This story available on Mar 27, 2021
Madison M. Martin
The tales of old claim that the beasts held fire in their bellies. They wielded these flames to defend their treasure from invaders too lazy to go after their own treasure.
From an early age, Shadow knew that she was different and that her nestmates always looked at her in a strange way. Their mother, covered in deep orange and red scales, looked at Shadow’s oddly dark scales which swallowed all nearby light. Although she attempted to not signal her fears to her daughter, Shadow knew that she was different.
The other hatchlings spurted embers when they coughed, and smoke plumed from their nostrils when another tried to jump higher than the others to snatch extra food. Shadow’s nestmates had the fire. She did not.
As a young dragon, Shadow knew that if she wanted to survive outside of the nest, she would need something other than fire to keep her safe. She tried many different approaches. Her first idea was to live near a river and keep a large basin in her cave. If anyone came, she would take up the water in her mouth and force it out at the invaders in a large spray. This was the only way that she could think of to mimic the other dragons, as their fire traveled up from their bellies and out through their mouths, aimed at anyone reckless enough to confront a dragon.
One night, a band of thieves climbed the side of the mountain in which Shadow’s cave was nestled. She didn’t hear them coming over the rushing of the river below her until it was too late. Her water put out their torches, but once they realized she had no fire, they returned during the day with more men. She barely escaped after the fight.
As the years continued to pass, Shadow progressed in her attempts to mimic the other dragons and their lifestyles. She thought she could win acceptance if she had a comparable amount of treasure to her siblings, but each time another band of humans would find her and she wasn’t able to defend her hoard, she had to start over. With each human-led conquest, the word of the fireless dragon spread.
Shadow was running out of places to start over. She needed to find a strategy that worked. Before she settled again, she started to observe the humans from a distance. Shadow noticed that they had changed a significant amount since when she first interacted with them in her river cave. They now had ways to move about faster. Instead of walking, they rode in boxes that seemed to propel themselves.
She started to wonder how the humans had arrived at the idea to change, how they had made something that made life easier for them. That’s what she needed to do. She needed to devise a way to defend herself, her home, and her new treasure.
As she continued to watch, she noticed many of the youth gathering in one particular area of the town. She deduced that if these humans were learning things, they would have to train their young, just as the dragons had with hatchlings and fire.
Shadow went to this area late at night, surprised to find many humans still awake and alert. She crept as close as she dared, and the building was lit by something other than flames. She had seen pinpoints of what she assumed to be flames during the more recent attacks on her homes, but she devoted her time to escaping instead of investigation. Shadow waited patiently in the tree line as she watched the students leave these glowing structures, clutching small piles of paper wrapped in cloth..
After repeatedly watching these humans she learned to call students, Shadow decided that she wanted to see these piles of paper herself. She still didn’t understand the sleeping habits of these humans, but she waited until the sun started to rise. In her years as a fireless dragon, she had learned a few tricks. She twisted away from the building and then swung the weight of her body so that her tail raked across the various columns of windows that she peered through over the past week.
Loud noises started to sound as she reached in and grabbed open boxes filled with the books. Once she could grab no more, she stretched her dark wings and flew away from the commotion. She refused to stop until the sun was fully up, as she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself. Shadow landed in a valley, near a river, placing the boxes far away from the water source.
She picked a book up by its spine and laid it out on the ground. She took one claw and flipped the cover open, brought one eye down to the book and squinted. All she saw were lines.
Shadow blinked and then reared her head toward the source of the sound. A small human stood before her. Shadow opened her mouth to roar, and the little girl took several steps back, calling Shadow’s attention to the little girl’s dark skin and hair that matched her own scales. The recognition made Shadow pause for a moment, and the little girl took this opportunity to sit down, disregarding both of their still-open mouths.
Shadow picked up a paw and stomped it back down onto the ground, causing the ground to shake and bouncing the little girl around. She giggled, and Shadow elected not to roar.
The little girl looked up at Shadow. “I can’t believe this! You’re a real dragon. Can you shoot fire?”
Shadow slumped at the mention of fire and lay her head down to rest near the harmless little girl..
“It’s okay. You don’t need fire to be cool. You’re already a dragon,” she cooed as she stood up and stroked Shadow’s snout.
The little girl repeated “Faith” over and over again, so that is what Shadow decided to call her. Faith.
After a while, Faith stood up and walked around Shadow to see the stacks of books. “What are you reading?”
Shadow picked up her head again and turned to look at Faith with her head tilted.
“Can you read?”
“Can you speak English? Or Dragonese?”
Shadow blinked again.
“Okay I’m going to teach you how to speak it, and then we can work on reading!” Faith started to walk around the valley, pointed to random objects and started to name them. “Tree. Rock. Flower. This one is a dandelion.” This continued, and Shadow didn’t recognize any of the words until Faith said, “River.”
“You know what a river is! So, you do know some English.” Faith smiled.
The two spent the rest of the day working on finding words that Shadow recognized. Each time she heard a familiar word, she would tap her claw and Faith would write it down in the back of one of the books that she had. She held it up to Shadow’s eye so that she could see.
They spent months working on Shadow’s English until she could confidently read aloud in a voice fit for a dragon. She started to read extra books and talk about their contents with Faith, wanting to learn as much as she could. The valley was the perfect place to hide because the older humans didn’t dare venture down the steep cliffs, so Faith was the only person she saw for a long time, save for the few times she stretched her wings at night, flying over villages.
During this educational period, Shadow had stopped stealing gold. She realized the gold wasn’t making her happy, so she decided to steal more books instead. Once she had read the books, the knowledge would be kept in her head, making it far more difficult to steal than gold and other physical treasures.
Despite this newfound assurance that she wouldn’t have her treasure stolen, Shadow still wanted to move out of the valley. Faith shared the rumors that were starting about some large creature living in the valley that was scaring away all of the wildlife. She had to leave before people started to come investigate.
She didn’t want to move too far away, for she had grown rather fond of Faith, and owed her a great debt. She couldn’t leave without repaying it, so she talked to Faith about what form of payment she would like. Shadow offered books, gold, introducing her to other dragons, the ones with fire. After careful deliberation, Faith said “I want to be able to visit you. Please don’t move too far away.”
Shadow immediately agreed to these terms because she didn’t want to live too far from Faith either, but this meant that she was going to need a new cave. This new cave would have to be better than any of the ones that came before, and she knew just how she would make that happen.
Shadow delicately drug out full pages of blank paper and put them in front of Faith. “Will you help me draw my plans for my new cave?”
Using her new knowledge stolen from the humans, Shadow designed a defense system for her new cave with physical, chemical, and electrical traps. Shadow flew out to local fields and stole some solar panels. She used the solar power for the riddle portion of the defense system, so it wouldn’t need to be wired from the town. Faith helped her to build it so that there would be a special switch that would retract the defense system whenever Shadow wanted to leave or Faith wanted to come in.
On the day that Shadow moved in, Faith had a cave-warming present for Shadow. She scratched her claw against the wrapping paper and pulled out a sign. Shadow read aloud, “No Humans (Except Faith).” She looked up at the girl who had changed her life and said, “Thank you.”
Madison M. Martin (she/her) is a Junior at Emory University, studying both Creative Writing and Business. In her spare time, she loves to read, walk and act.
Interview available on Mar 28, 2021