Arlo yawned and stretched. Something felt different. What was he lying on? Wet leaves? He definitely wasn’t nestled in his warm bed of straw under his cozy knitted blanket anymore. He sat up and shook his head to clear the sleep from his eyes, blinked sleepily, and froze. The enormous eyes staring into his own were mesmerizing pools of swirling lava. Raging depths of red, orange, and green flames. He gulped. These were not the eyes of his mother.
* * *
Merilee screamed in the cool, damp spring air. It was a shrill scream. A haunting scream. The scream of a mother who had just lost her only child. The other mothers held their own children close and gathered around the petite young woman, murmuring sounds of sympathy and comfort, but Merilee was inconsolable in her grief and rage. Her little boy was gone.
As the other mothers led the weeping Merilee back towards the village of Monongalia, a few of the men went through the cursory motions of looking around Arlo’s sleeping pen, peering under his warm knitted blanket, pushing aside the straw of his mattress. Making sure that he truly had gone. After satisfying themselves that the messy haired, mischievous toddler wasn’t hiding somewhere in his pen, they looked out towards the imposing wall of ancient trees where the forest began and then beyond to the distant mountains shrouded in mist. They shook their heads sadly but made no effort to further their search for the boy.
“A shame. A real surprise, that one! Good boy. Ornery, mind you, but Arlo seemed a good lad!” said one man, tall with weathered skin, and graying hair at his temples.
“Aye, Ian, that he did. Never can tell though, can we? And poor Merilee! No husband to help her and now no children neither,” intoned another, sadly shaking his head of sandy brown hair.
“She ought never to have taken him in, not worth the pain of the loss now, I’d say,” the third man said roughly as he kicked the dirt. Despite his words, his stormy eyes betrayed a hint of pain behind the anger.
“Now Gavin, that’s not fair. More than three years she cared for that boy as if he were her own flesh!” said Jax, the second and most sympathetic of the men. “What would you have us do? Turn away the caravan? Starve?”
“This is the second one gone since last winter and who knows how many more will go before the caravan returns and brings us new ones to care for? It shouldn’t have to be this way,” growled Gavin.
They turned away from the forest and continued their discussion as they walked the quarter mile back to the village. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it must. That was the one thing on which these men, and most of the villagers, agreed.
The Day Before
Arlo crept around the corner of the meeting house where the town council was gathered. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to be listening, but, come on! Secrets were far too enticing to the little boy and, on top of that, his mother had been acting mysteriously all morning. She thought that he was playing with the rest of the children down by the lakeshore, but he had snuck away. Arlo was quite good at sneaking and very good at eavesdropping. He settled down into the grass under the front window, which was open just enough to allow the raised voices inside to drift out.
“Merilee! You must calm yourself. Every time we meet you go on and on about the boy, but we’ve already made our decision. You agreed to abide by the law when you took him in and abide by the law you must!”
“Ian, it isn’t fair! We know where he came from. They found him lying there with his leg half eaten by wolves, on the side of the path right next to his dead mother, for God’s sake! How could he be anything but human? What are you suggesting, a dragon just happened to stop by and lay an egg beside that poor woman?”
“She might have found an egg in the forest!” shouted Ian.
“Oh, yes, because it makes perfect sense to pick up a dragon egg and take it home with you!” Merilee was shouting now, too.
Arlo’s eyes widened. He’d heard tales of dragons laying eggs in the forest, but, as none of the villagers were allowed to enter the dangerous forest, he’d never seen one before and neither had anyone else he knew. Were dragons even real?
“Merilee, all the children who came to us from the caravan must sleep in the pens from the time they reach toddling age until they are mature enough to start their schooling. The village chronicles say that every time the change has happened, it's been a child from the caravan, one old enough to walk and talk but still beneath the schooling age. Don’t you think it's a bit more important to protect the village from dragons than to keep Arlo from having nightmares?”
Oh yes, thought Arlo. His nightmares. They were terrible. He’d woken up screaming in terror nearly every night since they’d moved him to his sleeping pen. Other children had bad dreams too, of course, but not like Arlo’s. Their nightmares went away and they became comfortable with their new sleeping arrangement eventually. Not Arlo. As soon as Merilee left every night and he drifted off to sleep, the dreams came. He wasn’t afraid of anything while awake but those nightmares…He shivered just thinking of them.
“Well, at least let me stay in the pen with him then. He’ll be old enough to come home in less than a year’s time. Leaving him all alone out there isn’t fair. It’s as good as torture for the boy!” said his mother, tears threatening to spill from the corners of her eyes.
“No! If we start letting the parents sleep out with the children then we risk losing them too!” said another man.
“Losing them? To what, Jax? The wolves and bears? Like what happens to all of the missing children?” Merilee retorted, sounding defiant now. She’d never agreed with the foolish beliefs of the village elders.
Jax sighed heavily.
“Merilee, for the last time, the night watchers have never seen bears or wolves anywhere near the pens at night.”
“And you know what else they’ve never seen near the pens at night?” Merilee yelled, “Dragons!”
Before Arlo could move from his spot under the window, the front door flew open and Merilee came charging out of the meeting house, right beside his hiding place! He hunched down but it was too late. She’d spotted him.
“Arlo! What are you doing here?” she said, her voice icy and her eyes flashing.
Arlo’s lower lip began to quiver.
“Oh, no. Don’t cry, my love! Come here, it's alright.” She knelt beside him and wrapped him tightly in her arms.
“How much did you hear?” she asked after a few moments.
“Not much…” Arlo sniffed. “Just a bit about dragons in the forest,” and then he added in a tiny voice, “They’re real, aren’t they?”
Merilee looked at him sadly. She’d never been good at lying to the boy.
“Alright then, let's go home and I’ll tell you about the dragons.”
With Arlo’s tiny hand tucked into her own, Merilee walked back to their modest home near the village center. She remembered so clearly the way he had looked on the day she had brought him home. He’d been nearly starved and his poor leg had been so mangled from the animal attack. She sighed as she looked at him now, so strong and smart and curious about everything. He had overcome so much in his young life.
Arlo had been both a true infant and a known orphan when he was brought to the village which was very rare. The older woman from the caravan who handed him over had confided to Merilee that they had found the tiny boy only a day earlier. He had been lying alongside a young woman on the trail who was very near death with gruesome injuries, most likely from fending off an animal attack. Why she had been out there alone with her baby no one could say, and she had died before they could ask. The infant was starving and had a terrible wound to his left leg that would surely leave him with difficulties for the rest of his life, if he even lived. In other words, this was not the kind of child the caravan was going to someday want back.
Merilee had wanted him desperately though. She had taken him in her arms and pulled him close against her chest, breathing in that sweet, musty smell unique to the youngest babies, instantly connecting to this helpless creature in the depths of her own grief. For you see, Merilee’s own son had died in childbirth only a week before, a tragedy that had left her stricken with anger and filled with crushing emptiness. She took the injured boy and raised him as if he were truly her own. She nursed him and loved him and named him for her recently deceased husband, Arlo, as their own baby would have been if he had lived. Merilee and little Arlo had needed each other dearly.
Arlo’s injured leg had healed beautifully but it hadn’t grown at quite the same rate as his other leg. Merilee had never doubted that he would learn to walk though, as Arlo was determined in all things he attempted. He crawled by pulling himself along with his strong little arms and his right leg while keeping his shorter left leg tucked protectively under him. He had barely begun to totter around when he had decided that he was ready to run with the other young children of the village.
Arlo was the joy of Merilee’s life. And now she had to explain to him that the reason that he and all of the children that had come from the caravan had to sleep alone outside in cages every night was that the villagers of Monongalia truly believed that these children could transform into dragons.
The Village of Monongalia
Arlo settled next to his mother at the wooden table in the eating area of their small home. He couldn’t believe he was going to finally hear about the dragons!
Merilee took a sip of her tea and stalled for time. How could she explain this mess to the child? He was so young, but he had always had an understanding beyond his meager years. Usually, this wasn’t something that the children learned until they were a few years into their schooling, but Arlo had overheard enough that she might as well help him understand before his imagination took over completely.
“Our village has a pact with the caravan. We take care of their young children until they are old enough to endure the trek through the forest and the mountains. The caravan provides us with the food that we have not been able to grow since the Great Flood and with the medicines from the city across the Shrouded Peaks that we cannot make for ourselves. We need the caravan and they need us.”
Arlo knew this part, he wanted her to get to the good stuff, about dragons! He shifted back and forth on his chair, impatiently.
“Because it is common knowledge that our village cares for any children from the caravan, many other children are given to the caravan during its travels as well, since everyone knows that they’ll be well cared for here.”
“Orphans!” Arlo said. “Like me!”
“Yes, orphans,” said Merilee. “We care for the caravan children and orphans until they are old enough to be invited to join the caravan, if they are strong enough, or to choose to become members of our village.”
“But I’m not going to join the caravan, Momma! I’m going to stay with you!” said Arlo, quickly.
“Yes, my love,” Merilee smiled at him. “Because of your injured leg, the caravan told us when you came here that they could never take you with them.”
“Good!” Arlo said, “I want to stay with you, Momma!”
“That’s what I want too!” she replied with a smile.
Well, that was the easy part, she thought. Telling him the next bit was trickier as she didn’t want to scare him. His nightmares were already bad enough! Perhaps she should make the dragons less terrifying in her story? Could she leave out the part about how they were capable of leveling entire buildings with their fiery breath or the part where their claws and teeth could rip you apart? Yes, she thought, she’d definitely gloss over that bit. He was, after all, not even four years old yet!
“Where was I?” she said. “Oh yes, so, what you all have been told is that you sleep in the pens by the forest in order to help you become accustomed to sleeping outside at night so that you will be ready to join the caravan on their journey someday.”
“Momma,” said Arlo. “Why do I have to sleep out there if I’ll never go with them?”
“Because,” she said with a sigh, “of the dragons.”
Merilee did her best to explain to little Arlo that, yes, dragons were real, and yes, they still appeared in the forest sometimes to lay their eggs. That was the source of the problem, really. If the dragons just laid eggs way up in the Shrouded Peaks where no one ever ventured, they could have all just lived in peace.
The eggs could only hatch in the forest though, according to the village elders. They told tales of how the hunters of the land had gone on dangerous quests into the Eldern Forest many years ago, when the dragons were far more plentiful. The hunters had one goal: to destroy as many dragon eggs or hatchling dragons as possible and thus to eventually eradicate the dragons.
“But Momma, I thought you said there are still dragons?” asked Arlo.
“There are,” she replied, “but only because of the magic.”
Arlo’s eyes were the size of horses' hooves now. Oh dear, Merilee thought, now things really got complicated. How could she break this down so that Arlo could understand?
It really was a convoluted mess that the Monongalians had found themselves in so many years ago. She had hardly believed it herself at first and, to be honest, she wasn’t even sure now if any parts of the story were true at all. Of course, dragons were real. Or they had been, no doubt about that! She had seen the fossilized remains of one herself as a girl during lessons. But the rest of it? Well, that had probably been nothing more than a series of strange accidents combined with too much drinking.
Merilee thought back to the first time she had heard the whole story from the village elders as a young girl of nine years old. One of the village elders had claimed to have actually been there when the catastrophe began, but she didn’t believe it. No one could be that old!
According to the legend, the magic that protected the existence of all ancient beings awoke and placed a spell of protection on the dragon eggs that guarded them in a most unusual way. After emerging from the egg, a hatchling would exist in its natural state until the next sundown. If, by that time, an adult dragon had not appeared to shepherd the infant to safety in the mountains, the dragon would transform and take the appearance of a human baby. What hunter could slay an orphaned child? So in this way, the hunters who so cruelly drove their blades into the hearts of hatchling dragons were often the ones to find the poor orphaned children. They rescued and cared for them until they could be passed along to the caravan to be given to the Monongalians or returned to the villages from whence their parents surely had departed before meeting an untimely end in the forest.
And so, over the last half century, the village of Monongalia, famously a safe haven for children, had also become an unknowing incubator of transformed hatchling dragons. Things probably would have continued this way forever if the transformation was permanent but, alas, it was a spell that only lasted only for the first 3 to 4 years of a hatchlings life. By that age, a helpless hatchling would gain its adult form and with that, the powers of fire and flight. At this point, the dragon was freed from its human body so that it could fly off to hunt, grow, and finally join the colony in the mountains.
The first time that a child had transformed into a dragon overnight had been written off by the villagers as a simple accident. A fire must have gotten out of control and the whole family burned up in the blaze.
The next time it had happened, an restless old widower had been out for a walk, taking in the cool night air. He had heard a panicked shout and seen a burst of flames shoot out of the side of the hut near where he was passing! He’d rushed to help the family escape the fire. As he’d broken through the door, he’d sworn he’d seen the tip of a long, spiked tail disappearing through the window! The mother had run from her child’s room screaming in terror, “Tamrin is missing! A dragon has stolen my boy!”
It had only taken a few more strange tragedies like these before the villagers had eventually settled on an explanation for the horrible events. Dragons weren’t attacking the village and stealing children from their beds in the middle of the night. No, it was much worse than that! The children were the dragons.
Of course, thought Merilee, the entire story was nothing more than the crazed imaginings of old men. Unfortunately, enough of the villagers still actually believed this harebrained tale that they’d voted to continue forcing the youngest, most vulnerable children to sleep alone out in animal pens near the dangerous forest. Children turning into dragons might not be real but wolves and bears in the forest certainly were! Merilee couldn’t very well tell Arlo all of this though. It could wait until he was old enough to hear it from the elders with the rest of his classmates. She would give him an abridged version for now, a more tasteful version with less murder.
“There is a very powerful magic in the land that protects all things, even dragons,” she said. “It decided to protect the baby dragons from the hunters by letting them pretend to be little children for a while. The hunters started bringing the little babies that they found in the forest here for the village to care for.”
“Just like the caravan does!” said Arlo, excitedly. He liked hearing about baby dragons.
“Yes, dear, just like that.” She smiled at his pleased expression and continued, “Sometimes baby dragons decide that it's time to grow their wings and fly off to see their parents in the Shrouded Peaks, so that’s why the children from the caravan have to sleep closer to the forest. Just in case they grow wings and need to fly away during the night when everyone else is busy sleeping.”
“Wow!” said Arlo, he looked completely enthralled now. “Is that what happened to Mattis? He got some wings?”
“Yes, dear,” Merilee said, but she felt a pang in her heart. Mattis had gone missing only a few weeks before. His foster parents were still in mourning but they accepted that it had been “the will of the magic.” Merilee rolled her eyes. The will of the magic? More like the will of a hungry wolf!
Really though, she thought, it was lucky for the children that the villagers hadn’t done anything desperate when they first started believing children were turning into dragons. Instead, according to the elders, the villagers had held several councils at which they gathered information and debated. They’d determined that this “transformation” only happened during the night and it only happened with children that were just growing out of their toddling age. Never had a child of school age or older transformed and never had an infant or child too young to walk.
They’d noticed that none of the children born to the villagers had ever set fire to their hut or killed their parents before flying off to the mountains. It was always children originally from the caravan. Other than this commonality though, there had been no way to identify which children were dragons and which children were, well, children. There had been hundreds of children from the caravan who had grown up to be completely normal members of the village, but some of those sweet, innocent, loving, normal-in-every-other-way children occasionally just up and (apparently) turned into fire breathing monsters overnight.
Many villagers had proposed that they cease taking in the children from the caravan completely, but without the deliveries of supplies from the caravan, the village could not sustain itself. They’d tried to convince the caravanners to stop taking in children that they had found or that had been given over to them, but the caravanners refused. They’d even refused to identify the children who were not born into the caravan, concerned that the villagers would treat them poorly out of fear.
This left the villagers to find a way to ensure the safety of the village, the foster parents, and the children themselves. They had realized that in homes where children slept in separate areas from their parents, there was never loss of life. The children seemed to simply turn into dragons and immediately try to find a way to escape and fly away. The way of escape usually involved fire though, which had the potential to spread quickly among the wooden homes.
The villagers couldn’t just have all of the children sleep in a common room under guard as if one child transformed they were liable to kill the rest of them before they could be set free or destroyed. And so, every night from the time they started to walk until they were old enough to start their schooling, every single one of the children from the caravan must be kept separate from their families, away from any other children, and distant enough from the village to keep from starting a blaze that would destroy it.
There had been plenty of space between the village and the forest to construct a camp of comfortable sleeping pens for the children. Some of the villagers took turns acting as night watchmen and patrolled the area from a distance to discourage any wild animals who might approach. Without the interference of nearby adults or a noisy and destructive dragon escape, it had become commonplace for the transformations to take place without anyone knowing until the next morning when a child would otherwise be inexplicably missing from their pen. Or, more likely, as Merilee believed, there never had been any transformations at all.
Merilee patted Arlo’s head and smiled at him. He looked so pleased to think that his friend had grown wings and flown away. Yes, she thought, that was better than him believing, as she did, that the village elders were willing to sacrifice children to the wild animals rather than give up their fairy tale. Yes, it was better that Arlo believed that magic still existed.
Arlo Meets a Dragon
Arlo froze. He didn’t move and he didn’t breathe. He just sat rigidly looking into the smoldering eyes of the monstrous orange dragon and tried to remember why he was sitting in a soggy pile of leaves in the forest. The last thing he could remember clearly was feeling restless late last night. He hadn’t wanted to fall asleep and face the nightmares. Oh, yes, that was it! He had gotten up from his cozy bed in his sleeping pen and he had made a decision. But what had it been? It hadn’t seemed like a difficult decision at all, that part he recalled. It had felt as natural as, well, breathing. Upon thinking this, Arlo remembered to breathe and took a giant gasp of air into his lungs and then exhaled with a loud whoosh.
The sound of his gasp must have startled the dragon and caused it to snort in response. Hot, steamy tendrils of mist shot out of the dragon’s nostrils, wrapping around Arlo, warming him in the cool morning air. Arlo studied the dragon. It looked somewhat friendly (for a dragon) and, to Arlo’s surprise, it appeared to be studying him right back. They gazed curiously at each other, neither of them making a move.
Surprisingly, Arlo didn't feel afraid. He was just extremely startled to find himself nearly nose to nose with a dragon in the forest, the dangerous forest where he was forbidden to ever venture. Arlo was young, yes, but he was brave and determined and, more than anything, he was insatiably curious. He had always felt drawn to the mystery of the forest and the mountains beyond.
And then Arlo remembered. He had decided to explore! After his mother had told him about the dragons the day before, he had not been able to think of anything else! He knew that he’d never be able to make it all the way to the forest in daylight without being spotted, but night was another story. He had decided to escape his sleeping pen and explore the forest for himself, to see what adventure was hiding amongst the trees. He had only wanted to catch a glimpse of a dragon! His mother always tried to protect him from everything because of his bad leg, but he wasn’t a baby anymore! If he was old enough to be starting lessons in less than a year’s time then he was old enough to go into the forest.
Arlo had always been a strong climber and he had somehow managed to haul himself up and over the high wall of his pen. It must have been a rough fall to the ground on the other side for his body felt sore and achy now. He had silently moved away from the line of sleeping pens and toward the forest, easily avoiding the night watchman. And then, what? It was all still a bit blurry. Had he hit his head? Yes, that was it. He had been disoriented in the dark, moving too fast, and had plowed headlong into a tree. He must have knocked himself out and spent the whole night unconscious in a soggy leaf pile on the forest floor. He was lucky that no dangerous wild animals had found him! Well, until now.
Arlo groaned and reached up to rub his throbbing temples and try to clear his thoughts. The dragon mimicked this movement and the sound of its claws scraping against its scaly orange head made a scritching noise that sent a shiver up Arlo’s spine. The dragon stopped scratching and stretched its neck out toward Arlo with its head cocked to one side, as if it were about to ask him a question.
“What are you doing in the woods, little boy?” it would say, thought Arlo. “Are you tasty?” it might say next.
Could dragons talk? He wasn’t sure. As far as Arlo knew, no one had ever had the chance to have a conversation with a dragon because of the whole fire breathing monster thing.
Arlo needed to get back to his pen. He hadn’t meant to be gone all night. He knew that his mother must be worried sick and furious with him for this escapade. Or maybe not? She would probably assume that he had grown some wings and flown off in the night, like Mattis! If she only knew that he had just gone off to explore and that he was so close by in the forest, face to face with a dragon! Surely all would be forgiven once he returned home and explained things to her. But how to do that?
Maybe the dragon would just let him leave? If it had wanted to eat him it surely would have done so while he was sleeping or in the several minutes that they had been staring at each other. Yes! That was it. This was a friendly dragon, not a hungry one. Arlo would just say his goodbyes and, very slowly and quietly, back away and start walking towards the village. He gathered his courage.
Arlo waved tentatively at the dragon and opened his mouth to speak. But what do you say to a dragon?
“Well, bye then!” or “Nice to meet you!” were the only things that came to his mind.
But the dragon suddenly opened its jaws and a gurgling sound escaped with a rush of steam. It reached one vicious looking clawed foot right towards him. Arlo’s outstretched hand met the dragon’s clawed foot and the water of the pool on the forest floor beside the soggy pile of leaves rippled, dissolving the dragon into waves of indistinct orange reflection.
And Arlo finally understood. Something distant was reaching out to him in a deep place within his soul, awakening, stirring, changing, fulfilling. He sighed, stretched out his leathery, copper wings, and launched himself into the air. He took one last longing look in the direction of the village and his loving mother, and turned away. The mountains were calling him home.