The Oldest Dragon
It’s a struggle to open my eyes. My mind is sluggish and slow, my limbs like heavy weights at the end of a chain. Sound comes back to me in bits and pieces. Ringing cries from the birds above, the low hum of insects, the rustle of twigs snapped under the paws of foraging animals. Frigid wind heavy with the threat of colder days ahead whispers through the densely packed trees and brushes over my thick hide.
I at last peel one massive eye open to find myself lying on my belly in a circle of scorched earth. Dead bodies, blasted apart and crisped by an immense heat, are spread throughout broken trees and burnt brush. I open both eyes in surprise. Mercenaries of the Enclave, if the markings on their charred armor are any indication. But what are they doing all the way out here in the wilds? Their lair is hundreds of miles to the west, pinned between the peaceful Vales and the gloomy Fens.
My nostrils flare. I hate the stench of burnt flesh. Especially human flesh. Too sweet and too terrible, to see such sentient creatures reduced to pillars of ash. At least I don’t remember their screams. But why don’t I remember? Why did I do this? I think back, shuffle through my memories, only to find them blank. All I know is that I was searching for something, something I desperately wanted to protect.
A bit of panic threads its way through my hearts. I’ve had the occasional lapse before but this is different. I’ve done something horrible. A traitorous thought occurs to me and I shake my head hard, swaying the sharp spines that run along my back. The Wasting has not yet come for me. I am four thousand years old but I still have time. I will not succumb to the madness that plagues my kind, to the inevitable decay that comes to dragons who have lived beyond their years.
My claws tear holes in the ground as I heave myself up onto all four legs. Twinges of pain echo along my flank and I spread out my wings to find them shot through with fresh wounds. The panic gives way to anger. Did the Enclave do this to me? Why? The humans have lived in peace with my kind for generations, two thousand years living side by side as one society. I created the first pact with the humans myself, ended the Thousand Year War that had brought both sides nothing but pain and bloodshed.
The Enclave is a new faction in these lands. Led by a former knight named Savić, who had once been the Queen's right hand woman, the Enclave mercenaries make a living by selling their swords. Most consider them to be morally grey at best and a threat at worst, but I know they are only former knights trying to find their way in life after the Rebellion that ravaged this land only a few years ago. So why would they turn their arrows and swords upon me? Have I broken the peace I fought so hard to gain?
Tracks catch my eyes. Footprints in the brush, still gleaming with the heat of living bodies. Someone escaped my wrath. I unfurl my wings, ignoring the sting of my wounds and launch myself into the air. I glide above the canopy, following the glint of heat imprints on the ground. At least two humans, maybe three, carrying a burden between them. An awkward gait, fresh blood on the leaves. They were injured. Perhaps they will have answers. I push my wings harder and my own blood sizzles down my hide, leaks in shining droplets onto the trees.
I follow the tracks to a small cave at the heart of the wilds. Trees groan in protest as I lower myself to the ground, snapping branches off with my powerful chest. Three bodies, spread out at the mouth of the cave, and more tracks leading off into the trees. I snuffle at the bodies. Killed by fire as well, though only a small conflagration. As though done by a child. I wrack my brain again, searching for memories of a dragonling born near here and find only emptiness. My days of raising clutches are long over and there are no other dragons here that I can remember. I chose this place for its isolation, to have a bit of peace in my twilight years.
The ground trembles beneath me, echoing my heavy steps as I pace along tracks left by tiny feet. Two legs. Not a dragonling, then. A familiar scent, one that almost brings a tear to my eye. My nose knows something my mind does not and I let my instincts take over. I push my wide body through the trees, shoving them aside in my haste to catch up with whatever vulnerable little being made these tracks. They could be injured as well and that thought alone is enough to bring the panic surging back to life.
I come out into a wide clearing. The tracks disappear into thick grass interspersed with flowers still clinging to life in spite of the cold lingering in the air. There’s no sign of blood on the grass and that lifts my spirits a bit. I raise my head, scent the air. They’re still here. Hiding, perhaps from the Enclave, perhaps from me. Do I frighten them?
I know how I appear to the humans. I am the oldest of us all, born in the Grey Mountains long before dragons enmeshed themselves with human society, before walls and cities restricted our growth. My hide is thick with hues of red and my claws are as long as a human is tall. I could swallow a dozen humans whole and have room for more, my wings could eclipse the sun and drench an entire city in darkness. I am scarred from battles that no one, not even the dragons, remember, and I could raze even the strongest human city to the ground in one fiery breath.
I open my mouth to speak before remembering that human ears are too weak for the tongue of the dragons. Their ears bleed, their minds cave in. It is too perfect a language, too pure, too primal. I let out a small grunt instead, a chuff that is my most inviting sound. Silence, then a small crackling of twigs and the grass ahead of me shakes. A head pops into view, a face lit by a bright smile, and she hurries toward me on stubby legs.
“Kur,” the girl babbles with a smile. “Kur!”
My hearts ache. She’s so tiny, her flaming red hair snarled around her round face. A human child, a babe, really, no more than two years old. Humans are so vulnerable for so long. A dragonling could kill straight out of the egg, though they, too, need protection. But at least their hides are strong, their wings sturdy. Humans have no hides, no claws and sharp teeth, only soft skin and brittle bones. This child has no more than a sturdy tunic and trousers to keep her warm and her chubby cheeks are streaked with mud.
She could only have come from the village twenty miles to the south. My village. Though I am too large to live within the borders of human cities, I still enjoy their presence. My memories are still wrapped in a deep fog but I remember the humans there. Hardy, robust people with dark skin and sharp eyes. Farmers. I protected them, I think, from the predators of the wilds and from the occasional band of raiders. They must be missing this child even now. I will need to find the village once more and return her to them.
The little girl toddles up to me and presses her face against my foreleg. I lower my head to her, snuffle her hair. This is someone I once knew, someone I loved. Was I charged with protecting her? Then I failed, horribly and utterly. Where is my den? I don’t know where to take her, don’t remember where the people I have lived alongside for generations make their homes. My mind is a horrible, swirling void of memories too ancient to be of any use. I can remember battles from a thousand years ago with aching clarity but I cannot recall my last meal.
The little girl pulls away from my leg and presses her hands against my snout. I lower my head, let her sweep her tiny fingers against the ridges of my eyes and horns. Something clicks in my head. Memories pour into the space between my eyes. Peace broken, ancient treaties shattered beneath a wave of cruelty. The Enclave's swift attack that sent the queen and her armies reeling. A burning village, the air thick with smoke, and the child fleeing into the forest, carrying a powerful magic with her. I have spent the past week in this forest searching for her. How could I have forgotten how important she is?
Magic is rare for the humans. Their ancestors, the Suṭō, wielded magic as easily as breathing but, just as the dragons have become smaller over time, so have the humans lost their connection with the primal forces of this world. This one, this child, holds enough power within her tiny hands to unmake the world and remake it in her image. That’s why they sought her, why she could call down the flames on pure instinct, why she survived being lost in the forest for so long. Why I fought the Enclave through the trees in my haste to find her first.
She pulls my head down to meet my eyes. Gentle brown eyes meet my swirling red gaze and she presses a kiss to my snout. I hold out one clawed forepaw to her. She sits in my palm and I close my paw around her, mindful of my grip and claws. I spread my wings and lift myself into the air with one steady push, leave the meadow behind to soar high through the clouds. I will take her to the Sanctum, the ancient birthplace of the dragons, where the Council awaits.
It would have taken a modern dragon three days to make the journey. I make it in one. I fly faster than I’ve flown in years, desperate to bring the child to safety, to food and water and rest before I forget again. The Grey Mountains rise up before me and I see more of my kin swirling through the air. They have come here, as we always do in times of war, to prepare and debate and survive. A trio of warriors fly out to meet us and I feel my hearts pound with a strange mixture of pride and grief. Pride, for they are strong and well-trained. Grief, for they are a lesser image of the warriors I fought alongside so long ago.
The Sanctum waits for us at the mountain’s peak. I drop down onto the flat outcropping before the cave, the one I carved with my own claws over three thousand years ago. The Council awaits me within the Sanctum, a group of elder dragons in varying shades of silver and gold. They are still younger than me by at least two thousand years. I have lost everyone I ever loved. My mate, my clutch mother, warriors I trained myself and thousands of humans I once protected and looked after. Some to the wars that came before our treaties with the humans, others to human battles or heartbreak. Can my hearts take more loss and conflict?
I open my paw. The child wakes, rubbing sleep from her eyes. A clutch of dragonlings, freshly hatched no more than ten years ago and no larger than my paw, surround her with eager, braying cries. They lead her away to a smaller chamber where a feast of roasted lamb and a comfortable bed await. I plod forward, toward the waiting Council and their knowing eyes.
A female with gleaming silver scales whose head barely crests my chest steps forward on her four stout legs to meet me. “Kur,” she says in a voice heavy with grief. “You survived. When we heard that Savić's mercenaries had broken the treaty and turned against the human queen, we feared the worst. We sent a dozen of our warriors to find you but they were waylaid by the humans, caught in cruel traps and slaughtered. The same has been seen across the land. This is a crisis, Kur.”
“We feared you would not reach the child in time,” a brawny male with a heavy crown of horns adds. “It is good that she yet lives and is not in the hands of the mercenaries. She holds the magic her people will need to withstand Savić's bid for power, though it will be years before her magic is fully realized. Come, Kur, we must plan an effective defense of the queen's lands."
I stand there, just outside the Sanctum’s shadow, suddenly useless beneath the weight of my years. The silver female gives me a confused look. By the Ancients, I cannot remember her name. I can't remember any of their names. Long ago, I could have named every dragon present, recited their lineage and traced their footsteps to wherever they called home. Now they are all strangers to me. Too small, too foreign. I barely recognize them as kin.
“Kur?” the silver female whispers.
I turn away from her, from her pitying gaze. The Wasting has come for me. I have lived too long, seen too much, lost too many. In this war to come, I will be a liability or, worse, a threat. They call after me as I push myself back into the air, my clawed feet trailing chunks of rock. Frigid wind batters at me and I turn my head to face the currents.
I fly for days. Though my belly cramps with hunger and my throat goes dry with thirst, I never stop. Weariness clouds my mind and I live with the ghosts of my past. I fly alongside my clutch mother, pass beneath the shadows of old warrior friends I once fought alongside in ancient battles long forgotten. Their roars warm my hearts and I at last feel my wings give out. There’s no fear as I plummet, only a sense of peace as the ground rises up to meet me.
The child is safe. The Council will raise her to be kind and powerful and she will lead her people to freedom. I have done my final duty, my last bit of good in this world. Let the young lead this war and become heroes, as I once was all those years ago. Let this empty ground become my grave, let my weary bones mark this barren field as the final resting place of a dragon who lived beyond her years. It is time for me to meet my loved ones in the Beyond.