dragons don’t ever really leave their princesses
(and their princesses never really want them to go)
The first thing she remembers is the warmth of scales beneath her hand, a voice crooning a lullaby that she feels in her bones as much as she hears. The first thing her watery, stinging eyes behold are a loose circle of shining claws and the translucent dome of blue wings blocking out the rest of the overwhelming world. A shining blue nose, deep as sapphires, leans down and nudges her gently.
:Wake, little hatchling.: Warm, feminine, loving; it rings with will-not-be-harmed and safe-under-wings. She can’t make herself be afraid. A forked tongue gently touches her cheek and she smiles, giggles, puts a hand out to gently push it away.
There is something she ought to be worried about, but it runs from her thoughts when she tries to remember. The world has narrowed to the warm safety of the circle, the fires burning in bright yellow eyes. The dragon nudges her again before ever-so-delicately picking up a loaf of bread in her long white teeth and depositing it in her lap.
:Hatchling must eat. Lady-who-burns left food.: She obediently begins to eat, leaning back against blue scales and smiling brightly up at her guardian. There is only one word her limited memory can assign to this giant being, and as she finishes her bread and snuggles up to a warm claw before falling asleep again she whispers it-
When she wakes again, it’s to a much smaller version of the blue snout- this time in red- peering into her face. She jumps back; he jumps back. She tilts her head; he tilts his head and snorts, confused.
A laughing rumble comes from the mother dragon curled around them both.
:Red-hatchling, meet Human-hatchling. She is one-of-us. Play nice, do not bite-claw-harm. She has no scale-coat.: Images as much as words, like before. The red hatchling snorts again and shakes himself, small wings thumping on the ground, before squawking in a rather undignified way and jumping up.
:Come play pounce-and-pin!: He dashes away, looking over his shoulder, and Mother nudges her towards him with another amused chuckle.
Tentatively at first but then with more confidence, she chases after the red hatchling to play a rough game of tackling and wrestling. The red plays fair and does not use his talons or teeth, as Mother warned, but he is larger and stronger than her and she ends up on the ground much more often than she manages to pin him. Nevertheless, the old castle hall is filled with the sounds of human and draconic laughter as the blue watches on with happiness shining in her eyes.
Time passes. Her memories slowly come back, of a place where “mother” means a tall blonde woman, her smiles always forced and distant and her voice always ready to scold. Where “brother” means cruel laughter and taunts made by a man who looms tall over her, solid boots ready to crush unwary little fingers.
She stops missing them after a few days.
Her time is filled with laughter as she and the red hatchling invent games for themselves through the castle’s abandoned halls and gone-to-seed courtyards. They gorge themselves on sweet berries from bushes long gone wild, they hunt for rabbits that Mother will cook for them, they mock-duel with her holding a stick and he pretending to flame her.
She teaches him to read, from what she remembers, curled side-by-side in the dusty library. He tells her the stories Mother has told him, how when he breathes his first fire he will earn his name and become a true dragon. And at night they sit by Mother’s side and listen to her sing as they fall asleep, safe under her wings and warmed by the fire inside her.
Sometimes other humans come to search the castle. She and Brother hide while Mother scornfully tosses them aside. One day Mother gently herds a terrified horse into one of the large inner courtyards, and once he has adjusted to his new neighbors she teaches herself to ride the rather placid gelding.
She teaches herself to sew, eventually, and makes herself clothes from the cloth brought each month by the strange woman who is the only other human Mother will tolerate. One day she begins to gather the scales Brother and Mother shed and sews them into tough cloth for armor; the interlocking patterns of blue and red entertain her for hours, and the extra protection gives Brother more leeway with his growing claws when they wrestle.
The first time she uses the scales to deflect her brother’s full-force blows successfully, Mother’s pride can be felt from across the room.
Brother earns the name :Heart-of-Burning-Star: when he breathes his first flame; she sings along with Mother to honor him, her heart bursting with pride.
Mother takes her flying, perched securely on her shoulders and Brother frolicking alongside, to see the mountains and the marshlands and the ocean and the forests. She teaches them how to tell hungry predators from those who are well-fed, how to sneak up on unsuspecting prey, how best to avoid the sword striking for their hearts. At night she tells them of magic, of the world’s mysteries, of how a dragon can change their shape if their need is great.
When at last she bids them farewell they let her go with sorrow but not despair; she has taught them well how to fend for themselves, and the girl will not be alone. Brother will never leave her while she has no wings of her own.
Before she leaves, she touches her nose to the girl’s forehead. :Adopted-child. You will not breathe flame, but you are grown, with a dragon’s heart; I name you Lover-of-Life. Honor and love and wind for your wings, my hatchling-now-grown.:
Their lives continue as they always have among the ruins of the castle; supplying for themselves, and needing no luxuries but the warmth of their sibling by their sides.
Though Brother fights valiantly when the men come again, he is smaller than Mother and not quite as wise; he is young, and proud, and easily drawn out of his defenses by their taunts. She screams as fireproofed ropes encircle his proud limbs and he is dragged to earth, easy prey for their blades.
One of the men catches hold of her as she tries to run to his side.
“Easy, easy fair maid!” She flinches from the sound of words spoken to ears, not to heart. How can they speak truly to one another when their words are so flat and depthless?
“We shall rescue you from this beast which holds you captive here. Only look away a moment and it shall trouble you no more.”
Rescue? Rescue? From what?!
She cannot form the words on her lips to make them understand, and none of them hear when she reaches for their hearts. She screams and cries, fighting with all the muscle she gained wrestling a young dragon, as they drag her away from her brother. It is still not enough to stop them. Her brother lies still on the ground with dirty men laughing over his helpless body. She cannot take the indignity to the noblest, best friend she has ever known, and fights all the fiercer.
Eventually they force some bitter drink down her resisting throat, and it makes her sight grow dark. She screams for Brother one last time as she drops down into unconsciousness, and she hears him call back with desperation,
:Will come find you! Sister-of-my-heart…:
He keens as the men drag her away, before the sound abruptly chokes to nothing. Her tears burn as they fall.
The world has changed to something she doesn’t understand.
She is surrounded by humans, women clucking at her in concerned tones, men speaking over her head as if she doesn’t exist, little children stopping to point and stare and whisper. The world is a mass of noises she only barely comprehends, missing the touch of heart on heart that made all emotions seem real.
They take away her scale armor; she later finds and rescues it from the dung of the stable midden, crying as she cleans each scale and remembers what she has lost. The too-soft fabrics tie her up and trip her. Her bed seems cold, no matter how many hot bricks they add, with no warm heartbeat beside her. They make her sit all day, surrounded by chattering women, and she fidgets with the need to roam, to stalk, to ride, to fly. She thinks with longing of her quiet castle and Brother’s uncomplicated love.
At night she creeps out the window- the chiseled stone is hatchling’s play to climb- to run through the gardens and smell air that isn’t perfumed to cover the human stink. Even that brings her little joy; the gardens are all carefully cultivated patches of life with sterility in between, and there are no rabbits to chase or berries to pick. All too soon, though, her guards come grumbling to seize her arms and drag her in, back to where even the cleanest dirt is not tolerated against her skin and her own scent is washed away under the gagging stink of dying flowers.
She wilts, day by day, her eyes losing their sparkle and her bright gold hair losing its shine. Food tastes like ash in her mouth, her sleep is fitful. Her not-mother pretends to fret over her when people are looking, her not-brother makes snide comments about her appearance. She barely hears them anymore. Mother would not recognize her now; there is no love of life in her heart.
She paces her chambers like a beast in a too-small cage, claws removed and fangs filed to nubs, and stares out the window with dull, lifeless eyes.
She is wakened from fitful sleep by a calloused hand pressing over her mouth. Only a moment’s panic crosses her mind before her heart begins to sing; she’d know that amber-eyed gaze anywhere!
:Sister-mine!: She throws her arms around her brother and weeps, silently, reaching out for the only being who feels real in this land of perfumed, empty words.
:Thought you were dead, saw you fall! Saw so much blood…: He shudders, and she feels scars across his back, only recently healed.
:Wing-torn, lost much blood, but not yet dead. Men grew bored, left. Was able to stop bleeding, heal. Searched for heart-sister, found you, could not reach you. Reached for magic to be human. Climbed wall.: He huffed and stroked her hair. :Humans not guard well from other humans.:
She lets out a broken, teary laugh and wipes her face with her sleeve. :Looking for me-escaping, not you-entering. Won’t be easy to leave.:
He grins, all teeth and dragon’s fire.
:Easy not fun.:
They sneak their way upwards, towards the castle walls. He can only hold this form until daylight, as young as he is, and it’s fast approaching dawn; the plan is for her to ride on his shoulders away from the castle as dawn takes back his human form.
They’re caught halfway up, by a knight sneaking back from a maid’s room; she takes him down with a swift slash of a stolen knife, but not before his yell alerts the castle.
The warriors bring them to bay on the parapets just as light crests the horizon; her brother is forced to leap from the walls as he loses human form and hovers just out of bow-shot, desperately calling her.
She cannot reach him…. But she refuses to be taken again.
Her eyes locked on her brother and her scale armor turning gold in the morning light, she leaps from the wall. She ignores the screams of the humans, listening instead to the despairing heart-call of her brother who cannot reach her in time.
Her mind flashes back to a lesson of Mother’s; “a dragon may change shape if their need is great.”
Mother had named her a dragon at heart.
Her roar splits the air as her armor grows, turning into golden scales the color of morning sun, and her wings cut the air like butter.
The golden dragon joins her brother in the sky, crying out her joy as they circle one another, and as the humans gape they turn to the mountains with their wings nearly touching as they fly.
From that day forth, the armor coat became her dragon-skin; when she wore it, she would be the golden dragon her heart knew her to be, and when she removed it (as she did only rarely) she would be the human woman she was born.
The armor’s scales all stayed golden, even after she removed it; all except two, that is. They rested directly over her heart, one a gorgeous sapphire-blue and the other a deep, fierce red; for no matter how much you change your shape, you keep your true family close to your heart.