This story is a spin-off from a young adult novel I'm writing. It won second place in the Blackstaff Press/Skypen Summer Short Story competition and can also be viewed here.
The pain hadn’t dulled over the years. Her greatest concern was the chains across her back, digging in and chafing, preventing her from taking more than the shallowest of breaths. They were pinning her wings down to her body and in her mind’s eye she could see them tearing the delicate membranes, shredding and mangling. She knew she would never fly again, and the hopelessness was dragging her down. A dragon who can’t fly is as good as dead.
She couldn’t move her head either – it was chained down, her jaws bound tightly with steel reinforced ropes that dug into the delicate lips and cheeks, one side of her face held hard against her flank so her neck was curved back on itself and then held there. It wasn’t an unnatural position for a dragon: she would bend her neck like this to sleep, or to clean her skin and wing membranes, but to be held like this, forced to keep her neck bent, for year on weary year, that was unnatural.
Only humans, those arrogant, vicious creatures, could think of chaining another sentient being in this way.
And then there was her egg. When she had just laid her first egg, her mate, Soreth, had been keeping guard from the cliff above. They had been ready for him, with their steel nets and their chains. Before he could bellow a warning, they had him and a moment later, she had felt the net drop over her. She had managed one sniff of her precious egg before they lassoed her head, the ropes biting in, forcing her jaws closed.
They had taken her egg, now all she was left with was the emptiness, a cold hollow of despair and longing. Why couldn’t they have killed her there and then? Why couldn’t they at least have had that much mercy? Because that was what they did, these hunters: kill dragons. But no, they wanted hostages this time, so she and her tiny unborn daughter were prisoners, held to force Soreth to be their slave, working for the hunters to keep his family alive, carrying out tasks which were against his very nature and selling his soul to the devil, for her. The weight of that burden was too heavy to bear.
But today was different. Today dragons had appeared. She was so lost in her misery that she didn’t realise they were there: she heard and saw, but her mind had already stepped across the edge of madness into the chasm which had been yawning in front of her since they day they captured her.
The chains had been severed, a strong net dropped over her and her body had been rolled over, head still bound to her side, so she lay on the net. Part of her mind was registering all this, but she felt as though she was an observer, sitting on the cliff above and looking down as the two young dragons gently seized the corners of the net in their talons.
She realised they had somehow managed to get airborne, their beautiful wings beating powerfully as they lifted the net into the air, a sad, pale old dragon hanging below them, with her scarred head, weeping sores across her back and wings. The old beast was too heavy for these two youngsters. Why didn’t they just drop it into the sea and be done with it? Why would two young creatures, with all their lives ahead of them, bother with a bag of bones like that when they could fly free, mate, rear their young, dive through the waves and twist through the clouds?
The next thing she knew was when she was set down on a grassy plateau and the gentle bump brought her back to her own self for a moment. She tried to thrash, in terror that the faceless men would torture her again, stabbing her tender belly with spears, threatening to pour acid across her wings, but she was so weak she could barely twitch.
Then she remembered her daughter and the despair washed over her again, the tidal wave of hopelessness washing her back over the edge of sanity. Just before she lost herself completely, she heard her mate calling her name, felt his breath as he whiffled his nostrils over the sensitive skin of her face, then she was gone again.
The phantom of Soreth had appeared to her so many times over the years that she no longer paid any attention to it. Often it turned into the human, screaming obscenities into her face, bringing pain and suffering. She had begun to associate Soreth’s voice with the torture that was sure to follow, so now she retreated immediately into the wreckage of her own mind.
From her detached position, looking down on the scene from above, she saw the same twisted, ruined old dragon, lying on the grass, with the two young dragons watching from the side, exhaustion in every line of their bodies, wings drooping and heads hanging. Foolish creatures to half kill themselves for the sake of the ruined creature below. Then she saw Soreth: he was crouching alongside the old dragon, breathing on her face, trying to revive her. She couldn’t understand why he would waste his energy on the pathetic wreckage.
Suddenly, she saw the humans. Even through the detachment of her madness she felt the hatred seep in again, the only real emotion she ever felt these days, other than despair. One of them was sitting on the ground next to Soreth, stroking the cripple’s face, while another was trying to clear the ropes binding the jaws. She wondered what more they could think of to torture the creature; surely their repertoire was exhausted by now. She watched to see what would happen.
A human male was approaching the downed dragon, carrying something. She strained to see, but dragon vision is only acute when the dragon is inside its own body, and this had the mistiness of a dream. It looked a lot like an egg. She was trying so hard to see that she found herself suddenly back in her body again. She breathed in and there was the scent of her own egg, right there in front of her. She whiffled her nostrils and soaked up the joy of it, but it was immediately overlaid by the stench of human… … the pain and despair washed back over her again and she retreated as fast as she could to her other self, the self that didn’t feel or regret.
From far above, she watched the humans crawling over the body, moving the head, cleaning the sores and slathering them with a white cream from a tub. The body didn’t move, so perhaps it was already dead, but then they took hold of the leading edge of one of the wings, and stretched it out on the grass.
She turned away: even in her detachment, she didn’t want to see the ruined mess that would be left of the delicate membranes, but after a while she found her gaze drifting back down to the scene below, where the wings were being bundled back against the body and the net tightened again. She wasn’t surprised: she had known the torment would begin again soon. She drifted away rather than watch it happening.
She was back in her body again, but she didn’t know how it happened, because she really didn’t want to be there right now. She could feel the constricting net tight around her wings, but her head was hanging down, not bound to her side. She opened her eyes, but the left one was stuck closed and she could only see through the right. There were tree tops immediately below her and there was a beating of powerful wings above as she was lowered down to the ground, branches brushing her sides, before she settled gently down onto grass again.
She waited to see what would happen next, ready to flee back to the safety of madness at the first threat, but she felt Soreth in her mind, sending reassuring thoughts to her, soothing and comforting. She closed her one good eye and sighed.
As she breathed in, she scented the egg again, and this time, despite the stench of human, she drew in the beautiful smell. She could hear her daughter too, sleepily complaining about being rattled around, and she heard another mind – no, two other minds, both human. One of them was vaguely familiar – Soreth’s Guardian – but the other was new to her, and feminine.
She felt the female listening to her thoughts, so she tried to hide her fears and the memory of pain, but the human wasn’t taking no for an answer and she felt all her secrets uncovered. Then there was a pause and she breathed again, but only for a moment. The girl was back in Eloria’s mind, but this time she was no passive observer, this time she was taking control and the dragon was receiving images and impressions she couldn’t manage to shut out.
She found her fears and nightmares, all the pain and despair, being walled off inexorably, until all that was left was Eloria and the human girl, nothing else. She couldn’t even feel Soreth or her egg, but she was locked into a tiny part of her own mind with these alien thoughts invading her. The female was forcing her to see images of Soreth and her egg, then another human, a male, holding the egg, a feeling of love and protection coming from him, and the sight of Soreth nudging her and breathing on her.
Eloria tried to blot out these pictures, but the girl came back stronger than ever, with an image of Eloria lying out on a grassy plateau with her wings spread out to either side of her, covered in sores where the chains had rubbed and cut in, but they were in-tact: no holes, and certainly not the ruined, shredded tatters she had been believing was all that was left of her beautiful wings. That caught her attention.
The next series of images was from the girl’s own mind. She showed Eloria flying free, her cream and gold skin gleaming in the setting sun as she swooped and dived through the skies. Despite herself, Eloria found herself beginning to hope. Perhaps all was not lost?
The human – Áine, she realised – showed her how the two young dragons had rescued her egg from captivity and then freed Eloria herself, carrying her to safety, labouring through the night to bring her to Soreth and their daughter, then moving her again to safety when pursuit closed in. Eloria found herself listening, wanting to hear more. She began to crave freedom again, the opportunity to try her wings, to meet her daughter, to love her mate.
But Áine wasn’t finished with her yet. She showed her how over the long years her mate had grown to love Tomás, his Guardian. How the generations of Guardians and dragons had bonded to help one another, how the hunters had always sought to end the dragon species, and finally how Áine and her brother, had worked together with Tomás to bring about Eloria and her daughter’s freedom, at the same time freeing Soreth from his life of slavery.
Eloria was overcome with emotion, a rare experience for a dragon. She tried to open her eyes to see this unusual human. Only one eye opened, the other ruined, but she looked around her in wonder at these people and dragons. The sun was shining in rays of gold, down through the trees into the little clearing and there was her powerful Soreth, face creased with worry. At last she could hear him – and her daughter.
She sighed, finally at peace.