Like The Prose 2021 – Day 21

Today’s brief was to write a fantasy story. I had the idea of ‘The Last Dragon’ going around in my head, mixed with the notion of a dying world, so I decided to use the metaphor of dragons dying out to symbolise the state of our planet – have I just created the eco-fantasy genre?

The Last Dragon

As lightning lit up an apocalyptically black and red sky, Hrath clung to the back of his dragon, urging her to safety.

No strength left. Her words filtered into his mind, as ragged as her once magnificent wings.

“We have to keep flying,” Hrath told her softly. “You need somewhere to hide until you’re stronger.”

Below them, the battle was still raging. Hrath felt a choking sickness in his throat as he remembered the corpses strewn across the ground. Some of the bodies had only lain there for minutes before paid scavengers had swooped down on them, desperate to grab, teeth, claws, blood – anything that would fetch a good price. The wizards’ justification for the Dragon War was that the beasts were dangerous – but everyone knew its real purpose was to harvest the parts necessary for the philtres and elixirs they peddled to the gullible masses.

He felt the wind on his face as they flew on, but she was struggling now: he could feel her tiredness seeping into his own bones. They had to keep on going – pausing for a rest wasn’t an option; yet her sheer exhaustion was so overwhelming that he almost begged her to stop.

Finally, as wasted battlefields were replaced by isolated farms and homesteads, Hrath urged his queen to the ground, towards a heavily wooded area that would provide cover for them both. As she sank gratefully to the ground, he rolled nimbly off her back, realising as he did so that his body had stiffened from so long in the air. His own aches and pains were nothing compared to hers, though. It was more than fatigue: her whole body seemed wracked with a debilitating lassitude that sapped every last ounce of energy from her.

Alarmed, he turned to face her. She seemed suddenly old.

It is time.

He knew without any further explanation what she meant: they had talked of this day many times before.

Slowly, she heaved herself off the ground, her distended belly far more prominent than it had seemed in the sky. Grunting with the effort, she squeezed her eyelids shut and concentrated on the egg’s descent. He opened his mind to her once more, aware that this last act might well kill her, trying to let her borrow some of his own strength to aid her in her purpose.

When the egg lay on the ground, he regarded her anxiously. A thin sheen of sweat covered her face and her breathing was fast and shallow; but she was still alive. Wordlessly, he placed his arms about her neck, willing his youth and vigour to flow into her. She painfully opened an eye.

You must keep it safe. And when my egg hatches, tell the little one of its mother. Pass on all the memories I have shared with you.

Her voice faded out of his mind. He knew it would not be long. Building a small fire, he placed the egg in its centre, the way she had instructed him to – oh, so many moons ago! – and waited, fragments of the past dancing through his head as he remembered how this had all started.

*

As a boy, he’d been taught, like every other child in the village, to fear the fire-breathing monsters that descended every so often and carried off livestock. The wizards had ruled that dragons were the enemy and that no one was safe until they had all been eradicated. At the time, he’d had no reason not to believe them.

It was as he reached his twelfth year that the dreams began. There was nothing tangible that he could remember when he awoke, only a vague sense of someone asking him for help. Gradually, he found he could recall strange sensations of flying through the air, his wings beating against the wind, and he would jerk into consciousness, sweating with fear. He could not tell anyone else of these night terrors: if the wizards were to hear of it, they would think he was evil and cart him off to the capital city, Erisnor, to be locked in a cell for the rest of his days. So it was that by day he dissembled, matching his words and actions to those of the other village lads; but in his dreams, he always heard that elusive voice calling him, whispering into his subconscious with a promise of something beautiful and terrible.

Another summer passed and then another. Hrath was now considered a man. He still said nothing about his dreams, not even to Megan, the girl he’d developed feelings for ever since he’d danced with her at Wintersfest. She was tall and slender, with dark hair and eyes like periwinkles, and when he kissed her, her lips were as soft as rose petals. Her father was the local blacksmith and he knew that if he married her, he would be taken on as his apprentice instead of doing piecework here and there on the neighbouring farms. It felt as if his whole life were already mapped out before him; but this was not to be.

All Summer’s Eve was fast approaching, and with it the yearly handfasting. It was the one night in the year when girls could go a-courting and ask the men they chose to plight their troth in front of the gathered assembly. Hrath knew that Megan intended to take his hand and show her father that he was her chosen husband, and his heart sang as he milked Farmer Prentiss’s cows in the early evening.

Suddenly, the sky grew dark and an ominous noise was heard overhead. Hrath rushed out of the barn, overturning his milking stool in the process, just in time to see a huge, winged beast swoop down over the farmstead. The cows were all safely in the barn, but a dragon’s fiery breath could cause devastation in the wheat field. Without stopping to think, Hrath ran towards the immense creature, yelling and flapping his arms as if it were a recalcitrant goose.

The dragon stood its ground, regarding Hrath with a somewhat bemused expression. You have been hard to find, youngling.

Hrath blinked with surprise. There had been no audible words, he was sure of that, but the dragon had spoken into his mind.

“What do you mean, hard to find?” he challenged.

The dragon sniffed him cautiously. We are wasting time on unnecessary conversation. Come – I will explain further on our way.

Barely knowing what he was doing, Hrath found himself scrambling onto the scaly back that the beast had lowered towards him. A half-formed thought told him that he was leaving everything in his heart – including Megan – behind; but something far stronger than his own will was urging him forwards and he was powerless to resist it. Leaning forward, he realised that the creature’s neck was too thick for him to wrap his arms about it; at almost the same time, he noticed the leather bridle, so thin as to be almost invisible. He gripped the reins in his hands and held on tightly as the dragon rose into the air and carried him away from the life he knew.

*

On and on, the dragon’s wings beat steadily. “Where are we going?” he asked after a while.

To a place where you will find your destiny, it told him.

“And what makes you think dragons have any part in my destiny?” he exclaimed. “Why would someone like me want to have anything to do with a savage killer like you?”

For a while there was no answer, then the dragon sighed. The wizards have clouded your mind. I see that it will take time to teach you.

“Teach me what?” he cried, but the beast made no response.

*

Eventually, they came to a clearing in the forest of trees beneath them and the dragon’s flight path began to change as it slowed its speed and gently floated down at an angle. By now, Hrath was totally disorientated. Never having travelled any distance away from his village, he felt lost and alone.

It was necessary.

“How do you do that?” he asked curiously. “Talk to me inside my head, I mean?”

The beast’s clawed feet made contact with the ground. Dismount! it barked suddenly and Hrath did as he was told and slithered from the shimmering back.

For a moment, neither one of them said anything; then, as the dragon luxuriantly stretched, it answered the question.

Once, it said reflectively, all men heard and understood the dragon-tongue. Now only a handful of true believers remain, and your wizards have decimated our numbers. Without your help, the dragons will die.

Hrath shrugged. “Why should I care?”

Your world is dying, it told him bluntly. For as long as time can remember, dragons have nurtured not only your people but your entire planet. You need us to survive.

“But the wizards said –“ Hrath protested foolishly.

The wizards lie! The creature moved its head closer to him, almost as if searching for something in his mind. Are you afraid of me, youngling?

“I’m not called youngling,” he said proudly. “My name’s Hrath. What’s yours?”

The dragon bristled, then, and he wondered what he’d done wrong. She was angry about something. (He somehow knew, without being told, that she was female.)

Her sigh ruffled his hair, like a parent trying to explain something to a child.

You have not been taught the Power of Naming. It was not so in the recent past.

A series of images and ideas danced through his brain. She did not explain in words: rather, she let him see through her eyes, feel through her soul. He opened himself up to the dizzying cascade of light and colour, of sound and experience, and then he knew as she knew, understood the great and terrible danger of sharing his name with another being. He was hers to command now: if she but breathed his name, he would be bound to obey her, no matter what she asked.

An uncomfortable sensation told him she was sifting his own memories, searching for clarity.

They have all forgotten, she said at last. The world of men has grown arrogant, forsaking the majick we taught you many lifetimes ago. Your wizards have chosen to ignore the ancient ways and create spells of their own – weak, puny charms with no life in them.

She delved again.

That is why you hunt us. Her words were filled with regret. You forgot that we were your masters, that we had given you so much already. You thought you could extract our power, bend it to your own purposes.

“Not me!” Hrath protested, but she was not listening.

Again, she let her memories meld with his, showing him millennia of history in the blink of an eye. He saw the world, dark and unformed, taking shape as dragons flew over it, scooping up mountains with their powerful wings, levelling plains, dividing sea and land. He watched as they breathed life into the ocean, creating thousand upon thousand of strange, tiny creatures. Then the sea teemed with fish, and minutes later unfamiliar beasts crawled out of the waters and made their way onto land. Some of them resembled wingless dragons; others had their parents’ wings and scales but seemed like carnivorous birds, swooping through lush jungle terrain, calling out in harsh voices.

As centuries shimmered around him, more easily recognisable animals took the place of these armour-plated ancestors, and then, finally, a vaguely anthropoid biped staggered to his feet and shuffled with hunched shoulders towards others of his kind. And Hrath saw that the dragons were ever present, teaching these pathetic pre-humans how to hunt and gather food, even breathing fire for them that would keep their naked bodies warm. Little by little, they learned to clothe themselves in animal skins, and then to communicate with simple grunts.

Ages spun. Hrath blinked as scores of dragons soared upwards, disappearing beyond the sky. The voice spoke inside him. Once, we flew to the stars. There were majicks there that fed our souls, making us bigger, stronger, faster than any of the dragons you have seen.

“Why did you return?” He had felt the dragon’s pure elation as she left the world of men, wondered why she or any of the others had bothered returning to a place where they were persecuted.

Tenderness merged with sorrow as she imprinted her words on his brain. For you, youngling – for you and all the other pitiful humans who needed our guidance. A sigh as deep as the wind. But we were too late.

“Too late for what?”

Too late to save you from yourselves.

An unbearable sadness filled him as she let him see what humanity had become in the dragons’ absence. Wars tore countries apart; death and destruction rippled through the planet.

That was what gave birth to your wizards, she whispered. When we returned, they thought they could use us to gain dominance over each other.

Tears rolled down Hrath’s cheeks as he watched the vile spectacle. Dragons, cornered by men with steel nets and weapons, were taken captive and made slaves. Men with whips and spikes goaded them, clipping their wings together so they could not fly and forcing them to lumber in chains behind troops of soldiers. No! he wanted to protest. No! Had he been there in reality and not merely observing a phantasm from the past, he would have charged at the wizards at the head of each army, would have snapped their rods and broken their heads. Now he felt annoyingly helpless, unable to change the past and right the wrongs of his race.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, opening his heart to let her share his genuine remorse.

You ask how it is that I can speak to your mind, the creature whispered. It is because your soul is still soft: the wizards have not hardened it – yet.

It was true. The grief he felt leaked from his gut in agonising pain

“What can I do to make it right?” he asked brokenly.

Her answer was simple. Help us to survive.

*

He communed with her long into the night, as the evening air grew cool and moths fluttered about their heads.

They harnessed us but not our majick, she said at one stage. That which we once gave freely, they tried to take from us by force, but we refused to become wizards’ puppets. Her tone grew bitter. That was when they decided to take us apart, piece by piece, to discover where our power lurked. Even now, they do not understand that the diluted majick in our dead bodies holds but a fraction of the terrible force which we unleash in life.

She paused – and the silence that ensued was full of warning.

When the last tooth has been harvested, the last drop of blood poured into a phial – what then? What will your wizards do when their potions are gone and there are no more dragons whose powers they can steal? Our majick formed your world, youngling; and without our majick, it will perish.

“I won’t let it happen,” Hrath muttered fiercely. “I won’t let them kill any more of you.”

She regarded him tenderly. One so small, against an army of wizards? You have a dragon’s bravery, little one. You will succeed.

*

Later, she joined her mind once more to his and let him see far across the planet, showing him where the last remaining dragons were hidden. They numbered less than fifty, but he thought it was enough. From fifty, they could rebuild.

And so, from then on, Hrath nailed his colours to the mast by joining the war against the wizards, sharing the dragons’ hope that – by eradicating the misconceptions of the humans – they could bring a dying world back to life. Together, with the handful of Dragon Warriors that embraced the cause, he took part in many a daring rescue mission, entering Erisnor under cover of night to search the subterranean dungeons for lizard-like prisoners. But after he had found the fifth or sixth maimed and toothless beast, he realised it was kinder to put it out of its misery there and then. What life would it be for a dragon who could not fly? One who could not even tear a sheep or cow to pieces?

*

From time to time, he thought of Megan with her dark hair and periwinkle eyes and wondered if she could be persuaded to join them. When a year had elapsed, he returned to look for her – only to find her father’s house and forge burned to ground. Burned – but not with dragon fire.

Eventually, he found her at one of the neighbouring farms but she was married now with a baby in a basket at her feet. He thought then that no pain could be greater than this, but the words she spoke cut deeper still. Janneth was a good man, she said, and he’d taken care of her when her father was tortured by wizards’ men. And this was Hrath’s fault, she said bitterly: everyone they knew had thought him burned alive or eaten by a dragon until one of the villagers had gone to work as guard at Erisnor and had recognised him leaving the dungeons.

“He told the wizards,” she spat, “and then the wizards came here and exacted their revenge.”

Hrath’s heart broke inside him as he thought of all the death and destruction he had inadvertently brought on the people he loved.

“It would have been better for this village if a dragon had eaten you,” she said – and that was the last time he saw her.

*

Time continued to unfurl.

“There are only twenty-three of you left now,” he remarked one night, curled up between her front paws as they dozed together, both with one eye open.

And those that remain are old and tired, she finished for him, sighing as she did so. I am no longer young, little one. I have seen millennia come and go, but I am still able to mate – if we can find a drake healthy enough. We need new dragons, youngling: children who can carry on in our stead.

Hrath began to count on his fingers. “There’s a white dragon in the snowlands – another queen, I think – and two red drakes in Cymru. The others are all much older than you: I don’t think they’d last the distance.”

I have taught you well, little one. She was momentarily amused. Let us share the information with my pale sister, then. Two offspring will suffice for the present.

Moving deeper inside his mind, she pulled him into her subconscious, letting her thoughts flow out to the dragons he had mentioned. Hrath felt the touch of an angry fireball and knew they had reached at least one of the drakes – they were always much fiercer than their sisters. Gasping a little, he pulled back slightly, feeling for the others. There was the second drake, wrapped in fury like his brother. Then a picture of iron bars forced its way into his brain and he understood their recent capture.

“They’re still intact,” he murmured, for want of anything better to say. “And en-route to Erisnor. Maybe we could effect a rescue?”

His mind worked busily: if the two queens both lent their assistance, he and some other Dragon Warriors could intercept the travelling cages and free the drakes. If they waited until the captives reached their destination, it could be too late.

And then the image of the dead white queen flooded his mind and he knew that there was now only one hope for humanity’s survival.

*

The cavalcade had already set up camp for the night. Although the drivers had been ordered not to stop until they reached Erisnor, they were tired beyond belief. Besides, their exhausted logic reasoned, no one knew what was in the covered wagon-cages.

In the darkness beyond the camp, Hrath kept a lookout as Ffion crept forward. Slight and short-haired, she was nothing like Megan, but he liked the musical lilt of her voice and the fearless way she’d volunteered to lace the drivers’ cooking pot with a sleeping draught made from local roots. Hywel, the third member of their company, had been all for slitting the drivers’ throats as they slept, but Hrath had refused. That was wizards’ strategy, he’d argued, and they were better than that.

As Ffion approached the pot, one of the drivers suddenly turned his head. Hrath’s breath caught in his throat: he knew these men would not be merciful were they to catch her. An endless moment seemed to stretch for eternity before the man turned back to his flagon of ale, facing away from the fire. Hrath watched the shadowy shape moving ever closer, his heart swelling with a mixture of pride and – what? He could not explain this strange attraction the Gaelic girl held for him; knew only that he trusted her to complete the task.

*

Some hours later, only snoring could be heard from the huddled heap of bodies. Hrath fiddled with the lock of the first cage, jiggling his knife until he heard something click. He turned to see if Ffion needed any help, but the second cage door stood open already and the scarlet beast within bristled with outrage.

“Shut up, you daft thing!” Ffion said lovingly. “It’s rescued now, you are. Let’s get the two of you to safety.” Leading him outside, she leapt onto his back, leaning the weight of her body down onto his scales and sending him soothing thoughts.

Hrath focussed once more on the dragon in the cage in front of him, probing its mind the way he’d been taught and sharing the image of his silver-scaled Mistress.

She will suffice, the drake replied haughtily. We will fight for her, according to the ancient ways.

“Hurry,” Hrath whispered. Ffion had claimed that the potion was potent, but the sooner they got away, the better.

“What’s the problem?” Hywel hissed. “We need to leave. Can he carry two?”

Hrath let the image of two riders skitter across the drake’s brain. Within moments, they were helping each other clamber onto his back, ready to make their escape. A nod from Ffion confirmed that she was ready, and the scarlet dragons soared into the sky, leaving captivity behind.

*

Back in the present, Hrath poked the fire with a stick, ensuring that the egg slept soundly. He remembered the breath-taking sight of the three dragons in the sky, the drakes chasing the silver queen ever upwards until they were almost lost to sight. A while later, the younger one returned to earth, exhausted. His brother would be the one to couple with the shimmering female: they had both chased her, but only one had the stamina to keep going after so many hours.

Hrath craned his neck to see them, then stopped, feeling ridiculously prurient. Better give them some privacy, he decided – although a part of him thought wistfully of the stories he could have told his grandchildren.

Beside him, Ffion slipped her fingers through his. “Leave them to it, eh?” she suggested, taking his hand and leading him to a quiet patch of bracken where he forgot all about dragons as he lost himself in her slight curves.

She was gone now. The wizards had shot down her scarlet drake so that he plummeted with her on his back, breaking her neck in the process. His brother had swooped down on the assassins, breathing vengeful fire, and had managed to eradicate six of them before one of their arrows found the vulnerable spot on his throat. Hrath had held Ffion’s limp body tightly in his arms, knowing that he would now never see their children or grandchildren. Still, in a dying world, no one else could hope for that either.

He wondered now how long it would be before the planet collapsed in on itself. He had seen in just the last two or three years the devastating effects of the loss of dragon majick. Once lush fields had become barren wastelands; streams and rivers were drying up; more and more babies were being born with twisted limbs. How could the wizards not tell that their world was dying? Could they not see the correlation between the diminishing number of dragons and the increasing afflictions suffered by all?

A cracking sound from the fire made him look up. The egg glowed with a strange translucence: he could see the outline of a tiny dragon inside it. Once more, the words reached his mind: It is time.

“It’s nearly hatched!” he cried out urgently. “You must hang on a few minutes more!”

But it was too late: he felt a sudden wrenching as her soul left her body and he was alone for the first time in years.

More cracking. Shards of shell flew in all directions and a bedraggled-looking creature, not much bigger than a newt, sat staring in surprise as the flames licked around it.

He could not lift it out: the heat drove him back even as he stretched towards the fire. Instead, he reached out with his mind, probing gently, wrapping the tiny lizard in comforting thought-swathes.

Mama? a voice enquired.

“No,” he choked back the tears, “I’m not your mama, but I have a message from her.”

When the fire had burned low, he would retrieve this little orphan and let it feed on the memories its mother had stored inside him. Perhaps in sharing the past, he would be able to forget the pain of the present and move forward into the future – or what little of it remained; as it was, his head currently felt empty without the presence that had kept him company for so long.

He had to think of the days to come; could not afford to wallow in the past. His silver beauty had died, fighting for the survival of a planet that had turned against her. He would protect her legacy, care for her offspring – and maybe the existence of this tiny dragon would keep his dying world alive a little longer.

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