~ Mareduke is the last of his kind, and if the humans have their way, no dragons at all will exist in Kassia. Then, he meets two remarkable beings intent on changing his fate. ~
I hope you enjoy this story I submitted to a contest where the prompts required a dragon meet a toddler in the forest, and what followed. This was a joy to write.
Mareduke’s bloody, scaled head froze mid dip. He reeled his tongue back into his mouth and stared at the child across the water. A long, cool drink was critical to his state of near-death, but he gave it up to inspect the reflection cast into the mountain lake by the tiny person on the grassy ledge.
An image of a girl not much more than two, wrapped in a cloak, wavered over the surface. The sun glinted on that spot as if shining a beacon on the proof he sought. He raised his eyes to the embankment again.
The toddler was real, and she was staring back.
His snort displaced the water below his face. She would just have to watch while he got his fill because he was losing blood faster than his magic could heal him. There were too many wounds. Enough to end him if he didn’t hydrate and rest.
The humans’ trap this time was multilayered and rigged with an exorbitant number of blades that had pulled Mareduke farther down a natural pit with every move he made. They must have spent weeks designing all the intricate hazards.
He had come close to losing his head to a sawblade, and a broadsword missed his heart by inches when it lodged between his ribs. But when he quit panicking long enough to halt the agonizing plummet, he was able to gather his magic and break free with enough momentum to gain altitude and escape the armed contingent of dragon assassins waiting for him on the surface.
He’d spit his wrath at the failed murderers as he flew away, but they jeered at him when his usual rain of fire barely amounted to a drizzle and his wounded body kept listing sideways. He didn’t care. At this stage of his life, he was accustomed to the humans and their collective superior attitude towards him and his dying species.
Still, he couldn’t understand their brutal solution to his thievery. He wasn’t there to hurt them, just to grab a meal, a plump sheep or two, because they had a penful of the tasty morsels too tempting to resist. Why did all humans insist on trying to kill him before his time? As far as Mareduke knew, he was the end of the line, and the idea, when he let himself dwell on it, that humans couldn’t share the whole of the Kingdom of Kassia with even one of his kind offended him.
The dragon managed to stay aloft all the way to this refuge to recover his strength. That was the idea anyway because no humans came to this lake high in the mountains. Yet, inexplicably, he beheld one of their children standing at the edge of the water by herself, appearing as if she were on a picnic. By now, he was sure the toddler was alone because even as he concentrated on recuperating; he’d been watchful. Nothing but the two of them stirred in this place.
He settled on his haunches this side of the dark green expanse and rested his chin on his front paws, so he could better observe her. She hadn’t made a sound, only sticking her finger in her mouth as she looked around, then back at him. This was the most bizarre thing he’d experienced so far in his young dragon life. What was she? He presumed human, but she could be anything.
He gave some thought to how he might find out since neither of them could speak to the other. So, he tried to pick out clues. Her cloak was made of fine, blue-dyed cloth with a glimmer weaving through that spoke of magic. Her wavy mop of strawberry-blond hair and clothes appeared clean, though her feet were bare.
That made him wonder if she was cold but then he thought not. It was mild this time of year, even at this elevation.
While he sorted her out, she made herself comfortable as well, plopping down on a fluffy tuft of grass, her stubby legs sticking straight out, and her toes wiggling as they stretched towards the water. She got busy plucking nearby wildflowers until she had a short bouquet gripped in her hand. In between peeking at him, her fingers absently returned to her mouth as she observed other bits of life in her immediate vicinity. He watched in amusement when she sniffed the pungent flowers, and her nose wrinkled, but she smiled happily at her collection.
Mareduke grew entranced when nature began to react to the tiny being in its midst. Just like it had done to her reflection earlier, the sun shone a beam of light on her, and dust motes danced around her head. Two bees drifted towards the flowers, then darted in to sip at the nectar. Butterflies flitted near her face, which made her smile widen.
Next, woodland creatures inched closer. A rabbit stood above the grass and wriggled its nose at the air. A pair of doves settled in a branch above her and cooed. A doe and her fawns watched it all from underneath the tree. Squirrels, hedgehogs, and even a young fox made an appearance. None of the creatures paid any attention to Mareduke, their fascination centering on the happy child.
Mareduke thought that even with her mysterious aura, she must have parents worried sick somewhere, but even more curious than where she was from was how she came to be here.
The dragon froze at the sound of crashing through the trees. All the life clustering around the child scattered, leaving her blinking at their sudden absence. She stood and turned towards the increasingly noisy disturbance, which now included thundering growls amid the sound of cracking branches.
A mountain troll was coming. Mareduke could smell the vile creature. He should have earlier, but he’d been distracted. Now, he had to decide what to do about the abandoned child who was in its path. The troll would sooner snack on her than look at her, and the only thing to stop the voracious brute was Mareduke, but he was still weak from his injuries.
When the bulbous head made an appearance at the edge of the trees, Mareduke wasted no more time thinking. He flapped his wings and in two strokes, landed between the oncoming threat and the helpless toddler. The troll’s red-rimmed gaze fixed on Mareduke, and he bore down on him with a makeshift club he held in both hands.
Mareduke laid his wing over the ground and motioned for the little one to hop on. But she just stared at him. The beast closed in, making the ground shake under them, its growls deafening.
The absurdity of his situation made Mareduke want to snort in protest. Here he was, a perpetual target of human violence, getting ready to lay down his life for one of their offspring, if that’s what she was, because she couldn’t grasp that it was imperative to climb on.
He inhaled with everything he had in him for one good burst of fire, even as he indulged in images of the stories told of his sacrifice on behalf of the enemy… until he remembered there was no one but a baby to witness his death. And if he was destroyed, she had no chance.
He launched his fire. It stopped the oncoming troll… for all of ten seconds.
The child tucked beneath him tapped the bottom of his chest with a fist so small he could barely feel it, but it got his attention. She smiled up at him and clapped her hands, and Mareduke experienced an entirely new sensation. The air turned heavy, then seemed to curl in on itself. His stomach lurched, and he closed his eyes.
When he opened them, they were in a flower-covered meadow surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. He didn’t recognize the mountains, and there was no sign of the troll.
Mareduke’s world stopped tilting, and he took in his surroundings. A hut squatted near a giant oak tree with a stone fireplace taking up an entire end. Smoke curled from the chimney. There was a garden with neat rows of vegetables, and a milk cow poked its head through a half door in a miniature barn as it chewed its cud. A raven cawed at them from the roof, and the child’s face split into a wide smile. She waved at the bird, which elicited a louder squawk as it stretched up and flapped its wings, then flew towards them.
The raven landed at the dragon’s feet, and proceeded to change to a tall, bearded man with flowing robes who looked down at the child and said, “Well done, Eliana. You found him.”
He looked up. “Can you understand my words, dragon?” Mareduke dipped his snout, and the man said, “Judging from your abundant wounds, your guardian was nearly too late.” Guardian? He looked at the small, grinning face. There was a sparkle in her eyes.
At Mareduke’s inquiring look, the man said, “Have you no knowledge of the Western Woodland Fae?” Mareduke stared at him, and he continued. “The fairies, who guard all living things in Kassia other than the two-legged kind, though their kinship with dragons is the most sacred. A Fae like Eliana is born only every eight hundred years, give or take, with a special affinity for dragons, and a destiny that compels her to do all in her power to preserve the species. A necessary service when you have a hereditary enemy bent on wiping you from existence.
When Mareduke continued to stare, he added, “You must have raised yourself, young dragon, just like I theorized. You are truly alone, then?” The dragon’s snout bobbed again, and the man said, “What is your name? Wait, allow me to place my staff over your heart. I will be able to hear you in my mind.”
Curious to experience this, Mareduke allowed it. The oaken staff was strangely warm and comforting, which made it easy to respond. I am Mareduke. Will you please tell me who you are and where this is?
The man stepped back and said with a poignant smile, “Eliana. Meet Mareduke. Quite possibly the last of his kind… Though Eliana and I have hopes that isn’t the case. Don’t we, child?” The tiny person laughed and said Mareduke’s name in a musical child’s voice that touched something in his heart.
After a bow and a sweep of his staff, the man said, “I am Pantheos, young Mareduke. An old wizard, retired from the academy where I spent a lifetime studying dragons and their history, all in preparation for meeting up with little Eliana here when it was time. Your time, Mareduke. Finding you is one part of our task. The other is to find your mate. If we don’t, then all hope for the dragons is lost. What do you think about this purpose?”
The dragon snorted and shook his great wings as the staff again touched his chest. Then he said, I hatched alone and believed I would die alone, accepting that fate marked me as the last of my kind. I never considered another dragon waited for me somewhere. Could it be possible?
Pantheos bowed his head and said, “In fact, we have evidence she exists, or at least existed. Her name is Cindra.”
All at once, Mareduke’s weakened state got the better of him, and he plopped on his haunches.
The wizard cried out. “Please. Forgive my thoughtlessness!” He pointed his staff at the well behind them and a splash sounded from a bucket dropping into the water, followed by creaking when the wizard’s magic operated the crank to pull it back up. Then Pantheos stepped to the well, retrieved the bucket, and brought it to the dragon, repeating the process until he was sure the exhausted creature wouldn’t keel over.
While Mareduke drank, Eliana settled on his front leg close to his head and patted his cheek.
He flinched when a voice spoke in his mind, sounding anything but childish. I am sorry you suffered such abuse today, Mareduke. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the part of Eliana who always exists and very pleased to meet you. I would have found you earlier if my information had included your foray on that village. But everything Pantheos and I knew of you pointed to the lake, once you ventured out for food.
He tilted an eye at her. Your kind must hatch fully developed, like dragons. Otherwise, how can you sound like a grown person? Her little girl laughter lifted his heart, and he was sure his healing sped up by a day.
She explained more. I am an old soul aware of my occupation of this organic being who must grow in a mother’s womb before existing. I am both child and your spirit guardian, and my entire purpose is to see you survive to have offspring of your own. But we must first find a way to make peace between dragons and humans.
How are you speaking to me now, and why not at the lake?
You needed to get used to the idea of me as a child first, and I needed to observe you. When your heart opened to the possibility, we were able to connect.
When Mareduke woke this morning with an empty stomach and the misguided plan to raid that village, no one could have persuaded him that by the end of the day, he would no longer be alone.
He puffed out a tiny bit of air to ruffle her hair, making the child laugh. Her ancient voice sounded again. So long as Pantheos and I draw breath, you will never again feel the bite of loneliness.
Mareduke aimed his snout at Pantheos’s staff, and the wizard nodded, touching it to his chest. I understand a little now of the soul called Eliana, but please tell me more about the child and how she was able to retrieve a grown dragon on her own and bring us here. His big green eye moved to her. Don’t you have parents?
Pantheos said, “Eliana is my ward, and her strong Fae magic is why we have this arrangement. It is part of my destiny to train her to manage the abundant powers she was born with as a guardian. Though her soul has experienced this before, the child must learn how to function in this role. Her parents knew what she was as soon as her mother birthed her, and they sought me out. She has a mark, you see.”
The pintsize Fae swept her cloak over her shoulder and showed Mareduke the small dragon’s eye on her forearm. The mark was more proof that what they told him was true, and he wondered how he could have lived all this time without knowing about the Western Woodland Fae and the guardians.
Trepidation struck him.
Eliana felt it and turned to her mentor. Once again, the staff covered Mareduke’s heart, and the dragon spoke his worry in their minds. If humans are my enemy, what about those who come to my aid? A spark of warmth flared in Eliana’s eyes.
Pantheos said, “Well. Yes. You’ve grasped the tricky part. That is why you do not recognize these landmarks. Eliana brought you through a portal to a place the humans cannot find, the land of the Kassian gnomes. You won’t see them, but the nature-loving beings are all around this clearing, watching, never having seen a dragon.” Mareduke glanced around in interest as Pantheos continued. “And you’ve addressed the other reason her parents left her in my care. Our best chance to meet our destiny and the challenge of your enemy is to combine our strengths.
“The plan is for you to join us in locating your mate. Time is of the essence because the last known female dragon faces the same hazards as you. We’ve determined the location of her territory, which is the region in which Eliana’s people dwell. But we have not received word of Cindra for some weeks.” After this troubling news, the wizard rubbed his hands together. “Now. Did you consume any sheep in that raid? Or do you require a meal?”
Eliana pressed her hand to Mareduke’s chest and conveyed his answer in halting toddler words, as if the ancient one had retreated. “He ate one before he was caught in the trap. He’s good for a day or two.”
“Fine. We’ll catch you up and plan our expedition while you finish recovering.”
Mareduke’s head was spinning. Yet, everything his new friends said felt right. Eliana felt right, even if her dual nature was a bit disconcerting, and he knew this little glen was where he was supposed to be at this moment. As for the future, he thought to himself, could there really exist another dragon in Kassia? What if something has happened to this one called Cindra? What if it hasn’t and we meet, and she hates the sight of me? Or worse, I can’t stand her?
He snorted, filling the air with small puffs of smoke. None of that mattered if it meant he was no longer the last of his kind.
After the third time Mareduke had to insert himself between the villagers and the magnificent silver dragon belching molten fire, he began to seriously question the necessity of paring up with his own kind. No one told him female dragons were bigger than males, stronger, and could set half a town on fire with one blast.
And he’d made her angry.
It took two weeks to investigate the leads the three had narrowed down, and one more to pinpoint the most likely location to find Cindra. Having left Pantheos and Eliana in a safe place, Mareduke arrived at the south edge of the Western Woodlands, just in time to save what was left of a town under attack by the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.
Cindra had strategically wiped out the village center, including those who could organize a defense. Humans were scattering in all directions, disappearing into the woods, jumping in the lake, and hiding in rock crevices up the side of the adjacent mountain. And still she circled her quarry, laying down fire to cut off retreats and destroy crops, livestock, and any other industry critical to the inhabitants’ livelihoods.
His best guess, if anyone were to ask him, was that his female counterpart didn’t like humans. And she just added him to that list, judging by the way she bore down on him now, which made Mareduke grateful for his smaller size. She might be a powerhouse, but he could fly circles around her, and he proceeded to do that as he led her away from the village by stages, and to the secluded mountain meadow where his friends waited for them.
He just needed to figure out how to calm her down on the way.
Did the humans offend you? He tossed that question her way as he dove under her belly.
She twisted her body and flew backwards, aiming fire at him when she had a clear shot. It hit a shelf of snow and caused a small avalanche. He circled around a mountain spire disappearing from her view, then found a spot behind her, so he could try again. Is this how you treat all your new friends?
I have no friends; you muddy-colored dragon. Who do you think you are, interfering with my retribution? Flames shot from her nostrils. Are you a coward, hiding behind my back?
Mareduke snorted. I can’t help it if your size shields me from your eyes even as it blocks out the sun. Cindra roared.
But Mareduke had stopped feeling intimidated, and he went on, even as he ducked her fire. The humans try to kill me on a regular basis. But I am bigger than them, and I don’t believe in using my advantages to harm others.
Well. Aren’t you the saintly one? Is this why you showed up out of nowhere? To protect humans.
Uh… Sort of. My friends and I have heard of you. You do realize there aren’t many of us around?
Why are you so angry?
Why do you care? And where are you taking us?
Hmmm. So, she noticed. He didn’t think anything other than the truth would work, so he went for it. My friends have been searching for you and want to meet you. They only recently found me, and when they told me you existed, I wanted to meet you, too. I’m Mareduke. Will you be peaceable if I take you to them? They are beings of the two-legged variety.
Since you’ve made me curious, I promise not to harm your puny friends, but I’m not promising to stick around. I have things to do.
When they circled over the meadow, Eliana was in full sight, grinning up at them and clapping her small hands in delight.
What is that? Cindra’s voice in his head was scathing as she emphasized each word. That tiny being is one of your friends?
Her name is Eliana. Mareduke made sure to put plenty of warning in his own tone. And yes, she is my friend.
Where are your other friends?
There are only two. Now, will you land with me and let us explain?
I said I would, and I will.
Eliana’s toddler charm had little effect on the dragon with the bad attitude, but Cindra’s reaction to Pantheos when he stepped out of the trees surprised Mareduke. She went down on one knee and bowed her head.
Pantheos bowed back, and said, “You know who I am?” The silver head bobbed, and the wizard said, “Would you be amenable to drinking this potion, so that I can hear you? It is how I communicate with Mareduke.”
Cindra agreed with another nod, and Pantheos spoke in an ancient tongue as he turned his staff halfway around, then back again, and a bucket of water appeared in front of each dragon. It was only then Mareduke realized he was parched.
Cindra waited for Pantheos to add a few drops to her bucket. As she drank her fill, Eliana stepped close enough to reach out and touch the silvery, scaled face. Cindra ignored her until the small hand caressed the bridge of her snout. She stiffened, then aimed a sable eye at the bold child. When Eliana’s laughter bubbled out, Cindra pulled away and rose to her full height. But Mareduke spotted the warmth in her gaze that flared briefly before she hid it.
Pantheos said, “I am pleased to finally meet you, Cindra.”
It is an honor to meet you, High Mage. My mother told me the story of how you came to her aid. It was your intervention with the humans that allowed her to make it to the nesting grounds. Otherwise, I might not be here. Cindra’s visage darkened. The humans managed to kill her not many years after.
“I am sorry. I was informed of the tragedy and tried to find you, but you’ve kept yourself well hidden, other than coming out for those raids that have made you notorious.”
Do you know of my father, High Mage?
“Please, call me Pantheos. Yes, and I was there to help your mother through her despair. You have my deepest sympathies for the loss of both your parents, maiden dragon. That is why my young apprentice, and I did not give up our search. But it was Mareduke’s abilities that allowed us to finally succeed. It is our purpose to ensure your parents’ fate does not befall you, or Mareduke. You are the last of your kind.”
Cindra cast a scornful eye at Mareduke, then looked down her snout at the toddler still smiling up at her. Who, or should I say what, is this child?
She is a dragon guardian. Do you know of such ones?
I’ve heard of these Fae. I have respect for her people and leave them out of my reckoning. It is only the humans who deserve my wrath. And you are keeping me from my next engagement. So, I’m afraid I must take my leave.
Mareduke scoffed. That’s it? You can’t give us any more of your precious time to learn about your other choice?
Let me guess. My other choice involves mating with you. No thank you. I’m fine on my own.
Mareduke’s brownish scales glowed bronze, and green eyes blazed with his indignation. A chuff of surprise was Cindra’s only reaction to the impressive sight. Still, she spread her wings in preparation for taking off. But Mareduke got in the last word. We might be fine on our own… but should we be?
The three words were louder in their heads than intended because Cindra was already fifty feet in the air, and the reverberation elicited a squeal from Eliana as she plopped on her bottom. It was the ancient guardian who spoke next in a voice that covered the distance to the departing dragon. We will meet again soon, dear friend.
Mareduke was not sure why he made the effort to track down the unpleasant maiden dragon … again. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand her pain. Part of him would like to give in to vengeance for the violence that ended his own parents. But he’d long ago come to terms with his principles over killing. Nothing good came of it.
He thought Cindra might believe that deep down, somehow sensing her destructive ways ate at her. Convincing her to change was another matter. Eliana and Pantheos assured him it was worth a try, so they flew with him to yet another human village they had pegged on their map of Cindra’s territory. Mareduke didn’t want to admit it, but he could feel her in his heart, which assured him they were on the right path. He put the idea away for now that his sensitivity was due to a mate bond already forming.
They saw the blaze rising above the trees before they spotted the silver dragon camouflaged against a low cloud.
Sending his thoughts to his passengers, he said, She is one headstrong beast. But this village was prepared. Do you see the trebuchets lined up around the perimeter? The brave ones are determined to load them even as some die under her fire.
Pantheos added,“And it appears half contain buckets of tar, while half are fireballs. That’s quite a defense.”
The guardian said in a grim voice, I foresee those wicked devices causing her death. We must disarm them.
I will not risk you, Eliana. We should put you down somewhere safe.
You needn’t worry about me, Mareduke. We have one shot at a pass while they are focused on her. Let’s go.
The little one was right. Mareduke flew low and fast, knocking the legs out from most of the machines before the humans realized another dragon had descended on them. The flaming ammunition dropped to the ground, and the villagers scrambled to put out their own fires. But they were prepared, tying cloths over their mouths and pulling covers over each spot, snuffing out the flames.
Still, Mareduke couldn’t fly to them all fast enough. Pantheos shouted, “To your right!”
The trebuchets still standing were repositioned, tar buckets set ablaze and aimed their way. Besides the tar, fire from above rained down from a device before he could topple it. Mareduke twisted and shot up, managing to dodge the tar, but the flames hit his flank, and he faltered under the searing pain.
Hang on! He shouted to his passengers. I can get us away.
Even as he listed to the side, he managed to power his wings enough to lift above the machines, but not out of range of a tar bucket, which hurtled towards his chest. If he ducked the wrong way, it would hit his precious cargo, so he braced himself for the pain. Then, a silver, scaled wing appeared between them and the black missile.
Mareduke roared out his fear for Cindra.
The bigger dragon smashed the bucket to the ground with her outstretched wing, which also collapsed the remaining trebuchets, but not before her wing was doused with the thick, flaming goo. She listed horribly sideways, then crashed to the ground, and the smell of gaseous tar and her burning flesh filled Mareduke’s nostrils.
The humans closed in with more tar and torches.
Set us down next to Cindra, Pantheos commanded.
Mareduke wasted no time landing, then raised to his full height to shield her. Her voice, full of pain and frustration, sounded in his head. What are you doing, you murky dragon? Go! Get that child out of here!
Beams of brilliant light flared from Pantheos’s staff in every direction, like a prism. The humans stopped in their tracks to shield their eyes, then looked to the source atop Mareduke’s back.
“I am the High Mage, Pantheos. I bring a decree from the King, who swears to protect the last of the dragon kind, provided my apprentice and I found the last two alive. It is not right to destroy them.” He paused, “Or that they exact their revenge on you. That will change. There will be peaceful coexistence. Eliana and I will see to it. Now, back away and let us leave with the injured dragon.”
One of the men stepped forward. “Many have died today. What does King Lathan say about that?”
Eliana reached for Pantheos, who picked her up, so she could face the crowd. A beam of sunlight washed over her and the sweet, halting voice of a child sounded across the smoldering village. “There has been much death on both sides. It must end here.”
Though many in the crowd appeared swayed, the man shouted.“ Until there is another king who will decide differently. My descendants may yet avenge our dead.” The toddler guardian said, “That may be, if you decide that is your legacy. For now, let there be peace and let me go home with my friends. Because I promise you, one day you will need them.”
Artwork by D. L. Lewellyn using Photoleap and Canva, and the funky-limbed dragon came from Shutterstock.com. I love him anyway.