by Searska GreyRaven
Dragons are made, not born.
We make ourselves, one scale at a time, forged from seething rage and quenched in cold hate. We string each scale together, forming chains, forming mail, armoring ourselves with these heavy plates because they feel like protection. We don’t think about how they weigh us down, or of the wings clenched tight to our backs.
Dragons don’t fly. We might have been born with wings, whatever we were before—
(I don’t remember what I was before.)
—but a dragon’s armor is too heavy and too solid for flitting about.
Deep in our lairs, we curl around a pit filled with fire. Each carnelian coal is a moment we refuse to forget. It scorches our bellies, our hands, our most vulnerable places. Blackened claws, now tempered from the flames, turn over each glowing carbuncle, some dull and red as old blood, others incandescent and spitting sparks. We remember each violation, each vicious insult, every punch and slap and slight we suffered. We breathe new life into them so that we may never, never forget what they did to us and why we sheathe ourselves in dragon skin.
We remember these things so hard that we forget the feeling of wind, the color of the sky, the taste of sugar as it melts on our tongues.
A thousand men have tried to storm my sanctuary, and each one I have destroyed or devoured. Each one bloated with his own hubris, his own self-importance, the conviction that he would be the one to shatter my armor and tame me once more, and return me to my place.
They wanted to strip me to my skin, bear my soft places and press me into mewling obedience. A conquered dragon for a concubine.
But I learned well at the knee of monstrosity; my scales are perfect, my armor a masterwork. There is nothing soft left for knights with wicked swords to penetrate.
But you… you were no knight. You came to me, unarmed and unarmored. You had feathers where I had scales, edges smooth where mine were knives, and a song where I could only hiss. You perched upon the stones above my door and didn’t budge, no matter how I growled. But as you sang, my muscles eased and the rumble of my ire slowly drained away. I listened, enraptured, as your last note hovered between us.
I didn’t know harpies could sing, I said.
You tilted your head to the side, birdlike and strange, and asked me how heavy my scales were.
Heavy, I said. The better to protect me, my dear.
But why? you asked.
Because the world is cold and cruel.
All of it?
All of it.
You went silent then, and I woke that morning to find the place above my door empty. I wanted to be relieved, but I felt… something else. I had to dig the word out of my memory.
I turned the word over between my talons and worried at it. Did it belong in my hoard? Would it be malleable enough to form scales? I didn’t know, and fussed with it for days.
When you returned, I felt something else I’d forgotten. Joy.
In your hand, you held a single flower, a lily of the valley.
Those are poison, I said, wary.
Only if you eat them, you said.
I did not eat it. I tucked your flower into the mouth of an old wine bottle and set it beside my bed of coals. Its scent pushed back the reek of smoke for a time.
It was… nice. No, not nice. Peaceful. Another word I’d forgotten.
I didn’t know what to do with peaceful. But I remembered enough of what I was before to know that one must give gratitude for gifts.
I came back to the threshold to thank you, and you sang, thrilled that your lily had brought me peace.
Three scales fell from my back, chiming like bells upon the stone floor.
Panicked, I scooped them up and retreated deeper into my lair. You called out, but didn’t follow.
I reforged the scales and hammered them back into place, but my strokes, once sharp and sure, pulled unevenly. It took far longer than it should have, but I managed at last. With shaking fingers, I fastened them upon my shoulder and breathed easy once more.
I found you where I’d left you, puzzled and puzzling.
You broke it, you said.
No, I fixed it.
It was a week before we spoke again. You brought me more lilies, sang to me songs you’d heard from larks and nightingales, and I tried to hide how happy I was to see you once more.
Happy was a thing used to bait traps of pain; I was too canny to fall for it again.
(Wasn’t I, though?)
There’s a story, you said, about wisdom and words.
I grunted, not really interested in the story so much as hearing the sound of your voice. You wove a tale of hope and happiness, of a goddess of wisdom who once begged for truth from a the world tree, and it told her the secrets of the world: four words to start a war, thirteen to end it, seven words to unlock a person’s heart and fourteen more to seal it.
Any heart? I asked.
Even a dragon’s heart, you trilled.
I snorted. Not likely, I said. If that were true, one of those ass-faced knights would have tried it already.
You shrugged, covert feathers along your shoulders whispering. Maybe it’s not the same seven words for everyone.
Perhaps, I said. Perhaps it’s not even just seven. It could be five, or nine, or twenty-two. It might even be seven notes of music.
We sat in silence and watched the bats delve and play between the stars.
Do you know many stories? I asked.
You nodded. Would you like to hear another story, you asked.
Yes, I said, and you wove a tale about gryphons and mermaids and a great battle between sea and sky. I listened, enchanted, and didn’t even notice my scales had fallen askew again.
That night, I dreamed of wings.
I found you back on your perch, right by my door. I settled down with a clatter, right there on the threshold.
Tell me another story, please, I said.
You nodded, and told me a tale of distant places and strange mountains with stranger beasts. There were clouds made of cotton candy and trees made of chocolate, lakes of sweet sugar syrup, and schools of gingerbread fish with gumdrop scales.
Gumdrop scales, I laughed. Gumdrops wouldn’t make good scales.
They do just fine for the fish, you said. Scales aren’t just for armor.
Then what good are they? I asked.
I don’t know, you said. Ask the fish.
I didn’t laugh. Laugh is too kind a word for the shattered sound that left my throat. It echoed through the shadows of my lair and died at my feet.
For that, I said, I’d need to leave my lair.
I can’t leave my lair, I said. What would happen to my forge, my coals? My scales would rust right off! Besides, I can’t fly. Not anymore. I don’t even think I remember how.
You have to take off your scales to fly, you said.
I didn’t speak to you for days for that. Every night, I dreamed of flying, of devouring candy clouds and chasing gumdrop-crusted fish.
And every morning I’d find another lily of the valley, placed just so on my doorstep.
I can’t just give up my scales, I said again. I need them. They protect me.
They hide you, you said.
From the good and the bad.
It’s mostly bad.
Am I bad?
Tell me a story, I demanded.
But this time, you didn’t. You left, the scent of lilies fading on the wind.
I dreamed of stars and storms and spiraling winds. My back ached and my wings strained, but my scales. My scales were too heavy for them to lift very far.
I don’t need wings, I assured myself. Wings are for soft things, things willing to be savaged and hurt, broken! I am not that person anymore. I’m a dragon! Fierce and vicious and…
I found you the next day, bent over my forge. I don’t know how you got in, but before I could stop you, you reached out and touched one of the carbuncles, an old and dim one as red as rubies, but still far too hot for bare skin.
You yelped and dropped it, and I scooped it up, returning it to my hoard.
That was foolish, I said. Don’t you know not to touch hot things?
What are they? you asked.
Memories, I said. That one is one of my oldest, from when a boy kissed me.
Why does it burn?
Because I said no.
You nodded, solemn. And that one?
A lord tried to take what didn’t belong to him.
You pointed to the brightest of them all, at the center of my forge.
And that one?
That one, I said, made me a dragon.
Silence, for a time, only broken by the susurrus of my coals.
Would you like to hear another story? you asked, and I nodded. It was a story you’d heard from a butterfly, long ago, about an endling unicorn, a wicked king and his cursed kingdom, and how a valiant lost girl saved them all.
I have never seen a unicorn, I said.
Would you like to? There’s a spring where they dance, a few days from here. We could go, if you wish.
I would have to leave this place. I can’t. My scales are too heavy, I’d never make it.
Do you need all your scales, though?
I pondered the question, pulling at the seams of my armor and trying it out. Maybe I could leave a few scales behind. Just for a few days. Just for a little while. They were so heavy, there hadn’t been a knight in some time. And it had been so long since I’d felt sunlight on my face.
It felt…odd. I bounced on my toes as I walked, unused to being unburdened.
Alright, I said. Let’s go.
And we went, over and under and through the forest. The sun rose and fell three times, and we curled up together each night to watch the stars. When the sun rose, you sang to greet it, and I thrummed along as best I could.
And they were there, just like you said! Unicorns dancing in the mist from the waterfall, sipping from the spring and playing in the water without a care in the world. I laughed a true laugh, not the bitter thing I’d uttered in the dark.
They’re beautiful, I said. It’s like their hooves never even touch the ground when they dance.
You held out your hand, spread your sky blue wings in a graceful bow, and said, would you care to dance with me?
I couldn’t dance, not really, not even with my armor diminished, but I could at least weave among them. You held my claws in your hands, never mind the soot and the scars, and we danced heavy and strange through a throng of glittering, dancing unicorns. The wind in the leaves and the water in the stream and the bell-like laugh of unicorns were the only music we needed.
It was perfect.
Until the hunters came.
Hounds baying and arrows flying, they burst into the clearing and attacked. I roared and leapt into the fray. Teeth snapped, bones shattered, and swords clattered uselessly against most of me. I shrieked when I felt an arrow pierce my arm.
Foolish. So foolish to leave behind my scales!
The hunters retreated, unprepared for a dragon, and I turned on you.
This is why I don’t leave, why I never take off my armor, I snarled. It’s never safe! I ripped the arrow from my flesh and bellowed. The remaining unicorns fled in terror, heels flashing into the darkening forest. I roared, coughed. Another blazing coal fell from my lips into my palm. I cradled it to my chest, ruddy light dripping between my fingers and the reek of singed flesh in my nose.
You’re burning yourself! Stop! you cried.
It wouldn’t burn, I hissed, if I’d had my armor.
You wouldn’t need your armor if you let the rage burn out on its own! Coveting it like that only makes it worse!
You don’t understand. You wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. My armor protected me; my armor kept me safe. I need it.
I don’t need it, you said.
Then you’re a fool!
No greater a fool than the one who burns themself on their own rage!
I went back to my lair, curled around this new hurt, and tucked myself back under my sheathe of scales. I slept, dreamless.
No, that’s a lie. I dreamed of the sky even when I was awake. I dreamed of dancing unicorns and the shimmer of sunlight on water, and blue wings against a blue sky, all mine if I would. Just. Take off. The scales.
If I would just let the rage-fueled embers burn out.
But the coals made scales, scales protected me, and it was foolish to be unprotected.
Did I want to stay armored more than I wanted to dance? I didn’t have an answer for that.
Dragons don’t dance. I’d have to stop being a dragon if I ever wanted the sky again.
If I ever wanted—
—no, I refused to even consider wanting more.
I caressed the edges of my armor, remembering the feeling of cool mist against my bare skin. I wasn’t ready to shed them. But maybe…maybe not all the scales. Maybe just a few, I could give up.
Some would be easy to take off, I was sure. But some were fused to each other by the heat of the forge and years of sleeping on my bed of rage; they wouldn’t pry loose without a fight.
The very thought of fighting with my own armor made me weary beyond measure, and I crawled back atop my fiery bed.
I woke to the scent of flowers, and found upon my step another lily of the valley, entwined with an iris and a single pine branch. Nestled in the center were several purple hyacinth blooms.
I held your elegant bouquet in my arms, and waited for you to return. You fluttered down, settled farther from me than usual, and it made my heart ache.
Hello, you said.
I got your flowers, I said finally.
I took out the coal from that awful day and set it on the stone floor. It spat a few sparks.
I thought about what you said.
The words caught in my throat. I tried again.
I don’t know how to be anything but this.
Silence, a longer one.
I want to.
You hopped close and peered at my armor. You touched one steely scale with the tip of your finger, prying it up and away from my skin. Gently, gingerly, you tugged it free and laid it over the coal, smothering it.
And then, you reached up, feathers brushing the place laid bare, the first soft thing I’d felt in an age and more. I shivered, and wondered what it might feel like to have feathers instead of steel.
One scale at a time, you said. I shouldn’t have asked for more than that. One at a time. We’ll do it together.
And then? I asked.
And then we see the unicorns again.
And dance with them?
And dance with them.
* * *
About the Author
Searska GreyRaven has been writing ever since an eccentric sorceress was brave enough to teach her. She has been previously published in several anthologies, most recently in ROAR 9, Dissident Signals, and CLAW 1, and has had stories nominated for both the Cóyotl and Leo Literary awards. She makes her home in sunny South Florida, along with several bee hives, a fluctuating population of lizards, and a growing hoard of books guarded by a legion of plastic dinosaurs. She can be found on Twitter (SearskaGreyRvn) and posts occasionally on SoFurry (Searska_GreyRaven).