King

How do I keep finding myself in these blooming situations? thought Egan as he stalked carefully through the darkened trees. What am I doing here? I’m not anyone special.  Silhouetted by the moonlight he looked back on the road he had come. It was too late to turn back, too dark to even see the way home. His fate lay only ahead of him now.

Nothing more than a figure of shadow and fear, he gazed at the woodland around him. Every tree limb, every animal, any and every movement played across the young man’s doubts. Each rustle and crack became an imagined beast capable of devouring a man whole. Of course, that could very likely be my true end before this night has run out

Leaving the safety of the path for the greater concealment of the forest, Egan moved through the trees silently, navigating the treacherous undergrowth as only a practiced Heroner could. Growing up in the woodland village of Heron’s Haven the youth had learned how to move through trees, quickly and quietly, when the situation was called for and this one most certainly did. As children he and his friends often played hiding games among the forest, but always close to the village itself. To journey further had always been a child’s dare. Maybe that’s all I am, a fool kid who never grew to see the reason of his elder years.

In the forest there was one place none would ever go, a place all knew for its dangers. Not even the most foolhardy of village boys would journey so deep into the nightmare wood. How could a mere boy step foot where even his father dared not travel? Dark and villainous, I had become to be known only as The King’s Lair, and it was this very place where Egan now found himself.

Around him the vibrant life of the forest had grown dim. The triproot was much denser underfoot as if not an animal or other had passed through within recent memory to trample down the thick litter of the forest floor. All had known better, which meant he was face with the reality that he truly was less intelligent than a squirrel or racmonk.

As the brush became denser so did the treetops. Only a few shafts of moonlight managed to pierce the heavy tree canopy, providing but a brief glimpse of light every few hundred steps. It was a long journey through the blackness, and perhaps, the Pits of Death were darker, but at least there one could be certain they were already dead. In this place, Egan had not even the comfort of that certainty.

Eventually, even the darkest of journeys must end, and his concluded in a small clearing, a break in the shadow, where the cloudless night was allowed to bring its gentle glow to the land. Set inside was a great cave opening emerging from an even greater mountain side. Along the outer edge was a small stream, pooling at the foot of the mountain, and continuing on into the forest and untold places. The moon reflected off the rippling water trickling down from its mountain origin. For a moment, Egan stood taking in this little utopia buried among the nightmare of the surrounding forest. To one who had not known better it would seem an oasis of hope in a desert of darkness, but he knew better. This moment of silent observation was brief, for in this angelic place there existed a greater demon then any that had been conceived of by the mind of a slumbering man.

No sooner was Egan out of sight then did he hear the sound of wings. They were not the feathery wings of a bird. The sound was much crisper, like the snap of leather, but neither were they the sound of a bat. It grew steadily to a near deafening roar as the creature approached. The beast was larger in size, than any bird, any bat, or any man could ever be.

Egan chanced a brief look, as the creature crossed the moon. It circled once before easing into the clearing, its arrival announced with one last flap of great wings, and a massive thud that shook the ground. The breezed gusted as the creature’s landing stirring up loose leaves and tree branches all around him. Mammoth in size, it towered over the very treetops themselves, a terrifying sight, yet compelling. Like a man mesmerized by fire, Egan could not look away from the beautifully frightening giant.

The beast’s crystalline scales flared brightly in the moonlight, with an almost unnatural shine. Its head was arrayed with a crown of sharp horns, and a no better or majestic cap was ever laid upon a king of man then what sat atop that great beast’s head. It folded wings behind its back, a royal robe of scarlet leather and green crystal. The creature’s noble gaze slowly scanned its domain, searching for anything that dared to disturb its realm.

Egan caught sight of the creature’s eyes. They burned like the flame of death, but there was something more that he could not place, a spark deep within the flame, a mere hint of something concealed. Awe struck by this impressive monster he could do only one thing, think only one thought, say only one whispered word, “Dragon.”

The word, barely audible, snapped the creature’s head to rigid attention. Stupid, boy, he cursed in him mind. Egan flattened himself among the underbrush which no longer seemed as thick as it had a moment earlier. The great beast lowered his razor snout to where he lay, sniffing the air with nostrils larger than a man’s head and absorbing the smells around him, like a village dog on the hunt of dinner scraps. Is that all I am, all I was ever meant to be?

The youth’s hand fell to his hip, a sweat-soaked palm coming to rest on the hilt of his sword. That familiar weight was always an odd sort of comfort, like man bare and naked suddenly remembering his trousers. A good sword could make a man feel invincible, as if he could stand against any foe mortal or otherwise.

Egan’s fingers tightened around the hilt. He knew that the dragon was sure to find him now. The time had come to be weighed and measured, to move or die, but he he could not move. Something in him was compelled to inaction as if his muscles were suddenly stone.

Yet, the beast did not kill him were he cowered. The dragon backed his head away slowly, almost cautiously. Once certain of no movement the creature retired to its cave with not a second glance. Egan found himself alone and freezing, shaking in his cold sweat.

Regaining a composure he never had he reprimanded himself for his near fatal mistake, but he still dared not move. The night was suddenly open to him, every sight, sound, and smell were tangible. The taste of the crisp early spring air, the very distant sound of night birds, the feeling of noiseless wind on his face, the slight smell of sulfur, and below it all like a deep heartbeat, he could hear the breath of the dragon within the cave. For a very long time Egan listened with no nerve to move as the great beast settled and slept. Thoughts whirled through his head as he lay among the dirt and undergrowth.

*  *  *  *  *

It had been an unseasonably cold night for spring, but not in the Spitting Pig, the local tavern. Draen having finished his seventh pint had boasted he could kill a bear with his hands, and demonstrated it on Ferris who moments earlier had boasted to take any man. The Blacksmith brothers, Hector and Dorvin looked on laughing. Rathel watched quietly as he always did, never having much to add but enjoying the company. Egan, always the leader, egged the two on boasting that he could best them all. That was where it had begun and with the eyes of the bar mistress, Evia, whom no man could ever seem to form a proper sentence around.

The trouble thus began where it usually starts with most young men, women and pride. That was the night, while Daen and Ferris wrestled like drunken bears, Egan approached her. Slowly at first the conversation began, but with well placed laughs and compliments it quickly picked up momentum, much like Draen’s meaty hand had before it hit him unexpectedly. The whole tavern, the whole village laughed, especially Evia.

The larger man, having finished with Ferris, wished to test the claims of Egan and had struck, not hard, but enough to make the other feel a fool. That was when the simple yet dreaded boast erupted from his mouth. “I could take you. I could take the King if I wanted.”

“Could you really?” asked Evia with her eyes as much as her lips.

“He’s just fooling,” said one of the Blacksmith brothers before they both fell over laughing.

“I will,” said Egan as he stood. “I will kill the dragon.” With no more to say to the stunned crowd he walked out.

Even after he sobered up Egan was never one to back down from a challenge. His friends knew him and the strength of his words. They tried to talk him out of fulfilling his claim, but there was nothing to be said. He had said the words and put his solemn vow to it. Others may have saw it as foolish pride, but to him it was a matter of honor, at least what small honor the son of tanner could have. Even if he died he planned to do so with his word unbroken.

*  *  *  *  *

What if I don’t die? The dragon had failed to pick up his scent. The feared and ferocious King, talked about in the legends of his small woodland village was perhaps less than the god he was believed to be.

The stories had stretched back for generations, told from grandparent to grandson, down the lines. A great beast, an efficient and deadly hunter, and a monster that would devour anything unfortunate enough to run across its path, these were the stories of King the Dragon.

Perhaps long ago, but what of now? Could it be true? Could King be as old as to be feeble? Some believed that dragons were immortal, but Egan had begun to hope that those beliefs were wrong. So it was, from that small thread of hope, a gilded suit of courage began to be forged in his mind. What if King is much older then most people understand?

Suddenly, he was already feasting at his own victory banquet. The beautiful Evia sat upon his arm, the arm of a hero. She listened intently as he told the daring story of how he slayed the dragon for the another countless time. His name would become legend. The great celebration of his mind’s eye played before him until eventually he succumbed to slumber.

It was from this dreamless sleep that Egan awoke with a start to find himself staring into a great fiery red pupil centered among a golden yellow orb. Immediately, he pulled his blade clear of its scabbard and dove into the clearing away from the mighty beast. He hit the ground and rolled into a low fighting stance.

The dragon gave the rolling, jumping, jittery man a dispassionate eye. The great creature lazily turned towards him as the little man waved his sword around, like a twig in a driving wind. Raising his head to the moon, it gave a powerful cry that rocked the trees, shook the ground, and turned Egan’s very bones to porridge. All his high talk of honor and pride fell short of the actual danger he now faced.

As Egan’s nerve drained so did his color. With one mighty swing of the beast’s talon the pale youth’s sword landed several paces away with a sharp metallic ping as it became wedged in the trunk of a near-by tree. With the loss of that last symbol of courage his nerve finally broke, but it was too late. Every attempt he made to run the dragon was there, around him, ahead of him, behind him. He soon realized that the surprisingly nimble giant was herding him into the cave, into his very den. With no choices left to him, the man ran desperately into the dark mountain hole in hopes of finding even the smallest exit. Clawing futilely at the walls to no avail, he understood with a grim determination that he was trapped.

King entered the blackened cave, his massive shape silhouetted by the moonlight, blocking all light momentarily as he moved through its entrance with a cat-like grace. Egan considered hiding in the darkness, but when he caught sight of those flaming red eyes, he knew it would make little difference. They followed him warily, always on him no matter how he moved in that blackened cave. Suddenly, a flash of light and flame burst forth from the creature’s mouth. He cringed and awaited the searing pain that never came.

Opening an eyelid he found the cave basked in the warm glow of a fire. In its center stood a large pile of kindling cracking and spewing forth a flame that illuminated the bleak darkness. The dragon, however, was still staring at him. King sat for a long time, his eyes upon the young man, and after the great beast seemed satisfied with whatever private sentence he passed upon the invader of his domain, he moved slowly into a lying position, those scarlet eyes never once leaving Egan.

How odd to see a dragon lying down. After the shock of his initial fright, his fear-stricken-mind seemed to wander toward odder thoughts. Lying down is the sort of thing that seems very much out of character for such a great beast. Dragons were havoc and destruction, they ravage towns and steal maidens, but surely they did not lie down. It looks more like my old dog than any great specter of death. Yet he needed no more reminder of what the creature truly was than to look to its scaled and talon wings, folded along his backside. It was no domesticated pet.

This was how each remained for several arduous moments, but after a time Egan’s nerves began to calm. Not even the tightest of cords can stay taught forever, and the now overwhelming cold he felt was beginning to demand more attention then his residing fear. Slowly he approached the fire and sat down opposite the dragon.

“Are you comfortable?”

Egan jumped looking for the voice’s source. “Who said that?” He had hoped his own voice was not quivering too much.

“I did.” The youth turned his head settling it upon the dragon. “Yes, that’s right. I was the one who spoke,” said King. To see words pass from the lips of the great beast was almost too much, akin to watching a fish leap from the water and fly like a bird. “I take from that look you never expected to see a dragon talk.”

“What black art makes this possible?” was all the dumb-struck man could mumble.

“I know many languages. I talk to many different animals, even humans.”

“But you’re a dragon?” Egan stammered.

“And you are a human. You think yourselves far superior to all other things, and yet you, young one, had no idea that dragons had the ability for speech. Perhaps that makes you just a dumb animal.”

His words were not harsh, but King’s voice had a velvety quality to it. Words of stone were draped in a layer of compassion and caring. The words spoken were ones of a teacher correcting his student for a simple mistake. They were not the words of a violent being.

“In all the stories I heard about the great King, I never once heard about his being able to talk.” It was a thought spoken aloud more for Egan’s sake, but King could only shake his massive head as he considered it. Even such a slight movement seemed so human that it threatened to overwhelm the poor youth’s threshold for understand.

“How foolish are humans and their assumptions?” King turned his head to the cave entrance where a small figure, about the size of a large dog, was entering. It came around the massive body of the intelligent beast, to lie down near the fire.

A small animal, its scales were a more vibrant green then that of its larger counterpart, but the same burning bright eyes marked its origins clear. The horns on its head were not as developed, and its wings still seemed more slender in the comparison, but no mistake could be made. It was a baby dragon.

“Are you female?” asked the bewildered Egan.

“All dragons are one gender,” responded the larger beast. “Though I suppose the closest a human could understand would be to see us as female, but such a mark is not accurate. How could something be called day without night? It is another arrogant judgment passed upon my kind by the race of man.”

“Then how do you have children?” Egan hoped the question was not inappropriate, but his curiosity was suddenly overwhelming.

King looked lovingly at her child as the small creature drifted asleep, warm and safe by the fire. “All dragons are born with-child. We, however, do not lay our egg until a certain age. It takes a dragon egg ten summers to hatch. My child was born three summers ago. She is still very young. She cannot fly, and her flame is yet small. You see, young one, my only have one offspring. Every dragon in the world is only capable of bearing one child.”

“All this time, you’re not a King, you’re a queen,” said the man momentarily lost in thought. “Wait, if that is true then the number of dragons in the world could never rise.” Understanding began to dawn on his face.

The great creature nodded. “A dragon lays her egg toward the end of life. Once hatched, a mother has only about a hundred summers left of life. In that time she must raise and teach her child all which it must know. When the parent dies the child will take her place in the world. If a dragon is killed, not only does she die, but so does her lineage. Thus, forever will there be one less dragon in this world.” King’s eyes wandered toward the fire as if lost in some distant memory.

“I was always taught the dragons were immortal?”

King’s eyes shifted toward Egan. “To the butterfly, a tree is immortal. My kind is long lived. I myself have existed for over a thousand summers.

“I can remember when there were no humans in these woods. When I was much younger I caught some of the best prey where you village now stands, long before your kind came to these lands.” King smiled a little at the memory as it faded from her eyes. “No more. Your people have over hunted this forest. I am lucky if I can find enough food for a season anymore. I have to keep going further from my home, and my child, to find even meager hunting. Sometimes I resort to stealing one of your sheep or cows, like a common wolf, just to get any food.”

The dragon’s gaze hardened as her anger flared. “Man thinks only of himself. This is not your forest. You did not create it and you were not the first ones to inhabit it. You should learn to respect it, as all others do. You should learn take only what you need.” King’s voice grew to a roar and Egan once again found himself fearing for his life.

However, the dragon upon seeing how afraid the youth had become pulled her temper under control. “I apologize. Sometimes I forget myself and my emotions.”

“I think it is I who must apologize. I can understand how you must feel.” Egan relaxed again, but remained wary. “Why me? How come you didn’t just kill me?”

“You humans have begun to grow bolder. I used to go many summers without seeing any of the race of man. Now it seems every time I leave my cave, there is one here in hopes of receiving a new trophy. Most are men, grizzled by warfare and years of hardship. None listen to reason, and I wonder if anyone in the world misses them. You, however, are a child. You must be no more then 20 summers old?”

“I am 19 years old. A man by all rights,” he said defensively.

“Of course, but in my experience, youth means idealism. You are young enough yet to have your mind changed. I need one, such as you, who can speak on my behalf. One who can convince your race to stay away from my home and my child. Everyday now, I fear to go out hunting for food, and leave my little one alone. Yet, I have no real choice. It is either hunt or starve and she is too little to fly.” Her gaze moved to the sleeping drake curled by the fire. “I do not know what you can do, but I ask that you try.”

“Why not go yourself and plead your case? You can come with me back to my village.”

“To go to your home, would be certain death. Most humans do not even know dragons have to ability to speak. Before I could even utter a single word your people would try to destroy me.”

“But you’re a dragon. Surely, you could force them to listen.”

“You yourself are bigger and stronger than a hornet. Would you willingly put your hand into a hive? No, I am too old. It would be my death.”

The pair sat in silence for awhile. Each lost in their own thoughts. The young man stared into the flaming fire, before returning his gaze to the flaming eyes of the dragon. “How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to humans before?”

“How come you’re kind has never tried to talk to dragons before?”

“Fear, I suppose.”

“We are different, and differences breed fear, and fear breeds violence. I have watched you humans for generations. You war with each other unending, over your own slight differences. Your people would not hesitate to kill me for mine.”

“I suppose you’re right.” He looked outside the cave. The sky was beginning to redden with the first rays of morning. “The sun is coming up. I should be going.”

“Yes and thank you for listening,” said King.

Egan got to his feet. Dusting himself off, he walked near the dragon. “Thank you. I will try to tell them what you have told me. Farewell.” He walked out of the cave into the rising sunlight.

“Farewell,” followed the voice from behind him.

As he left the clearing Egan looked back to see the outline of King standing in the cave’s entrance. She was glowing in the morning light. He smiled to himself and plunged into the lightening forest.

As the sun continued to rise, the nightmare forest of the previous night no longer seemed threatening. In fact Egan was surprised to find that he was actually happy. Picking his way through the thick underbrush he forged on toward home, excited by the new things he had learned he could not wait to tell his friends.

He was not far along on his journey when he heard the great cry pierce the morning air. It was some distance behind him, yet clear. It brought back to him the frightful memories of the night before. With no thought he turned and started back toward the cave,, running, charging, tripping several times in his mad rush.

He knew what he would find in that clearing. The sounds of a battle could be heard ringing through the trees. Egan slowed as he approached. Panting from exhaustion he observed the scene ahead of him.

A group of five men were circling King their naked swords catching the growing rays of sunlight, but not just any men, they were his friends.

“Stop!” Egan yelled between ragged breathes as he broke into the clearing. No one heard or no one cared. In desperation he threw himself at the closest man, the wiry Ferris. Both tumbled to the rocky dirt.

Ferris’s stern gaze turned quickly to bright smile as he saw who it was. “You’re alive!” he yelled. “When you didn’t come back last night we came here looking for you. Then when we got here we saw your sword,” he pointed to the blade lodged in the nearby tree. “We feared you dead, but now you’re here.”

“So you don’t need to kill anything,” Egan said desperately.

“No, now we can all do it together. Think of it, Egan, we’ll go home heroes with the greatest trophy anyone has ever seen.”

“No, I can’t let you!” shouted Egan as he came to his feet.

“What are you talking about? Think of it, we’d be the men who defeated the mighty King.”

“No you don’t understand…” The man stopped at the sound of a scream, a human scream. Both men looked to see one of the Blacksmith brothers lying on the grassy floor, a deep gash across chest and stomach. Dorvin lay on the ground crying out in pain.

“No!” yelled both men in unison. Ferris left his friend’s side, and charged back into the fight.

“Stop, you all have to stop!” pleaded Egan but his appeal went unheeded.

Then his heart stopped as the baby wandered from the safety of the cave. Draen was the first to reach it, threatening it with his sword. King lost control of her temper and charged the man. As she flew at him, Hector and Rathel drove their blades into the soft underbelly of the beast. The noble creature cried out in pain as her side ran red with little streams of blood.

With a single breath the dragon let loose a ball of fire that consumed the offending men. The heat created waves in the air, blasting the sand underfoot to glass. Two lifeless charred bodies were all that remained of Egan’s friends.

Draen abandoned the baby dragon in favor of her mother, and lunged with his sword. Impressively he managed two quick cuts in her vulnerable area, but that was the last thing he ever did. With another breath of fire he too fell dead, cooked where he stood.

Ferris taking up the fallen sword of the now motionless Dorvin struck with twin blades. King slowed from her injuries was only able to block one. It went spinning away into the forest but not before its twin found its mark. Moments later Ferris fell nearly sliced in two from King’s razor sharp claw.

The clearing was peaceful once again. Egan could even hear a songbird singing. The transition had been eerily quick, chaos to peace. He looked around at the bodies of his five friends. The five men he’d grown up with, joked with, and cared about. Next his gaze fell onto the fiery red eyes of the great beast.

King wavered as she stood there in the morning air. Her breath was ragged and quick. She was in great pain. “I am sorry,” was all she said before she fell to the battle marred floor. It shook with the impact of her massive body.

He watched the creature for a moment where she lay, her gut rose and fell rapidly. Each breath was short and accompanied by soft groans. Walking over to her he could only think of holding her head. “No, I’m sorry. This is my fault. They were my friends. They came here after me. If I hadn’t come…”

“Do not blame yourself,” said King softly. “The fish does not know where the stream may lead him. It must follow and do what it can when waters become troubled.” The man looked into those noble eyes again. He finally realized what the spark was. It was intelligence and compassion. They were the eyes of creature who wanted nothing more than a quite life for her and her child. They were so human, yet somehow so much more.

A small figure emerged from its place of hiding, crying out as she saw her mother. The drake fell against her parent with a howl that told of true sorrow and pain. King spoke to her in a strange language of ancient growls and throaty rumbles. Perhaps, she was trying to comfort the small defenseless creature or to tell her something more, Egan never knew.

Looking back up at him, she spoke softly, “They were your friends and I know how much it must hurt. Know that I only did what I had to, to protect myself and my child. They arrived only moments after you left. As I said before, most humans do not want to talk. They just want blood.”

Egan just nodded.

“Now she will be without a mother. She will die unless someone teaches her how to survive.” Her words were strained, coming much slower.

He looked down at the little creature that was clinging hopelessly to its parent. “I will raise her. I don’t know what I may be able to do, but I promise you, I will try.”

“I know you will. I am at peace knowing you will be here. You are a very rare person, I think.”

“Don’t die,” said Egan, as if his futile plea could stave off the inevitable. Tears fell steadily from his eyes landing soft against the dragon’s emerald scales.

“I will not, as long as my child lives. Through her part of me will always be alive.” Her eyes began to grow distant. They gazed past the young man to something beyond. The noble beast took one last breath and was still. Her stomach ceased to move, and that spark of life and spirit left her great scarlet eyes.

Sensing the loss the drake gave a loud cry. Egan’s heart broke at the sound of it and at the loss of such a creature. Soon however sorrow became resolve. I will not allow this death to mean death for another. I will raise her.

*  *  *  *  *

Egan never returned to his small woodland village. As far as the people of Heron’s Haven knew all six friends had died that day, but all were too afraid to make certain. That was how they left it.

After he had buried the dead men, he burned the body of King. The flame rose white hot, as the dragon’s own inner fire mingled with the pyre that consumed her remains. He spread the ashes among the wind from a place higher up in the mountain. Everything was done with the greatest reverence. Egan was not just burying a dead beast, but a queen among the forest.

Appropriately he named the little dragon, Princess. The two lived together in the cave in the clearing. Each grew and aged as time went on, as did their friendship. Princess grew up strong and beautiful. She had her mother’s eyes.

Egan lived up to his solemn vow. He taught Princess to hunt, and talk, and even to fly. He protected her, raised her, and cared for as if she was his own child. He lived to be ninety-five years old, as if by some magic, and when he finally died Princess burned his body and scattered it among the wind to join the soul of her mother.

After his death the young dragon left the clearing and the woodland in search of better hunting grounds and maybe even others of her kind. She never did return to that forest, but she never forgot the man and all the lessons he taught her. He truly was a specual type of person.

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