by Stella B. James
From the mouth of my cave, I can see the destruction; thick pillars of smoke, almost black in color. I can hear the cries of many people, men and women alike. The villages are being pillaged, the castle under siege. I lay my head back down with a snort and close my eyes. Those silly humans have nothing better to do than allow their greed to consume them.
I hear her panting before I can spot her, and a man warning her to fall back. They are more foolish than the humans down below. Who would dare enter my dwelling? I haven’t bothered them in decades, why do they test me? I sit up on my haunches and give myself a shake, my wings spreading out behind me.
An aged woman falls to her knees at the mouth of the cave, clutching something to her chest. A man follows, a soldier from the look of his bloodied armor. I eye them with curiosity. It doesn’t seem like they have come to challenge me. But they couldn’t expect to seek refuge here either. What could have made them desperate enough to climb my mountain?
“Dragon.” The woman gasps out the word, her breathing still labored, but it isn’t spoken out of fear. No, it almost sounds like a plea. I straighten and glare down at her, letting a small stream of smoke dispel from my nostrils. She bows her head as the man wrenches her back to him, his hands clasping at her shoulders.
“It isn’t safe here,” he warns in a harsh whisper. I shake my head and chuckle in amusement. It isn’t safe anywhere at the moment.
“I have come to ask you a favor!” the woman cries out to me, ignoring her male companion. I cock my head to the side. Now this is interesting. I’ve been demanded my riches, my magic, even my death. But never asked. I nod my head once and she continues, “The princess is all that has survived. You must protect her. She’ll be our last hope.”
My eyes survey the mouth of the cave, but I see no woman, or girl. I’m not sure how old this princess is supposed to be. The woman seems to understand my confusion. With outstretched arms, she places a bundled up cloth in between us. I eye it for a moment, and then glance back at the woman. I’m tempted to set her on fire for whatever trick she is trying to play. But then the bundle moves.
It wriggles this way and that until a little hand snakes out. The cloth falls away, revealing a tiny face and wide eyes the color of emeralds. The princess is but an infant. Smooth skin, soft flesh, and dark, wispy curls. How am I to protect such a scrawny creature? She has no fur to warm her, no scales or teeth to defend her. She doesn’t even have wings to make her grand escapes.
The woman takes in my wide eyed caution and bows her head again with a barely audible please escaping her. I glance back down at the little creature, who simply waves her hands in the air as spit bubbles raspberry out of her mouth. With a grimace, I move my head down to inspect closer. The woman falls back on her bottom, the soldier having left her to jump in front of the swaddled youngling.
“You won’t harm her!” he shrieks, brandishing his sword. I snarl down at him, letting him have a good look at my pointed teeth.
“Do others know you are here?” My voice comes out on a growl, and he takes a step back. The woman moves in front of him and shakes her head.
“No one saw us. I’m sure of it.” Her hands clasp together in front of her, offering me her silent prayers. I close my eyes and sigh out in defeat.
“Flee from here and never return. I will keep the princess safe.”
The soldier casts a worried glance towards the princess, and then back to me.
“And if they come for her?”
“They would be foolish to come here. But if such an event were to occur, I’d make sure they’d learn not to make the same mistake twice.”
He nods his head at my answer and takes the woman by the hand. She allows him to drag her away, but before they are out of sight, she turns her wary eyes to me.
“Her name is Esmerelda.”
They disappear and that is when the tiny being decides to cry. I scrunch my eyes and flatten my ears best I can. I scoop her up in one claw and bring her closer. Her crying stops once she spots me, and her eyes shimmer with the remaining unshed tears. Her eyes are more beautiful than any jewel in my possession.
She wriggles herself free of the blankets and falls onto all fours. I snort in amusement as I watch her crawl in her clumsy way, much like a newborn dragon would. I don’t know anything about humans or the way they grow. I know their hatred, their greed, and their violence. I know their screams, their terror, and their taste. But she is none of those things. She is still pure.
Her green eyes take me in, and she gurgles out some made up language I can’t understand before her face breaks out into a smile. She reaches out to touch me, and I bring my snout close to her hand. My little princess is brave, that or completely foolish. Perhaps a little of both, but only time will tell.
“Oh, Esmerelda, what have I gotten myself into?”
* * *
She does this nearly every day. Her fingers grasp the lower branches, her feet find the rounded knobs. She pulls and pushes, grunts and gasps. She is getting faster now, her hands and feet having memorized the way. Her favorite branch sits thick and proud, swooping down where it meets the trunk.
She sits on the branch and scoots herself sideways toward the middle. I pretend to busy myself with my inner musings, but I’m aware of her every movement. Once she finds that perfect flat space of the branch, she moves to a crouch, and spreads her arms.
I hear her whisper, a small promise under her breath. I can do this. And in one swift movement, she pushes off from the branch. Her body sails into the air before bringing her back down. She doesn’t have the sense to scream. My brave little fool fears nothing. I stretch out my wing to catch her, and she rolls into my side.
She grips my scales and climbs up to my back, her hands and feet having memorized this as well. She climbs to the top of my head and peeks over until her head is level with my eye. She bares her teeth at me and growls. I let loose my own growl, but she simply sticks her tongue out and slides down my snout. She balances herself on the very end, her legs dangling on either side, and sets her chin on my scales.
“When will I fly?” Another daily habit. Oh, how she wishes to fly. She loves my wings. Even after I have set her in the furs of her bed, I will wake up to find her curled up in the soft leather of my wings.
“When you grow wings.”
She sighs, a small pout forming. “And when will that happen?”
“Maybe never. Not all dragons have wings.”
She sits up, steadying herself by leaning forward on her small hands. “You said the same thing about scales and fire breathing.”
I chuckle softly. She is quite inquisitive. “And it’s true.”
She slumps back down, the disappointment evident in her expression. “I make for a lousy dragon.”
“You’re the most beautiful there ever was.” And this is the truest statement I’ve ever spoken. Her hair is like midnight, her eyes shine in their emerald glory, and her spirit is wild and stubborn. She is more dragon than I at times. And she is mine. For the moment, my mind whispers.
Four years have passed now, and no one has come to claim her. I doubt anyone would believe a little girl has survived in these mountains within the dragon’s lair. I don’t know if anyone would recognize her for who she truly is. Or that she would recognize them as one of her kind. I dread the day when she stumbles into the world of humans.
* * *
It takes her another three years before she accepts that she is indeed a different kind of dragon. One devoid of scales, wings, and breath of fire. She is no less fierce for it. She lets her nails grow long to have claws like me. She grinds flowers and berries into clay, smearing the concoction along her face and arms to match my coloring. She bares her teeth and growls when angry. Her temper is as hot as the fire that flows from my mouth.
She wears the pelts of animals I have killed as her dinner. She still cannot bring herself to kill them, though she knows we rely on them for sustenance. Neither the wild nor the dragon she has grown to know could ever erase the purity of her soul. Her secret sweet loving nature only I am privileged to witness.
Her imagination has grown wild these days. She discovered the castle in the distance for the first time this morning. “What is that?” she asks, pointing to her true home.
“It’s called a castle.”
“Like the place in your stories?” I nod my head, turning back for the cave. She sprawls out on my back, her eyes studying the clouds above us. “Does a princess live there, like in the stories?”
The hope in her voice stills my heart. Do I tell her the truth? “I wouldn’t know, Esme.” Yes, I am a true coward. But she is still too young, I tell myself. It makes me feel a little better.
“Maybe we should check. She might need saving.”
I sigh out and shake my head at her as if she has exasperated me. “She wouldn’t want us to save her.”
“Why not? We’re plenty strong.”
We stop at the mouth of the cave and I feel her slide off my back. She walks around to face me, her fists planted on her hips.
“And we’re dragons. Humans fear dragons. Humans save other humans.”
“Well, can’t dragons save humans too?”
“If there is a dire need to,” I say. She nods once at this, seeming pleased, and strolls into the cave. She makes me proud, and I find myself murmuring aloud, “Sometimes, we can even love them.”
* * *
The year passed by in a blur, but Esme’s curiosity only grew. I had ingrained in her the dangers humans could pose since she had come to me. Oh, but my stubborn little fool just can’t help herself at this traveling party that passes near our mountain. They are not from these lands if they brave coming this close to my lair.
Esme has seen plenty horses in her eight years of life, but never the tamed ones. She watches them, fascination in her eyes as they pass by in a steady trot. She ducks down further at the voices of the men, and I am relieved she has heeded my warnings. She looks bored until the party stops, and a woman steps out of the coach.
The woman is dressed in fine clothes, her dress a dark scarlet. Her hair is pinned up, but she takes this moment to let it down. Esme touches her own hair, her fingers barely able to pass through the snarled ends. The woman laughs, and it sounds like a rain shower of small bells. I am also almost as enchanted by this woman as Esme seems to be.
The woman speaks to the men a moment longer before climbing back into the coach. They crowd together, passing some type of drink between them, before setting off once more. Esme stays hidden in the grass long after they have left. I notice her restlessness later that night, and the way her hand constantly strokes over her wild tangles.
* * *
The tree she once tried to fly from is now her quiet place, the place where she daydreams. She stares at the castle and imagines what lays behind those magnificent walls. If only she knew that she is of that castle, having been born behind those very walls. I haven’t the heart to tell her the truth of what dwells there now. Knowledge of an enemy king who cut down her family would dash her fairy tale musings.
She demands to know more about humans, especially the ones we saw. “What is the one with the long fur called?”
I stall, not wanting to reveal the truth to her, but I am also her only teacher. I cannot lie. “That was a woman. A human female.”
“I have long fur on my head.”
I nod my head and watch her as she weaves flowers together in a sort of crown. If only she knew of the true crown that awaits her. “Because you are also a female.”
Her fingers continue working the small stems, bending and twisting. Her eyebrows furrow together as she mulls over my words. “And she did not have scales.” I let out a noncommittal sound of agreement. “Or wings.”
She looks up at me, her emeralds sparking with their realization. “She is just like me.” The words cut through me. She has finally realized what she truly is. Will she learn to fear me now?
My next question weighs heavy on my tongue, but I must ask. “Do you think you’re human too?” She smiles as she holds up her completed crown, and I lower my head to the ground. She places it on the tip of my ear and stands back to admire her handiwork.
“No, I think you were wrong. She is just another pitiful dragon, like me.” The relief is overwhelming, and a small guilty part of me knows I should correct her. But perhaps she doesn’t wish to be human. Her soul is wholly dragon. I nuzzle her cheek and close my eyes.
“No, Esme, you are truly one of a kind.”
* * *
Esme ventured closer to the castle as she neared her ninth year of life. She became bolder in her investigations. She still believes she is a dragon, but humans are her newest obsession. She studies them from afar, as she doesn’t trust them yet. I hope she never trusts them.
* * *
She was picking berries the day they found her. The men shouted to one another, about the wildling they stumbled across. They asked her name. She answered honestly. Her greatest teacher forgot to teach her the value of a lie. It didn’t take long for them to put the pieces together. The lost princess, they gasped. I wish I could say I was there to witness this, but I only found out through hushed rumors.
Her shrieking is what alerted me. My Esme never cried out in fear. My heart pounded, the fire in my chest raged, and I charged down the mountain. But they had her on horseback, galloping away, and if I attacked them, she would perish with them. I would have to bide my time.
* * *
They have her placed in the tallest tower. I peek into her window, the moonlight aiding me in spotting her. Her skin is a creamy white, her hair smooth as it fans out against her pillow. She looks just like the princesses I told her about. She has found her rightful place.
I turn to leave her, knowing that despite the heartache it will cause me, this is what is best for her. But she somehow spots me in the darkness. I hear her sniffles and turn around. She leans out as far as she can to touch me, and I place my snout close to her hand, just as when we first met.
“They washed away my scales,” she whimpers out.
“The smoothness suits you.”
She holds her hands out and hangs her head. “They cut my claws.”
“You won’t need to fight here.”
She looks back up at me, and fists a chunk of her hair. “They tamed my fur.”
I can’t help the chuckle that escapes me. My insistent little fool. “Then make it wild again.”
Her hands fall in front of her, her fists clenched into tiny balls. “I look like the humans.”
My heart stalls, then thunders in my ears. It is time. She must know the truth, and I’d rather her hear it from me. “That, my child, is because you are one.” The tears that stream down her face are silent and slow. They glisten in the moonlight, leaving fresh paths along her cleaned cheeks.
“Did you steal me?” The fear in those words break my heart. Does she think I am evil? Have the humans already filled her head?
“I saved you.”
She raises her knee, as if to climb out of the window. I back away, but it doesn’t stop her. With both knees on the ledge, her hands grasping at the sides of her window, she pleads, “Then save me again. I want to go home.” She will be the death of me.
“Esme, this is your home.” I nuzzle her cheek before whipping away into the night.
She calls out to me in the darkness, but I don’t turn back. As much as I want to tear off the top of that tower and scoop her up, I know I can’t. It is like the old woman said. She very well may be the kingdom’s last hope.
* * *
Nine years have passed. Nine long, lonely years. I tried to leave this place, to make a new home for myself. But what if, I ask myself, what if Esme comes back? No, this is home until the day she takes her last breath. I haven’t seen her since our last goodbye at the castle. I wonder what she looks like now.
I’ve heard stories, stories of her beauty and her strength. I’ve heard grumblings of her stubborn nature and her refusal to stay indoors. I’ve heard the whispers, of her obsession with dragons and wildflowers. I often sit by her tree and stare at her castle. It doesn’t sound like she has changed one bit, but there is nothing to indicate that she misses me. Has she forgotten me?
“Dragon!” I hear a female’s voice bellow out, echoing against the walls of my cave. It sounds angry and fierce. No one has risked challenging me in a long time. What woman would dare come here? Unless…
A tall, lithe woman, clad in armor meets me in the middle of my cave. Her hair sways behind her like a thick inky waterfall as she marches closer to me. She takes in the interior, her eyes studying the walls and the markings Esme long ago carved in as a child. Eyes that flash with their emerald glint. Esme.
“Why have you come, dressed as a warrior?”
“I have come to kill you!” It comes out as a roar, much like mine when in battle.
“Is that so?” I am goading her, but I long to hear more of her voice.
“Yes. My Coronation Day is next week, and if I am to prove to be a reliable ruler, I must slay you.” Her voice is nothing like the woman we saw on the road when she was merely eight. No soft tinkling sound for my little one. Her voice comes out in a raspy hard edge, commanding and strong.
It appears the kingdom wishes to rid itself of its resident dragon. I wonder, what threat I could possibly pose these days? I’d never attack the castle now that Esme resides there. Or perhaps they fear I’ll come back for her. “Is that what they told you?”
I tap my claw on the floor, as if deep in thought, and smirk as her eyes study the movement. I wonder if she misses her own claws, or even remembers them. “Wouldn’t your blood alone prove you a reliable ruler?”
She huffs out, and I imagine real smoke would come out if she were as dragon as she once believed herself to be. She thrusts her sword in my face, her eyes glaring up into mine. I rest my chin on the ground and huff back, letting the warm steam wash over her.
Her eyes narrow, and her head tilts slightly. “Tell me, dragon, do I know you?” My heart sinks as her question confirms my worst fears. She doesn’t remember. Do I look that different? She hasn’t changed. Still so full of questions.
“I’ve dreamt of you. I made you flower crowns and rode your back. I curled up to sleep within your wings and kissed your scales.”
I close my eyes, secretly delighting in the memories. Those puny humans couldn’t taint her dragon soul, though I imagined they tried. “Maybe you did know me, once upon a time.” I open my eyes and watch her take in my lair with renewed wonder.
“Why do I feel such hatred for you? I look at you and feel betrayed.” Her eyes glimmer up at me, more beautiful than my memories served.
I nod my head, remembering the way I abandoned her. Of course, she would hate me. “If you hate me, then you should kill me.”
She takes a shuddering breath, the tip of her sword pressing in between my eyes. Her bottom lip trembles, and she stills it with her teeth. “I don’t,” she whispers out, dropping her sword. “Not really. Deep inside, I feel we are one and the same.”
My heart swells. She is still mine, even after all these years. My precious little fool.
“What bothers you?” I ask as a whimper escapes her.
She hugs herself and shakes her head, her eyes meeting mine. “I’ve only wanted to be fearsome, and I can’t even slay the mighty dragon to prove my worth.”
I straighten and bow my head in reverence. “You are the most fearsome being that has ever entered this cave.” And I mean it. Even when she was a wriggling little thing, all swaddled up in blood stained cloth, she scared me.
She sighs and leans on her sword. “I wish I didn’t have to kill you.”
“Do you want to rule the kingdom?”
She shakes her head in denial, not even giving it a second thought.
I nod my head and lift her chin with my claw. “Tell me, Esme, what it is you truly desire.”
She doesn’t pull away. She doesn’t fear me at all, though I could slice her in half if I chose to. Instead, she huffs out in an indignant way and juts out her chin. “You’ll think I’m silly.”
“I promise not to laugh.”
She closes her own eyes now and a sad smile barely lifts the corners of her lips. “I wish to fly. Then I could fly away from here and be free.”
I rumble out my approval and flatten myself to the ground.
“Climb on, my little dragon, and let me be your wings.”
* * *
About the Author
Stella B. James is a Southern girl who appreciates strong coffee and losing herself in fantastical daydreams. When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading romance novels of any genre, drinking prosecco while watching whatever she has left over on her DVR, or talking herself out of buying yet another black dress. She has published several short stories with various publications that you can find on her website, www.stellabjames.com. Check out her Instagram @stellabjames, where she shares her writing and inner musings.