And lo, the Knights of Heavensgate came upon the Mountain which would launch them towards God, and they saw that it was Good.
With marbled sides pink in the setting sun, it penetrated the clouds, and ash spume unfurled from the rents made by dragon tooth and claw. The big mountain’s energy shuddered up through the great slug feet of the Knights’ ferocious snail mounts, rattling the Knights’ bones in their armour. The Knights stroked the lengths of their metal sheaths, and declared, yes, the Moon was in the correct position. The Scriptures foretold: the dragon would come.
The priests who had maintained the eyrie for ten years since the last attempt at God watched the Retinue approach the Mountain from their lofty crag and began bickering amongst themselves who would present first to the Knights. Their time of meaning was over. Nevermore would they bask naked upon the Mountain’s slope, or stroke and soothe the enormous golden egg, left to harden on the glowing rocks one night months ago when they were all asleep. They would return to the cold boredom of the monastery and write fretfully about their time with the egg until God saw fit to take them in their sleep many years hence.
From her place at the rear of the twelve-knight Retinue, Ser Sereena silently observed the Mountain, the ant-like priests, and the lateness of their arrival. She prayed to her ancestor that her experiment was Pure of Thought and she would be the one successful at meeting her Maker. Though all the other Knights of the Kingdom, the King, and the priests spoke scornfully and often of the weakness of a woman’s blood, how women should attend to earthly bound worries like forming babies and food, Ser Sereena had formed herself with such wit, fortitude, and strength that many thought of her as a man. She was never seen outside of her armour in decent company.
As camp was set near the town at the base of the Mountain—which the Knights paid little mind except for food and succour—Ser Sereena was once again instructed to oversee the comforts of the snails and digging of the latrines. Despite the impudence of the squires under her authority, she attended each task with the determination she gave to all that was demanded of her, lest she be cast with the accusation of Witch Tongue.
Once the snails were feeding upon great hunks of cabbage, her exhausted mount Prudence—the smallest of the Retinue, though Ser Sereena was the tallest and broadest of all the Knights—nuzzled her rider with something akin to understanding. She too knew the way Home well, yet had been restrained by her place in the pack.
Ser Sereena gently polished the gold and cream whorls of her mount’s shell, unable to murmur affection. The journey had been frustration heaped upon frustration, Ser Derrick choosing to ford the rivers rather than travel the bridges and forests which were easier upon the snails and fed them better. They had wasted time rescuing snail and human who were swept up by the swift current. She knew the way to the Mountain, the way Home, like the striations of Prudence’s shell, but Ser Derrick would hear nothing of her expertise. It irked him enough that she had proven her worth to the Retinue through painstaking research of her lineage.
The tapestries were undeniable—she was a direct descendent of the Hermit who was the first, and only, to look upon the Face of God.
Only one other person in the Retinue understood the importance of what surged in Ser Sereena’s blood: Wilma, a smith. As Ser Sereena and Wilma were of not enough numbers to create a coven, the Retinue let them be. For now.
First Revel was well underway when Ser Sereena approached the small tent belonging to the blacksmith’s apprentice. Wilma was lucky to have an abode to herself. None of the other apprentices or squires would share space with her because of her blood; a woman of low caste in a middle trade. The Knight was lucky enough to have an armourer willing to tend to her, as she was denied her own squire (“a woman can do her own cooking, cleaning, and sewing” the male Knights scoffed as they unloaded such deeds upon their male squires); ill fit, loose seams, and shoddy edges had almost been the death of her in the past.
As they did every time they rejoined, the two women began with prayer. A surface act for anyone who eavesdropped. The women had fashioned their worship to invoke a more benevolent God. They could not quite bring themselves to give God a female face—those who had chosen to translate the original scriptures and tapestries as such had been branded heathens and had their tongues cut out—but still believed in One who asked for the breath of penitents.
“How did Prudence fare on the last leg of the journey?” Wilma asked as they idled over hot stew and wine.
“She fed well enough,” Ser Sereena affirmed, though she allowed her expression to twist just a little. As if hearing herself invoked, Prudence nosed into the tent searching for comfort and food, and the Knight tried on a small smile. “Her mucus remains thick.”
“I am pleased to hear that.” Wilma spoke around a mouthful of stew, glad she did not have to hide her hunger. She patted Prudence on the snout before Ser Sereena shooed the snail on her way.
“How goes the fashioning of my ceremonial helm?” Ser Sereena asked, also revelling in the first full meal she had enjoyed in a while. She closed her eyes, savouring a mouthful of fresh bread.
“Only the polishing remains,” Wilma replied, folding the oilcloth back to reveal a helm of extra beauty. “The scrollwork around the mouthguard has come up well.”
Ser Sereena weighted the helm, nodding, impressed. “Such lightness! One would barely know the tempering which has gone into this metal.”
Wilma could only nod her thanks. Putting a voice to her talent would see her dragged before Ser Derrick on accusations of Witch Tongue, though it was undeniable her skill had surpassed her master’s many a moon ago. And deny it her master did. She would have left the forge of Heavensgate a long time past, seeking the whispers and legends of other Kingdoms who purported to upraise such skill, such Witch Tongue, if it wasn’t for Ser Sereena and her True Aim towards God.
Neither of these subjects, that of snail excrement and etchings on helms, were unrelated. The two women spent the rest of the evening polishing small imperfections from Ser Sereena’s armour. They commented on the rumbles from the Mountain. They spoke of the Scriptures; which dragon from God would bear the Knights from lowly Earth to exalted Sky upon the Flame of Righteousness?
While they wove womanly chatter, Wilma pointed out the pockets fashioned into the helm, easily sealable with snail mucus.
Between the Knight’s cunning mind and the blacksmith’s cunning hands, they had fashioned something they believed worthier of God, an experiment in breath mixed with earth.
Three concentric circles gathered around the golden dragon egg; Knights, squires, priests.
The egg gleamed with a perfection unseen during other attempts to reach God. At two times the height of the tallest Knight, the worth of its shards would spark wars. The Knights took this as a great sign that they were to be the ones to finally succeed at penetrating the Sky.
Fearful and bored, Wilma stood behind Ser Sereena who had been positioned as far across the circle as possible from Ser Derrick. The squires either side of Wilma mirrored their Knights, keeping an indiscreet distance, sneering at her mannish haircut and forge-singed trousers.
Wilma had been ordained as Ser Sereena’s temporary squire the night before in a begrudging acknowledegment of the Scriptures. All Knights required a squire to hold their goblet and extra breath. Even though the eleven other Knights secretly believed Ser Sereena kept extra arms for her Work hidden behind her breastplate, as all witches were wont to do, they couldn’t deny the Word of God.
Wilma thanked Heaven on behalf of her Knight for the concession. She was the only other person in the Retinue who could approach Prudence without fuss. She glanced inside the goblet, ostensibly the vessel from which to drink God’s fountain upon arrival in Heaven; the freshly milked mucus from the battle snail remained moist.
The master blacksmith had been happy to sacrifice Wilma to the Sky, the Knights happy to whittle the almost-coven to one. Or none if all went well for them, as women were known to waste their breath on useless chatter and screams rather than holding it in the time it took to meet their God.
Ser Sereena and Wilma performed the acts of Leaning In and Exclamations of Truth along with the others, eagerly searching for signs of hatching, though they were disallowed the Stroking of Sheaths. Wilma felt the irony in the denial of the ceremonial armour sheath—metal for Knight, leather for squire—as she had been bade to fashion the metal poles for the Knights. Despite the ridicule of her master, she had taken up the task with a stone face, steady hand, and slightly smaller measurements than were required.
At each crack upon the egg’s face, the priests took up feverish dancing full of manly leaps and kicks until they collapsed, gasping for the breath which would betray the Knights the further the Sky took them. At one point in the revel, a priest fell and did not rise again.
Overlaying this passion rose Ser Derrick’s stentorian voice, reading from the only copy of the Scriptures of Heavensgate allowed on the journey. The gold, jade, and vermillion pages gleamed in firelight flung up by the talon-cut trenches in the dragon eyrie floor.
He read a traditional service, starting with the Parable of the Hermit, the First, and only, to visit God and come back speaking of His wondrous Face and the Beauty of Heaven. He put emphasis on the fierceness and volatility of that first dragon, though both Ser Sereena and Wilma had seen with their own eyes the Original Scriptures which spoke of the friendship and devotion between the Knight’s ancestor and the dragon. Neither of them could dispute Ser Derrick’s interpretation. A high-woman always required a witness, and for Wilma to witness would be to admit she could read. A low-woman reading was an invocation of heresy.
Ser Derrick laboured on the Commandments at length. The egg’s true veracity lay within the dragon which laid it, who was yet to return to the Mountain to oversee her spawn. The Commandments spoke to the Proper Sex of the dragon to be birthed, its wingspan, the angle and fullness of the Moon, the number of penitents, and the number of breaths between Mountain and God.
The Failures sat sweet upon Ser Derrick’s tongue as he attempted to strike fear in the hearts of the penitents. Ser Sereena had studied all the other Retinues to God at length: the ones who suffocated, who did not tie themselves tight enough to the dragon’s back, who ironically threw themselves Earthward due to a fear of heights, and the ones who survived as shells of their former selves muttering of bright lights and fearsome eyes. She had surmised their failure and hypocrisy. Each one had fed adaptation and reinterpretation of the Commandments over the centuries, though Ser Derrick read from his manuscript as if it was the Original Scripture.
As the night wore on and the Moon bared a waxen grin upon the convocation, Wilma spent her time imagining what great things she could forge with the collected wealth of the dragon’s shell. She had often dreamed of a magnificent gate to a haven where all witches would be welcome to live in peace. She had wanted the dream to be a sign from God, had heard whispers of such places where women were free to be warriors and kings and poets, but women of Heavensgate with such visions were burned at the stake. Therefore, it could only be her overactive imagination.
The few moments she found quiet with Ser Sereena had been her haven. Despite the warnings, Wilma liked the staunch, quiet Knight. They had survived this long because they shaped their hair, bodies, tongues, and manner as that of men, but they were never allowed to forget they were not men. They wielded sword and forge-tongs with frightening proficiency, warding off any who attempted Rights with them. The two women stuck to each other’s company—safety in just enough numbers—preferring Witch Tongue with which to polish armour.
Would they survive to find that haven again?
The cracks in the night began to echo the cracks in the great egg. The distance between the Knights and the squires widened. Whispers thrived. Perhaps God was not pleased with the taint of female upon the Retinue. It was known that Mother Dragons did not abide competition. The best worst scenario was that Ser Sereena would be eaten first.
A great piece of the firmament broke off and smothered the Retinue with fear and obeisance. The inner two circles genuflected to the enormous winged monster stitched from God’s skin and starlight. Many of the priests forgot themselves and fell on their faces. Most of the Knights had managed to teach their squires about maintaining poise upon their knees, though the stench of piss rose from some.
Pressed apart in the claustrophobic chaos, a priest fell from a ledge, his shriek echoing down the mountainside. One giant misstep, and another priest went under dragon foot, a splatter of blood and bone.
Wilma gaped in wonder. The dragon filled the eyrie with her dark majesty, a black so rare even the night Sky would be envious. Her lizard eyes, terrible teeth, and claws shone a silver which must be stolen from the stars in the passing fervour to reach her offspring.
She was truly the most magnificent vessel to carry the Knights to God.
The Knights recovered from their pious stance and whipped ropes about the dragon’s neck, legs, and wings. The confines of the cave and the persistence of motherhood acted as intended. Crouched over her egg, gnawing the puzzle pieces away to reveal a slimy sac pulsing with eye, claw, and scale, the dragon underestimated the cruelty of man.
In that moment, Wilma discovered the inhumanity, the injustice, of taming such a glorious beast.
As if feeling the rawness of rope on scale, Ser Sereena made her bindings more forgiving. Somehow in the fervour the dragon noticed this softer touch and swung her great head about to bare her teeth at Ser Sereena. While others scattered, she held fast and stared into the lightning eye of the Mother Dragon. The blink the dragon gave Ser Sereena seemed full of, if not understanding, a kinship of rage.
Soon the Knights were tied to their perches between the bony knots on the dragon’s spine, scoffing at her distressed whines. The squires settled into the basket which would dangle beneath the dragon’s belly.
Amid the furore, the dragon managed to break her hatchling free and lick the thick sac clean from its quartz-pink scales. The Knights deemed the hatchling female on this colouring alone, despite the mother’s colour. Ser Sereena had to close her ears to this pontification. Some witches whispered it was even incorrect to assume an egg-bearing dragon was female, given the myth of the great bronze Ser Sereena’s ancestor rode, but they had all lost their tongues for such heresy.
The priests delivered hefty, steaming chunks of farmed snail and mountain boyak, so that the dragon’s first repast would not be that of human.
Wilma smeared her mask with the congealing snail mucus before passing the goblet to her mistress. Though the basket was only just big enough to carry the twelve squires, the boys still managed to leave a gap around her, their leather sheaths pointing in accusation. They had chosen ornate masks of leather or wood to hold their breath until God: harlequins, beasts, and sea serpents. In comparison, Wilma’s metal faceplate looked simple and ostentatious at the same time. If they survived—if—the squires may mark her for heresy, but she had one advantage they did not. Not only did her mask match her mistress’s in style, she had also fashioned herself similar breath pockets.
With the sun threatening the horizon, there was only a little time left as prescribed by the Scriptures, and the Knights renewed their chants with fervour. Nature and God’s Will reasserted themselves, and the great dragon turned her face towards Heaven and bellowed. Her child must be anointed by God if it was to swim the heavens like she.
Not the weight of the Retinue, the warm, drowsy pull of the Mountain, or the scent of hysterical battle snails could hold her to Earth any longer. With a crack of her night-deep wings, she leapt from the eyrie ledge and aimed her intention straight towards the fast-setting Moon.
The hatchling followed with a cawing mewl. The basket fell and caught on its ropes tied to the dragon’s underbelly with a stomach- and heart-wrenching lurch. Squires shrieked and vomited, bile leaking out the mouth holes of their masks. One squire fell out to join the fate of the lost priest, his bones making a sickening crunch on the bare rocks.
Wilma kept one hand wrapped in a rope, the other on her mask. If her death was as near, she wanted to see it all the way through to the end.
Swoops of the dragon’s wings rushed freezing air into Wilma’s face, and she used the opportunity to gulp breath. Ser Sereena would be doing the same, storing sips of air into the mask pockets and sealing them with snail mucus. Wilma caught glimpses of the wondrous view spread like a banquet below: the black and pink Mountain; the thatched roofs of the village; the patchwork of green fields; the thirsty trickle of river; and far beyond, the wine-drenched sea.
As the dragon and her child flew higher, sight dimmed, except for the thin silver light from the Moon, stars, claws, and eyes. Wilma struggled to breathe. In the Scriptures, this was described as God’s Indrawn Breath, to discover the worthiness of penitents. It felt more like fire and ice at war in her chest.
The squires’ distress thinned to infant-like squalling as they clutched their throats. Some cast off their masks, faces blue and twisted. One threw himself over the side of the basket, barely missing the hatchling in his fall towards Hell. The baby dragon put on a burst of speed as if deciding the morsel of flesh wasn’t worth the deviation from its mother’s love.
A ringing took up the entire space of Wilma’s head; this was described as God’s Song pulling them onwards. She wondered how God could Hold His Breath and Sing at the same time, but this was God—His Will was resolute and just, and subject to His Whim.
She sipped at the breaths stored in her mask only when her head threatened blackness deeper than the dragon’s scales. The cold mottling her tongue numbed away the gritty distaste of the snail’s mucus.
One by one, the remaining squires fell to the basket floor and lay still.
The Moon grew in the Sky. The wrinkles in God’s Face became deeper and greyer until Wilma could see they weren’t wrinkles at all but pits and curves like those made by catapult or hoe. The Moon looked like land, if only in the most basic of reliefs.
Though she couldn’t hear anything except the rush of God’s Song, Wilma could see the dragon’s mouth open in ecstasy. The hatchling, too, bared its vicious little teeth, each as big as a hand. They both looked ready to take a bite out of God. The great dragon’s black wings captured the stars, though Wilma struggled to make a constellation of that meaning.
And then, there was nothing but Moon.
Silver richness rushed up to greet them. The basket bumped and slid across a powdery surface. Surprised by the amount of dust despite the light landing, Wilma grappled with the ropes and prayed.
One last bump shook Wilma’s bursting head. Her sight faded black on black.
With triumphant screeches large and small, dragon and hatchling settled to the grey firmament. The noise startled Wilma awake, and she made good with the last of her stored breath.
A figure emerged from the murk of the landscape, edges writhing against the dark. First, they were black fire. Then cold sun. Then a patchwork of green, like fields. Then so many colours, some Wilma could not even name.
Finally, the figure looked like the flame and spark beneath a hammer.
God was here.
God came to the dragon. With gentle touches the ropes fell away like sizzling snakes. Metalled bodies fell from the dragon’s spine into the silvery dust, bounced, and lay still. Eleven sheaths stood at attention, demanding God’s attention.
God turned to gaze upon the basket.
“Breathe, Wilma,” God said, Hand outstretched. “Show me your face and breathe.”
God had called her by her name. Not ‘my child’, or ‘witch’ for outliving the male squires.
Shuffling through the inert bodies in the basket, Wilma removed her mask, took in a deep breath, and found the air on the Moon was good and sweet, tasting like a cool spring day.
And Wilma saw He wore the body of a woman.
Not just any woman, but one who resembled Ser Sereena. Brown skin, eyes of obsidian fire, long fingers, thick waist, muscular thighs and biceps. God’s Hair was much longer than the Knight’s, brushing Her Shoulders in tight, dark kinks.
Wilma lowered her eyes, face suffused with fire. How could this be?
God was speaking again, but to another.
Some of the Knights had survived the journey too. Thank God! Though Wilma recognized not the form of the words, she discerned the low, warm cadence of Ser Sereena’s voice. Her mistress spoke to God!
“Stand up, Sereena,” God spake, annoyance in Her gestures and tone. “We don’t kneel to each other.”
Sereena gazed up in wonder. Her breath came easier, but her will did not. Nothing, not even a man, had feared her so as seeing God wearing her face.
“Who are…who is this ‘we’?”
Sereena glanced at the other surviving Knight lying curled about himself in the dust. The longest sheath of them all denoted Ser Derrick, barely alive, Moon dust puffing gently beneath his mouth. She must speak carefully. They had survived this far; what would he make of this evidence against her, against God?
“We are Us.” God gestured expansively, taking in Sereena, Wilma, the happily preening dragons, the Moon. “We are God.”
Sereena steadied herself with her sword plunged into the Moon dust like a flag. This was a more God-like proclamation.
Wilma approached, keeping a fear-filled distance between God, the dragons, and Ser Derrick. The dragon whuffed at the dust, and Wilma froze in place.
Sereena juggled her attention too. Dragons were known to eat virgins on a whim. God was known to ignore famine, disaster, and death when it suited. Ser Derrick was well known for his jealous ways.
As if sensing the women’s fear, God approached the hatchling and planted a kiss on its scaled head. “Asalow is God.”
The Mother Dragon bugled. Clouds of dust puffed from her beating wings. Sereena and Wilma stoppered their ears until the excited echo subsided.
“We agree it is a Good Name,” God smiled. She patted an enormous claw. “And Venkat here is God.”
The Mother Dragon nuzzled her ferocious head against God. Knight and squire were astonished out of their cringe.
“If they have Names, and we have Names, then what is your Name?” Sereena asked. Again with the impertinence! She would surely be crucified if the other Knight was feigning befuddlement.
“My Name is God,” God said with a shrug.
Sereena shook her head as if to push away the remnants of her breathlessness. How could she Bear Witness to this? God was not making any sense at all.
Sereena’s attention was suddenly captured by the sheer scope of Earth—swirling white, green, gold, and blue, so much blue!—upon the edge of the Moon. Earth was the Moon’s moon! She gulped at the strange taste in her mouth, steadying her face, forcing her gaze back towards God. It would not do to fall off the edge of the Moon in this moment.
Silence stretched into discomfit. God scratched Venkat under the chin, and she purred.
Finally, Ser Derrick stirred.
“Oh, still alive?” The kick God aimed at the Knight’s helm caused a mighty clang, and Ser Derrick lay still, his chest rising no more. “Pity.”
Sereena and Wilma stared. The only credible man who could attest to their Witness when—if—they returned, gone. And by God’s Wrath too!
“It’s safe.” God raised Her Voice a little. “You can come out now.”
And so they came, melting out of the stark shadows, emerging as if spirits from the pale dunes, pulling themselves up like demons from ragged rocks. Stars wove their hair and skin and mouths much like Venkat’s hide, the endless universe their bodies, their unknowable bodies the universe.
“Who…who are they?” Sereena breathed, wonder and longing staining her tongue.
“God,” said God.
“They all wear bodies of women!”
“No. Not all of them are Women, but none of them are men.” God gave the name of that other sex in such a way it seemed very small, and Sereena shivered for the first time at the coldness. The deliciousness.
God allowed the Knight and squire the full scope of their wonder. Even with her full ceremonial armour and sword, Sereena felt like she could dance and spin forever across the white dust of Heaven like a devil wind.
Wilma wondered if she could have that body. And that one…or that one too.
The people drifted like mist around the newcomers, touching in benediction. God’s Truth was truth; some wore womanly bodies, others bore the shapes of people Sereena hadn’t dared dream possible. She recognized faces from legend, and the shape of those recalled only by Witch Tongue: warriors and princesses; virgins, whores, and the lost; witches and wanderers; ogres, giants, and dragons; banshees and sirens; beautiful masculinity; proud ugliness; the broken, statues, weak; those who Should Have Been, and Those Who Were.
God, all of them.
Once they all gathered around, their circle forever deep, God kissed Wilma on the forehead. Her cold lips lingered like a favoured burn upon Wilma’s skin. “Here is the one who will temper our gate,” God said.
Something lurched in Wilma’s chest, and she clenched her hands as if around unseen hammer and iron.
God blessed Sereena last, a kiss to each cheek. “And here is the one who holds our story.”
Sereena was rendered breathless, but as God stepped back to head the shining horde, her breath rushed back in, cool, relentless, and full of words to come.
“Welcome Home, God,” God said.
Story copyright © 2019 by AJ Fitzwater
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Sharon J. Gochenour
AJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit-wearing dragon perching broodily in Christchurch, New Zealand. Stories from their dragon tongue have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer Magazine, Glittership, Andromeda Spaceways, and other venues of repute. They survived the trial-by-wordfire of Clarion 2014. They eat knights for twitter breakfast at @AJFitzwater.
Sharon J. Gochenour is a writer and illustrator who has gone many places and done many things.