- Girls don’t kill dragons
In a village whose name I’d rather not mention lived a girl who craved to become a knight.
Her name was Neia. Her father was a carpenter and her mother was taking care of the house and their three children, two boys and a girl.
Neia dreaded to become like her mother, neither did her father’s life mean anything to her. Ever since she was a little girl she was listening to stories about knights and noble deeds and in her mind’s eye she could do it, too.
When she became 16 years old, a matchmaking between her and the baker’s son was arranged. Her parents were over the moon; it was virtually impossible to find a better person.
But Neia truly wanted to become a knight. She wasn’t interested in finding a man. She confided her feelings to her mother and she saw red.
“How are you supposed to become a knight?” she told her. “You don’t even have a horse, let alone there is no word for it. A knightress?”
“I will kill the dragon”, Neia said.
Rumour had it that there was a dragon in the east.
“Girls don’t kill dragons” snapped her mother.
She locked her up in the store to knock some sense in her. It was a rickety place, detached from the house. It served as a woodshed as well as a storeroom for the oil- and wine-containers and all the junk.
It was also the place where the snake dwelled.
It was a benevolent creature and brought luck to the house. Every now and then they would place a bowl of milk to feed itself when mice were not around.
Neia had no fear being in there. When she was a child she had visited this place many times to explore it. She looked for the bowl to check out if the snake had drank the milk off and she spotted a snake skin.
She took hold of it and she recalled her grandfather’s words: “Snakes are wise. They shed their skin to grow further”.
Her grandfather used to be a farmer but he upped sticks. He became a soldier, a mercenary, and fought many wars. The last one claimed an eye and leg of his.
Somewhere in the store lied also his sword. She rummaged the place and she found it. It was as heavy as she remembered it to be, but now it was rusty.
With the sword in the one hand and the snake skin in the other she knew exactly what she had to do. She called her mother over and announced her that she had changed her mind.
She found it rather strange.
“I thought you were more stubborn than that”.
She let her come out and headed for the matchmaker now that her daughter was up for it.
Neia got into the house and cut her hair. She shrew it on the pillow and made her bed in such a way to look as if she was sleeping in it. Then she crammed as much food as her bindle could take, took the sword and left the village behind.
After a few hours of walk she reached the woods. When she would cross it, she would find herself in another land where people of darker complexion who talked a strange language reside; where the dragons were living, too.
She was walking for nine days and nights. Sometimes she was pondering the foolishness of her deed to walk away because the food inventory came soon to an end and it was hard to find something to eat in the forest.
She was chewing barks and scarcely had she the luck to spot some berries. Returning back home was not an option because her legs couldn’t carry her. She knew she would die there before killing a dragon and no one would shed a tear for her.
But just before she collapsed, she found a gift. It was a deer, caught in a trap set for bears. It was a big male and one of its rear legs was broken and it has desisted from trying. Nevertheless, it was standing on its feet, gazing fearlessly back at her.
“You’re so beautiful” Neia said. “You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. But I have to kill you”.
The deer gave no answer, as deer are not wont to talk to people neither was it scared as it saw the sword. Neia wielded it in her hand and hit the animal on the neck. But the blade was blunt, so it merely inflicted a tiny wound on the deer which attempted to get away.
She fought with it with tears in her eyes. Because it took tens of blows and the deer was suffering until it breathed its last.
She asked for forgiveness for the pain she made it feel and lit a fire. She set smoking the meat before it got worms. She was on her guard in case a bear sensed the blood. Scarcely was the meat grilled and she began to eat.
No bear sensed the blood, but the hunter who had set the trap did notice the smoke. He arrived on the scene where the fire was lit complete with three horses laden with skins and furs.
Neia dropped the meat and raised her sword.
”Never have I seen a thief like you” the hunter told her.
“I’m not a thief; I was hungry”.
“Those who are tortured by hunger are clasped also in jail like the others…did you kill it with this?”, he asked pointing at her sword.
“With this, yes”.
“You were hungry all right. Put it aside now or else you might nick yourself and your blood will rot.
The hunter dismounted and joined her. When he found out where was she heading and what she meant to kill he laughed so hard that food came out of his nose.
He informed her that she wouldn’t be able to walk through the entire forest because of its enormous expanse.
“You will never kill a dragon with this sword in a million years”, he told her.
“I killed the deer”.
“Only the dragon won’t sit still to get killed”.
“It’s not a bad sword, it just needs fire to become alive again. My grandfather used it when he was in distant lands at the last war”.
“There is no last war”, said the hunter solemnly.
He had fought many last wars. He had slain men of any lot imaginable until their blood became too much to bear and he decided to pack it all in and become a hunter.
“I’ll take you with me” he announced her. “I sell the skins beyond the forest limits. There are smithies there, too. You will bring your sword back to life and you can keep searching for your dragon”.
They set off the following day riding the horse. When they would stop briefly, he would teach her how to wield her sword, but he made her promise that she would never, ever use it for someone else’s cause.
“I still see in my sleep all those people I have killed. I don’t know what to tell them”.
“I saw the deer once, but it bore me no grudge. It has forgiven me”.
“You have forgiven yourself. I’ll never forgive myself”.
Some other day she asked him:
“Why wars happen?”.
“As long as there are enemies, then wars will happen. As long as there are dragons, someone will set their mind to kill them. If they didn’t exist, somebody would invent them”.
Although they had horses, it took them twenty solid days to cross the woods. As they were heading for the village, the hunter inquired to know:
“Why do you want to kill a dragon?”
“To become a knight”.
“A female knight? That’s unheard of”.
“Just because it’s unheard of, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There was a first time for everything.
The hunter’s face seemed to darken.
“Have you already forgotten the promise you gave me? That you will never raise your sword for another man’s cause? Should you ever become a knight…”
“I have not forgotten my promise. It is for me I fight for”.
The hunter opened his mouth to say something but decided against it. The young girl was smart and she would have to figure the world out for herself. No bridge built by others is strong enough to bear your weight.
They entered the village where people of darker complexion, speaking strange languages and worshipping other deities lived. Some of these people had fallen by his sword when he was working for others. But now he was acquainted with their language and their customs since he could use their help and they could use his.
He showed her the way to the smithy. He gave her the horse and a handful of gold coins.
“If we ever meet again, don’t make me regret for bringing you here” he told her.
The hunter went on his way without glancing back. Neia dismounted to bring her sword back to life.
- Mums don’t kill dragons
The smithy smelled of fire and steel. Through the smoke appeared a man at her father’s age, only that he was more robust.
He couldn’t understand what she was telling him, or maybe better he didn’t seem inclined to understand her, as if he didn’t want to talk to her at all.
He went back muttering a language full of vowels. From there, two voices emanated. The first one was the man’s she had just seen. The second was a male one, too but less harsh.
Then his younger version came to the fore. He was as robust as he was, but thinner and thirty years younger, raven-haired and bearded.
As soon as he set his eyes on Neia his eyes opened wide, as much as human eyes can do. Her tongue failed her, too. For a few moments not a sound was heard aside the hiss of fire. Then it was him who spoke first – in Neia’s language.
“Forgive my father, but he dislikes talking to strange women».
He spoke correctly, but with a peculiar pronunciation.
“And you?” she asked him.
“I’m not my father”.
Once she said these words she grinned and blushed. He flared his nostrils as if he was trying to suck in all oxygen available.
“I’d like you to repair it” said Neia hurriedly and produced the sword.
“Whose this sword?”
The young man seemed to be surprised.
“It’s an unusual sight women carrying swords in this neck of woods”, he told her.
“Neither it is to the place where I live…that’s why I left it behind me.”
“And where are you heading to?”
“Can you bring it back to life? Can you make it sharp?”
“It depends…what do you mean to cut?”
The young man almost laughed, but he figured out that Neia was dead serious.
“My religion holds up crazy people as saints”.
Neia didn’t reply. She just burned him and turned on her heels.
“Wait”, he caught her and touched her lightly on the shoulder.
He apologized her, for his own behavior this time, and asked to have a better look at the sword. The blade was rotten to the core. It was mendable, but he would have to forge it all over, maybe ten layers. No doubt that a new sword would cost her less.
“This sword set me free”, Neia told him. “It’s this one I want. Is one gold coin enough? Or you don’t take money from crazy people?”
“My name is Kadar” he returned lowering his head. “I’ll make this sword cutting diamonds. But it’ll take me two, maybe three days”.
“There is an inn for the crazy ones”.
“Very good Kadar. I am Neia the Crazy”.
She settled into the inn and when she fell asleep she dreamed of Kadar as a male deer piercing her with his antlers.
She woke up upset and made it to the smithy. Once Kadar’s father saw her, he left the place. Kadar himself was delighted to see her. He stopped working and offered her tea.
When he went back to his anvil, Neia kept looking anywhere else but to his direction because his cotton clothes he had on had become wet and were clinging to his body.
She got up, turned her back on him and made a show of observing the place. In there, among pitchforks, knives and horseshoes, she spotted a knight’s armour. She picked it up with great difficulty. Beneath the place of the heart there was a hole the size of a nut.
“Could you fix it, too?”, she inquired.
“Even if I could mend it, it wouldn’t fit you. The man who used to have it was probably twice as heavy as you are”.
“ Could you make a new one for me?”
“Your only option is to go downtown. But even there, it’s very hard to find one at your size”.
“If I ask to customize one for me, how long will it take?”
“Two weeks…a month maybe. Will you wait for so long?”
His question was not a trader’s one.
“The dragon can wait”, Neia told him.
“Fine…but you must allow me to get your measures”.
“Here I am”, she said spreading her arms.
They slept together that night and the nights that ensued. They were trying to keep it secret, but the entire village knew about them. But Neia was a foreigner, a heathen and therefore she was allowed to be immoral.
When the armour finally arrived four months had come and gone and by then her belly had become round. It was impossible to fit in it and, after all, how could she hunt down dragons since she was up the sprout?
“The dragon can wait” she told him.
“But our child can’t” Kadar said. “We should get married”.
They went together to the smithy. Kadar began talking to his father. Neia had learned some words, but they were talking so fast that she could hardly pick up any of them that passed between them.
The father began talking, shouting and then he pointed towards Neia. Kadar stood face to face with him. He told him just a single sentence while clenching his fists. Father and son looked daggers at each other for a few minutes. Then the eyes of the father welled up with tears, shook his head and left disappointed; defeated.
Neia later found out what they said. The father disapproved of the wedding. How could his only son marry a foreigner, a heathen, a…whore? And he pointed at Neia.
Then Kadar stood menacingly before him and told him:
“I respect you as much as I respect God. But speak ill once more about my wife and I swear I’ll kill you”.
A compromise solution was achieved. Neia would espouse their religion to get married. She didn’t care a whit about it. Long before she figured out that religion is not a matter of the Gods, but the people’s. She should behave and dress as befitted a faithful woman.
She resented this, but she could feel life growing day by day inside of her and she knew that there was nothing more important than that. She was patient and the dragon could wait.
She gave birth to a girl that they named Zarifa. She had inherited her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s complexion and hair. Neia began breastfeeding it – and the dragon could wait.
Before the first child learns to walk, she was pregnant again. When the first-born learned to talk, she was pregnant in the third; and she had forgotten the dragon altogether.
Zarifa was five years old when she asked her mother, for the first time, from where she was coming from; some children told her that she was a stranger.
Neia talked to her about her birthplace, her village and her family.
“Why did you go?” Zarifa inquired to know.
“To kill the dragon”, she answered absent-mindedly as if she was talking about someone else.
“Mums don’t kill dragons” said the little one and gave a laugh.
“Neia put her to sleep next to her sisters. Then, like a sleepwalker, she went down to the smithy. She spotted the armour she once had asked for. Kadar had put it up for sale, but no man so small, warrior no less, ever turned up to buy it. She saw her reflection on the metal and she saw a woman she didn’t recognize.
She waited for her husband from the coffee shop where she was not allowed to go. When he entered the house, she announced him the decision she had made: she would go to the mountain to kill the dragon.
Initially Kadar found it amusing but then he was outraged.
“I thought you had forgotten this madness a long time now”.
“I remembered it”.
“You can’t go. You know that. You’re a mother. Your place is here, where your children are”.
“If I were a man, I could go. No one would say a word. You go to war, to trade, to travel, to kill, it is you who leave your children behind.
“But you’re not a man, you’re a woman”.
“Well, the woman who stands before you is about to go”.
Neia got to her feet and he had an urge to hit her, but he regretted it.
“You’re out of your mind” he told her.
“You knew that, didn’t you?”
On the morrow she put some food in her bindle, she took her sword and struggled to put on her armour. She had a hard time to fit in it. Kadar came behind her and helped her out.
“I’ll come with you”
“You stay and keep an eye on the girls. This is my dragon”.
She kissed him and bid farewell to the kids, too. The younger ones didn’t quite perceive what was going on. Only Zarifa figured it out. She told her in her ear: “Don’t be afraid, mum. I’ll help you when I become a woman”.
Neia mounted her horse. She put out her bandanna and let her hair loose. She saw Kadar’s eyes in tears.
“What are you staring at?”
“I’ve missed that girl.”
And she rode to the east, to the mountain where rumour had it that a dragon laid there.
- Women don’t kill dragons
The greatest deeds lose their splendor if they are not put into words.
Words fly away, deeds are passed out of memory, people die. The whole world, too, vanishes every night in the darkness.
My days are numbered. My blurry eyes see both the miracles and the crimes. But as the light slowly fades I remember more vivid than ever everything I heard and lived; maybe because it won’t be long that I’ll lose it all.
Before they are perished with me, I feel it is my duty to write down the adventures of Neia, who become widely known as the Dragonkiller. Once she was just my mother. But now, in the twilight of my life, I can understand that she was much more than this.
Many tales have been written about her, strictly by men. I think I should write my version, not to reveal the truth but to transfuse blood into my myth.
Everything is myth, personal fantasies and this is the narrative of Zarifa Elif about Neia, the Dragonslayer.
Neia left the village two months before the heathens, those who bear the symbol of their god on their chest, came and slew on his name.
No one ever wondered if they were doing the right thing. Do swans apologize for their beauty?
She rode on her horse eastwards, to the mountains where everyone said a dragon was living. No one had ever caught a glimpse of it or get close to it, but the rumour of its existence sufficed.
She got a hostile reception everywhere she went. A woman with loose hair, a sword, a horse and armour was nowhere welcome until they found out her purpose. Crazy are saints.
They were offering their bed to sleep. They pulled out all the stops to cook the best for her. We should show respect to the crazy ones and the goners; to the latter as an act of mercy and to the former as an act of admiration because the lunatics change God’s plans, as the Prophet has said.
Her horse and the words of the faithful ones bore her to Hassan-i Sabbah’s, the Old Man of the Mountain, aerie. The dragon’s rumour went through Alamut, the impregnable forest.
Everybody knew the Old Man; he was their protector. He was a wise and merciless man with 1,000 Hassansins under his command. These soldiers believed in nothing but Hassan. They were smoking hashish every time they prayed and they were dying for their leader, they would kill for their leader without reservation.
No woman had ever set foot anywhere near Alamut. The few men who did so were killed long before they set their eyes on the walls. That’s what Neia was informed but she didn’t seem to bother about the others fate. She was moulding her own life, without ever giving a single thought on her death.
She headed for the Alburz Mountains completely off her guard. Pretty soon she was followed by Hassansins, who also led the way, initially from a distance, side by side afterwards. But they didn’t assaulted her, neither did they speak a word, they were reduced to cover their faces in their hood when she was glancing at them.
Once she reached Alamut she figured out why the faithful and heathens alike referred to it as aerie. The walls were built at the top of the world, above the clouds. Even the sun seemed to be closer to the fortress. Neia felt as if she was flying with her horse, as if she was riding the Prophet’s Burāq.
The gates opened before she got there while the Hassansins stood still at the battlements and on the rocks. They had orders to allow her pass, she alone, the only woman who ever reached Alamut.
In the fortress there was nothing superfluous. No servants, no ornaments, not even light. It looked more like a monastery.
Two Hassansins led her to what must be the throne hall because there was no throne or hall.
It was a cell with a wooden door similar to the others they passed by. They didn’t knock it, they simply gestured her to go in.
In there, Neia found the Old Man sitting in the half-light. He was bald like an eagle. He was reading a parchment in his hand. He made no sign of acknowledging her presence. He was stroking his head and he was thinking. Only when she stood there for quite a long time did he talked to her, chewing his words.
“We are the hollow people”, he told her.
Neia didn’t say a word. What could she possibly reply, after all.
The Old Man raised his head a bit and gave her a look. Neia had never seen such a man with such a stare. She could understand why the Hassansins would give their life for him. You had no option, but obey him; nothing else.
“Of all the wise men and the prophets, including the One Prophet no less, I learned but a single story. The hollow men are fettered in the cave and they are aware of the existence of the shadows alone. Until somebody casts off their chains; only they can see the true light”.
“And what happens to them?” Neia wanted to know.
“They die. It happens to everyone”.
“What for, then?”
The Old Man smiled faintly. The formation on his lips didn’t remotely look like a smile.
“This is why I let you come”, he told her.
“It’s not enough for me. No matter what the wise men and the prophets say, it’s not enough for me. Some people are here to change the ways, the customs, the laws. I do mean to change something more important”.
“Not to die”.
“This is why I let you come”.
There was a dragon and there was a prophecy. No man could ever kill it. The prophecy proved to be true for a thousand years. Women were fettered in the cave made by men. Only one could change the course, to get a glimpse outside. This woman would be Neia, but she didn’t know it yet.
He who would drink the dragon’s blood would become immortal, that’s how the prophecy went; and that was exactly what the Old Man asked from Neia.
“What shall I get in return?”, she asked him.
“I will let you go”.
“If I go all the way there, if I kill the dragon, why shouldn’t I drink its blood?”
“I have no answer to this, I don’t get it”, the Old Man said. “You tell me:
With what would you exchange eternal life?”
Neia didn’t speak, but she knew the answer.
She turned around to leave the place.
“What would you give?” she asked him.
“Everything”, the answer came readily to his lips.
She felt sorry for him and the pity manifested in her eyes.
“Then you have nothing”, she told him.
The Hassansins took her to the end of the mountain. Beyond that, the road to the dragon began. She rode her horse as far as it could. Then, it refused to go further a single step.
She went on foot among the rocks because there was nothing else but rocks and light. And she saw it sitting on the top.
He felt no fear. She felt awe. It possessed a lion’s body and an eagle’s head. It had wings, too. It wasn’t a he-dragon, it was a she-dragon; only the females possess wings.
The dragoness spoke to her. I have no clue if she spoke the language Neia had been taught since she was born or if it was the Prophet’s one. Yet she could understand it way better even if she was talking to herself.
“You are late”, the dragoness told her.
“You had been waiting for me”.
“You set off seven years ago”.
“I loved; four people”.
Neia could read her mind. She had given birth to an egg a thousand years ago. The emperor’s men took it by guile because the shell was a golden one.
“It was then that I stopped living and I was waiting for your coming”, the dragoness told her. “The last seven years were the hardest”.
She sat down and lowered her neck.
“Bring an end to my time”.
Neia remembered of the hunter who had told her that the dragon wasn’t likely to sit down to be slain; and yet, she was calmer than the deer.
“I can’t kill you”, he told her.
“If you don’t, you won’t become a knight”, returned the dragoness.
“A knight…there is no feminine form for that”.
“The Old Man awaits to bring him my blood”.
“Once I made a promise that I won’t fight for somebody else’s cause”.
The dragoness raised her head. She looked at Neia and then she pointed at something beyond the clouds.
“See”, she told her. “You humans take oaths and make promises. But there comes a time when you must make a decision against your oaths. What is dearest to you? See for yourself”.
And she did see, through the eyes of the dragoness; thousands of men, soldiers from distant lands with the symbol of their god on their chest. They left nothing but dead in their wake.
She did see. The soldiers were ravaging her village. Kadar was dead. Her daughters had become slaves.
“Is it already done?”
“Maybe it will be. It’s up to you. You can’t stop it all by yourself. You need fire to fight fire. The Old Man will give it to you. But you have to give him blood in return…come on: what is dearest to you?”
She lowered her head, she lowered her eyes and anticipated the strike of the sword.
My eyes see dimly. But as the light fades I can recall clearer than ever everything I heard and I lived.
I was a child. We got news that the heathens were approaching. There was no time to flee. My father wanted to put up a fight. The others didn’t allow him to do so. They hastily collected everything golden and alabaster they possessed, every fabric and artefact. We stood at the entrance and we were praying they would show mercy on us. But we knew in our hearts that those who were coming had no mercy for the defeated ones.
From a distance we could discern the banners and the armours. The children were crying. The mothers were hugging them. The men were shaking out of rage and fear.
I was the first one who saw her coming. She was on the lead on her horse. Her hair was loose and she had her sword in her hand; and behind her there were a thousand black riders. Black were their horses, black were their clothes, black were their hoods and black were their weapons.
They were galloping, but excluding the thud of their hooves that were disturbing the ground, they were making no other sound. They were like a horde of ghosts and if there wasn’t my mother leading them on, I would have believed that they were coming from the other side.
A wise man said once that the best way to win a battle is to finish it before you even go to fight.
The heathens saw the ghosts, they saw the woman who was driving them on and they were defeated before they fight. They turned around to flee, leaving behind those who didn’t ride a horse.
The Hassansins caught up with them and fell on them like a storm. They didn’t kill them. They were mutilating them. They were cutting legs, arms, ears and noses; but they were letting them live.
When they would reach their ships, those who made it, they would speak of the evil that came upon them and their leaders would see the wounds on the bodies and faces of their soldiers.
Never again would they cross the lands ruled by the black riders and Neia, the Dragonslayer.
My mother stayed at home and recited everything that took place at Alburz Mountains. Shortly, the Dragonslayer left again.
That’s how I remember her. She was coming as a mother and she was leaving as a Dragonslayer. I remember two faces.
Now, as my eyes get dimmer, I see more clearly. Not one, neither two, not even a thousand.
She had the face of all women that existed, exist or ever exist; and mine, too.
This was the narration of Zarifa Elif, in the 572 year of the Hijra.