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Alice: Paul Walton

Alice never seemed to age. I sat on a rock outcropping, looking north to the silver thread of lochs glistening amongst the greens, browns and purples of the Scottish countryside. My breath was harsh in my throat, chest burning from the climb. Forty-five years I’d been making this climb on this day and each time got harder, the mountain seeming steeper and higher.

Alice sat beside me, hand resting lightly on my shoulder. At one time people had smiled when they saw us together, a young couple so much in love. Then they’d started asking me about my ‘daughter’, now it was my grand-daughter. And when she kissed me or showed some other sign of intimate affection in public, there were the looks of distaste, disapproval of our May to December romance. Hah, if only they’d realise that in terms of actual age it was me that was May to her December.

Still, they’d been good years and we hadn’t needed anybody else’s approval. I turned to her, stroking her long red hair, so bright and vibrant, just like she was. Of course she’d told me that I didn’t have to come with her. I did though, I couldn’t miss this day, an unbroken link back to that first time I’d climbed Schichallion, and the last time that I’d climbed it alone. I knew I’d never go down it again though.

“Are you OK Tony,” she said, her voice giving my name that strange exotic twist of hers, more like ‘Tawnee’.

I smiled, “Just old and tired out.”

She nodded and kissed my cheek, slipping her arms round me. She couldn’t hold me for long though, the need to change was too strong in her. My breath misted in the air as she pulled back, removing her backpack and coat. Nobody would be up here this late in the year, the first snows threatening. I watched as she stripped off the rest of her clothes, exposing that beautiful body I’d loved for so many years.

She darted forward to kiss me again on my lips, “Have you taken your medicines?”

“Yes, it doesn’t hurt baby,” I lied, forcing another smile as I held her to me. She doesn’t feel the cold but I shivered on her behalf.

“Are you sure it’s time?”

I nodded, “Yes, I’m sure. I won’t last till next year baby, the cancer is eating me from the inside.”

I felt tears on my neck, “I hate it, I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t baby, I’ll be with you inside you somehow, I love you so much.”

“I love you too Tony,” she said, her tears moistening my face as she rubbed her cheeks against mine.

“Go baby, you need to change. I can feel the movements under your skin.”

“I’ll never forget you,” she said, standing and stepping back. The air around her shimmered, a golden glow surrounding her, obscuring her, then growing into the rough outline of her true form. Once each year on this day she had to take it; she had no choice. The rest of the time she could conceal herself among humanity. Her form slowly resolved into the beautiful green scaled dragon I remembered from that first time I’d seen her.

I’d climbed the mountain as a challenge, to the highest peak, looking over the Rannoch moors to the west. I’d been twenty-four, strong and confident. As I’d stood there I’d seen Alice’s true form in the distance, not believing my eyes. At first I thought she was a bird, an eagle maybe. Then I’d thought she was a jet fighter as she was moving too fast for any bird. As she approached though the only word in my stunned mind was ‘Dragon’. And she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.

She soared and swooped, each movement expressing pure joy in flight and in life. My heart ached it was so beautiful. She had seen me standing there on the peak, watching her, and had come down to land before me.

Any mortal who sees me must die.

The words came into my mind, I had no doubt who they were from.

“It is worth dying to have seen you,” I said, meaning it. I’d walked towards her with my arms outstretched. She’d bowed her head to look at me; she said later that she wasn’t sure if it was the sheer stupidity of it or bravery that so impressed her. She had changed to her human form though, smiling at me.

“I have to kill you, you understand that? It is the law of my kind.”

“I understand,” I’d said, flustered by her sheer beauty, she seemingly unconcerned about being naked in the freezing air.

“I don’t necessarily have to kill you right away though.” She’d smiled, holding out a hand to me. I took it and, all these years later, I’ve never let go of it in my heart.

I watched her now as she spread her wings with a leathery crack, roaring in sheer delight at returning to her true form. I pushed myself up to my feet, walking slowly over to her, the pain biting me despite the drugs. She watched as I approached, bowing her head to me. I wrapped my arms round her snout one last time, kissing her between the flared, raised nostrils, feeling the heat of her breath warming me.

“One last dance baby,” I said.

I turned then, walking up to the peak where I’d first seen her. So many years. Good years and good times with her. We’d seen the world, climbed the highest mountains, laughed and cried at films and books and life. And we’d loved each other unreservedly, I’d never even looked at another woman. How could I? I hated that I’d grown old on her, too weak and feeble to do the things we’d so enjoyed. This one last time though I would stand proud.

She is in the sky now, diving and climbing, tumbling in joyous abandon on the invisible air columns, her cries a mixture of pain and joy. Jets of flame, sharp against the dull grey sky. One last dance. And now she flies over me, her last look at me. I spread my arms out in welcome as she circles round to face me again, flame playing about her muzzle. I keep my smile steady as I see my love approach me, flame-bright, for one last time.

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