Winter hadn't set in fully yet when one of the great dragons of the woods began roaming the forest for prey. One of the largest seen in the region, it moved mysteriously and fluidly, akin to liquid shadows. Its movements were near-silent, and its sudden presence beside them caused many an animal to spook and flee with urgency.
Though rarely noticed by humans due to its silent and patient nature, this dragon's size demanded that it eat often; much more so than many of the smaller, better-known dragons that called the woods home. The encroaching storm carrying the first of the year's snow loomed large in the skies ahead and beckoned a promising hunt. Chill winds began to make themselves known, shepherding the fallen leaf clutter through forest paths no mortal thing could fathom or follow, but the dragon seemed unaffected by the persistent buffering. Rather, it seemed keen and aware - ready for its hunt.
Hours passed as the creature made its way around the perimeter of its territory, snuffing out the lives of a few small animals in the process. Nothing but small morsels, but at this dragon's size, that was hardly surprising, as it rarely found anything to eat that was more than a morsel to it. Still, the dragon needed more. Unlike other dragons, this one hunted voraciously year round; it had to. There would be no long hibernation offering the other fauna respite from this ravenous beast.
Broad-leafed trees gave way to pines as the perimeter search continued, though fallen leaves swept up from elsewhere on the winds still whooshed by periodically. Thus far, only rabbits and squirrels had been the unfortunate victims of this hunt, and the dragon was eager to find something even just a little bit bigger.
Suddenly, there came a sound on the now-blustering winds. The dragon stopped to listen, twitching its long ears, insulated in downy feathers, to catch the sound if it were to come again. It did, and the dragon tilted its head, curious.
The cry was that of a young human. While the cries of young humans after the first snows were often multiple ones of excitement as they romped and played, this one was singular, plaintive; one of pain and distress. It was exactly the sort of call the dragon had been waiting for. And even the smallest human child was larger than the meager morsels the dragon had already sampled.
Turning towards the sound, the dragon slithered its way in its shadow-fluid manner with renewed haste. Few others would be hunting in these conditions, but some would. Moreover, there was the possibility that the wailing child could be found by their guardian or village long before the dragon could locate it. Still, as the wailing continued and grew louder, the dragon could tell that it was drawing nearer to the source. And the longer the cries went without subsiding, the more hope the dragon had that this would be its next snack.
Despite its agility, the dragon didn't reach the child for quite some time. Pinpointing the sound on the winds was one matter, but slipping through the forest underbrush at speed was quite another - especially at its size. The harsh winds rendered flight useless, and trying to get through from above would be a difficult task to manage in the dense pines. Between the storm-darkened skies and the dwindling daylight hours during the transition to winter, only the last grey haze of light provided illumination as it finally neared the end of its long search.
As the dragon neared, it slowed with caution; the child was nowhere in sight, but a pair of adult human legs, wrapped in clothing, poked out from behind a cluster of trees. Normally, humans weren't too much of a threat to this dragon, but it had not lived hundreds of years by being careless. Humans had long used forged metal to attempt to slay the dragon and its kin, and while small, were often persistent fighters. Warily, it approached, never taking its eyes off the prone figure. A sheepskin bag rested on the human's back as it lay on its stomach. The face was obscured, and the dragon edged a little closer.
This appeared to be a female - perhaps the child's mother. She was dead already, the culprit appearing to be the bloodied rock her head lay against. A sizable root was hooked around the front of one foot, and the dragon surmised that she must have tripped on the root and collided with the rock. It looked like a quick death. This, coupled with just how far into the woods they were, might have explained why the child was crying for so long, as well as why it hadn't been helped yet.
'Where is the child?' the dragon wondered, now turning its attention from the corpse to the dirt around her. The winds had scoured away most footprints from the adult, however some traces remained. Among them, strange drag marks all around the presumed mother. It seemed the child had crawled around the corpse many times, perhaps trying to get its mother's attention. There were signs the child had moved away at times as well, confused as to whether it should stay or go. The drag marks went in random trajectory, then back towards the body, then out, towards thicker forest. As a large, bitter gust of wind burst through the area, the dragon understood why the child had not stayed near the unresponsive body.
A sniffle caught the dragon's ears before long, and when it searched in the direction the sound came from, finally found the child. Tucked up in a nest of exposed tree roots, the child was shivering, face covered in mucus and a raw red from wet tears assaulted by the cold. Its eyes were closed and it didn't seem to have noticed the dragon yet; perhaps it had cried itself into exhaustion.
Standing before the sleeping child, the dragon debated what to do next. It had sought out the sound of this child with the full intention of killing and eating it, but now that it was here watching it sleep...
The dragon was not an overly kind or sympathetic soul - it needed to kill and eat to survive - but the sad narrative written in the dirt softened it some to the human child's predicament. One that the dragon still didn't quite understand. Here it was, the turning of seasons into winter - what had the mother and child been doing so far out in the forest? Where could they have needed to go so badly that they'd try to outrun the oncoming storm?
In silence, the dragon returned to the mother's body. The smell of the spilled blood caused a deep rumble in its stomach and saliva to begin dripping from its jaws. With a quick look back at the child still sleeping in the tree roots, the dragon made its decision; the child would be left alive - for now - but there was nothing to be done for the mother. She would sacrifice her flesh in death to stave off the fate of her child. Besides that, the mother was a larger morsel; the dragon would get more strength from eating her rather than the small child. And so the dragon dragged the mother off, deeper into the woods, to eat without risking the child seeing her devoured.
Once satisfied that its meal could be consumed with limited guilt, the dragon began the task of removing some of the undesirable bits; the bag and most of the clothes. It had learned long ago that not everything humans carried with them was edible. It was careful with the body as it maneuvered it out of the annoying constraints, determined not to needlessly mutilate her. This was a mother's "sacrifice" after all, and not something to take lightly. It wanted to give proper respect to the circumstances. This in contrast to a rude knight it had quite literally ripped apart some decades ago; it all depended on the prey.
Using its claws, the dragon cut the strap of the pack first, before cutting and peeling away the bulkiest of clothing from the body. As the lifeless skin beneath was exposed, however, the dragon was startled to find the body peppered with big, black bruises. Worst were the ones around the woman's neck; another human had wrapped their hands around it and left the blackest bruise on the corpse - before it had become a corpse. The dragon's heart sank.
Was this why she was so far in the woods with her young child on the cusp of an encroaching storm? Had they been fleeing abuse by their own kind?
Though the thoughts were heavy, the dragon was reminded of its hunger as its stomach once again grumbled. Renewing its conviction after the horrible revelation, it steeled itself as it took the body so gently into its jaws. There would be no ripping of the mother's flesh; the dragon would deal less damage to her than her own kind. A soft rearrangement of the corpse, and the dragon was able to swallow her whole...
A little while later, the dragon returned to where the child slept, the bag its mother had carried with it. Maybe there was something within it that would help the child through what was about to be a long, cold night as the snow finally began falling.
The dragon was undecided about what to do with the child. It was such a young child, it wouldn't be able to survive without its mother - or at least other humans. The dragon held no misconception that it could care for the human in the long-term.
But maybe for the night. Other humans could be out looking for the mother and child. Maybe someone would find the child before it succumbed to any number of death sentences.
This did not mean the dragon would not eat the child; but it was willing to give the child a chance to be rescued, given the sad circumstances of the day. Quietly, it crept over to where the child had been sleeping when it left. The child, now half awake, froze and stared at the creature as it drew near.
When the dragon stopped its approach and sat on its haunches a few yards away, the child tried - and failed - to stand and run. It was then that the dragon realized that this human was old enough to walk unlike what it had thought upon seeing the drag marks in the dirt, but something was horribly wrong with the child's legs. One pant leg was raised enough that the dragon could see the frighteningly black bruises on the child's leg, not dissimilar to the ones around the mother's neck. The other was obviously broken and hastily bound, so the child couldn't even use the leg.
More and more, the reason the two were out in the woods on a day like that made sense; another human was harming them. The dragon's heart suffered a pang of anguish for the humans it had come across and their plight. It would not have been an easy decision for the mother to make to leave the safety of a village, injured toddler in tow, through woods filled with predators, on the day of a snowstorm's approach. It was an act of desperation.
As the child continued to try to move away from the dragon, it switched to crawling, dragging its injured legs. It tired quickly and, seeing the dragon making no movements to come after it, it stopped. It had crawled into a more open area - a common mistake among young prey - and before long was shivering worse. But if the dragon began to move even slightly, the child would try to move off again.
Eventually, the dragon remembered the pack it had taken from the mother, and placed it with care in the nest of roots the child had been in initially. Curious, the child watched, and then upon recognizing the item, perked up and eagerly scooted back to the nest, warily slowing at close proximity to the creature. Once tucked back inside, the child began hugging and plucking at the pack; the dragon was relieved to see the comfort it brought the child.
Darkness fell heavy, and so did the snow. Tired and cold, the human succumbed to sleep, allowing the dragon to step closer and shield the most exposed parts of the root nest with one wing. Slowly, it too drifted off for a nap. Nothing was stupid enough to attack a sleeping dragon as large as it.
Some hours later, still deep in the night, both awoke to the sounds of a human voice calling out in the woods. The dragon heard and woke first, and was shocked, but excited. While it did seem strange for humans to try to look for lost members in the middle of the night in a snowstorm, there was still someone out looking for - presumably - the mother and child. That there might be a happy ending for the young human cheered the dragon some.
Then the child woke. And when the child recognized the voice drawing nearer, it did not look excited or relieved.
It looked terrified.
Perhaps the idea of a stranger finding it was scaring the child? Unsure why it was so frightened by the man approaching, the dragon decided to stay near and watch how events unfolded. It settled into position, standing as still as a mountain, as the voice edged closer.
A lantern came into view. The child now looked desperately for where the dragon had gone, suddenly eager to be with the very creature it had spent so much time trying to stay away from earlier. Not seeing the massive creature, the child instead took to huddling with the bag as deep in the root nest as it could.
The man finally walked into sight of the dragon, and the dragon sized him up. He was big for a human male, and even while searching through the snow carried himself with an attitude. He reminded the dragon of the aggressive wild boars, and in all the worst ways.
While snow had begun collecting in some spots on the forest floor, there were a few sparse patches of dirt left, and when he reached one, the man knelt down. He'd found one of the drag marks left by the child. Following the drag mark, the man made his way nearer the root nest. The child, for its part, remained eerily silent. This in turn reminded the dragon of the fawns that hid, still and silent, in the spring and summer. The child did not want to be found. At least, not by this man.
Unfortunately, the man did just that seconds later, and without hesitation caught the child in a vicious grip meant to cause pain. The child started to scream and wail, and the man looked around earnestly.
'Waiting for the mother to appear,' realized the dragon. And when she didn't come to defend her offspring, the man turned his attention back to the kid. With a sadistic grin, he dropped the child unceremoniously. The young human let out cries of pain as its bruised and broken legs impacted the ground, but then the man was on the child, holding it down with his weight as he hurriedly set the lantern in the snow and drew a knife. At its continued struggles, he smacked the child's head back against the ground, leaving it dazed.
It was then he raised the knife high.
And it was then that the dragon reached out and struck him with one clawed forelimb, sending him flying into the unforgiving trunk of a massive pine with a nasty assortment of cracking bones. Somehow, he was still alive and conscious, but the dragon knew he wouldn't be a threat anymore, and turned from the man groaning in pain to the silent, small child.
The blow to the head hadn't just dazed the child, it turned out; it had knocked it out. Blood trickled from one ear and the nose. Concerned, the dragon brought the child back to the root nest carefully, laying it beside the bag. Finally curious enough to open it, the dragon found that it was largely empty, but the sheepskin of the bag could be unfolded enough to be used as a type of blanket. Gingerly, the dragon covered the child with it, hoping it could hold out until someone else came. Ignoring the man altogether, it simply watched over the young human as the cold, snowy night wore on.
When daylight broke, the child was on the verge of death, having never regained consciousness. There was swelling on the back of the head where it had impacted the ground, and the child was struggling to breathe while unconscious. In its last hours, the dragon lay beside it, shielding it with its body. As the dragon lay covering it, the child succumbed. The dragon found itself mourning the loss with surprise; it had been a long time since a death had caused it distress.
Following the young human's death, the dragon turned its attention to the man. Well-dressed for the cold weather, the man had been left groaning in pain all night, but was still alive. Seeing this, and knowing this man was likely the cause of the injuries to the mother and child - and now the child's death - filled the dragon with rage. Enough so that it knew that this man would suffer a long, drawn-out death by its claws.
Just like that rude knight decades ago... the one he had torn apart slowly - as he intended to do to this cruel bastard.
This dragon was no stranger to gruesome deaths like the one it had planned for the man; after all, the dragon's name was Death.
The playlist for the creation of this story is here.
About the Creator
A Colorado native and secondary caregiver to her younger brother with special needs, Megan enjoys her adventures in World of Warcraft, various types of documentaries, and making homemade items for the critters and people in her life!