirely due to lack of communication give the false impression that once you actually communicate with someone (instead of just assuming things) all of the problems will be solved.
In addition, if communication on its own solves everything, then we are back to the “happily ever after” idea that a healthy relationship is effortless and conflict-free (once you get past the initial hurdles). Rather than happily ever after, I want to craft character relationships that are both rewarding and which involve ongoing thought, effort, and work to maintain (like healthy relationships in the real world).
In “Dangerous Company” I created a conflict that was helped by increased communication, but that won’t go away without a lot of effort. This conflict is made more complicated by the different priorities Kalla and Har have. We don’t see them do all of this negotiation, but we do know that happily ever after is going to involve some serious work on both their parts.
Associating Power with Female Traits:
All over USA media power is connected to male associated traits, skills, and abilities. This comes out in big and small ways; power has become connected to violence, weapons, martial skill, aggression, dominance, competition, confidence, lack of emotion, and independence. This means that in order for women to be perceived as powerful they usually need to take on these traits as well. In the real world, we see this as women needing to wear business suits and interrupt others in order to be taken seriously. In fiction, we see this as women picking up weapons and gaining power by becoming action heroes.
Having stories about powerful women warriors is an improvement, but there is still a glaring problem; the traits, skills, and abilities that are associated with women are still not being seen as equally powerful. This leaves negotiation, empathy, emotion, interdependence, connectedness, nurturance, questioning, sensitivity, observation, and cooperation to continue to be seen as weak and consequently be devalued.
In my writing I aim to depict a range of women taking on all kinds of power. In particular, I want to show the power of female associated traits. Magic is an important form of power within fairy tales, therefore I aim to connect magic to female things. This is why Kalla’s magic comes out in her sewing. This is also an important reason why Kalla’s role in this story is being a negotiator. Kalla is specifically going into an escalated situation where violence has failed to solve the problem. In fact, previous attempts to solve this problem with violence have made it worse. And Kalla succeeds where others failed because she approaches the problem with sensitivity, observation, and empathy. Her feminine traits are the core of her strength and success.