Watch the Dragon’s Tail

Some nights, the moon’s face is full enough to consume the entirety of the east. It perches between the peaks of mountains, glaring down through a multitude of grey eyes that spot its face like warts. Its dim blue fills the space of the sky above, staining it the color of the ocean at midday. So bright was it that not even the stars dared show tonight, having scattered to the far reaches of the horizon, but for one long strand of silver to challenge its hegemony. It was the Dragon’s Tail, the brightest stars the sky could muster, always appearing just after the last light of the sun departs, always in that straight arrow as the other stars around it wax inconstant and ever shift. Northward, it says, night after night, to the wanderers below. Northward to wider steppes and plentiful snowmelt, to conifers and reindeers and the salt of the seaside wind. 

 Below, on earth, a mere mortal stares up at eternity, perceived as much as he perceives, daring the indignation of a god. Only him and the sand and the snow. One soul, in the midst of a sea of the dead. His name is See-Horizon, though it had not been said in some years. He was known by others; Stilts, Dwarf, Horse-Thief, Stranger, Trader, Scum, but never See-Horizon. The last time he heard his own name was right here, or at least not too far away. Upon these jagged moulds of the earth, gold peeks out through layers of white like a fried dough glazed with sugared milk. He had a horse then, and with it came the world. All the corners of this once-hospitable land he could have, so long as they were under her hooves. The sand shifts, as if nervous, under his boots. Snow was often of an even worse temperament. Alone here, he is truly naked underneath the blanket of night. The only path left leads north.

With his eyes closed, he can see again the green plains where now there is only sand. Upon a lonely dune, with a reed flute pressed to his lips, those plains begin to take clear form, becoming hills full of grass, shivering from the touch of the rabbits and the wind. He would chase hawks on the back of his mare, screaming challenges at their cowardice and singing songs in a low bellow like grandfather taught him. That was how a voice was to carry over greater distances on the wind. If he felled a rabbit, he would ride rings around it, shooting its remains again and again until it was embedded with more feathers than a duck. Then Mountain-Sky would trot up, officious and straight-backed, and pull on his ear.

“Enough! You waste perfectly good prey!” Mountain-Sky said, in that old memory, as he had many times before. See-Horizons could not have had more than one hundred moons within him.

“Why? There will be other rabbits,”  See-Horizon replied, rubbing where the skin still pinched. Mountain-Sky had grown first, and his grip was strong. 

“Today. Tomorrow, they will have all run off, having seen their tribesman’s body.” Mountain-Sky grabbed the lead on Mosquito. He had become too crafty, and knew when See-Horizon was planning to escape. “Maybe to Ma-Zo plains, maybe to Lan-Lang. Then we starve while they feast on our misrule.” 

“Then we follow!” See-Horizon raised his little bow triumphantly and waved it. “Neither Papa nor I fear the Long-Chins and Braided-Brows. We are Fire Spears! We will make them chicken-faced!” He pulled back on the string and let it loose, the vibration sounding in the air as he whistled the sound of an arrow. Mountain-Sky huffed, and closed his eyes at See-Horizon.

“First bring down a deer, and then think to hunt man. For now, go pick up your arrows,” he said, and that was that. The details become unclear after. Some vague recollections remain, more as streaks of color, hints of smells and sounds, a blur of vague happiness. They must have eaten well. It would have been the last time they did.

It would not be one more cycle of the moon until they would no longer find themselves alone. Fire Spear land was quickly overrun from the south; a trickle of outsiders at first, but come the crescent of the second moon it was a storm. The open plains were awash with grazing sheep, cattle, strange horses and stranger people. They pulled wagons of animals and bore not only bows and spears for hunting, but gleaming swords and blackened fire-lance. They were Ma-Zo and Lan-Lang, yes, but also Yu-Jan and Er-Qi and even some that Fire Spears have never battled against before. See-Horizon had watched them from hills in their columns, rivers of black hair and brown wool, hands on his bow and hatred painted upon his face. Those who saw him shied away, mostly children. He would bare his teeth at them, as if the mighty wolf, and delighted at how he smelled their fear. They should fear, he had thought. They were invaders. Fire Spears had no mercy in their hearts for invaders.

See-Horizon, in the present, puts down his flute, observing the land that encases him. This was their path once. The remains of their migration had been blown over by dust, obscured forever except to the infinite memory of the sun. However, he could recognize the form of it, the way they met in the wave-like form of his namesake. The invisible scar that cleaved straight towards it, where the Dragon’s Tail trailed like a lazily pointed arm. Now it is the only thing that belongs to him alone, the last son of Fire Spear’s plains, the road that led out of his home.

None of the wise elders could have predicted that the entire steppe could dry; there would be days of rain and days of sun, and the flowers would bloom again, so long as the brave Fire Spears hunted plentifully and kept their horses hale. However, that was as it had become, as the green grass turned to yellow, and brown dirt poked up through the bed like spots of hairlessness on father’s head. Where the rabbits had been so fat that even See-Horizon could bring down at least one in a day, they came to hide cleverer than the polecat, and run faster even than the ripples in the grass. The new plain was no friend to children; only the quickest hand and the sharpest eye could chase down prey, and those hands and eyes could just as easily come from a stranger as a Fire Spear kin. There was no peace out here; they needn’t pretend for long.

“There will be no future for these invaders, or there will be no future for us,” said Grandfather Hawk-Wisdom, over the entrancing open flame in the night, as the summer set down for the year and winter rose up. He looked in the eyes of all the men, then the boys. See-Horizon met his gaze and puffed up his chest. Grandfather must surely see his warrior spirit. He was nearing on one and a half hundred moons. His body grew against the current of hunger; he was ready to battle.

“How? These outsiders are vicious,” said Grandfather Blue-Virtue, though his hand grasped his bow as tightly as his withered muscles would still allow him. A few mutters of concurrence rang around the fire, with no clear source as to which individuals made them. “They come from the South; land of the No-Horses. They bring their hunting-weapons, made for men and not beasts.” This forced Grandfather Hawk-Wisdom to silence, until Uncle Sun-Shadow, still young and angry in temperament, shouted so loud that even the grandfathers were stunned.

“This steppe belongs to us! Our hunt goes to their mouths, and we content ourselves with hunger!” This lit a rage in all the men. Raised voices clamored alongside. “Look at us; we have nothing left to roast in this fire! What are we to do if a Whisker-Ear stole from our salt? Now they steal from our land, which is much the same. Whether you, grandfathers, say good or evil, I choose to drive them out. In the morning!” Many uncles stood and unslung their bows, and not even the hoarse cries of Blue-Virtue could make them return to rest. Cries of “The morning! The morning!” rose as the uncles and cousins, many having indeed not eaten, returned to their yurts. The sated children sheepishly followed, looking back at old Blue-Virtue as they ran back to the embrace of their mothers and fathers. See-Horizon’s father patted him on the head, and he shrugged off the hand, miming another shot of the arrow. Mountain-Sky sullenly stood, giving a sympathetic look to Blue-Virtue.

“Will I go as well?” Mountain-Sky had asked, catching up to father. In truth, he must have already known, for he asked the air. See-Horizon did not hear father’s reply, but it certainly was longer than a mere confirmation or disagreement. His voice was low, sometimes felt more than heard. In the quiet dark, it was silent but to Mountain-Sky, whose ears See-Horizon could not hear through. 

When the morning at last came, Mountain-Sky was there, diligently mounted, with bow slung over his shoulder, his breath erupting in the early dawn. He looked the picture of a grandfather’s story. See-Horizon had run out on foot to see his brother off, waving with both hands and shouting. The silent figure had no response for him, and left. It would be moons again when their gazes would meet, as Mountain-Sky returned years older, upon a horse draped with the limp form of father. See-Horizon ran out to meet them; he saw Mountain-Sky’s face, dry of both tears and life, and he knew then that the Fire Spears had paid for their victory more dearly than if they had lost.

That night, they watched father’s body burn, the smoke carrying his spirit into the sky to become one of the many stars. See-Horizon had not cried, but the weight of the smoke silenced him, hand grasped in his brother’s as if he were only eighty moons old. 

“He was a good hunter,” Mountain-Sky had said after some long silence. “He will ride along the White River. Our victory will see to that.” He spoke more to himself, once again, than to anyone else. “Those Long-Chins. Braided-Brows. They learned to fear the arrows of the Fire Spears.” 

See-Horizon looks up, at the beautiful chain of them, ever-present above his head. He squints at the forms, trying to pick out the visage of his father. They are too far away; each white spot in the sky is the same as any other. Is father even up there? Has Mountain-Sky joined him since? See-Horizon stops, drawing an arrow, one of but four remaining, and nocking it into the bow. He pulls back and looses, allowing it to sail into the sky. His arm had become stronger since he had last seen the Fire Spears, but he cannot shoot the moon from the sky, no matter how much he wishes. Instead, the arrow dives into a patch of snow, bouncing on a shallow angle and skidding with disjointed clatters. See-Horizon does not bother collecting it; it’s no good to him anymore.

Indeed, even the expulsion of the outsiders could not change the tides of fate. Slowly, the entire plains turned more yellow than green, and in the next winter the first snow fell upon the land. See-Horizon did not leave the yurt until it had been moved off of him for fear of it, and even then would not step on ground that had been dusted white. It was an unnatural thing; clouds were made for rain alone. Grandfather Hawk-Wisdom accused bad cultivation of the land. He would repeatedly lambast the various failings of the Fire Spears, mostly to those too young to remember clearly the battles against the outsiders. See-Horizon was beyond hearing what that coward had to say; he did not fight as he urged others to do, and many uncles lay in ashes while the grandfathers huddled in their yurts by their daughters. Try as anyone might, nobody knew of any method to banish the snow and restore the winter rain, and thus in some years the tribe came to forget any fear they had of it.

See-Horizon had become too accustomed to the look of the snow, its sharp feel, its harshness against the eye. He scoops a handful of it and lifts it to his mouth, slurping the half-melted slush and trying not to touch the sand beneath with his tongue. This is his river now, his rain, since the true rivers had grown brown and opaque and froze during the winter. As to why the water itself had become undrinkable, he could not say even now. He can only assume that evil spirits threw dust by the fistful, by the spadeful, into the water as it trickled from the mountains, and by the time it came down to the steppe it had become more mud than water entirely. Not quite sated, but tiring of the effort, he lays down upon the open earth, on top of a patch of open sand, and looks up at the sky, daring the ancient riders on the Dragon’s Tail to come down and feather him. Grandfathers had gone to sleep just like this, and never woken again, frozen to the earth and immovable. The fingers on their corpses would snap as it was shaken, and not even the fire of a sky burial could warm them anymore. What difference did it make now, for those who were so alone that even life had come to mimic death? He had no way to choose life or death. If he was meant to die as they did, shivering in the ground, there was no power in the world that could avert it anymore.

The true end of the Fire Spears would come after, for as their domain grew sparser, more would dare to encroach upon it, even the No-Horses. See-Horizon had seen them for the first time around this portion of the year. He was surprised at their strange yurts; cubed rather than rounded, solid in the body rather than covered.

“Look!” He had exclaimed to Mountain-Sky, riding up to the side and knocking on its facade with a fist. A cry from within rose up, muffled by the solid wall. “How do they bundle this up? How do they carry it? If they set it down here, it will never move again!” Wordlessly, Mountain-Sky had ridden some circles about it, looking closely but almost fearing to touch. He trotted back to See-Horizon’s side and led Mosquito by the lead again, much to both of their annoyance.

“No-Horses have their own way of things,” Mountain-Sky said, as if he knew any more than he obviously did. “Best not to bother them. They are the ones who gave the Ma-Zo their man-hunters. Who knows what they are capable of?”

“Why come this far north then? No-Horse plains are in the south, with all of their trees.” See-Horizon pat Mosquito’s mane as they followed, and she shook her head slightly as if in protest against Mountain-Sky’s direction.

“I cannot guess.” Mountain-Sky looked towards the distant afternoon sun.

“You hate fun.” See-Horizon was stronger now; his voice was deepening. Soon it will be like father’s, though even then he was struggling to recall how it sounded exactly.

“Will I play the part of Grandfather Blue-Virtue?” Mountain-Sky closed his eyes for but a second, and opened them again. “Very well; these No-Horses are a strange people indeed. The matter is, No-Horses graze at the grass like prey. Their plain is still plentiful, but their bottomless bellies drive them to always seek more grass, which is why they have come into our land. They dig rivers through the earth and dump what they dig up into our stream sources. They have three noses and six eyes and spit fire on stones to turn them into man-hunters.” Mountain-Sky had intended to continue speaking but was interrupted when a man emerged from a nearby yurt, so large was he that if he were a Long-Chin or Whiskered-Ear he would break the backs of any horse he sat upon.

“Leave, Stilts! Go into the grass!” he shouted at the pair, and waved a stick at them. Mountain-Sky quickly raised his horse to a canter, and thus Mosquito reluctantly followed suit. The two brothers, having gone far enough away so as to not be within the No-Horse settlement, shared a look. 

“Stilts?” See-Horizon had put on a mockery of the No-Horse man’s nasally and high-pitched voice. He almost wanted to laugh. Mountain-Sky, however, was covered red in an anger he did not even have for the outsider tribes.

“We have no reason to come back here.” Mountain-Sky straightened his back, and urged their horses away from the encampment. It had, in time, turned out to be a lie.

For as one came, so did more, and soon the entire plain was dotted with No-Horse. What little of the grass remained receded, ever northward, or was pulled up and left in burning piles, the ash spreading across the dust in a circle about the No-Horse encampments. The No-Horse were of a habit to hammer at the earth with shining spears, and from that earth grew a mockery of the grass; thin reed-like strands, budding but never flowering, fed with water that no longer came from the sky. What was to become of the Fire Spears? What was to become of their home?

Apparently, this. Windswept nothingness, land of starving, land of too-cold and too-hot. See-Horizon kicks at a patch of sand, watching it billow away. He had learned to hunt scorpion; to close his eyes as he eats. The memories ache in his head like snow. Forget it all, please. Forget Mountain-Sky and the crotchety grandfathers and Mosquito. Live alone, knowing nothing else, and eat the scorpion with ravishing hunger. Instead, they only come back faster, and more vividly. He had wandered in thought, not even seeing the ground beneath. The sky is awash with pictures, and chief among them the Dragon’s Tail, brighter than ever before, cutting a line through them. 

They were never meant to stay long. The earth wouldn’t allow it. How See-Horizon had been blind to that truth for so long, clinging onto the lie of homeland, he couldn’t say. He had cursed the grandfathers to their faces, grabbed Mosquito sharply by the lead and rode out into the pale sand. He had within him one hundred and sixty defiant moons; they burned like suns in his chest. It would be too long before he heard the sound of hooves approaching from behind, and he slowed down to meet them. He had figured that Mountain-Sky would come fetch him, as he had always done.

“Please understand,” Mountain-Sky had said. “Look around you; this is not our home.” Mountain-Sky. There was no question in his voice. “The grass retreats north, and like the reindeer we must chase it. Why do you fight the Grandfathers’ decision?”

“There are rabbits still, somewhere in this land. Our home still. Perhaps there.” See-Horizon pointed, some shifting in the distance. A tunnel underground. A rabbit, perhaps. One of the last ones, a hope that the Fire Spears could continue. In his heart he knew, it must be. Until it emerged, scuttling on eight legs and waving its stinger in cruel defiance at these strange and giant interlopers. He was certain Mountain-Sky could see the disappointment stain hot on his face. 

“Ha!” Mountain-Sky barked, joylessly. “Go on then; eat the scorpions. Dig in the ground for hares leaner than grandfather corpses. The deer have long since stopped wandering through; why do we stay?”

“There is nothing at the end of the world!” See-Horizon wanted to sound confident, but he was betrayed by his reddened face. The betrayal stung his cheeks until they burned like embers. His throat ran thick with anger and hidden resignation. “Northwards is more of this. Sand and snow, and all of the Long-Chins we banished.”

“Rather die out there than here.” Mountain-Sky shrugged. “I am not a No-Horse. I cannot eat their grass. You can have my share of it.”

“Then die a nothing!” See-Horizon turned away, ashamed at having meant it. “I am a Fire Spear! If I must be, I am the only Fire Spear!” A period of silence followed, except for the whistles of the wind and the flapping of clothes. “I will stay; I will steal from these invaders, and eat their fluffy grass-meat if I must! I will kill them and drive them out and water the grass back with their blood!” He raised his bow in the air, feeling the needle-sharp wind strike his bony hands.

“Normally I would grasp your lead and force you along with our caravan,” Mountain Sky said, before pausing. “I would rather you came because you saw it as we do.” He looked up, and See-Horizon did the same. “When you follow us, seek always the Great Rat, keeping it always centered and ahead.” He pointed out the stars, so dim in the sky that even were See-Horizon to squint he could barely distinguish them. “Both the sun and the moon should always be at your back. Trust no other stars; they will hop from your left to your right, and you will be lost forever.” 

“Go, then,” See-Horizon whispered, and he did. Suddenly, he was alone.

The moons passed, and the rains did not return, nor the rivers, nor the steppe, nor the Fire Spears. Instead, See-Horizon, armed with his two hundred moons, learned a great many new words, and practiced them to himself as Mosquito wandered.

“Gold.” The mare shook her head. Was she shocked at the sound of his voice? It had changed much; he almost sounded like father. “Bun. Chief. Butcher. Baker. Sword. Steel. Silver. Copper.” Mosquito pawed at the sand. “Stilts. Dwarf. Thief. Trader. Scum.” The sun hang low in the sky, and See-Horizon approached a village, veiled in hearth smoke. “Village. Hearth.”

Descending from Mosquito’s back, he left her in the middle of the square. Satisfied, he went looking for a bakery. The baker, disappointingly but not shockingly, refused to sell and chased him out. Though his stomach protested, See-Horizon knew better than to beg. Better to sleep hungry than to sleep hungry and be beaten as well.

However, when he returned to the town square, he could not find Mosquito where he left her. For some time, he ran about the village frantically looking for her, knocking some people away to the tune of curses. When he found her again, she was carrying a No-Horse girl, while she giggled to her friends.

“Mosquito!” See-Horizon shouted, running up and grasping the lead from her hands. She pulled back, shrieking. “Off! Off!” The tugging made Mosquito restless, and she thrashed against the both of them.

“Horse-Thief! Horse-Thief!” the girl shouted, baring her teeth at him and kicking with her free leg. As to where so many people suddenly burst from, he could not say, but See-Horison found himself quickly shoved onto the ground. Blows landed from all directions, and no matter where he batted away and kicked he could not hit even one. Quickly, he was pulled to his feet and dragged out to the village limits and shoved roughly away. He looked back at them. Some had their swords. He would not return, nor would he recover Mosquito. Instead, he forced himself to look away at anything in the world but at them. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, and when he opened them, there they were. The procession of the Dragon’s Tail, dim but certainly present, and they called without a voice. His blood awaits him; go north.

That had been just about a moon ago. He looks up at its face, once again having been restored to its fullness. His hunger had left him ages ago; all he lived on was hope. All he thought of was the past, but something in his bones calls him to wonder. He must be near now; what would the Fire Spears say? Would they miss him, as he was wishing they did? Would they have thick and hearty stews, like before, when the grass was green? Why had the landscape not changed? He breaks into a full sprint, towards the tallest dune he could find, leaping towards its round peak. When it became too steep to run, he bears down with his hands and digs into the snow, climbing like a wolf. One hand before the other, upwards and upwards, finally collapsing where it flattened. He looks out, and his heart tore against his chest.

Before him, at the very foot of the dune, another village. Not so different from any other, except further north than he could have imagined any No-Horse traveling. The boxed square homes, the smoke, the fields of No-Horse grass; had he left at all? He wanted to dig out his eyes. They betrayed him! Led him in a circle, all to end up in the same place. He looked up, wondering if the Dragon’s Tail had somehow led him wrong. It was such a clear, straight line, surely he could not have misinterpreted it? As dawn broke, and the first light of the sun pierced through the sea-colored night, he found that the Dragon’s Tail was not there at all.

He slowly sits down and lets himself slide down to it, landing on his feet in someone’s patch of No-Horse grass. With luck, he might beg the villager to spare his life. It may take a year’s ride’s worth of begging, but perhaps whoever lives there can save it as well with food. He hears a distant shout, and the sounds of angry stamping, more curses, in a low bellow that carried great distances. 

“Dirty Braided-Brow boy, I-” the voice froze. See-Horizon looked up slowly, at a shocked face too familiar.

“Mountain-Sky?” See-Horizon was too weak to do more than stand, staring into his brother’s eyes. His beard was gone; as was his bow. In his hand he wielded one of the crooked spears. Mountain-Sky broke into a cry, reaching out and picking up See-Horizon.

“Come out of the cold,” he whispered.

The home was warmer than any yurt See-Horizon could remember, although he remembered them little. Even here, in this land of nowhere, it was somehow too warm. It smells off; acrid and bitter, though completely unfamiliar. He sits on an elevated board, before another elevated board, where he rests both his arms and his chest against. Mountain-Sky brings out a pot and cups, and brushes away See-Horizon’s hands before setting all of them down. As he pours out the water within, suddenly the smell comes into sharp focus.

“I will not drink that,” See-Horizon said plainly.

“Perfectly good ‘tea,’ and you will not drink? You have not changed.” Mountain-Sky sat down and raised his cup to his lips with a loud and repulsive slurp.


“Yes. I imagine you must have had some, having lived so near the Nu-Ren.” See-Horizon looked up curiously. Mountain-Sky stammered, and corrected himself. “Have you been calling them No-Horses for all this time?”

“They do not speak much to me, I do not speak much to them.” See-Horizon, reluctantly, mimicked his brother. The drink tasted as bad as it smelled.

“Well, you are with us now. I am glad.” Mountain-Sky had already finished the drink, and had gotten up. “Surely you have eaten millet-buns. I cannot imagine you having not.”

“Yes.” See-Horizon closed his eyes at his brother while his back was turned.

“Good. Aunt Steadfast-Wind has really taken to milling; we can get these for cheap.” He came back with more boards, these rounder and slightly concave, and slapped down two sticky golden orbs. See-Horizon picked one up, and lifted it to his mouth. Indeed, just as tasteless as it always has been. He sat there, half-listening as Mountain-Sky continued talking about this and that, he couldn’t say for sure. In his mind, he battled against himself. This was not the Fire Spear tribe; this was not his home. As sleep dared to overcome him, See-Horizon chose at last to speak.

“I cannot stay,” he said. Mountain-Sky’s face changed quickly.

“But you found us! We have made a home!” His voice muffled by the bread. “Where would you go?” See-Horizon looked out through the square hole by which they sat, at the empty sky, at the growing pinkness of it.

“North.” He blinked, and for a lightning’s flash he could see it again; those stars, further on away from the sun. “I found the Fire Spears, yes. I need to find the steppes.” Mountain-Sky shook his head.

“You have gotten too old. Maybe I start calling you grandfather.” He stood up. “I assume you need some things. A yurt. Food. Water. Wagon. Horse- where is Mosquito?” His gaze met See-Horizon’s icy glare. “Horse.”


“Here you are.” Mountain-Sky put down a little pouch of leather. See-Horizon looked at it incredulously. It was not any of those things. He loosened the pouch and tilted it upside down. Out spilled nothing but brass discs.

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