A Dragon in Sheep's Clothing
Michael `Stalbon' Peleh
Nestled into a secluded and pristine valley amidst the Fornarian mountains lay the human village of Kardel. For many generations, a kindly, yet hermitic copper dragon had lived in the mountains surrounding the valley as well, providing security and wisdom beyond human years for the villagers. Though in no way beholden to the humans, and though he did not hold them in his debt either, the dragon and humans supported each other mutually, at least until he became too old to properly aid them.
A generation passed without sight or sound from the dragon, and the villagers, many of whom were now beyond remembering the last time the dragon had helped them, believed him to have moved on or died. Then there came a great crashing and roaring in the middle of the night that went on for nearly half an hour, waking all in the village as they peered out of their homes in fright, wondering if this was the dragon's wrath finally come upon them.
Yet after the sounds stopped, nothing more came of it that night, and the villagers went back to sleep, sending out a brave townsman the next day to parlay with the dragon and see what had happened. The young man never returned, however, and the elders only shook their heads and proclaimed it a dark omen, a warning the dragon was giving them.
The townspeople readied themselves, gathering up weapons long coated in dust and misuse, in case the dragon decided to attack, but it never came. Three more years passed and nothing further was heard from up in the mountains. People left and came without incident, and once more people began to live in peace, having figured that one incident to have been a strange fluke, a forgivable tragedy after so many long years of mutual aid.
Claire Gerharch had been a young girl of thirteen on that night of fear and worry, but like the others, she had moved on to think of boys and marriage. Now sixteen, she was at that tender age where girlhood became womanhood, her body exhibiting all the natural grace and certain attributes of the older ladies, yet her mind and attitude was still stuck in a more na´ve, sheltered world.
“Papa,” she mused one crisp autumn day while helping to weed their small garden, “why do you think the dragon no longer helps us? If he is so old or dead…why did he not give up his riches to the town?”
Her father lifted his head and wiped his brow, staring strangely at his daughter. “Why do you ask such silly things, Claire? No one can understand the mind of a dragon, even one that has helped us in times past. When I was a boy, yes, it helped us and we made sure there were sheep or goats for it to take, if it wanted, but like any dragon, it no doubt thinks of itself before us. I am sure it is as greedy as any of Tiamat's horrid brood, and would rather spite us than let its hoard be taken.”
“Hmph!” She brushed her long red hair from her eyes and stood, puffing her burgeoning chest out and planting her fists at her hips. “It's no wonder it unleashed its anger that night, then, with such thoughts going about the town. I'm sure if we just asked it, we might get a straight answer from it, and surely be privy to part of its riches.”
Her father stood and pointed a thick finger at her, their work having been forgotten. “Now I'll not be hearing any of that! A dragon's a dragon, no matter what color its scales are. I wouldn't send you up there, not with a dozen men, to ask it anything now. Dead or no, it's not anything to us anymore, and we're none the worse for it.” He gave her a stern glare and threw a thumb back in the direction of their small house. “Now get back inside and help your mother.”
Claire obeyed, of course, though her blue eyes burned with both curiosity and resentment. It was not until well into the night, after she had promised her parents not to stray further into such dangerous thoughts, that she snuck out of the house and past the village's boundaries, intent on discovering just what had happened to the dragon she had never before seen.
It was a long walk up the rocky paths leading out of their secluded valley, but the way up was worn smooth by travelers, and even as the brash young girl reached the fork that headed off to the dragon's cave, this path far less worn and familiar, she could only hope that the moonlight would keep shining and show her the way, for now she felt very foolish indeed, headed to a dragon's cave all alone. Still, she would not give up, hoping to take at least something back to her father, to prove herself right in his eyes.
In the distance she could see the looming blackness of the dragon's lair, and it took her several more minutes of climbing and groping about for steady handholds up the steep path until she felt the ground level out, the young woman dwarfed by the entrance to the cave. Already she could smell the dragon's odor, a thick, nearly acrid scent of reptile mixed in with heat. She had never before seen a dragon in the flesh, only read of them in books or heard others tell of the creatures, and so she felt almost awed to be so near to a creature of myth and legend.
Now she could hear something as well, a deep, almost tremor-like sound above the wind, coming from the cave. Surely it must the very breath from the creature, and as she stepped forward towards the looming cavern, she imagined she could feel it blowing against her long garments.
Then, there really was a rush of air, hot and fetid, causing her to place her hand over her mouth as she coughed. With the breeze came a deep and unsettling voice, the words spoken in what could only be described as a growl: “Why do you visit me, child? Surely an old wyrm such as myself cannot be of interest to you.”
Claire suddenly found all of her wonder and courage gone, replaced by an indescribable fear of the unknown that this being represented. How was she to speak to it? How could she know what it was thinking? Though its words were not spoken unkindly, she felt a lurking power behind them that scared her.
“S-sir…great one, I am simply a curious and…and young…I merely wanted to see if you were st-still here.” No! That was stupid of her. How could she have acted so callously to one such as him?
The dragon chuckled deeply, the growling laugh making her relax a bit more. It did not carry a note of malice, but rather of elderly amusement. Now she felt more embarrassed than stupid, and smiled gently, trying to see the great being inside. “Do not worry, young one. I am still here, though as you and your village must know, I am too old to do much for you, anymore. I simply stay here, away from those I might disgust with my age and discrepancy.”
She bit her lip, wondering how old this dragon must be, but worry crept into her voice at how it must feel, to be so forgotten. “Surely you are not so old and horrid, great wyrm. Yet we are afraid of what happened three years ago, when you began to roar and shake the mountain.”
There came another snort of warm and almost smoky air from the cave and Claire thought she spied movement within, the young woman squinting and peering closer. “Yes, I must apologize for that. That was a terrible mistake of mine, for in my anger at…something…I killed that poor man you sent up. You have my deepest apologies, and I am grateful I can give them to you. I have been too ashamed to come and ask the village's forgiveness for my rash actions.”
Claire bowed her head in silence, for now she understood the dragon's position. Too ashamed to admit its wrong, yet too spurned and aged to be given a chance to do so. She took a step forward and set her hands before her in a respectful, almost pleading manner. “You have no reason to be so apologetic. I'm certain that if you tell this to the villagers, they will forgive you, or perhaps a show of grace and charity will lighten their hearts and minds…”
Now there was definite movement from within, and Claire heard the slither of scales against rock, the moonlight from above catching the glint of metallic scales, making them shine bright as the copper coins her father brought home. She smiled kindly and looked with bright, eager eyes to see the dragon, but when its head emerged from the cavern's darkness, her eyes widened in shock and her lips quivered in terror.
“Yes. I believe a show of charity has been due for some time, and it is nice of you to be so giving.” The wyrm's voice was no longer kind and gentle, but gruff and dripping with sarcasm, much as the copper scales that covered its long-jawed, horn-crested head fell to reveal the deep red ones beneath.
Before Claire could even fill her lungs to scream, those huge jaws gaped to reveal vicious, dripping fangs and a long, dark gullet. The dragon's head rushed forward, blotting out the moonlight, and she had but one fleeting image of her death before the jaws snapped down on her.
She gasped her last breath out onto the tongue's thick surface as fangs longer than her arm crushed down upon her, easily shredding past the woolen clothing she wore and piercing into flesh and bone alike. Her legs gave a spastic kick as they hung from the jaws, one long fang imbedded through her spine, having sent splinters of bone throughout her organs.
Her body twitched and her fingers clenched into fists before the jaws parted once more, blood running down the fangs and dripping from the dragon's lips. This time the huge creature tossed its head back, snatching the girl from the view of the outside world and depositing her on his tongue. The muscle undulated beneath her twitching, shattered body, and then, with a tip of his head, he sent her back to his gullet, the long, muscular tunnel sliding open to take in the morsel and bump and bounce her along carelessly until she reached his stomach, where her blank, staring eyes could not see the gruesome end that awaited her.
Davarian made sure to gather up the stray copper scales that had fallen to the ground, placing them within the `palm' of his claw before he disappeared into his lair once more, feeling the foolish young maiden in his stomach, no doubt already being consumed by the fire and acid within his gut.
The young red dragon deposited the scales in the large pile near his hoard before settling atop the mound of treasure to allow himself a moment or two of triumph before more work would need to be done. Ever since he had killed the old copper dragon that had lived here three years ago, the maiden had been only the fifth human he had eaten here, and she had most certainly been the most pleasant meal.
Though still young, Davarian was a crafty male who knew that to alert the village below to his presence might mean death or needing to leave this bountiful valley. So he had kept the old copper's scales and used them as he needed for a `disguise', though it disgusted him to wear such an inferior creature's scales. He took only what prey he could find without being seen, and watched humans leave and enter the valley from his secured lair.
With a sigh and a lick to clean the blood from his chops, he raised a claw and summoned forth one of the golem-like simulacrums he had created in these past three years. With an image of the young maiden in his mind, he crafted an intricate symbol in the air and spoke a growling incantation, watching as the construct's fleshy `skin' remade itself into a perfect copy of the human.
Just as he had with the other three travelers he had devoured, he gave the simulacrum a tiny portion of his gold and instructed it to leave the valley, to keep itself seen and spend a portion before returning, making certain that other humans would be able to say the girl had been alive and well, if…unreachable.
It pained him to give away any portion of his well-earned hoard, but it was necessary to keep his secrecy in the mountains, until the time came when he chose to reveal himself. As he watched the copy march off to do as it was commanded, he sighed and reflected on just how gullible humans were. Surely they would believe anything they put into their tiny little brains, be it that they were safe and sound, or that, indeed, what they saw was ever what it really was.