She can’t remember the last time she laughed. Really, really laughed. At least, not since that day. She was about seven or eight, and her cousin Teralyn was chasing her across the ash. On summer days the soot was so dry it would bloom off the dirt and dust your face as you ran. You could tell how bad you were at tag by the amount of ash on your chin, and so it seemed fitting that by the time Teralyn caught her, she had grown a full-fledged beard.
Looking at her hapless cousin, Meresine couldn’t help but giggle. And when Teralyn could only offer a brainless stare in response, she laughed so hard she started to cough. It’s only when the blood started pouring out of her teeth that she knew something was wrong.
The elders warned them to never go back. They said the ash was bad for their lungs. But they would do it anyway, laughing and scampering across stretches of ancient terrain. They would climb up the frayed, charcoal trees and take turns shooting arrows at the sky. They would crawl down into the smoke-stained dirt, laying their ears to the ground so they could listen to the mysteries of the dead. And while the smoke thickened and the earth cooked in the hot wrinkles of air, the land itself remained faultless. The ground underneath was home.
The coughs were violent then – the blood erupting from her throat – but now, years later, they merely echo, the flares of pain replaced with deaf streams of heat. When she touches her chest, the blood leaks unflinchingly down the wound’s lip, content to pour slowly over a dimming fire.
The dragon studies her jaw to jaw, because for all their distance, their fight felt the same. Intimate. Still, in the end this archer was just another mortal, another meager ant blind to the futility of its march. Yet what this dragon doesn’t know is that in another life, this mortal had stood side by side with the Dragonborn, the vanquisher of Alduin, and called this person a friend. Now those days are just a reflex, the way you can only look back when time ceases to move forward. And as the smoke rises from her wound, she feels another tug of nostalgia. A voice from a thousand miles away, urging her to come home and lay with the dead.
She spits in its face. Don’t make me laugh, she says, reaching for her dagger. We aren’t done yet.