by Kai Strand
Keen and cunning, Kell was the best dragon hoarder around. Her cave was packed full of the bounty she had pilfered from earls and dukes and perhaps a king or three. Her favorite targets were castles because they held the most gleaming gold and shiny silver under their wooden roofs. Kell soared high in the air in wide lazy circles, observing the comings and goings of the castle’s occupants until she learned the best time to attack. Then she would tuck her leathery wings close to her body and dive out of the sky like a shooting star. She’d cough a fireball onto the roof and watch the sun-dried tinder ignite. In the short amount of time it took for her to land on a nearby rampart, the castle’s occupants would be scurrying into the courtyard below to escape the collapsing roof. From that point it was a simple matter of her picking through the flames to find the shiniest and prettiest objects to add to her collection.
One day, Kell tossed aside a heavy wooden beam that used to support the roof over a throne room. The flames devouring the room reflected prettily in the gold of the larger of two thrones. Kell paused to admire the glittering light but knew she did not want another throne. Turning away, she spotted a sculpture hanging on a wall. She froze in awe of the sight before her. A large sun stretched from ceiling to floor. The center was a large polished brass circle that gleamed much like the real sun in the surrounding firelight. But what she could not look away from were the sun’s rays. They extended out from the shiny center in all directions as if bathing the room in their warmth. But they were made from a metal Kell had never seen before. It had the same reddish brown gleam as her scales. The color of fire and earth mixed in one.
Stomping across the room, she grasped the sculpture and lifted it from the wall. It was taller than her and heavy. She stumbled backward under its weight and hefted the sculpture overhead. Her arms already ached, and she wondered if she could fly all the way home carrying it?
Commotion outside the room alerted her it was time to leave. She looked overhead to see if there was enough room for her to fly with her over-sized package. Though most of the ceiling had burned away, a few large beams remained aflame above her head, effectively blocking her if she were to try to leave with the sun. Glancing over her scale-covered shoulder to make sure the castle guard hadn’t made it into the room yet, Kell carefully set the sun down, leaning it against a wall. With a couple flaps of her large wings, she flew high enough to clutch her arms around a fire-damaged beam and yank it out of its brackets. Tossing it aside, she flew to the next beam and did the same. A torrent of shake shingles and planks, all afire, showered down into the room. Kell squinted through the thick smoke to see if her sculpture was damaged. It seemed to wink and blink happily up at her.
Hurrying, Kell landed heavily on the floor next to her beloved prize. Tables and walls shook at the impact of her weight on the floor. A surprised cry from the crowd sounded like they were just outside the door. Again, she hefted the sun overhead and then pumped her wings to lift skyward. The door flung open before she’d cleared the room. Shouts and screams could be heard over the crack and hiss of the fire. Kell flapped as hard as she could to get out of the castle. Just before she lifted up over the wall, pain lanced through her wing. She roared, but managed to continue her escape and soon soared over the surrounding green pastures dotted with fuzzy white sheep.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to fly for long with the tear in her wing. Especially carrying such a large burden. Spotting a stand of trees growing in a small valley, she crashed clumsily to the ground just outside them. Panting from the effort of flying, Kell tromped into the woods. She had to maneuver the sun up and down and sideways to skirt between tree trunks and under low hanging branches. Her arms shook from exhaustion. A large boulder nestled into a hill presented a good place for her to set her treasure while she rested. She curled up on the soft mound of moss in front of the sun and fell asleep.
When she awoke, the light filtering through the trees had dimmed, and the air was touched with the chill of evening. A dull throb reminded Kell that she needed to attend to her wing. She stood stiffly and stretched her aching muscles. Her arms were the most sore. Rubbing a bicep, she admired how the copper beams of her treasure seemed alive with glowing embers even in the dimming light of evening. She held her arm out next to a glinting reddish ray and marveled at the sameness of color. The pain was worth it. She would not consider leaving her treasure behind, no matter how much of a challenge transporting it posed.
Kell set off downhill in search of a stream or pond, rolling the sculpture beside her. She smelled the clean water of a brook before she saw it. Fresh water gurgled and skipped over a stony bed. She leaned her sun against a clump of trees and squatted with her toes in the cold flow to wash her wound. First she scooped a paw full of water and sipped it greedily. Then she gently washed the dried blood from the torn edges of her injury. Her wing would heal; she had many other scars to prove how resilient they were, but she would be grounded until it did. Based on the length of the tear, she estimated she would be stuck in the valley for three days.
She sat on her haunches and peered around the small valley. Only a small clearing of trees ran along the erratic path of the brook, which would allow some sun in but not much. It was important for her to soak up a lot of sunshine to keep her internal fire stoked. She peered up at the thin slice of night sky, and a low worried growl escaped.
An odd squeaky cry caught her attention. It was followed by coughs and sniffs and other strange noises that she’d mistaken as part of the babbling brook. Keeping her serpentine body low to the ground, Kell crept on all fours toward the hiccupping and gasping. She stepped over the brook so as not to make a splashing sound to avoid alerting whatever made the peculiar racket. Slowly and carefully she climbed a small rock pile and peered over the top.
Bright blue eyes as round as coins stared up at her. Tiny rivulets of water leaked out of the eyes and down the face of a girl.
“Don’t eat me, please,” the girl gasped. Her body shivered, from fear or the cold, Kell was not sure.
“Why would I eat you?” Kell eyed the skinny arms, her gaze stopping on the awkward angle of the girl’s left ankle. “You’re hurt.”
The girl blinked and shivered and finally nodded.
“Let me help you.” Kell crawled over the top of the rock pile and down the other side.
The girl squeaked again and scooted backward, wincing when her hurt ankle bumped against a rock.
“For fire’s sake, I’m not going to hurt you,” Kell said and tromped toward the girl, sending showers of river rock skittering down the pile as she progressed.
Lifting the girl in her arms, Kell carried her up and over the rock pile to where the sun sculpture rested against the tree. The girl’s eyes grew even larger when she saw it. Setting the girl down gently, Kell scoured the ground to find two sturdy branches and some green vines.
“This is going to hurt,” Kell warned. As carefully as possible, she set the thick straight branches on either side of the girl’s ankle and then tied them together with the vines. As she tightened the vine, the ankle straightened. The girl gnawed her lip and dug her fingers into the earth but didn’t cry out.
Kell built a fire, lighting the tinder with one of the last puffs from her gullet. She would need to soak up a lot of sun the next day to refill her reserves. She gathered berries from the woods and shared them with the girl. “It isn’t much. I’ll hunt tomorrow.” Curling up next to the girl, she peered at her from one eye. “Goodnight.”
The next morning Kell was devastated to wake to drizzle. She hurried to find plenty of dried fallen branches to keep the fire going. Kell wasn’t sure she had enough fire inside her to start a new blaze if it were to go out. She saw the girl curled up in a small ball, shivering, and realized she had to protect her from the rain. Kell eyed her sculpture, her heart already breaking over what she knew she had to do.
Bending the pretty copper rays at a 90-degree angle, Kell created a shelter. The large brass disk was a perfect ceiling against the rain and the bent rays acted as strong walls that helped to keep the heat in. Because the rays tapered to a point, the walls were not solid but that allowed for the smoke from the fire to escape. Kell left a couple rays untouched, and they acted as a doorway.
After their meal of roasted rabbit and more berries, Kell curled up outside the door, happy to see the girl’s clothing had dried and she no longer shivered.
“Why are you caring for me?” the girl whispered. “Why don’t you leave me and fly away?”
“I’m unable to fly,” Kell explained. “My wing is injured.” She unfurled her wing to show the tear. It was already knitting up nicely and was significantly shorter than it had been the day before.
“Did you hurt the people?” the girl’s voice was barely audible. “At the castle. Did you hurt them?”
Kell frowned. “What castle?”
The girl lifted her gaze to the brass disk above her. “Where you got this.”
The dragon’s heart lurched unexpectedly. She could see the girl was afraid of the answer, but needed to ask. “I never hurt the people. Why didn’t you say something yesterday when you recognized the sculpture?”
Relief mixed with the fear that never left the girl’s expression. “I thought you might make a meal of me and that the answer wouldn’t matter.”
Two days later, Kell’s wing was healed. Cradling the girl in her arms, she flew back to the castle and landed heavily in the courtyard. People screamed and scattered. Guards drew swords and knocked arrows in their bows.
The girl cried out, “Do not hurt the dragon!”
Gasps of horror swelled through the crowd as though they’d only just realized the dragon held the girl.
“I will not hurt you,” Kell said. “I only want to return the girl.”
Cries and gasps filled the air again. “It speaks!”
The large wooden doors of the castle swung open, and the queen stumbled forward followed by the king.
“Adele!” the queen cried. She fell to her knees in front of Kell, and mud seeped into the rich velvet of her gown. “Please, do not hurt my daughter.”
Guards rushed forward to put themselves between the dragon and their king and queen.
“Stand down,” the king called. His gaze lingered on the makeshift splint on his daughter’s ankle. “You have brought her back to us.”
Kell bowed her head and then met the king’s eye. “I am sorry for the destruction I caused. Please forgive me.” She bent forward and laid Adele in the king’s arms.
“Daddy, can I have your medallion, please?” Adele asked.
The king frowned, but nodded.
Adele lifted it from around his neck and turned toward Kell. “Can you hold out your wrist, please?” When she did, Adele slid the chain over her large scaly hand and let it rest on Kell’s wrist like a bracelet.
Kell spun the chain until the medallion showed, and she grinned a horrible, toothy grin. A round medal made of the pretty metal the same color as her scales hung from the chain. “How did you know?”
“I saw how hard it was for you to sacrifice the sun for my shelter. You stared at the rays the most,” Adele said. “I didn’t want you to leave without some copper to take with you.”
“Copper? Is that what it is called?” Kell asked, admiring how the medallion almost disappeared from view when it lay against her arm. She smiled at Adele. “Thank you, princess.”
“Thank you, dragon, for not hurting my family and for helping me,” Adele said. “I hope you will visit again.”
Startled by the offer, Kell looked at the king and queen to gauge their reactions.
“As long as you promise to keep our new roof intact,” the king said.
“Yes, sir. I won’t be pillaging anymore.” Kell stared at her copper medallion.
“You won’t?” the king asked.
“I’ve always been careful not to cause physical harm to the inhabitants when I plundered, but Adele made me realize I’ve been harming them anyway.” Kell tapped her chest over her heart. “Here.”
“The hoard I have will keep me happy forever. Especially now.” Kell lifted her wrist to indicate her newest treasure. “I would love to visit in the spring when the fields are filled with heather and new buds cover the trees.”
“We’d be happy to have you, dragon,” the queen said.
“Kell, please call me Kell.” She unfurled her wings, careful not to hit any of the guards. “Heal well, Adele. I’ll take you for a fly when I visit in the spring.”
Adele’s eyes sparkled with the promise.
The king glowered.
Kell lifted skyward. The storm had finally broken up enough to allow some sun through, and it sparked like embers from a fire off of Kell’s scales as she flew toward the fluffy white clouds.
Adele shielded her eyes against the glints of light. From the safety of her father’s arms, she waved until she could no longer see the beast in the sky.
1. What did Kell take from the castle?
2. Why couldn’t Kell fly for three days?
3. What did Kell find in the valley where she landed to rest?
4. What did Kell do to help the princess while it rained?
5. Why did Kell decide not to pillage anymore?