Dead Dragon, Woken

This is a short story I wrote a few months ago, to go along with the painting of a dragon I did. The story captures a lot of how I felt at the time, what I wished for and things that were playing on my mind.

 

Light and Shadow by Sarah Hodgetts

 

 

Dead Dragon, Woken

 

She teetered at the edge. The cavernous tunnel ended at a sheer drop just ahead of her. She’d never seen a drop like that, not with green, brown and blue, and the sound of chirping, squealing and snorting in the green out there. Painfully bright light rose up out of the mountains at the other side of the valley. Her long neck arched round at the sound of men’s boots clacking on the wet rocky floor far behind her. She turned her sharp eyes to the darkness, resting them in its soothing black curtain. Outside was too bright. She saw them in the far distance, a little line of men carrying ugly metal objects that shot sharp-ended sticks at her. She bristled, heat rising in her chest.

She coughed, and retched up slick black sludge. The warmth faded. She wanted to leave, to escape from this place. She could just go over that drop and away. But what if her wings didn’t carry her? She tentatively stretched out her left bony wing, grimacing as the tight muscles complained, and then the right, which felt awkward and crooked. What if flight didn’t just come to her? What if she needed to be taught? She took another step, her claws and the soft pads of her front feet touching down on green spiky stuff sprouting from the rocky face below. It sent a shiver through her, and she padded backwards. What was that stuff? It felt… funny. Scratchy, bendy and weird. Not how the ground should be – hard, rough and usually wet.

She looked across at the bright disc again, through slitted eyes. The men talked about day and night, how the cavern was like the eternal dead of night. They cursed it. She’d grown used to it, the darkest places of her own cave were the safest places. They couldn’t always see her straight away, when she was crouched into those corners, to throw things at or shout at. Was this what they had meant by the light of day? It hurt her eyes. She felt the cool dark safety of her favourite hiding places calling to her. She shunted a few steps back. But the snap of a whip far behind her reminded her why she had come out here. She remembered the pain after the last fight had ended, how every muscle ached, and how she had burned with shame and despair as they had laughed at the state of her.

She had lain in the pit, too exhausted to move. Around her the straight high sides of the pit were dark and cold. The men all stood above her at the rim, the shouting and jeering over now, but they were still laughing and analysing the fight. They reeked of alcohol and sweat, she wished her nose wasn’t keen enough to bring her their nauseating scent all the time. It was everywhere, everything they touched smelt of human. She watched them warily, through barely opened eyes. Her scales protected her from most things they threw, but the points over her left shoulder, down on her right thigh, the start of her tail, they still throbbed from the impact. She couldn’t help check that the hot bowls of coal and sharp arrows were resting now at the men’s feet, forgotten, now it was over. Her fit of violence was over. Perhaps violence was part of her nature as a dragon, since the other dragons she fought never seemed to be able to contain it either when riled. Perhaps all dragons were nasty, cruel things. Or perhaps they were only that way down here, where men shouted and hurt them until a dragon couldn’t stand it anymore.

‘Is it dead?’ A male human voice shouted. She knew his name. Admas. He often brought people to her cavern entrance before the fight, to shout, jeer and throw things, until she felt the heat in her chest rising and she couldn’t sit still. Afraid and frustrated, she couldn’t help it, she grew angry. They told her to fight, so she did. They always called her ‘it’ or ‘the dragon’ or ‘the small one.’ She’d had a name once. And a mother. She didn’t remember her though, what she looked like, or how she sounded, or what she was called. Just that her mother had been coming back for her, a long time ago, when she’d been small and hidden in a nice warm rocky place far from here. Her mother had been coming back to her with something – food – she was certain. She’d seen her shadow pass over her, or thought she had, and squealed in delight. Warmth had spread inside her, a happy warmth.

But it hadn’t been her mother.

‘I don’t think so,’ the youth that often accompanied Admas had replied. ‘It just looks that way because you can’t see the fire reflected in its eyes – its face is covered in mud and crap like the rest of it.’

‘Its own filth you mean?’ Admas laughed, perhaps he didn’t care either way if she was dead this time. She’d nearly died before, had lost so much blood she’d lain still and cold for weeks. Admas had almost been gentle then, cursing every time she’d worsened, brought her proper meat that was vaguely fresh, until she was strong again. ‘Disgusting things really… smelly way to earn a living this.’

‘Did you bring it some food?’ At those words her stomach suddenly felt empty and she felt ravenous. They didn’t feed her for days before a fight. Her stomach growled, a gurgling sound. The men laughed. She forced herself up and staggered out of the pit, down a low tunnel and into her cave. She heard the crunch of their boots as they made their way down from the rim, down the narrow set of stairs and through to the cavern where the gate to her cave was. They hurled something in between the bars that squelched into the dirt, the smell got up her nose. Something foul.

But she was hungry. She snatched it up in her jaws and shrank back away from the bars. She tried to wolf it down quickly, fighting against her body’s natural reactions to gag and spit it out. Ants and cockroaches were crawling over it already. She felt them running off her mucky scales to reach it. The men laughed at her.

‘Piece of shit…’ the words echoed off the cavernous walls as they walked away, taking their lantern with them, leaving her in the pitch black, where even her sharp eyes could make little out.

But she was out of the darkness now. She closed her eyes against the bright disc in the sky, the breeze rushing over her scales from the top of her head right down her spiky spine to the point at the tip of her tail. How could she go back to that? When she had this chance? The air smelt so fresh, so clean, so warm. She inhaled it greedily, and suddenly fell into another coughing fit. Black sludge splattered the spiky green stuff.

The crunch of boots behind her was getting louder. They were getting closer. She edged out again, the green stuff spiking her feet, brushing against the scales on her ankles. She felt so stiff. She thought back to before the last fight, sitting in the pit, waiting. Her senses had been alive, her body smarting from their hits to rile her up. She could smell the other dragon, her body bristled, achingly ready.

‘It’s illegal,’ a new voice – soft yet male – had said. Alert, she had strained to listen.

‘So what? We’re raking it in, people want to see dragons fight,’ Admas said.

‘These aren’t dragons,’ the soft voice sighed, ‘look at them, pitiful creatures.’

‘They could still kill you–’ Admas started, she recognised his boastful tone and anger rose in her chest.

‘Dragons are intelligent, they’ll retaliate.’

‘What these ones?’ She saw Admas gesturing comically. ‘You tell something it’s stupid enough times and it starts to sink into their stupid grey mush.’

‘What about their kin?’ the soft voice asked. ‘Dragons do attack settlements. There has been many a case before when apparently unrelated dragons have attacked after others have been provoked. It’s why catching, killing, taking, baiting or fighting dragons has long since been outlawed.’

She saw Admas’s stance harden against this man, and his tone became dangerous when he spoke. ‘They’re not telepathic, how are these losers going to call their friends?’ He laughed. ‘Besides, these two were caught as dragonlings, the dragon fraternity doesn’t even know they exist, or they’d have come for them years ago.’

‘Still, this racket, the Guard might–’

‘I’m getting bored of you now, shut up or leave.’

Her heart pounded as the gate opposite rose. The humans above her on the rim shouted and screamed. She saw a shape in the darkness, a silhouette uncurling itself as if from a tight space, a tail untwining. Dark eyes glistening.

A screech in the bright blue sky snapped her out of her memory. A bird. Soaring. She stretched out her wings in mirror image of the feathered creature. And jumped.

And plummeted. Her stomach flipped over, panic choked her. She tried to grasp the ledge once more. Too late. She was falling. She flailed, spiralling, out of control. Something thwacked her side, then something else, the third time she grasped hold of it, digging her claws in. It was a moment before she realised she was no longer falling, but hanging on to the branches of green that grew out of the steep rock. Her heart was racing, her body shaking, scales clacking against each other.

She heard their voices above her, jeering.

‘Come on stupid, you can’t fly.’ It was Admas.

They had meat with them, good meat, she could smell it. She stole a glance up. She could see their silhouettes against the blue of the sky. Admas looked small out here against the cavern opening and mountainside. It was only ten wing lengths back up, she could make it, claw her way back up the green branches and grey rock. She looked down and her stomach lurched again, the distance to the ground was unfathomable. Spread out far down there was a carpet of green with gushing blue water snaking through it. Her sharp eyes honed in on a herd of animals, sleek and small with antlers, grazing in a clearing. They were as small as specks of dust. A low whimper escaped her throat. She’d never make it down there. She couldn’t fly.  Why had she ever dared to try? She could have just stayed in her cave…

After the foul food she had lain, her stomach roiling painfully, and listened to the growing drunkenness of the humans on the rim above the pit. Eventually they came down, throwing in bottles of their liquor, first to get a response out of her, then trying to get her to drink. They put bets on how much alcohol it would take to make a dragon drunk, and whether it would finally make her breathe fire. One of them dared the other to go and pat the dragon if he thought he was so brave. The chain across the gate clanked and eventually one staggered in. She had shrank back into her favourite hiding place, in the furthest corner of the cave, beneath a rocky shelf. The man’s breath was thick with the scent of alcohol, it was sharp and pungent and she wrinkled her nose at it. It stung her eyes. Another followed the first, holding a metal instrument that fired sharp metal points. She searched the small crowd for Admas, he had put a stop to this behaviour before, when he was protecting his business interests, as he put it. But he wasn’t here.

A low growl rumbled in her throat and they froze in their tracks. They were drunk though, so they didn’t heed the warning. The first man reached out, his fingers reaching for her tail. She pulled it away from him, coiling up tighter in the tight gap. Rock dug into her scales, her already aching muscles shaking with the effort. He stepped closer, he had something metallic and glinting in his other hand, held behind him. He reached out, she felt his fingers brush the scales on her back leg. She snapped at them, bearing the fangs lining her upper and lower jaws, and growling at the back of her throat, trying to look and sound savage. The growl grew louder, reverberating through her chest. And finally, they stumbled back, laughing hard, the one who had won the bet bragging the loudest.

She listened to them go. And then her eyes fell onto the chain wrapped round the gate. And its lock, lying open and forgotten on the floor. Hours passed. Her neck and eyes ached from staring for so long. She’d heard the men saying goodnight to each other before they left, so maybe it had been half the night. They had all been drunk, not one of them had returned to check the gate. The crowd had been big last night for the fight, lots of bets exchanged, she guessed they had either won lots, or lost as much. Lots to celebrate or drown their sorrows about. The bars across the gate of her cave were thick and evenly spaced, covered in grime. She had ceased wondering if she could nudge open the heavy gate by herself. What would she do if she did? She bristled, the spines along her back shivering and scraping along the rock above her. She watched the dark cavern outside, listening. They might be waiting for her to try, just to beat her back. A new game.

But here she was, having following the scent of warm air. She hung on to the branches and rock, debating whether to go back up. Terror was eating away at her, making her claws dig deeper and tighter into the branches and rock, until her muscles groaned with the strain.

Admas thought she couldn’t fly. So did the rest of them.

She closed her eyes. Did she believe them? Yes, her screaming muscles sang, and her anxious belly.

But maybe she didn’t care if Admas was right, maybe failing was better than going back. And what if he was wrong? What if she could fly?

She let go.

Air rushed passed her. The sky, the men silhouetted, fell away from her, faster and faster, very quickly they were just specks. She flapped desperately, flailing once more, spinning. The specks above her laughed, the sound carrying and echoing off the rock. Mud and dust got in her eyes as she tumbled. Then one strong flap with her stiff wings and she glided, just for a moment, before freefalling once more. So she flapped again, reaching out her wings as far as they would go, holding herself in the glide. She was moving across the sky! Ahead of her the bright disc was halfway up into the sky. It glittered off the mucky scales on her wings, dirty and scratched as they were. But there was a gleam of colour there beneath the muck… turquoise green-blue. And she remembered. The brilliant shine of her mother’s scales. She fixed her eyes on the mountains on the horizon far far ahead. And she flew.

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