Birth of a Dragon
Most people will tell you that Dragons do not exist. That they are fairytales, plain and simple. The fancies of little girl’s and boy’s bedtimes stories. Idle talk spun to calm restless children. Slapped right alongside the Moon being made of green cheese and the Boogie man in your closet.
They will also tell you that Dragons haven’t been seen in hundreds (I mean hundreds) of years, and that makes them legends, or more likely urban legends. One of those things that everyone’s heard of but no one you know has ever seen. Like the headless Rider that visits Sleepy Hollow. My cousin lived there for years, and Sleepy Hollow was indeed just a quaint out of the way sleepy, tranquil old town. Hardly a gallop was ever heard, other-worldly or otherwise.
I have the great misfortune of telling you that Dragons are real.
I can’t speak as to Tooth fairies that terrify children with ripe wee teeth or Siren’s poaching men from teeming oceans, with certainty I can only speak as to Dragons. Large, looming, fearsome beasts that spray fire beneath their teeth!
Let me go back a bit to the beginning …
There is a woman in town who runs a tavern. The best one around. Ask anyone. She is mistook for a barmaid, a prostitute and a washing wench at least a dozen times a night, but she can take it. She’s as tough as they come. Her spirit is unbreakable. Most of the other women in town found her quite crass.
Her hair is like the night of new moon. The blackest black you’ll ever know but captivating all the same. Her skin is worn by years of work, scrubbing dishes, tables and walls. She does own a tavern after all. Though I think once it was a fair ivory white that perhaps even rivalled the Queen’s herself, white as ivory snow. Her eyes were a faded blue. They may once have danced with the same shy, coy, impish manner as other girls but now were colored with the determination and experience learned with age. One look at those tired eyes and it’s like you knew all her best had been spent.
Over the years she turned down many, many offers of marriage. Her preference was to stand alone as opposed to stand beside a fool. In these days it was only practical for a woman to wisely invest in a good man to take care of her. Again she confounded the women in town. The mask she wore was so pragmatic, who knew she was such a romantic? I mean, why marry where the spirit is not moved? Where the heart is not touched?
No matter what drunken slobs they might make of themselves in the bar at night or how they might jest when they came to port even the men had learned to respect her. Strong, capable, fearless. How often did one find a woman like that?
And that woman is my mother.
We were never very close, my mother & I. I went through a great deal of teasing through my younger years having a mother who ran the local pub. But I have to hand it to her she always commanded respect & if it needed to be done, she got it done.
I often wondered how the two of us could possibly be related. I walked about with my head in the clouds & my nose perpetually in a book while she was a practical & headstrong (Shall I say stubborn?) woman. Made of stone, she was. She kept long hours. I stayed out & about a fair amount of the time, always sketching something, writing a bit of rhyme or just out about watching the world go by.
That one small thought pressing, growing at the back of my mind … What lay beyond the boundaries of our small town?
You know how things carry on forever exactly the same & you’re so sure nothing will ever change? We all get comfortable that way, I think. Sun rises, sun sets & all is right with the world. Until it isn’t.
One night (I remember the night well, for it was storming quite heavy) a stranger came to town. An old worn out man clad only in rusted armor & a determined gaze. He gave my mother a knowing look & she closed up the tavern early. My mother was a very private person, not the type to have “friends” stop by for a drink, so my curiosity was pricked. I snuck in one of the lose windows off the side of the bar & listened with keen interest.
“It must be done … the time has passed … everyone will be in danger … does she know?”
Bits and pieces of conversation was all I could hear. What had to be done? Who had to know about what? Private was one thing. But I never thought of my mother keeping secrets from me. I leaned in to get a better listen.
Crash! I bumped the edge of the door & one of the glasses came crashing down. Suddenly all eyes were on me. The aged knight (presumably) & a small entourage of men with him, armed with clubs & knives.
My mother stepped toward me & one of them grabbed her by the arm & held her back. I felt a strange stirring in the pit of my stomach. Anger? Fear? An odd mixture of both? I wasn’t quite sure. Like someone had lit a candle & set it to burn right in the innermost part of me. Every one of them was armed to the teeth (compared to me, a frail & unarmed young maiden) and all glaring at me.
“I should have told you.” My mother yelled it out before one of those brutes put a hand over her mouth.
“She doesn’t know” whispered the big bald one off to the left.
“I thought I could protect you from it. I’m sorry.” One of them grabbed her by the neck & muffled her mouth.
“Shut her up!” Yelled the Knight.
He was like no Knight I had ever imagined. I dreamt Knights were noble men who slayed dragons & rescued princesses & damsel’s in distress. But this lot, he was rough around the edges, his tone was vengeful & his eyes were full of rage.
They began circling around. Were they trying to trap me? Why would anyone want to trap me?
“Run!” My mother screamed. Then she waved her hand & smoke began to swell in great rings from the floor up. It quickly became too thick & smoky to see & all the men began to cough & hack. It didn’t even occur to me that the smoke didn’t bother me in the least.
“Run girl, Run!” As I dashed away I saw sparks, brilliant rainbow colored sparks shooting everywhere. Just as I made it out the door the tavern exploded, throwing me several feet away.
I awoke after I don’t know how long or how short a time, to see the tavern only ashes on burnt ground. What could cause such a thing? The Knight’s gilded sword lay in the rubble, untouched, no damage whatsoever from the fire. I had never put any stock into enchanted swords or any such nonsense but I wasn’t taking any chances. That sword was going with me. I would practice using it on the way.
On the way? On the way where? It was the oddest thing! In the instant my mother’s eyes met mine (that last time) it was as if an impression had been left in mine. A map. A map of the stars. Directions by way of constellations.
Directions where or to what I had no idea. It was a rubbish idea! A ridiculous thing indeed! And yet it was what it was. As clear as day: My mother’s eyes imploring me to go to this place. This unknown place that up to a few hours ago I never knew existed, but now felt so drawn to.
I went to our home to pack my things, especially some food & water for the trip, to find it crawling with armed men. Rifling through our things, making a total mess of the place. Again I could catch only bits & pieces of what they were saying.
“Got away … will she go … get there first … price of dragon hide.”
I felt as though my whole world had been turned upside down.
Crack! Leave it to me to step on a stick & break it! I felt as though my heart stopped. I held my breath. Did they hear it?
I snuck silently (or so I thought) around the corner to sneak off into the woods & came face to face with 3 large intimidating looking fellows with swords.
One grabbed for my arms & another turned his head to call out “We found her!” He barely had the words out of his mouth when I felt it again. The peculiar heated sensation in the pit of my stomach. I felt scared & angry all at once.
This time it wasn’t just a candle being lit but an inferno that raged one huge burning bellow of terror. I closed my eyes, felt my head being pulled back by an unstoppable force that took away not just my breath but every ounce of strength I had. Bleary eyed I saw the men running about in flames, blood curdling screams rang out into the night & I felt as though my eyelids weighed a hundred pounds.
When I opened my eyes I was drenched in sweat, a cold sweat, wet to the bones & chilled. What was that horrid smell? I had to wait a moment or two for my vision to clear & when it did I found myself sitting in a small circle of green grass, the only living thing for as far as my eyes could see. Everything else was black & ash. Charred bodies, singed wooden frames all that was left of my childhood home.
I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what had happened. My logical mind & that part of you willing to believe fantastic & nightmarish things were at war for the time being. Whatever had happened it wasn’t good & it terrified me. I took just a second to glance up at the clear night sky, at the stars to make sure I was going in the right direction & then ran. Ran as fast as I could.
I ran all night. Maybe all day. Maybe two days. I lost all track of time. I slept a lot (or maybe none at all). I dreamt (or at least I think I did). I ate berries & leaves as I could find them. Whatever birds safely ate, you could eat, isn’t that right? I sure hoped that was right. I was used to being in bookstores, libraries, school (occasionally cleaning after hours at the tavern) but not through woods & swamp.
I was beginning to think all of this had been a concoction of my imagination. Directions by eye contact? I mean, really! Men dying from fire from nowhere? I grasped for answers but only found more questions. Would this walk-about ever reach its end? What did I intend to find at its conclusion?
I awoke the next morning to a loud howling (maybe more of a roaring) sound coming down from a mountain to the West. Perhaps the answers to my questions were closer than I realized. A sound the likes of which I had never heard. Like the roar of a hungry lion, the howl of a wolf at the full moon, the call of a lovesick whale. It was indescribable. It should’ve struck fear into my heart. Made me want to tuck tail & run or send shivers down my spine. Something. Anything. Besides the reaction I had.
It made me smile. And I don’t remember the last time I smiled.
It took a full day’s journey to reach that side of the mountain. By the time I could see an entrance to a cave the sun was just setting. Great, going into a cave, in the dark, with an unknown beast, for an unfathomable reason. As silly as it sounds as a girl I was always so very afraid of the dark. As brave as could be with spiders or snakes but darkness? No thank you!
My mother would always say, “You needn’t be afraid of the dark, the dark should be afraid of you.” I never knew what she meant, but I sure hope she was right.
I braced myself as much as one can when going into a completely blind situation & slid up against the wall where the water poured from the river nearby. I hoped that the water would mask my scent & luck holding, the sound of my approach.
Whether the great creature truly didn’t sense me coming or merely wanted to flaunt itself for me to see & melt into a pool of my own nerves I don’t know, but it gave me a chance to glimpse a bit of the beast as the last vestiges of sun left the sky.
Scales, iridescent scales, as if painted by an artist’s hand. Wings, fragile & thin as a lattice of lace stretched on a frame of spider’s web, made of the finest silk. A small glimpse of silhouette, its spine the image of a crown. A noble looking creature. I do believe I would have stood there forever in awe, struck by the sheer beauty of it, if the dragon had not blinked. For the eyes … the eyes were blood red, savage looking beasts all their lonesome. It only took one blink of those to scare me straight. One look in my direction & I felt I could be devoured where I stood, closer than my heart could beat.
“Did you get a nice long look, child?” His voice was not what I expected. It was not slithery & snakelike as in fairytales, but deep & clear, well-spoken. He reminded me of a teacher I once had. I hated that teacher!
It was now or never. Speak or be eaten. Be a clever coward or be a brave dinner.
“Hardly. It is much too dark to get a good look at you.”
He laughed. A loud pompous sounding laugh. “Must I wait until morning to dispose of you then? So that you should get a good look at me?”
“I suppose that depends.”
He moved closer to me. Even several feet away I could feel the heat when he breathed. I was sweating. Was it that hot or was I just terrified?
“Depends on what?”
“Do you think yourself worth seeing?”
“You are either very brave or very stupid, Girl.” He puffed small circles of fire in my general direction. Just enough to lighten the cave & show the gleam of his sharp teeth. Teeth blood stained, from what (or who) I dared not think about.
“I doubt you get much company. Shall we talk, then, until the sun rises? Then I will see if you are worth seeing & you will know if I am worthy of your breakfast?”
Again he laughed. This time he did almost seem amused.
“Very well, child, I accept.”
A day ago I didn’t believe in dragons. Now I don’t know what I believe. What to say now?
“What is your name, child?”
“If I tell you mine, will you tell me yours?”
He seemed taken aback. In fact, he moved back, as if shocked.
“A dragon’s name is his greatest secret. It is only passed down to wife or child. I should eat you for even asking such a question.” His nostrils flared red, then he took a deep breath as if thinking better of it.
“So, then, Dragon with no name, what do dragons do to pass the time?”
“Humph.” He seemed at a loss for words.
“Flying was my favorite thing to do. Once upon a time, that is. Nowadays one can’t go for even a short flight without having a quiver of arrows emptied at you.”
His voice trailed off as if lost in times past. Who knew dragons had nostalgic moments. Again shouldn’t I be more afraid than I was? I had never been an especially brave person.
“Perhaps if you ate less people, less people would try to kill you.” I said this without even thinking about it or about how it would sound. I found that I felt rather comfortable with him rather quickly.
“And you, with your sword, would you kill me as well? Have I wronged you somehow in my long life? Eaten a relative? Charred a village?”
He paused as if contemplating a long list of regrets.
“Such a very long, long life. Perhaps too long. Well then, child?”
“I have no desire to kill you. This sword is all that is left of the would-be Knight who killed my mother. I carry it only for the contingency that you might have wished me a late dinner or a midnight snack.”
“Hmmn.” That was all he said. Did he think me a liar? Did he find it such a fanciful idea that one would seek out a dragon for any purpose other than to kill it? Then again I didn’t know why I was here. Maybe I was there to kill it. But that’s not what it felt like.
The rest of the night went on much the same. He reflected on men he had befriended, men he had killed, the vast places he had flown to & from & all of the other dragons he had known & loved that he now mourned for. I realized that I had very little to say. For I had lead a very “little” life.
He fell asleep now & again, snoring loudly like an old man. I had these chances to escape but something kept me there. At last, the first rays of sun began to find their way into the cave. Through the morning mist of the far up North West Mountains I could see his old grey beard, his wiry white whiskers and the places where his scales had been rubbed smooth from lying so long on the rocky cave’s floor. He had indeed lived a very long life.
I watched him sleeping and I wondered … What did dragons dream of?
A whisper on his lips, but it was there, it had been said. My mother’s name.
“Cynthia” with a soft mumble and a tussle of his long barbed tail. This mystery had gone on long enough and with the rising of the sun I found my strength renewed.
I drew my sword & woke him by pointing it (poking it really) right into his nose.
“Beast, wake up. Wake up, I say!”
He moved like lightning, with the sly slithering of a snake without warning or sound & had me pinned to the ground.
“Very well, Insolent Child, you’ve seen my face, now let us be done with this.”
I did not cower or squirm beneath his clawed hand but met his eyes & demanded to know why he dreamed of my mother’s name. He did a complete turnabout just as fast as he had me down for the count.
“You’re Cynthia’s daughter?” he looked at me with both hope & disbelief.
“How do you know of Cynthia & what do you know of the men that came to kill her?”
He looked away to try & hide the fact that he had let lose a large luminous tear.
“They found her then?” He reached up & wiped his eyes.
“It was only a matter of time.”
“Who? Who found her?” I asked.
“The same men who will come for you, my dear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will.” And he pointed to the falling waters. “Go. Look.”
Hesitantly I approached the wall of water & sought my reflection. Scales, iridescent scales. Wings, as finely woven lace, braided of freshly spun silk.
I had no words. I could only stare. In a very strange way it all made sense. The fires that killed the men. The heated angry feelings in the pit of my stomach. A grand secret my mother hoped I would never need know. This familiar feeling, this desperate curiosity I’ve felt since my arrival here. Not knowing how long I travelled, if I slept or ate, being so out of touch.
“How?” I asked him.
“My eyes are old & I could not see you in the dark. You are beautiful.”
I began to cry. “But how?”
“This nose is old & doesn’t work as well as it once did. I knew your scent was off but you also smelled of human. Your mother after all was a woman. A very beautiful one.’
“My father is a dragon?” this was insanity. Absolute insanity. I closed my eyes very tight. When I opened them all of this would be a dream.
‘You are not dreaming.” He said. “The transition began with your journey. There are no dragons anymore you know. Except for those who believe in them. Only those who have bravery and magic and beauty in their soul can be dragons.”
He smiled at me. A smile that made me feel warm & happy & satisfied to the core of me. Then he laid down, closed his eyes & began to breathe shallow breaths.
‘For one Dragon to come into the world, another must leave. Keep the magic alive, My Daughter.”
And he died. And not many people know this, it’s one of the great secrets of the dragons, but when a dragon dies it is a spectacular thing to see. Every scale became a bud of light. Light that whirled about into a great cloud of sparks & simply disappeared. Like a wind in the trees. When it is there, you are so sure of it. The leaves fall, the branches rattle about, the birds & squirrels scurry about. But when the wind goes? The leave sand branches are calm & serene. All is well with the world. Was the wind ever really there?
My father was a dragon. He was really here. I am a dragon. I am as real as the day is long. One day I will be as the wind. Will anyone believe I was ever really here?
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