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Old Grey Beard

It was a Friday night in the middle of winter. Like most dragons this time of year, I was busy keeping warm and feeding myself. My stomach churned and groaned as I chewed the roasted leg of a young wannabe knight who had tried, and failed, to ‘vanquish’ me a few nights earlier. So, I will confess I was feeling dozy when Old Grey Beard turned up, certainly not in the mood for a fight.

My first impulse was simply to try to put the old man off. I reluctantly mustered the energy for a bit of fire, and sent a nice spurt of orange flame down the entrance tunnel. Maybe it threw him off balance for a moment, but it did little else to dissuade him. I could hear him clattering around against the wall a bit, but still advancing towards my dining chamber.

This was a problem. Right at that moment, that spurt of flame was all I had. These things do not happen without effort, and he caught me off guard. Who goes looking for dragons in the middle of winter, anyway? I have heard it is considered a summer sport these days.

Before I had finished considering my options he charged straight in, dressed in grey woollen robes that flapped dramatically as he moved about, staff aloft.

“Excuse me,” I said, hoping to buy some time because it always shocks them a little to learn that we can talk, “just what do you think is happening here?”

“I have come to rid the village of your tyranny,” he replied, hesitating only momentarily before thrusting that staff in my direction and launching a fireball.

It’s a mistake they all make by the way, using fire against a dragon. We are peculiarly well equipped to deal with flame, literally breathing the stuff, but never mind, at least now I knew what I was dealing with. Or at least this is what I thought at the time.

First, this is a man who is not from round here, because the local villagers and I have come to an arrangement involving the odd sheep or cow when I am out of fresh meat, which happens very rarely, and we get along very well thank you.

Second, it’s yet another man who thinks he thinks he’s the Chosen One, destined, by dint of some prophesy, to slice me down.

Now, I’m not the kind of dragon who likes to disappoint, but I am afraid that these days they all think that.

It’s very unfortunate.

There was a fashion in these parts not long ago for prophesy. Any old hack with half a bottle of liquor in them had a go. The bookstores now have shelves groaning with vanity publications detailing the drunken confabulations of some of the least coherent members of the population, often inconveniently shelved next to the self-help section.

Want to feel better about your manhood? Go slay a dragon. Surely you, with your balding patch, pasty skin, and not insubstantial girth, can be the next Chosen One?

Now we have all these ‘inspired’ men, running around the countryside thinking they are the new great hope of this kingdom or that kingdom. All that stands between them and the hand of some unfortunate young princess, or the King’s favour, is the tooth, or the eye, or the claw of the local dragon.

Every weekend through the summer months they arrive, determined to claim their prize. While you may have already concluded that I remain, satisfyingly, unsliced, I have become so exhausted by all these adventures that I have relocated myself, several times, deeper into the mountain. I now occupy a delightful set of caverns, some distance from the surface, that were carved through the rocks over centuries by the gentle but persistent flow of a small underground river. The walls are made of dark grey granite, with seams of white and rose quartz crystal threaded through them. It makes it harder to get to me down here, and easier for me to protect the things that are dearest to me. But in the warmer weather they still come.

You rarely see them in the winter, however, unless they are particularly determined, like Old Grey Beard here. That he had made it so far in the cold should have provoked the idea in me that he may not easily be seen off, but a post-prandial stupor does not induce the best conditions for clear thought.

I had, some time ago, adopted the human habit of reclining on a low bank of crimson silk cushions during my mealtimes, and struggled to get myself upright as he strode about, goading me.

“So where are you from?” I asked, trying to distract him into a conversation while I swiped at him with my tail and finally wrenched my bulk from the floor. On my feet I am an intimidating beast, ten feet tall at the shoulder and nearly twenty from nose to tail. My scales are the kind of glossy dark blue-green that you rarely see these days. Sometimes it is enough to simply stand up to send a contender packing. But that was not the case on this occasion.

“Weston Super Mare,” he replied.

He was a tall thin man, with pale skin, and while his beard was full and iron grey, his scalp was bare. He leapt, with more agility than I had given him credit for, over my tail before coming round with his staff to strike me on the flank.

“Ever been there?”

“Can’t say I have, where is that?”

“Little seaside town in the Southwest of England.”

“Dragons tend to be a bit conspicuous at the seaside, unless they have some kind of theme park where one can blend in as one of the attractions. Any highlights?”

“It’s a little run down these days, but still has a good line in candyfloss, fish and chips on the beach, and seagulls.”

There is a low solid platform, carved from the blue-grey stone of the caverns, in the centre of my dining chamber that I like to use as a table. He jumped up on this and began to arrange his limbs into what I have come to recognise as a Wizarding Pose, then the spells began. Elevatum this and illuminatum that.

These elderly wizarding types do like the Latin.

I have been around since the times when knights wore armour as their standard uniform, not just for ceremonial purposes and cosplay as they do these days. In that time, I have learned quite a bit about magic. Let me let you into a secret.

You do not need Latin.

You need to say the thing you want to happen with the right mental image, and the correct intent. After that it’s all genetics and metaphysics. You have the gift and the skill, or you do not.

Still, it is a comfort to these upper-class guys to keep up with the Latin. How else to impress upon us the quality of their classical education?

At least I know how to handle this kind of challenger, or at least that is what I thought at the time. While I was in the process of thinking these clever thoughts, he sent a few substantial rocks flying, and managed to catch me square across the face. I stumbled back a little, more from shock than injury, and while recovering, could not help but be impressed by the quality of the light orb he had managed to conjure on the ceiling.

A kind of soft blue green.

Very nice.

But my hopes that he would just trot off home in the face of my formidable size and obvious power were diminishing by the minute. I had not managed to land a blow yet, while he had inflicted several. A couple of scales lay on the floor, and as I turned my head, I glimpsed a thin trickle of blue-black blood on my flank. He was waving that big staff about in a way that suggested he might actually know how to wield it. More troubling still, a closer look revealed it to be adorned with a genuine, lunar focusing quartz.

It was time to pull myself together and bring the heat. My first proper counter move involved a beautiful plume of purple flame over his left shoulder as another warning shot. It was a work of art, even if I do say so myself, but the aesthetics seemed to be lost on him. He continued to advance, successfully herding me out of my own dining chamber and into the cave I use as a kitchen.

How embarrassing.

He stood by the door, thinking he had me trapped, getting his staff into position for another decisive blow.

“Must we do this now?” I cried, attempting to make him pause for long enough to take in his surroundings.

“I have come to rid our land of your pestilence.” To his credit he held his voice steady, but he wobbled a little on his heels as his eyes took a tour of my supplies.

“I’m not a pestilence,” I replied, “I am an apex predator, and serve a vital role in the preservation of a number of food chains. I should be respected as such. Do not refer to me as if I am some kind of disease.”

“I shall refer to you as I wish.”

His voice had become quite thin now. Had Old Grey Beard been from these parts, he would have known that numerous towns and villages in the Kingdom send offenders of the most heinous crimes in my direction, all year round. I do my bit of public service, and my larder is kept stocked through the cold months.

Well, a reptile has to eat.

I have found that even the bravest of men become significantly less so when surrounded by human body parts. It just doesn’t set the tone for personal flourishing.

“You Animal,” he said, composure finally deserting him.

“Yes, this is something we can agree on.”

Now it was his turn to regroup. His staff drooped in his hand and I inched forward. If I had been the wrong kind of dragon, this would have been the moment to finish him off, as he was off his guard, powers diminished.

But I am not that kind of dragon. Despite all the trouble humans cause me, I like them. Their soft little bodies packed with all those plans and schemes, stories and contradictory emotions. Maybe I have grown sentimental with age, but these days I prefer learning about them to simple extermination.

To ask questions.

To try to understand.

Even as he stood there with his Lunar Focusing Quartz, I was softening to Old Grey Beard. Those quartzes are difficult to wield, so if Old Grey Beard had one, and he hadn’t blown himself up yet, maybe he was the real deal, after all.

“So, what is in it for you?” I asked him before his well of indecision ran dry.

“For me?” he asked, as if confused by the question. This gave me a moment to look at him properly. His robes were threadbare, his boots had seen better days, and while those crystals are difficult to come by, the staff that held it was cracked and well worn. I sensed that I was on the money, as it were.

“It’s my duty. That is all.”

“But is it really?” I asked then, sensing more to this story, “is there not a girl, or a boy maybe? Or a debt? There have been a few of them recently.”

That straightened his back. He whipped his staff back into an active stance.

“I don’t think that is any of your business, do you?” he replied, pointing it again in my direction.

“Well, if I am the one to be slain, it would be nice to know why, before I pass through the veil into that land of shadows that lies beyond.” I adopted my most soothing voice, went out there with the poetry, but I knew I had already blown it.

He stomped forward and smacked that staff of his down on the floor.

“You shall not pass!” he yelled.

I confess that I groaned audibly here. I hadn’t been planning on trying to pass until that moment. But they’ve all been saying that since that film came out, as if the words themselves are enough to stop half a tonne of irritated dragon flesh. While he seemed convinced by his power in this situation, he failed to use his staff’s magical properties and so, pass I did, out towards the hallway.

This knocked his confidence a little more and he waited until I was several feet clear before attempting another blow. But he chose a different tactic too, showing that he had been paying attention. A shower of delicate ice daggers, each sharp and cold, and effective in embedding themselves in my scales.

That stung, I must confess, and it began to dawn on me that I had made a mistake. I had assumed he was the kind of ‘down at heel’ upper-class idiot that has the right gear, and the right words, but struggles with the practical business of putting them together. But this was not the kind of man I was dealing with at all.

Perhaps now was the time to seriously consider seeing him off quickly. I had an idea. All that was needed was to get him to the right place. It sounds simple, but I have made several moves in these caverns, and had many years to make home improvements. Interior design not exactly being my forte, the results have been more rabbit warren than palace.

Plunging through the hall and down a corridor to the left, I hoped that he would take the bait and follow.

He did not. Instead, he dove to the right and disappeared into the dark in exactly the direction I had hope to distract him from.

The corridors are dark and narrow. It was awkward to turn my bulk quickly around to pursue. By the time I was set in the right direction, he had a head start.

My heart began to race as I followed the echo of his rapid footsteps. Despite noble claims, those who would slay dragons seek one thing.

Treasure.

My claws clicked and scraped against the stone walls as I tried to catch him, and in my haste I became careless. As I navigated a tight corner, a clump of jagged crystals, wrenched from my own ceiling and launched at me by that staff, almost took out an eye.

In my shock I tumbled, and looked up from the floor to see him about to cross the threshold into the chamber that holds the treasure most precious to me.

A strange thing happens to the dragon physiology when you pump it full of adrenaline. We can move very fast. I hurtled forward, knocking him from his feet on the threshold.

We tumbled and rolled and crashed about, coming to a stop at the foot of what many would describe as my piles of treasure.

Much has been written about the piles of gold your proverbial dragon is said to sleep on, and even more of the jealously and the ferocity with which they are said to guard it. Both of these things are true.

However, it is not merely gold that I sleep upon, but golden eggs.

The shell of a dragon egg is particularly delicate. If you hold one up to a strong light you can see the little body forming, the skeletal outline of developing wings. I have spent many hours with this clutch, turning them and talking to them and keeping them warm. In the silence of the cave at night I have laid my cheek against their surfaces, and felt the vibrations of a dozen tiny thumping hearts. The time of their hatching was very close.

The scuffing of the old man’s worn-out boots on the rocky floor of my nesting chamber was enough to make this Dragon’s blood run cold. He was sprawled between me and my eggs. My muscles, streaming with adrenaline and more than a little fear dragged me to my feet, ready to strike him down without hesitation.

But Old Grey Beard did not drag himself to his feet with the same kind of urgency. Instead, he sat in the puddle of that motheaten old grey robe and looked about himself in forlorn surprise. He did not even rise as he turned his head to meet my gaze.

“You are a mother?” he asked me, as if it never occurred to him that dragons would need to reproduce.

“Yes,” I say,

“Not male?”

“No, not male.”

“How long until they hatch?”

“Soon. Any day now.”

At this point he seemed to completely abandon wizardly dignity, choosing to remain seated in his crumpled heap rather than get up and brush himself off. He grasped the end of his staff, rolling it about in his hands and looking into it. His face bore an emotion that I could not read.

I began to inch myself closer to my eggs, desperate to get between them and him, but moving so slowly that I doubt he noticed it at all. You never know with humans, they can be unpredictable and destructive, even when you get off to a good start, and we did not get off to a good start. I didn’t want to spook him into smashing about in my nest. So I continued, watching him while I crept across.

But he just sat like that for some time, staring at his crystal. Then finally he decided to speak.

“My daughter has talent at magic, but there is no one to teach her in our town, what with all the local witches being scared off by the burnings,” he said. “I want to send her to a proper school. Somewhere discrete and of quality. But those schools are expensive, and I had some bad luck on the ponies. I had heard…”

“That there was treasure in these mountains?”

“Yes.”

He looked down at the floor, where his scuffed boots poked out from beneath his robes and sighed. What parent does not want the best for their children? I waited for him to speak again. But I did not soften my posture, rigid and ready for an attack, and worked on building up a bit of heat in my chest, should I need it.

“Where is the father?” he asked, suddenly, pointing his stick about as if he had just come up with a solution to his problem.

“I am not sure. He likes to go to Spain at this time of year, for the warmth,” I lied. I was not about to sell out my mate to this man.

He drew his mouth into a tight grimace.

“Well, this complicates things,” he said, looking again at the eggs, “who would…”

“Look after my eggs, if you took back my head? No one. They would all die, eventually. Probably of starvation, of you did not smash them first. Dragon eggshell gold fetches quite a price from those who know what they are looking at.”

“What kind of monster do you think I am?” He shouted, losing his composure.

You see? Unpredictable.

I darted now in between him and the nest, ready to use the full bulk of my body as a barricade, and to breathe the hottest kind of flame I could muster.

“How could you suggest I was capable of such a thing?” he asked, his voice still tight and loud.

“You broke into my home and fired off that staff of yours all over the place. Your intentions seemed pretty malign to me as soon as you barged into my dining room. If I had any sense I would have finished you there.”

“Well, that was before I had all the relevant information. I sought to kill an old male dragon and recover a hoard, not commit infanticide.”

“Killing an elderly male dragon would have been acceptable, would it?”

“Well…” he did not finish the sentence.

“Do you know how exhausting it is being on other side of all your human adventuring? Do you realise how terrifying it is to be the natural endpoint of every sodding quest in the land? I just want to quietly raise my children here in these caves, not engage in mortal combat every weekend.”

“But we are not the Bad Guys here,” he shouted back at me, “we don’t…”

“What?” I asked him, “murder each other, and every other living thing that happens to be inconvenient.”

“We are not the Bad Guys here,” he repeated to himself, but with rather less energy this time.

“Look,” I said, “it’s not like we emerge from our eggs desperate to be the Bad Guys either. There are more of you, and humans tend to react violently to things you do not understand. The moment we can so much as spit a flame it’s all ‘don’t go down to the village to play games with your human friends anymore. There are some trigger-happy folks down there, and no justice for a dragon accidentally slain’.”

He shut his mouth tightly and looked again around the room. Energy leaked from his posture until his shoulders drooped and he relaxed his staff arm completely. Now I had hope that we could resolve this altercation, and both keep hold of our heads. Maybe even our dignity. There was not much meat on this old man, he would hardly make a meal, and for some reason I cannot name I found that I actually preferred the idea of sending him home to his daughter that finding room for him in my cold storage. It’s probably the hormones, but no young woman should lose her father like this, no matter how stupidly he behaves.

“So, what are we to do?” he asked.

“As far as I understand it,” I said, “all you really want is to send your daughter to school?”

“Yes, that is correct,” he replied.

“And such a thing will cost you a lot of gold?” I asked him, “gold which I will likely be able to give you in a couple of days.”

“Yes. This is the crux of the thing.”

“If I were to offer you some of that gold, would you go away and not come back? Not draw too much attention to the dragon in the mountain on your travels? Let me and my children rest a while?”

“If you were kind enough to give me gold, that is the least I could do in return.”

So, we came to an agreement. He would take home several large bags of eggshell gold, and never darken my tunnels again.

Old Grey Beard waited with me a few days, until the morning that the first little snout broke through the golden shell of an egg. He watched in silent awe as I helped each precious dragon child from their shell into the warm embrace of the nest, and introduced them to their first, prechewed meal. Once those tiny bellies were full and each one settled down to sleep, we filled his sack with gold.

“I have one more condition,” I told him as he prepared himself to leave.

“Do I have a choice?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “You will bring your daughter to meet me. If I judge that she has potential I will fund her entire education.”

“And if I do not?” He asked.

I did not answer him immediately, instead letting a curling plume of blue flame lick the floor.

“I will pay you and your family a visit, right in the middle of your town, and seek her out myself.”

“You do not know where I live.”

“I can fly for days without rest when the mood takes me. You will not be hard to find.”

He closed his mouth tightly.

“I see.”

“She will become a witch if she has the talent you claim. But power is not all about talent, or the right education. If she is to become a great, powerful witch she will be in want of allies in these times. I can help her with that. Later she will help me in return. My current witch is old and frail, I will be in want of a new one soon. Do you understand?”

He paced around the room for a minute or so. Then stopped to examine pieces of gold from his bag, turning them over, light reflecting back off them onto his face. Finally, he returned to me.

“You will not hurt her?”

“If she has the talent you say she has, I will make her powerful. If she does not have the talent, I will send her home unharmed.”

Reluctantly he agreed. Without the adrenaline of the initial altercation to cloud his judgement, it was clear to he had picked a fight he could not win.

He picked up his bag and hoisted it onto his shoulder, signalling that he was ready to leave. We said our goodbyes, and as I made myself comfortable for a snooze among my babies, he set off, back down the mountain.

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