This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
* * *
"Mind if I sit here?"
The inn was getting crowded this evening, and a spare chair opposite the elf-woman Tania was one of the few available. She nodded wordless, and the stranger took his seat with thanks. He was a small man, slim-built and a little gaunt around the face, with an oddly ambiguous look about him; he bore some of the marks of a wizard, but somewhere in his eyes Tania fancied she saw a strange, almost animal strength held in tight rein.
Unfazed, the elf sipped her drink and took another bite of the stolid lump that somehow passed as bread here. She wondered whether it was worth conversing with the stranger; he probably had little of interest to tell, but on the other hand, it might take her mind off the food.
"Are you traveling far?" she finally asked, after a long pause.
The human looked up from his ale, a little startled. Evidently he'd taken her silence for granted; he hadn't attempted to join the rowdy conversations of other men sitting at the table, either. Men who'd been ostentatiously ignoring her point-eared presence, for which she was quite frankly thankful.
Answering the question, his face twisted a little into a bitter snarl. "You could say that."
Tania waited, silent. It wasn't her way to speak needlessly, as humans tended to. If this one had something else to say, he would do so without her prompting.
"It's a long story," he conceded.
She took another sip of her wine, indicating with an open hand that he should continue.
Shrugging acknowledgment, the stranger began his tale. "Once," he said, "I was dragon."
At that, Tania blinked. She swallowed her mouthful of drink - a human, she thought, would have spluttered wine all over the table, and the comparison helped her stay in control. "You were what?"
"Look," the man said, exasperated. "I didn't say you had to believe it. Do you want to hear the story or don't you?"
The elf ducked her head apologetically. "I'll listen."
With that, the stranger - in the most literal use of that term, it seemed - began again.
* * *
Once, I was dragon. Where I lived, and for miles around my lair, I was the master of the skies. My wingbeats pulsed with the strength I was born to. I lived to fly, pure and simple; to soar above the clouds, to swoop down on prey, to push the limits of what was possible with clever landings and aerobatics. I was healthy and young, with hundreds of years ahead of me and plenty of time now for play.
Perhaps I would think of taking a mate, in some years, but nothing else lay on the horizon beyond purely glorying in the power and beauty of my body. A dragon's body is wondrous indeed, not something to be simply taken for granted even when it is yours - so you think - for ever. The glimmer of morning light from scales - mine were red - is enough itself to occupy a master-painter for a lifetime. Curling up for sleep, wrapped in your own warmth with wings folded above, feels so comfortable and reassuring that it's a temptation to stay like that for years. And that experience is nothing compared to the glory of flight. I doubt there's a dragon in the world who isn't in love with their own body.
In any case, I lived in a cave near the top of a steep, treacherous mountain. The location was chosen to avoid visitors; even in such a place, still they came. Lazy people, mostly human, those who dreamed of treasure but wouldn't consider working for it. Of course, a dragon like me could have no possible use for gold and jewels - the idea of sleeping on lumpy valuables rather than a flat, smooth stone floor was quite ridiculous - and being in my carefree youth, I barely had knowledge of magic, let alone a selection of enchanted baubles. There was nothing at all for these people.
Most would come, look, and go away disappointed for the difficult trek back down. A few had so convinced themselves that my possessions would solve their problems, that they would not believe I had nothing. They pestered me and even, sometimes, attacked me, and it was necessary for me to kill or at least wound them. But this did not seem to cause too much hostility between me and the nearby human settlements; I suspect these most desperate souls were the ones who had already failed and disgraced themselves in their own society.
It was such a one that met me as I returned from a hunting trip one summer evening. The angular outcroppings, spires and tors of the mountain cast long, deep shadows that divided the heights into a contrasting patchwork of darkness and light. Distracted by the view, I only noticed the human at the last minute as I swooped into the wide open front of my cave. He was rummaging around at the back, presumably searching for some kind of secret passage; though how he thought any entrance large enough for my bulk could be cleverly concealed, I know not.
As I swooped to a halt in the cave, flaring my wings to catch the air and halt my flight, my keen eyes caught the glitter of fear in the man's eyes. My nostrils scented the foul taste of it, too; why humans have to spray their emotions so abundantly on anybody unfortunate enough to occupy the same area, when their own species can barely sense it, I will never understand. Still, of course, this was all routine, the standard reaction of a lesser creature caught invading my home.
But then, something different happened. I folded my wings to the correct angle, reared up to what I thought was a menacing position, and began stalking towards him - intending to give him a very brief lesson in etiquette, the privacy of one's home, and personal property, before allowing his escape - and the expression in his eyes changed. Greed outweighed the fear, and a feeble sort of cunning overlaid both, and he shouted in that weak human tongue we are speaking now, "Halt! I am a powerful magic-user! If you tell me where your treasure is hidden, I will let you live!"
It was said without a tremor in the voice, and it is true that human wizards do exist who could contend with a young dragon. But it was patently obvious that this man was not one such. Rarely do even humans reach that degree of skill without at least a little knowledge and wisdom, and nobody possessing those aspects would be attempting to steal non-existent treasure from a dragon's lair.
Raising an eyeridge, I laughed. "Human, you are no more a powerful magic-user than I am a poor thief. There is nothing here for you. Now, be gone."
I was still chuckling a little, and the sound of a dragon's laughter is normally enough to unnerve even the strongest-willed human. The expression on his face, though, was not fear but rage. Wincing, I discovered that human anger was also transmitted as a smell, and for a moment I wondered if he would be stupid enough to attack me. He wasn't, though his expression and hatred didn't fade as he - slowly and deliberately - left the cave and began to climb down the mountain.
The encounter had alarmed me slightly, in the strangeness and ferocity of this one man, but I put it from my mind. Humans, after all, were the most unpredictable of the lesser creatures, and among the most annoying. Truth be told, I had paid little attention to their kind beyond that absolutely necessary, so I simply assumed that some of them normally acted in the way I'd seen, and thought no more of the matter.
* * *
It was some months later, with autumn firmly set in and edging towards winter, that I saw the thief once more. There had been a light, early snowfall that day, coating the higher peaks in a thin sprinkling of white that would probably melt away again; the first real snow would not be for at least a few weeks. Even so, the cold had driven most of the larger animals to shelter, and I had found little to fill my belly.
Hungry and frustrated, I swooped into my home once more, in my foul mood failing to notice any telltale tracks on the mountain outside. Once inside, I hurried towards the back of the cave, intending to curl up and sleep immediately. Finally, though, the smell of human became evident to me, and I abruptly turned.
He stepped out of a crevice in the side of the cave, near the entrance. Framed against the light from the enormous entrance, wide enough to accommodate me at full wingspan, he looked ludicrously tiny. Nevertheless, I recognized the little creature as the same one that had behaved so oddly on its summer thieving expedition, although it seemed to have acquired a large and impressively-decorated walking stick which it held in its right hand. I considered simply throwing the thing out of my home staff and all, allowing gravity to deal harshly with the irritant, but even in my bad humor that seemed a little excessive.
Instead, I said, "I told you already, human, there's no treasure here. Could you just leave so I can get some sleep?" I opened my mouth in an ostentatious yawn, displaying an extremely impressive set of teeth - a helpful reminder of human frailties.
"This time, dragon," the human said, putting more disdain into the word than I'd ever used in describing his species, "I'm ready for you. This staff is powerful enough to destroy you, and more. Tell me where the treasure is, or I will use it."
He said that last part in an offhand tone, as if he didn't really care about the supposed treasure, but I was too annoyed to notice. It was time to act and demonstrate my superiority - I didn't believe for one moment that his gaudy stick was genuine, but there was always that chance, and I could cope with both possibilities in one.
Pouncing forward suddenly - dragons can move far faster than most humans expect, despite their size - I swiped across the human, claws fixing onto his staff and ripping it from his hand. Next I planned to throw the worthless item down the mountain.
But at that moment, I felt a tiny, almost undetectable tap on one claw. Surprised, I looked down at the human, to see an expression on his face not of shock, fear, or even anger. He looked smug.
In his left hand, he held a small, nondescript wand of some dark material, one end glowing deeply blue-green with some magic. It was this that had touched my claw, and I felt a shock of fear, all at once. Evidently the human really had, somehow, obtained a magical item, and it was a fair bet that the item would be planned to defeat me in some way. He had planned the feint with the fake 'magical staff' and I had fallen for his trickery, planned simply in order that I got close enough to touch. But why? Surely, even a human like this was not stupid enough to still believe in the fabled treasure, after his thorough search last time.
Then I realized, with a lurch of my powerful heart, that the human wanted revenge. For nothing more than his injured pride, after I'd called his bluff last time... Now I saw the creature's despicable nature, recognizing it for the half-crazy form of evil that it was, and for the first time I was truly, deeply afraid.
"What have you done to me?" I cried, looming over the insignificant being. Nothing seemed to have happened as yet, though the wand's glow remained bright. Receiving no answer, I looked down at the creature, but noticed first that my own claw was glowing with the same blue-green. My alarm grew, and I considered simply crushing the human where he stood. That was when I noticed that his own right hand glowed, too. And the enchanted light - on both of our bodies - was spreading.
I tried, then, to crush the thing. But my muscles were slow to respond, didn't work the way I knew they should. I could do nothing as the glow covered more of my scales, its color mixing unhealthily with the red. Eventually, I could no longer hold my position and I slumped to the ground in a rather undignified manner.
Unfortunately, I hadn't landed on the human, but he seemed to be having the same problems as the glow covered his own body. He fell to the floor also, though with a less impressive thud, and for a moment I was reassured. I thought perhaps the magic had gone wrong, and we would both be incapacitated until it wore off. The blue-green continued to spread across our bodies, and the last thing I saw, as my head was finally shaded in that same colour, was the magical wand exploding into a hundred pieces of shattered obsidian. Then I lost consciousness.
* * *
It must have been only a few minutes later that I woke up. Something seemed strange, because I was in a different position, and my vision was blurry and limited. I didn't seem to be able to see into the darker corners of the cavern, which looked much bigger than it had before, and there was - I gasped - there was an enormous, beautiful red dragon (male, though) in the cavern! He looked familiar somehow, but I couldn't quite place it.
I tried to get up to meet my compatriot, and also to look around for the troublesome human, but something went wrong and I fell over again. My limbs appeared to be in the wrong place. Alarmed, I looked down at myself. I was human.
I almost fainted into unconsciousness again. This could not be happening. Not only was I human, which was quite bad enough, I appeared to have the body of the despicable thief who had persecuted me so... and with that thought, I realized what had happened. The other dragon wasn't another dragon, it was me. And with that... that waste of existence-stuff inside.
Angered beyond reason, I got up (without incident, this time; when you weren't thinking about it, this body appeared to do perfectly well by itself) and charged towards my own body. As I did so, it awoke too, opened enormous eyelids, saw me, and smiled a terrible smile.
At sight of the enormous teeth, each as big as one of my puny new arms, an involuntary wave of fear swept through me. It was a new experience - dragons don't get scared simply by seeing things. Only when considering worrying possibilities, and at that moment I was hardly in the mood to consider possibilities.
Choking back the emotion, I screamed up at the dragon, in what was supposed to be a roaring voice but ended up more like a typical human squeak, "Give me my body back! Now!"
He laughed, the sound booming across the cavern and echoing from the walls. "The wand only works once, as you saw. Now, you'd better get out of here before I kill you."
The fear was turning out to be surprisingly effective at neutralizing my anger. I knew that, once more, the threat wasn't a bluff. Biting back my instincts to attack, I headed blindly for the cavern exit. It was still light outside; I would climb down the worst of the mountain before it got dark, and after that figure out a way to get my body back.
"By the way, you might find the law after you," my enemy said as I ran from the cave, feeling truly for the first time the icy wind, which sliced through the layers of cloth I wore and chilled my soft flesh. "After all, you're a poor thief now." Having thrown my own words back at me, he laughed and continued to laugh, the sound grating on my mind until I was some distance from the cavern entrance and the wind had whipped away all other noise.
* * *
"And that's about it," the stranger said, leaning back in his chair. "Using the ropes the human had placed to help himself up the mountain, I made my way down. By some luck, I managed to avoid a patrol that was following the thief; from their conversation I could tell that he was wanted for stealing the magical wand, among other things. I left the area where he'd been known and I'd be recognized, and eventually worked my passage eastwards across the sea. It's been a few years now, and I'm better able to handle living as a human."
Tania settled herself down, too; she'd been hunched forward, entranced by the stranger's tale. "True or not, that story's worth an ale," she admitted, waving to attract a barmaid's attention.
"Thanks," the stranger said, having got his drink. He took a long swallow, and didn't say anything else, in a manner Tania had not previously associated with humans. As she'd thought earlier, they were always saying things when there was nothing to be said...
"You didn't answer my question," she remembered. "Are you traveling far?"
"Near the end of my journey now. I'm heading for the capital, for the magecraft academy. Somebody there must know a way I can reclaim my own body."
"Then you still haven't given up," Tania said neutrally. She meant it ambiguously, a mixture between 'given up this pretense', 'given up this delusion', and possibly even 'given up your true dragon body'.
A glimmer of amusement in the stranger's eyes indicated that he hadn't missed her intent - that was uncommonly perceptive for a human. His expression, though, was firm, and suggested stiff consequences for his enemy when next they met. "Never."
"By the way, it's a little late to ask, but what's your name?"
"Dragons never reveal their true names," he said, with a little sigh. "And it's just about all I have left... Here, I go by the name Daro."
She nodded, pushing back her chair to stand up. "Tania. And I'd better be going to my room now, I need to make an early start tomorrow. Thanks for the story, and... be well."
He inclined his head in acknowledgment, and she made her way through the closely-packed tables to a flight of stairs that led to the inn's accommodation. Glancing back for the last time, she saw Daro lifting a tankard to his mouth. He held it with a hand wrapped partly round, in a hesitant, gentle touch as if he was afraid of crushing it.
Tania climbed the steps that would lead to her bed, and wondered.
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