Being a guard dragon means a lonely and difficult life
I paced, on high alert, by the doorway, the rusty metal chain around my neck clunking. I growled at a rider passing by. My dark-green scales felt clogged with dirt, the spikes along my back chipped and dented. The huge castle doors behind me loomed angrily. My stomach hurt from hunger. Though my food dish still had some chunks of fresh meat, I would save those for another day. I was patient.
That was something I had learned from my time as a guard dragon. When you work for humans, you tend to learn things. You have to learn things, and be smart, and strong, or you don’t survive. You are disposable. You might succumb to the harsh weather—the stifling heat of the summer, flies buzzing around your ears, or the freezing cold of the winter, snow forming drifts, and stringing icicles along your sharp spines. Or maybe the humans would find a replacement, slaughter you, and use your thick, scaly hide for armor.
Another thing I learned was how to tell when someone meant trouble. The key was to read the energy around them. Some troublemakers slink in the shadows. Those are the rare kind, and the most dangerous. Those are the ones who try to sneak past the castle walls. Most humans, however, aren’t that ambitious. They’re satisfied just throwing food and laughing. I never complained. Sometimes the food-throwers saved my life, though they didn’t know it. I saved their projectiles for when the hunger was too much to bear.
Today, some of these troublemakers, the food-throwers, were loitering by a market stall a few feet away. They were scruffy, probably street kids. Their clothes were in muddy tatters, their hair reminding me of a robin’s nest I saw several months back.
The bird had laid three light-blue eggs. Then I watched as the hatchlings grew, strengthened by the unwavering care of their parents. Then one day they were gone. The little fledglings flew away, spreading their wings on the wind and soaring out of sight. I never saw them again. But the next year, the mother returned and used the same nest as before.
I watched the street kids. They inched closer. I snorted a small flame. The kids recognized the sign. That was another thing that I had learned: when someone wanted a fight or just needed a warning. The kids backed away. I lifted my snout to the sky. The sun was setting, the clouds turning vibrant reds and pinks and purples. One or two stars were beginning to shimmer against the dark blue abyss of the sky. The humans began trickling back to their homes. I curled up on the stone ground. I had learned long ago that it was useless trying to get comfortable. The nightmares still came.
As I was beginning to fall into a fitful sleep, I heard a noise. It sounded like the padding of small paws. Squinting one eye open, I saw a young fox pup coming my way. She was scruffy, her bushy tail bedraggled and her fur matted. Ribs showed through her dusty pelt. She was too young to survive the night without a mother.
I pretended to be asleep. I heard her creep closer, and then she quickly snatched a hunk of meat from my food dish. She glanced at me, my large pointed teeth, sharp spines along my back. I opened my yellow eyes just enough, and blinked slowly. The fox tilted her head, pricking her pointed ears. Then she curled up into a tight ball, and fell asleep. I noticed she was shivering. I paused, unsure. Finally I draped one scaly wing over the ball of fuzz. The fox yipped in her sleep.
For the first time in my long life, I slept without nightmares.