The Valley, Present day
There weren’t always dragons in the valley. There never should have been. It had been a green valley, with thousands of varieties of flowers in every colour imaginable. Trees, some 100 metres high and over 200 years old, making shade and housing hundreds of varieties of birds. At night the hum of cicadas was deafening, competing with but never quite drowning out the huge waterfall at the other end. The spray extended at least 50 metres, and had supported an extensive rocky outcrop of lichen, moss, and mushrooms. The water fell from a large river into a deep lake with a thriving ecosystem of fish. Thanks to the snails and schools of tiny moss-eating fish, it was always crystal clear all the way to its floor, which in some places was close to ten metres. It was clean, cold water, but never froze. The valley seemed to have a climate of its own – warm but breezy in the summer, and cool but never actually cold in the winter.
Somehow, fruit trees had appeared and the birds and possums fed from them. Broad oak trees and towering eucalypts competed for the sun. There were clusters of first and elms. Soft grasses covered the floor of the valley, surrounding the wild flowers which gave off a sweet, powerful smell and fed the multitude of pollenating bees and beetles. There were no humans here, it had remained miraculously untouched.
That was 500 years ago. Now the river still poured in but the lake was shallow and sludgy, and the only things that lived here were the ancient rocks that made up the walls of the valley, and the dragons.
510 years ago, in a village somewhere far away
“André! André, where are you?”
André sighed and put down the stick. He supposed it must be dinner time. More boring, tasteless stew. They said it was nutritious but it was just too few veges and a few thin slivers of meat boiled in too much water with no salt. They couldn’t afford real food. Ever since his father had been called away by the Emperor to fight in another senseless war, André and his mother and younger sisters had been left to fend for themselves. That had been almost two years ago. The Emperor never cared about the people he left behind when he called for soldiers. It wasn’t fair. He was only 9, and he was expected to be the man of the family. What did that even mean? Anyway, he didn’t want to do the things his mother wanted him to do. Last year she’d tried to send him to work with the only carpenter left in the village, who was too old to be called away and too arthritic to be of any use in the trade he was now forced, by necessity, to perform. André had spent an hour watching him try to show him how to use a hammer, and then taken the opportunity of the old man having a break to leave and just never go back.
Usually he filled his days with his imagination - anything to take his mind off how hungry he was all the time and keep him away from his home and his overbearing mother. Some days he climbed trees, other days the butcher would give the boys a fresh pig bladder and they’d play ball. Now he was out in a field, bashing through the long grass, pretending to fight a dragon. André liked dragons. They were his favourite animal. His sisters thought he was strange, why would he love an animal that didn’t even exist? His mother was just exasperated. Why would he play silly games while she really needed him to be there, helping her, helping provide for the family? André didn’t care. He liked dragons and that was that.
Reluctantly, he went home. His mother greeted him with the sour expression that had become, unfortunately, expected.
“Tomorrow you will go to work. Stick with it this time, okay?”
André groaned. “Not that old man again! I didn’t even learn anything from him!”
“No, not him,” said his mother. “A younger man, he’s a blacksmith.”
“Why didn’t he get called away?”
His mother pressed her lips together. “We don’t ask about that.”
André made sure her back was turned before he rolled his eyes so hard his sisters, who were only 2 and 4, started laughing loudly and copying him. André didn’t care though. He was angry. He wanted his life to be interesting, to be allowed to be a kid for a few more years. He wanted his dad back. But most of all, he wanted dragons to be real.
The morning was there all too soon, and André was personally escorted to the smith’s workshop with his sisters in tow.
“Now you stay here until your work is finished and no running away or slacking off, okay?”
André just pouted and his mother left, looking both angry and defeated. The blacksmith was a young man who walked with a limp and was missing 3 fingers. André couldn’t help staring. Was this why he wasn’t called away? He wanted so much to ask but he remembered his mother’s words- we don’t ask about that.
The morning went surprisingly quickly, as the smith showed him how to build a fire and identify the tools and how to stay safe while working with the hot metal. At lunch the smith heated up some bread and thickly cut ham near the fire. André hadn’t eaten food like this since his father left. Ham was expensive, and so was bread that hadn’t gone stale. In the afternoon the smith showed him his most prized possession. It was a rock carved into the shape of an egg, but almost as big as André’s head. It was perfectly smooth and a strange green with light blue flecks in it. André was awe-struck.
“Where did you get this?”
“I won it off someone in a gamble,” was the smith’s slightly gruff reply. “Thought he could hold his own on a horse for longer than I could. Fool. I’ve been riding horses since I was 4 years old, no one can hold their own better than me. You ride, lad?”
“N… no,” André stuttered, still staring at the stone.
“Lad, here’s a lesson, more valuable than any other you’ll learn from me. Or anyone, I’m willing to bet. Ha. Never make a bet you’re not absolutely certain you can keep. You can have this one, lad. It’s valuable but only because of how I won it. Seems like you will take better care of it than I will. In fact, I think you might be just the right person to take care of it. Mind, though, no one knows where it comes from or how old it is. Handle with care.”
He winked. André could only nod, gazing wonderingly at the beautiful stone. The smith went on, but André wasn’t listening any more. What kind of stone could this be? How did it get to be this shape? Had someone carved it? It didn’t look painted, the colours looked like they’d been there for as long as the stone had existed. It also surprised André how light it was. A stone this large ought to have been quite heavy but he could lift it with one hand.
Suddenly he realised the smith had asked him a question. “Huh?”
“I said, lad, how about you and I look at bending some metal for a while?”
“How was your first day?” André’s mother asked when he came home.
“Fine,” he said.
“You going back tomorrow, or did you run away again? Hey, what’s that?”
André sighed. “I suppose I’m going back. The smith gave this to me. It’s a very precious stone.”
His mother’s eyes opened wide. Everything they’d had that was precious had been sold long ago to buy food, cloth, and candles, and those were always in low supply. Something precious could help them right now. “Can you show me?”
“No.” André put it on his special shelf beside the bed he shared with his sisters, still wrapped up in the old piece of cloth he had carried it home in. He knew why his mother wanted it and he wasn’t letting her have it. That night, after a dinner much less interesting and delicious than his lunch, André dreamed of dragons. Swooping, flying, breathing fire, smashing rock walls with their powerful tails to make caves. Taking care of a young dragon as it learnt to fly and only hiccuped fire. Fighting grown-up dragons with a real sword Quietly, beside him, the beautiful stone began to crack open.
The Valley, 500 years ago
The little crudely-made boat shattered on impact with the surface of the water. The dragon couldn’t swim, but its survival instinct was strong and it managed to get to the surface and stay there by scrambling wildly. The boy floated up beside him, and the dragon watched as he was washed to the rocks at the edge of the lake and got stuck on one. He was unconscious. He hadn’t bumped his head. Lucky for him. For now.
The dragon was still a baby by dragon standards, only ten years old and still only about a foot tall. But he was tough and wiry. The boy had been so weak! He loved the dragon, that was for sure. He’d left his own home at the age of 9 just to keep him safe and alive. They’d spent ten years wandering the wilderness, looking for places to stay and places to find food, places to keep warm in the winter. The dragon could light a small fire and the boy could keep it alive, but even with a fire you couldn’t stay warm in the middle of a snowy field. Well, the boy couldn’t. The dragon could stay warm anywhere even without a fire. Weak, weak, weak. And three meals every day? The dragon only needed one. A nice tender rat would keep him going all day. The boy wouldn’t touch rat, and insisted on cooking all his meat instead of eating it fresh. The dragon never understood that. Weak.
The boy put his whole life into caring for him, out of a stupid childish obsession with a creature that could only be born when people believed in them. Or wanted to believe in them so much that it was virtually belief anyway. Did the boy even know about that? Well, that didn’t matter now. He was 10 and he didn’t need the boy any more. He could survive without him. At least the boy had been useful for one thing- he’d promised to find them a safe place to live. Them. Ha. More like him. The boy had never understood that he didn’t need a caretaker. He could have killed the boy when he’d been alive for 30 seconds but he’d needed him to escape. And then again. And again. Everywhere they went there’d been someone who chased them or demanded they leave. The boy didn’t even realise that all he’d been doing was helping him escape. It was the dragon who’d been taking care of them. The dragon snorted and steam came streaming from his nose. Damn it, that should have been fire! Dragons were never meant to swim.
Once he was safely on a rock, the dragon took a proper look around. They were in a valley. There were trees. He’d seen landscapes like this, but never one this nice. Never one this private, protected. This would do very nicely. Very nicely indeed. He was sure to find a nice cave here, his tail wasn’t quite big enough to smash one out yet. And there would be plenty to eat. He would need a companion – another dragon. He glanced over at the boy and pitied him for ever thinking he could keep a dragon company. He raised his head and sent out a long, silent call. It rippled out in the air, felt rather than seen or heard, and disappeared over the tops of the valley. He’d have company soon.
He was hungry. He wandered over to the boy, who was still unconscious. The dragon had lunch.