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Not Much of a Dragon

Yet somehow just enough.

By Tiffany MercerPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 7 min read
Not Much of a Dragon
Photo by Emily Kessler on Unsplash

It wasn’t much of a forest, but it had often been said that I wasn’t much of a dragon. The barb had lost its cutting edge over the centuries as the others disappeared one by one: fallen to knights or vice or mere dumb luck, while I watched the tides of nature and time in their ebb and flow from my unobtrusive— or, if we’re being unkind, ineffectual— vantage.

It’s not as though I required much of a forest anyway. This place was vast enough for the plump, chattering squirrels who matched me in size, so what use had I for more? I do sometimes wish it were less heavily trafficked by humans, who had assiduously whittled down what had once been a magnificent and fearsome old wood into a space as tidy and tame as the sparse fauna that occupied it. Still, the shadows were deep enough for ancient secrets if we hid ourselves cunningly enough.

It had not been my choice to be born with leaf-like scales that changed with the seasons, but still I felt a swell of pride bordering on smugness when unwelcome eyes saw but did not perceive me. I had learned from watching insects how to simulate the movements of branches touched by breeze or rain, and became so adept over the centuries that it took no more concentration than willing my hearts to beat or my lungs to pull air.

It wasn’t only the attention of humans I sought to avoid, though theirs was the most intrusive presence. Aside from the other shadow-dwellers, raccoons were capricious in their humors and prone to cherish grudges and forget favors with the same dramatic fervor.

The squirrels, on the other hand, suited my temperament well. We had formed a symbiosis that evolved into something familial over the years: I gave them what protection I could offer, they supplied me with the extra grubs and beetles they dug up when hiding their stores of nuts, and we wintered together in the cozy den of a hollowed-out tree.

That’s why I nearly shed my scales like an apen in a gale when Kkrchkk landed heavily beside me and started screeching, A child! A child! A human child!

I had been sunning myself on a slim branch in the cool afternoon light of mid-autumn, and had to temper my frustration as I struggled to regain both my composure and my balance. I blinked first one and then the other amber-colored eye at him. Children are hardly unknown to the forest, Kkrchkk. Some specificity, if you would.

The tufts of his ears trembled, and he lashed his fluffy tail. Alone! Human child alone, near the lake! The lake!

The—?

The kelpie’s lake, he finished, hopping as though he felt an electrical current sparking through the branch— at his words, I nearly felt it, too.

Without another word, I spread my wings and glided down towards the lake. Sure enough, a human child lumbered along through the fallen leaves, singing quietly to itself. It didn’t seem to have noticed the nearby lake yet, but a ripple near the boggy, littered shoreline suggested it may have been noticed.

I weighed my options. I had no great love for humanity, but the predations of the kelpie were anathema to me; it reveled in the cruelty of the act, rather than the necessity of it. That said, I was no match for it if we were to fight. I was not even large enough to pull the child away.

Tttek appeared beside me. Her sable nose twitched with anxiety.

It may be just a human, but I don’t want to watch it die, she chittered softly. I don’t want to hear.

She had lost an older brother to the kelpie several summers ago, when she was just a kit. My heart broke for her every time she cried out in sleep from the memory.

Try to distract the child, I told her. Lure it back farther from the edge. I’m going to find Nita.

Tttek flicked her tail in acknowledgement, and I heard her chirp invitingly at the child as I took to the air again.

Nita was among the humans who had been cast out by her own kind. She had lived in a brightly-colored tent in the forest for several months now, though she had moved its location twice after being chastised by the city’s guards. She was perceptive of the world to the point of being disbelieved and ridiculed, so it was hard to take joy in the fact that her knowledge of me posed little threat.

I found her sitting on a park bench, gloved hands wrapped shakingly around a foam coffee cup. She had a habit of curling in on herself as much as she could. I wondered if it was for warmth or because— like me— she wished to escape attention. Perhaps both.

I alighted on the bench beside her, flapping my wings to catch her eye. A human child needs your help.

She snorted and gave me a sidelong glance from beneath the wool cap that failed to fully contain her wild hair. “Hello and good morning to you, too.”

She didn’t stir, except to take another sip of her coffee and grimace. From afar, I hadn’t noticed that one of her eyes was blackened, and her lip was split.

There isn’t much time. We need to go.

After a long pause, she sighed and stood up. “I don’t remember signing up to be neighborhood watch in a neighborhood that doesn’t want me, but fine. Where’s the kid? Stuck in the blackberry brambles again? Put its head through the guardrails and now the parents are freaking out?”

The kelpie’s lake.

“The—?” She dropped the coffee cup and ran.

The kelpie’s lake existed in a strange pocket of the forest. Not exactly fey, not precisely tucked into a separate world, but bending slightly past the parameters of what the world would usually allow. From a distance it looked like little more than a puddle beneath the branches of an overgrown hedge. When one drew closer, though, the landscape around it seemed to grow deeper and the puddle larger. The hedge itself did not seem to change size, yet somehow it shrouded an entire lake beneath its dense leaves.

I had first encountered Nita when she stumbled upon the lake while attempting to retrieve a scarf on a windy day. Despite my initial determination to let nature take its course, in the end I couldn’t bear it. I’d landed on her shoulder and convinced her to back away from the edge moments before the kelpie erupted from the water like an alligator.

I knew the terrifying memory hastened her steps as we rushed back towards the hedge. She drew up short, boots skidding in the mud, and nearly fell backwards. The human child stood transfixed, gaping at the kelpie rising from the lake. Behind the child, three squirrels and a raccoon gripped its shirt in a desperate attempt to drag it back from the edge. Brackish water sluiced from the creature’s mane, tangled with reeds and refuse, and its unblinking eyes were the milky shine of moonstones.

Hurry, I gasped, flapping my wings to remain in the air next to Nita. Get the human child!

“I...” she gulped. “It’s...”

The kelpie bared its rows of long, needle-like teeth, translucent as fish bones, and stepped onto the shore.

Go! I shouted.

Nita lunged, clutching the child around the waist and hauling it back towards the entrance of the hedge. The squirrels and raccoon were airborne, but kept their grip on the child’s shirt as the kelpie reared and snapped.

It was the wide-eyed fear in Tttek’s beady eyes that made me fly forward, unleashing a meager flame towards the kelpie’s eyes. It shrieked and shook its head, nearly knocking me out of the sky, but subsided halfway back into the water. I fled the way Nita and the others had gone, not daring to look back until we’d left the trees and collapsed upon the asphalt trail. No sign of the kelpie remained, save a furious splash from the puddle under the hedge.

The child was squalling in surprise and shock. Nita propped it back onto its feet and shooed the woodland creatures away, and was in the act of adjusting its jacket when a woman rounded the corner at a run.

“What are you doing? Get away from my baby!” she screamed.

Nita raised her hands immediately and backed away.

“I’m sorry, I was just—“ she began weakly.

Before she could finish, the raccoon stood on its hind legs and hissed. It rushed first towards the child, then towards Nita, who scrambled back. It snarled viciously as it gave her a broad wink.

“Uh... shoo!” Nita said, waving her hand. “Leave the kid alone!”

Grumbling, the raccoon receded into the shrubs— on the other side of the asphalt from the hedge.

Nita and the mother regarded each other for a moment as the child rushed into the arms of the latter. Their gaze turned to the squirrels, who all seemed to realize at once that they had been staring and shot off into the trees in different directions.

With a huff, the mother turned on her heel and returned the way she had come, speaking in soothing tones to the child.

“You’re welcome,” Nita muttered.

She slowly walked back towards her park bench. I caught up with her.

I’m sorry, I said.

She shrugged.

I landed on her shoulder, then draped myself across the back of her neck. The world can be cold for creatures like us.

She hummed in agreement, but I felt her muscles relax under the warmth of my scales.

Fantasy

About the Creator

Tiffany Mercer

Just your basic, garden-variety fiction dweeb. :-)

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    Tiffany MercerWritten by Tiffany Mercer

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