A fairy tale that came to me when I was supposed to be writing something else…
Once there were two dragons. They lived in a cave quite close to a village. This was lucky for them because they were both getting old and could no longer fly long distances to find food. Every now and then one of them would float down the mountain on the evening breeze and pick up a cow, or a sheep, or a villager for their supper.
All their children had flown away and never came to visit their parents. This made the old dragons sad but there was one thing that kept their hearts warm: there was one more egg in their nest, a beautiful, golden egg that they were sure would hatch into the most special of all their children.
They loved the egg and sang to it, and breathed soft flames on it to keep it warm. Soon enough they could hear the little dragon voice inside, singing back to them.
The old dragons heard this voice and it made them truly happy because they could hear that their child was a tiny girl dragon and they could hardly wait for the egg to hatch so that they could meet her.
But just a day before the egg was due to hatch the weather turned cold. Rain became sleet, and then became snow. The wind came from the frozen north, breathing right into the cave where the two dragons lay curled around their egg. Now, usually, this would not matter. Dragons are hot and tough and a bit of chilly weather would not harm them. But these dragons were old and their inner fire didn’t burn as hot as it had when they were young.
If they’d been able to eat a villager or two that would have fed their fires but they were too scared to leave the egg uncovered in this freezing weather. So the two dragons curled up around the egg to keep it warm. The night grew colder and colder and at last it grew so cold that both the dragons’ hearts froze, and they died.
Now, as it happened, the next morning a young man from the village went looking for his sheep to see if any of them had come to harm in the cold night. He saw the mouth of the dragons’ cave and noticed that there was no smoke or steam.
“Hm,” thought the young shepherd. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen those two dragons about. And they are old, by all accounts. I wonder if they are still alive.”
Carefully he made his way to the cave mouth and looked inside. There he saw the bodies of the two old dragons curled up on the bed of gold and jewels they’d spent their lives collecting. After throwing in a few stones to make sure that the dragons were quite dead he went inside and started looking at the dragons’ treasure hardly able to believe his luck. But just as he stooped to pick up the first gold piece he heard a noise that nearly made his heart stop. It was a cracking sound and it came from the two curled up dragon bodies.
At first he thought that the dragons were not dead after all. He stood there with his eyes closed, waiting to be eaten. Then he heard another crack and a soft, murmuring sound, like a small voice singing.
“That doesn’t sound dangerous,” said the shepherd and he opened his eyes. A glow was coming from between the two dragons, a tiny, flickering glow like a paper lantern with a single, guttering candle inside it. The two old dragons were already crumbling away into ash so it was easy for him to see the source of the glow. It was the egg. It had hatched at last. There, in the middle of the whorl of ash that had been her parents was a tiny little dragon girl. She opened her eyes and the shepherd was the first living thing that she saw.
Now, the shepherd’s first thought was to kill the little dragon. She was a dragon, after all, and even though she was small and pretty she would grow into a monster. A human-eating monster. But as he looked at her he had an idea. “She might grow into a monster, but what does that matter, if she doesn’t know what she is?”
So the shepherd adopted the little dragon girl. At first he kept her a secret, sneaking up to the cave to feed her on sheep milk and raw meat. He knew that the other villagers would be afraid of her, would kill her if they knew about her. But she was such a pretty little thing and sang so sweetly that he grew quite fond of her and didn’t want anyone to harm her.
To his surprise, the little dragon girl was not just sweet and pretty, but she was clever too. First, she learnt the notes of all the songs he whistled to his sheep. Then she learnt the words of the songs, and soon she could speak just as well as any human.
As the dragon girl grew, it became impossible for the shepherd to keep her a secret any longer. Soon enough, the villagers became suspicious of what he was doing up near the dragons’ cave. They were also curious about the source of all gold he seemed to have, and wanted their share. When they found out about the dragon girl they were angry and just as he’d feared. They wanted to kill her.
“But why kill her?” he pleaded. “Look how meek and kind she is. She doesn’t even know she’s a dragon. I never told her, and as long as we can keep that a secret from her, she’ll never be a danger to us. Come to the cave tomorrow and have a look at her, and then you can decide.”
The villagers grumbled about this but in the end they were too curious to stay away.
The next morning the entire village came up to the cave, and the shepherd called to the dragon girl. “Come out, sweetheart. Come and show my friends how nice, polite, and well behaved you are.” When the dragon girl came out of the cave the villagers stepped back and some of them gasped. She was already as big as a pony and covered in gleaming, golden scales.
“Good morning, sirs and madams,” said the dragon girl, mumbling a bit because she was shy of her long, sharp teeth. “I’m so pleased to meet you at last. Mr Shepherd has told me so much about you.” She looked down as she spoke. The shepherd had taught her never to look into a human’s eyes, not even his, in case she accidentally mesmerised them. The villagers were impressed by the dragon girl’s mild looks and meek manners, and when the shepherd got her to sing them a song, they lost all their fear.
When the shepherd showed how he’d taught her to round up his sheep, and keep the vultures and wolves away from them, they lost their last doubts.
“She’s really pretty,” they said to one another as they went back to the village. “And so useful. She’ll keep the sheep safe, and as long as she doesn’t know she’s a dragon, she wont be a danger to us. Now lets see if we can persuade the shepherd to share some of that gold with us.”
So time went by. The dragon girl was just as wonderful as her parents hoped she’d be. She was clever and curious about everything she saw in the world. The shepherd taught her what he knew and often he couldn’t answer her questions. Since the dragon girl was kind as well as clever she never pestered him or sulked for longer than a few minutes when he couldn’t satisfy her curiosity.
Before long she knew many things. She knew — the shepherd told her— why all things were the way they were. Sheep were woolly so that people could shear them, and wear the wool to keep themselves warm. Dogs had loud voices and sharp teeth so that they could keep people safe. Horses were swift and graceful so that they could carry people wherever they wanted to go.
“But why am I all hard and scaly, when you are so soft and smooth?” she asked the shepherd.
“That’s because you have a stubborn heart,” the shepherd told her. “If only you’d learn to be a good girl, you’d have beautiful soft skin just like mine.”
This answer made the dragon girl sad and ashamed. She tried her best to be good and to do everything the shepherd told her. She tried not to ask too many difficult questions. But her skin never got any softer. She even tried to rub it against the rocks to see if that would help but all that happened was that she became even more shiny, and the shepherd accused her of being vain as well as stubborn.
The shepherd brought her files and chisels, but her scales were so hard that even a diamond-tipped saw couldn’t make a mark on her. This frightened the shepherd. “If she ever realises her strength, then there is no way we could hurt her,” he thought. But he didn’t let the dragon girl see his fear.
Soon the dragon girl grew to her full size. The shepherd didn’t like her to eat too many of his sheep so she was always a little bit hungry. She was also lonely because the shepherd was the only person who ever came to speak to her. This meant that there were long hours, especially at night, when she just lay and thought about things. She wondered about many things. About the moon, and the stars, and why the weather changed, and where the sun went at night. But what she wondered about most of all was why she couldn’t be small and smooth and soft, like the shepherd.
One day, when she was singing a new song to the shepherd— a song she’d made up especially for him— something terrible happened. One moment she was singing and the next the song turned into fire. A long flame came licking out between her jaws and nearly singed the shepherd’s beard off.
What made it even worse was that the dragon girl was, for a moment, utterly captivated by this flame. It was so beautiful, so bright, so warm as it streamed from her belly out through her throat that she wanted to do it again. It was only when she saw the look on the shepherd’s face that she realised the fire was a shameful thing.
“Never do that again!” the shepherd said. “It is another proof of what I’ve said all along. You are a stubborn, wilful girl with no self control. If you really wanted to be good, you would never be able to do such a thing. Have you ever seen me breathe fire like that?”
“No,” the dragon girl faltered. “You never have.”
“Well then,” said the shepherd.
But the dragon girl found that once she started breathing fire she couldn’t stop. No matter how much she tried to swallow it down, or how much freezing water she drank the fire kept coming. The shepherd frowned at this and made her listen to many long, long speeches, but nothing helped.
Then, one day, the dragon girl greeted the shepherd with some wonderful news.
“Look!” she said. “Look what I can do with my fire!” She arched her neck and sent a thin spear of flame onto her own hand. The fire cut through the scales like a knife through butter. “I can make myself soft!” she said. “I’ll cut off all my horrible, hard scales and then I’ll be just like you. Soft, and smooth, and beautiful.”
“That’s good,” said the shepherd, secretly relieved. “You see? There is a purpose to your flaming breath after all. I always said so.”
He had never said that but the dragon girl was too happy to point this out to him. Instead she set to work trimming down her long, sharp claws and carefully peeling off her shining scales.
“I should just carve it all off,” she told herself. “Good and deep and quick.” But it hurt when she went too deep. “I shouldn’t care about the pain,” she told herself but she just couldn’t force herself to take off as much scale as she wanted to. Also, it was hard work and she couldn’t reach all of her scales. Her arms, chest, and tail were easy but her tummy was more difficult to reach and her back was just impossible.
Every night the dragon girl would cry herself to sleep and every morning she’d wake up full of resolve to do better. “Today is a new day. Today I’ll peel off all my horrible scales and then when the shepherd comes he’ll be so pleased and proud.”
One day as the sun was just coming up from behind the mountains the dragon girl heard a sound like thunder in the sky.
“That’s strange,” she said to herself. “I’ve never heard thunder from a clear sky before.” She looked up and saw that the sound was not thunder after all— it was some kind of enormous bird. At first the dragon girl crouched down thinking that this was the biggest vulture she’d ever seen, come to steal some sheep but as the creature came closer she saw that it was not a vulture at all.
It had enormous batlike wings and a long, snakey neck. It was covered in scales, not golden like hers but a deep, lustrous black with here and there a sparkling, silver scale. The dragon girl sat up in astonishment. “It looks just like me!” she said to herself. “But it can fly!”
She’d never tried to fly, because the shepherd could not and she never wanted to embarrass him.
“Good morning, niece,” said the strange dragon, settling down on the ground outside the cave and folding her wings.
“Good morning,” said the dragon girl. “I’m sorry— what did you call me?”
“Niece,” said the strange dragon. “You are my niece. I can smell that on you. I am your aunt, your mother’s sister. Where are your parents? Where is my sister?”
The dragon girl knew the answer to this. “My parents are dead,” she said sadly. “They died when I was born.”
“Born?” said her aunt. “What a strange way to put it. You mean ‘when I hatched’, of course. So they died? I was afraid of that. I wish I’d come sooner but there was always something keeping me busy.”
Then she peered closely at the dragon girl. “Whatever is the matter with your scales!” said the aunt. “What on earth happened to you?”
“Oh,” said the dragon girl shyly. “I’m peeling them off. With my flame, you know. I’m getting much better at it. Look, I nearly got all of them off my arms—” and then she stopped, realising that her aunt was also covered with scales. “I shouldn’t sound too proud of how many scales I’ve removed,” she thought to herself. “Maybe she’s embarrassed at how scaly she is.”
But the aunt was not looking at all embarrassed. “Do you mean to tell me that you have been flaming off your OWN SCALES?” She looked so angry that for a moment the dragon girl thought that her aunt would bite her. “Yes,” she faltered. “The shepherd said that it is the best thing to do. He said that if I can cut off all my scales, I’ll be as smooth and soft as he is.”
“Hm,” said the aunt, and it sounded as though a volcano was rumbling inside her. “I don’t like the sound of this. Tell me about this shepherd.”
So the dragon girl told the aunt all about the shepherd. She explained how kind he was and everything he’d taught her. By the end of her story her aunt sounded like a volcano that was about to erupt.
“No,”the aunt said to the dragon girl. “I am not angry with you, my dear. I am angry with myself. I should have come visiting long ago and then things would never have come to this. Now. There are one or two things you should know. The first thing is this. The shepherd is a human. Humans are not bad. In fact,” and here the aunt smiled, revealing just how long and sharp her teeth were, “humans have their uses. But you are not a human. You are a DRAGON just like me.”
The aunt opened her mouth. “See my long, sharp teeth? They are DRAGON’S teeth, just like yours. The aunt spread her wings. “See my wings? You saw me fly with them, just now. These are DRAGON’S wings, just like yours.” The aunt drew her claws across her flank. “See my scales? They are lovely, shiny, and hard, just like a DRAGON’s scales should be.”
The dragon girl looked at her aunt, and she looked at herself. It was true. There was no denying it. She looked far more like her aunt, than like the shepherd. Anyone could see that her aunt was one thing and the shepherd, quite another. Why had she never realised this before? She looked at her scales and for the first time saw how shiny and beautiful they were— at least, the ones she hadn’t managed to cut away.
“Don’t worry,” said her aunt. “You are still young and your fire is not at its full heat yet, thank goodness. You’ve only cut away the top layer and it will soon grow back again. But really my dear, you are far too thin. We need to fatten you up! And I know just the thing. There’s a village just down the road from here, I saw it when I was flying over. Why don’t we nip over and get ourselves a bit of breakfast?”
“Oh,” said the dragon girl. “I’m not sure—”
“Well, I’m sure,” said the aunt. “Come, it’s an easy glide from here. You haven’t done much flying, have you? Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it.”
The dragon girl found this was true. She was wobbly at first but there was a brisk, steady breeze and soon she was gliding along quite nicely. It felt good to stretch her wings and she even flamed a bit as she flew.
“Good girl!” said the aunt, seeing the flame.
As they flew towards the village, the dragon girl said, “Aunt, can I ask you something?”
“Yes, my dear.”
“Can you tell me about my parents? About my mother and my father?”
“Of course!” said the aunt. “ Where shall I start? Oh! How about this— the story of how your mother refused to eat a princess. It happened like this…”
And the two dragons, the black and the gold, flew down to the village in the morning sunlight, talking and laughing as they went.