They are coming.
I can feel it in the air. The trembling trees with quaking roots that speak to me. A heavy feeling that lays on my spine, a feeling that I have come to trust.
I hunch down, making myself small. As if that were possible. I am veritably enormous. Scales layered over thick, leathery skin. My tail swishes between trees easily as I crawl forward to the clearing. I can hear their breathing, heavy and slow with anticipation. I edge forward.
He leaps down from the high branches and onto my back. I rear my head back and roar into the sky. She comes up from a hole in the ground covered with leaves, leaping out and latching onto my front left leg. I shake violently and roll over, the two of them crawling on me like ants over their prey.
The first time a dragon laughs in front of a human it is a terrifying thing. These two are used to it.
“Got you!” She says, standing triumphantly on my chest with her arms on her hips. He stands beside her, quiet and more subdued.
“Indeed, tiny human. You have won.” I lean my head back to show her my throat, a sign of love and respect in the dragon world. For I very much love these tiny humans. Children, they called them.
“He knew we were there.” Boy says to his sister. I chuckle deep in my stomach. Boy has always been the clever one. She is the courageous one. Together they are entirely too smart for their own good. Apart, they are easy to defeat. I have learned much in the ten years since I took them as my wards, my own.
She was eight years old, he was ten, when they came to me, brought by villagers who feared my wrath. A dragon making his home in their forest was something they feared, they could never have hoped to find the coin to pay a knight or mercenary to slay me. So I would remain here, in this comfortable home filled with food and water and shelter, all the things an Emerald dragon needs. I am not a greedy dragon like a Ruby, or a warmongering like an Onyx. I am not driven by magic like the Sapphires.
No, an Emerald dragon just wants a forest to call home.
And a home I have.
I roll over and the two of them leap clear, they have become strong these years. Taller. More agile. They have grown into capable young humans.
“How did you know?” Girl asks as we walk to our home. The one they built and the one I sleep near. Comfortable.
“I can hear your heartbeats.” I grumble, taking slower, longer strides so they don’t have to run to keep up. It makes me a ponderous sort of dragon, like one of the massive diamonds.
“That’s cheating!” Boy cries out. I approximate a shrug with my shoulders, something I learned from them.
“That is my natural advantage. You have many of your own. This is not cheating, it is life.”
“Another lesson imparted from the very wise dragon of the forest.” Girl says. I swipe at her, far too slowly to ever have a chance to hit her. She expected it anyway. I laugh again, and so do they.
We have a good life here.
When I arrived the villagers came to me. They stank of fear and poverty and had brought two children with them. Two children who were stubborn, jaws set even if they didn’t fully understand. The villagers fell to their knees and begged. If they offered up these two morsels, would I be sated?
What a disgusting thought. Humans are lean, stringy things. Barely any meat and what meat there is tastes of rot and hate and generally the color yellow. A cooked human tastes worse. Sickening, I would never eat one intentionally.
But these villagers were so dead set on the sacrifice to me. They wanted my protection but I would never offer that. So they settled for simply being left to their own devices. They had caught me at a strange moment in my life for I agreed.
But I did not eat the children.
I raised them. I would be the mockery of the dragon world but that has never bothered me before, not for many thousands of years.
“You seem deep in thought.” Boy says, pulling me from the memory.
“Just of the day that you came to me. Nothing important.” I say. Girl laughs, Boy scowls.
“Better it happened that way anyway, that village is nothing but a cesspool.” Girl says, kicking a rock into the trees. It bounces off a trunk and into the brush. I stop.
She stops. Boy stops. They look at each other and Girl…winces. I tilt my head in curiosity at her. I lower my head to her level. Boy punches her in the arm, I hiss at him through my teeth.
“What do you mean, Girl?” I say, growling it. “Cesspool. Cesspool of what?”
She kicks at the dirt this time, not finding a nearby rock. Then she looks up at me with fire in her eyes.
“What kind of village gives their children away?! You’re a smart dragon, you figure it out.”
She turns on her heels and walks on to our home. I raise my head and look to the curling smoke trails of the village, some distance away. Boy looks up at me and sighs. Then he shrugs. Then he turns to walk after her.
But he stops.
And I know why.
Because he smells it too.
Fire is close. Too close to be the village. Boy breaks into a run and I take to the sky, spreading my wings and pushing up into the air, leaving behind a cloud of dirt and shaking leaves from trees.
Above the forest I look down at the clearing we have called home for many years, peacefully. Where Boy and Girl built a home of logs for themselves. Where I have slept for a decade and watched over them.
It is on fire.
Smoke curls into the sky, thick and black. Boy and Girl do not shout, I see them running between trees in near silence. I watch as Boy leaps up and clambers up a tree as easily as a squirrel might. Girl simply disappears into the shadows.
They are smart and they have learned much from a paranoid old dragon.
Just because a sword is not at your throat does not mean someone is not coming to kill you. Preparation above all else, a wary eye to the horizon.
Young dragons are raised to fear two things, and two things alone. A dragon does not fear fighting another dragon, it is terribly rare for two of us to feud so physically. We are emotional, grudge bearing beasts that remember much and forgive little.
Dragons do not fear nature for nature did not create anything above ground that a dragon must fear, we have no natural predators. Even time does not come for a dragon. In an era passed humans were little more than a collection of crude beings that lived in villages and scraped by in survival. Only the onyx sought to kill humans for they wanted war.
But humans grew, learned, adapted. Their mud villages became wood houses, then stone. Walls grew up, factions traded goods, they mined in the mountains and beat the iron in the ground into swords and armor. They bred and soon there were millions. That is when dragons learned to fear.
There is a smell to a knight. They are loyal, honorable, good people. They smell of those traits and dragons are raised to fear them. They are resilient, intelligent, and dedicated to a cause.
I do not smell this.
I smell a musk meant to hide the scent of a man. A dragon lives in one place for many, many years. I know the smell of this forest. I know the trees and the animals that live and die in this vast place. Ten years has left little for me to discover. This musk is too pristine, smells of a forest as one might imagine it.
That tells me that in the trees there are men who are hunters of dragons. Mercenaries. Paid their weight in gold to hunt dragons. These men lurk somewhere out there. This is why I hate mercenaries.
All this tells me something. I look to the smoke from the chimneys of the village and I hear something, something I have ignored in favor of the forest. Bells are ringing.
They are surprised by the fire in the forest, by the dragon taking flight. They think something is wrong. They did not hire these men.
A knight would perhaps attempt to slay me for free. Mercenaries will not. Dragon hunters are paid in gold, silver, precious gems, something they can sell or spend.
I circle to the clearing again, the smoke growing thicker and the fire hotter. I look for the mercenaries. They will think like Boy and Girl, the height of the trees or shelter in the ground. I do not see them, so I descend, hoping to draw them out.
If not for the scent I would think I was wrong. Perhaps there are no mercenaries. When a dragon believes that, that dragon is dead. No bolts ascend toward me, no one shouts a warning cry. It is something more subtle that alerts me that I am correct.
I smell blood.
I see Girl and part of a tree collapses, unnaturally. It was a man, camouflaged in leaves and paint. Artfully done, he had become the foliage.
Someone shouts a warning and the forest comes to life. There are a dozen, two, then three dozen men that materialize. I chuff in surprise and then the words ring in my ears.
“There she is! Get her!”
Get her. They want Girl?
I do not know this feeling. I have never felt it before. It is a tightness in my chest and my heart beats louder. Rage, blinding rage builds. They are coming for my wards. My wards.
I do not remember descending. All I know is that I land on the house we built, the flaming ruins, and it explodes. I know that there is a stunned silence from the mercenaries, from Boy, from Girl.
And I raise my head to the sky and roar. It is long, it is loud, and it shakes the forest to its roots.
“Boy! Girl! To me!”
My tiny humans.
Surprise, even for a giant flying lizard, is key to winning any battle.
I threw that away when I landed, roared, and announced myself to every single mercenary with an inkling toward violence against dragons.
So it becomes chaos in a moment, once the stunned silence wears off.
I breathe a wave of fire that consumes six of them and they are no longer an issue. Girl appears from another one of her holes, she loves tunnels and holes. A mercenary disappears with a yelp into the hole.
Boy comes from above, leaping from branch to branch around the clearing. They have small daggers that they used for work, now they use them for work of a different kind. The sort that ends lives.
I flash back to a memory of hunting with them, their first deer. They bartered with passing traders that I had an understanding with, buying bows and knives and trinkets. Quite self sufficient, the tiny humans. They brought down a deer together in the forest, badly wounded and alive.
That was a lesson, that mercy is sometimes a brutal thing.
They show mercy to these men now, a swift, brutal mercy. They shall not suffer, they simply, cease to be.
I am struck on the side by a long spear and snarl in pain, grabbing the spear and wrenching it from the man, tossing him into a tree. He does not stand again. I do not throw things lightly. I bring my tail down on another, running for Girl. He does not continue to run, he will not continue to do anything.
These men are not dragon hunters. They are mercenaries and they are capable but they are not the born and bred men who hunt the monsters of the sky. This is proven when they scatter, focusing on Boy and Girl. Boy is being held by two of them, arms pinned to his side. I stalk three paces and snatch one up with my teeth, flinging him over the tree tops with a fading shriek.
The other lets go of Boy in a moment of panic, turning to run. He does not get far before Boy shows more mercy.
Less than half of the mercenaries still live and they decide that this has failed, turning tail and running into the trees. We do not chase them, we do not need to. We stand in our clearing, gathering as a family might, next to our burned husk of a home.
“They came for you.” I tell them. Both Girl and Boy nod.
“I have questions.” I say, looking at them.
“So do we.” Girl speaks for both of them. Not unusually.
“The village. Why is it so bad?”
Girl opens her mouth and Boy kicks her in the shin. She glares at him and shuts her mouth. There is no time for this. It is unlikely the mercenaries will let this go, they will return at some point. Maybe with an army, maybe with more capable mercenaries. I am a strong dragon but even I can be felled. Paranoia will only guide me so far before I end up on the wrong end of an steel bolt.
“Tell me.” I grumble it, using a tone I haven’t used in many years. Not since I found them trying to climb the ancient oak. I did not fear them falling, I feared what the oak might do. Just as now. I do not fear the truth, I fear what will come from not knowing.
They don’t look at me. Girl looks like she might burst if she doesn’t say something. Boy looks like he might hit her if she does. Again.
“They’re slavers.” Boy says. Girl deflates, the words said for her. “Tunnels under the town, they take orphans and sell them on the coast.”
“Take.” Girl mutters. “Or make.”
“They weren’t from the town.” Boy says, looking up at me in defiance. This is perhaps the most he’s said in a single day in a number of years. “A dragon in the forest is free security.”
Boy knows more than he let on over these years. Girl too, from the way she’s kicking the dirt. I stare at her, choosing the weak link in their tight lipped scheme.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I growl, deeper. Aiming for disappointment. It’s been a very long time since I saw my mother but I recall when she spoke with disappointment when I made a mistake. It hurt more than when she was enraged and scorched a hillside because my brother and I had…gone adventuring.
“They came for us because-” Girl says. Boy tries to kick her but I bring a foot down between them. I snort smoke from my nostrils and grunt in my chest at the two of them.
“Enough. Tell me.”
“The town brought us to you because you were going to eat us.” Girl says.
“I am aware.”
“Because they were paid a lot of money to get rid of us.” Boy says. He is giving in.
“Because if we lived then we might grow up to be like our father.” Girl says, quietly. I lift my foot up from between the two of them. Now I am curious. Very curious.
“Your father? Why?”
“They took us from Creia.”
I mull the name over for a moment. Dragons are not historians of human history and geography but we do learn things, we have to co-exist with them anyway. I know this name. It conjures images of an enormous walled city on the coast, with a palace that juts out above the ocean. Concentric rings of white stone walls, dragon killers mounted on the walls. If I’m not mistaken there are two onyx dragons in the cliffs under the palace, paid in blood for their service to the man who rules there.
Creia is a capital city. Impenetrable, dangerous, a bastion of humanity.
If they were taken from there and the slavers are worried about their heritage that would mean…oh, oh my.
My tiny humans are royalty.
I am a dragon and this is unusual for me. I am secondary to these two little humans that I have watched for ten years. I am an afterthought. This is a strange feeling. No one wants to kill me, they just find me a nuisance to the things they want to kill. A barrier.
I laugh and start walking.
“Where are you going?” Girl shouts, running to keep up as a I thread through the trees.
“There is nothing left here and I want answers. I am going to get them.”
She stops, looks up through the trees at the sky. I am walking east, toward the smoke. Toward answers. These people made a mistake bringing these children to me all those years ago. A mistake they could not have predicted. They gave them a dragon.
And that dragon will bring them fire.