That Which Dragons Guard

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Once upon a time, there was an ocean of water and at the center of this ocean of water was an ocean of sand and at the center of this ocean of sand was an ocean of air and at the center of this ocean of air was an ocean of fire.

This ocean of fire was the realm of the dragons.

These were not the kinds of dragons one hears about in fairy tales, fierce and fire-breathing.  Though they abided within fire, they did not spew it.  They breathed it, the way that the mortal creatures who lived upon the earth breathed air, or creatures of the sea breathed water.  And they did not have wings and could not fly.  Nor could they roar.  Nor were they immense in size.  In fact, the largest dragon would soon find itself underfoot of a small human child, and quite in danger of being stomped or squeezed out of curiosity. 

There was something that abided in that fiery realm with the dragons.  Something that might have given rise to the stories of dragon’s desiring wealth and treasure, and sitting atop hordes of gold and jewels.  For this something was called by a name that in the commonest of human languages was translated as “treasure” or “precious thing.”  But this “treasure” was neither gold nor jewels, and if it were, the dragons would have cared naught for it.  For what would a dragon want with gold or jewels?  In the realm of fire, gold would only melt away.  Jewels would only crack and turn to dust. 

The fire of curiosity burned within dragons, just as it does within humans.  And some dragons stoked that fire until it drove them out of their realm and into the realm of the mortals, the realm of earth. 

At first they floated in the air and could remain there for a while.  But their curiosity drove them downwards, towards land and sea.  Dragons could not survive in water or on earth in their natural forms.  So they built armor for themselves.  And they found that if they wished to explore for longer and longer, their armor must be large, and also nimble.  They studied the forms of many a mortal creature, birds, insects, fish, and humans.  They built and discarded many a case of armor, for though all the armor they built was beautiful, none of it fit quite properly.  None of it was comfortable, until they built armor in the shapes of the creatures that were known as reptiles. 

And so it came to pass that dragons entered the mortal realm, and with them, they brought the stories of the treasure that lay at the center of their realm, and stories of how fiercely they guarded that treasure, so fiercely that they would not even give that treasure a name.

And human bards and troubadours and raconteurs embellished these tales by giving some dragons a jealous nature, and a fierce temper, and the power to throw fire from their throats.  And by giving other dragons the nature of gods, wielding powers and burdens beyond the imaginings of mortals, and possessed of knowledge and wisdom that no mortal could ever hope to possess.  Some stories of dragons made them out to be guides and guardians to humanity.  Some stories of dragons made them out to be vicious and hungry for humanity. 

The storytellers were not entirely wrong.  Some dragons became trapped in the mortal realm after being injured or captured.  Their fires would dim and they would take on the natures of mortal creatures, desperate and fearful.  Some dragons chose to stay, to rescue their fellows, or to serve as the guides and guardians spoken of in tales, so that humanity might know the dragons as allies not as enemies or beasts.   

So it came to pass that some humans learned of that which the dragons guarded at the center of their realm.  And they came to learn of the four oceans that served as maze and obstacle to reaching that treasure.  For many an age, these humans kept their knowledge secret, for this treasure was indeed precious, but it was also dangerous.

Soon, the last human who knew what this treasure was died and took the secret to her grave. 

But the stories of the oceans and the dragons and the mysterious treasure never died. 

~***~

One night, a sorceress dreamt a dream under the blue moon.  The next morning, she called forth her son.

Her dream was not a dream of prophecy, for prophecy was not a skill that one could develop, but must be an actual gift from a divine being.  This sorceress had the skill of weaving threads of disparate knowledge together in her dreams to form a path towards new knowledge that answered whatever question she focused upon, and her mind had been bent on one particular question for many years.  The question of what the dragons were guarding in their realm of fire. 

In her dream, she saw the face of the adventurer who was fit to attempt the quest through the Maze of Four Oceans to find the answer to her question.  And that adventurer was no warrior or sovereign or even a traveler, but her own son, a bard.  She set the challenge before him, and he accepted.

After learning all he could from his mother about the four oceans, the bard, of course, realized the impossibility of his quest, were he to venture upon it alone.  He would need the hardiest ship to survive the vast ocean of water, and he would need a caravan of seasoned travelers to help him through the ocean of sand, and he could not even fathom what he would need to travel though the ocean of air.

His mother, being a sorceress, encouraged him to consult a mage.  Though she knew of no spells or enchantments for flying, perhaps another would.  She had heard a distant rumor of a queen who wished to fly as birds flew, and a magical surgeon who grafted immense wings upon her back.

The bard listened to his mother’s advice, but he devised an idea of his own, one that he was certain she would disapprove of, but one that by his estimation was far safer and less painful than grafting wings upon his back. 

Or so he hoped.

~***~

The bard traveled far over land, through country and town, duchy and province.  He traveled so far that he left his kingdom behind and entered the neighboring one before he found the fitting answers to the questions he had crafted along the way, questions meant to recruit the ideal companion for his journey through the Maze of Four Oceans.

He found himself approaching the mouth of a cavern on the side of a mountain that faced a valley so deep that the sun could not reach the deepest depths even at its zenith.  His guides had brought him through what he considered the most treacherous paths along the way.  Now that they was on solid ground, they left him behind and bid him luck, with smiles upon their mouths and doubt in their eyes.  He saw one of them cross their arms at their hips, their shoulders, and their forehead.  The sign of the earth mother’s protection.  The bard had only ever seen the sign performed by families over newborn babies. 

The bard was not sure if he should announce himself.  Or if he should wait at the cavern mouth.  Evening approached and though he was dressed warmly, he began to feel a chill through soles of his boot.

But he felt warm air emerging from the cavern.  He stepped closer, rubbing his hands together.  He gasped as an immense dark shape emerged from the cavern.

The bard stepped back and craned his neck to gaze up at the face that was now gazing down at him.

She spoke.

“I am Wynmerhiu, the dragon of the cavern.”

“What an extraordinary name,” the bard said, before he could think upon his words.

“It is common where I come from,” the dragon replied. 

Pulses of heat radiated from the dragon and struck the bard, warming him. 

“Pardon me,” the bard said, remembering at last his manners, through his wonder and fear.  His heart was hammering and his breath was short.  He had trouble speaking, but he managed to say, “I am Lavendar, the bard.”

“Is that an extraordinary name?”

The bard found himself wanting to smile, but he stopped himself, for he was not sure if the dragon would consider that an insult.  “I don’t think so,” he said.  “At least not for a bard.”

“I was told to expect you, bard,” the dragon said.  “Come in, and warm yourself by my fire.”  Her mouth twitched up at one corner in an expression that looked like a smile.

It was only later that night, when the bard lay on his bedroll, staring out through the cavern mouth at the stars, waiting for sleep to descend, that he realized that the dragon had been jesting.  That she had been teasing him.

~***~

The bard told the dragon his tale, and he told her what he had learned of hers, so that she might know his purpose and tell him whether or not she could help him with it.  All the while, he kept his eye on the cavern mouth, and his other eye on the dragon.  For he was told that she was “mild” for her kind, but he had never met a dragon before.  When he finished speaking, the dragon began her story, and he listened to learn.

Wynmerhiu had entered the human realm out of curiosity, and because she had grown tired of living in her native realm.  Dragons were immortal.  And she had lived for thousands of years by human measure, by the time she left.  By dragon measure, she was still quite young at the time, but not so young as to be forbidden from leaving.

At first, she had lived in the mortal realm in her armor, and had continued to breathe fire.  But there were limits to such an existence.  She could not dive beneath the water, for instance, even in her armor, for her fire would be extinguished.  She knew of no stories where dragon-fire extinguished by water could be reignited.  And even if she stayed away from water, and maintained her armor, her fire would begin to dim, the longer she stayed.  But she grew so enchanted with the mortal world that she decided she would stay, and she learned how to breathe air.  But in doing so, she sacrificed her fire, and she began to age, as mortals aged.  As time passed, her armor transformed into skin and scale, and she grew muscle and bone.  She found herself hungering, and had to eat as mortal creatures ate, else she would be sapped of her energy.

But now, after many thousands more years, she wanted to return home.

“I am mortal now,” she said.  “When I enter the fire realm, I will burn and die.  Only my spirit will remain, and it will pass into a realm that none who are alive can reach—whether mortal or immortal.”

The bard was surprised.  “But if you will die, why not wait until you are truly old?  You may live many more thousands of years, long after my bones have turned to dust and floated up into the stars.”

“I love your mortal realm.  For all of its many and terrible flaws, it possesses many and marvelous wonders.  But I do not wish to die here and rot.” 

Here she drew herself up to her full height, two stories above the bard’s head. 

“In flames I was born,” she said.  “In flames I shall die.”

~***~

So they set out upon their journey.  The dragon had forgotten much about her life in the realm of fire.  She had forgotten the way to the Maze of Four Oceans.  She had forgotten how to pass through the maze.  And she had forgotten what the treasure was at the center of her realm.  Or perhaps she never knew.  Every human did not know all that existed in the mortal realm.  Likewise every dragon did not know of all that existed in their fiery realm.  And Wynmerhiu did not know any new stories or rumors.  She had abided in her cavern for the last age, having collected an archive of knowledge in books and scrolls, and settled in to read them all.

The bard asked how the dragon with her great claws and her huge eyes could read the small books and papers prepared by human beings.  The dragon revealed that she knew an enchantment or two, and one of them was a magnifying enchantment.  And the bard thought that was good, for such an enchantment would surely aid them in maneuvering through the maze.

So too was it good that this dragon, unlike many of her fellows, had wings.  Other dragons did not require them.  Even with armor on, a dragon’s fire was so light it lifted the heavy armor far above the earth.  As a dragon’s fire began to wane, the armor would drag the dragon down to the earth.  But all the dragon need do was to swallow more flames, and that fire would be rekindled and the dragon could rise.

But Wynmerhiu could no longer swallow fire, for she had lost that skill when she learned to breathe air.  So she had crafted herself a pair of wings.  But this too was good.  If she did not have her wings, then the trek across the ocean of sand would surely have depleted her fire.  A wingless dragon therefore would not have been able to fly through the ocean of air.

Such thoughts pleased the bard, for it meant he had chosen his companion wisely.

~***~

The bard and the dragon followed the maps that they had collected and studied, and they found themselves at the edge of a vast ocean. 

The dragon flew up into the air as high as she could manage and gazed out.  When she flew back down, she reported to the bard that she could see no end to the ocean, even when she used her magnifying enchantment.

“The ocean is itself enchanted,” said the bard.  “Though we cannot see its end, if we keep true to our direction, we should reach the ocean of sand in three days.”

“Can we trust the stars?” the dragon asked.

“We may have no choice, for we have no other guide,” the bard said.  He had brought a lodestone compass, but he expected that it would stop working once they were upon the ocean.  So said the stories. 

The dragon would swim the ocean, towing a boat behind her.  The bard would ride on that boat, along with the food and water they had brought for the journey, most of it being for the dragon.

Bard and dragon were ready for storm and sea monster.  That is, they were ready to expect such.  But they had not prepared well, beyond planning to flee and then use the stars to reorient themselves to their desired direction once the danger had passed.

But the seas were calm for three days.  And no other living thing harassed them, be it pirate or sea monster. 

On the morning of the fourth day, the dragon proclaimed that she had spotted land.  She made for the beach, and there at last, they encountered heaving tides and crashing waves.  The boat was lost.  The bard jumped and caught the dragon’s tail and held on for his life.

By the time they reached the beach, both dragon and bard felt as if they had been riding upon the ocean for many a year.  And they were glad to be standing on solid ground, even if the ground was not quite solid.

Again, they would travel for three days before reaching the ocean of air.  But now that they had lost their provisions, they went in search of water at the least.

But once again, the dragon flew up as high as she could and looked out upon the desert.  She saw no end to it, even with the magnifying enchantment.  And she saw no oases filled with water and fruit. 

They decided to stay upon the beach and try to recover the provisions they had lost.  Surely some of it might wash upon the shore.  The dragon dove into the water and went in search. 

She pulled up a sack full of a portion of their provisions.  There was a little food, enough for the bard, but not for the dragon.  And there was a little water…not enough for either of them.

The dragon proclaimed that she could survive without water for several days.  If they stayed true to their course, she would survive.  And so they continued on without further delay.

Upon the ocean of water, they had traveled in relative comfort, even the dragon who did all the swimming.  The waters were soft and gentle. 

But now, upon the ocean of sand, both dragon and bard struggled to step, for the sands shifted, gently and slowly, but they shifted the way waters shifted in the ocean.  And the bard understood that was why the maze was called the Maze of Four Oceans.  The bard expected that if they reached the ocean of air, they would be buffeted about by breezes and winds.

The dragon could fly, but even with her natural fire dimmed to almost nothing, her scales grew unbearably hot for the bard, despite layers of clothing.  So they could only fly for short spans at a time.

When they did, the dragon would look ahead, but she saw only sand and more sand until the fourth morning of their trek.  She saw the end of the sand and a swirling tunnel of wind.

~***~

By this time, the bard had devised a way for the dragon to carry him without burning him.  He had built a swing from cloth and leather.  The dragon’s heat did not seem to burn cloth as quickly as it burned his skin, so he judged that the swing would hold until they reached the realm of fire.  Once there, the dragons, if they were welcoming, would tend to him.  The fires in the dragon realm were not one singular fire, like the fires that existed in the mortal world.  There were cleansing fires that did not burn mortal flesh, and cooling fires that one could drink like water, and nourishing fires that filled one up like food.  This the bard had learned from his stories, and the dragon had told him it was so.

She had told him too that the ocean of water and the ocean of sand were once realms filled with living creatures, just as the dragons’ realm and the mortals’ realm was.  And when she was young, there were still a few vagabond creatures and beings who lived in those oceans.  But they were dwindling even then.  So she was not surprised to find these oceans empty now.  She was only glad not to find the bones of other questers.

“I do not think that any of your kind have come this way in many thousands of years,” the dragon said.  “But once upon a time they did coming questing as we have.  No doubt some of the sand we tread upon is not sand, but grains of ground up bone from your fellow humans.”

The bard frowned at the thought.  “Did any of them ally with a dragon as I have?”

The dragon chuckled.  “I do not know if any did.  But I doubt you are the first human to entreat a dragon for aid, or I the first dragon to need a human as a guide back to my own realm.”

“I have always deemed myself one who does not require the company of others to be content and at ease in the world,” the bard said.  “But if I had taken this journey alone, even if I had the power to easily ride the waves of water and sand and air, I think I would have been frightened by the vast emptiness of these oceans.”

“Indeed.”  The dragon bent her neck down as they walked along and shifted her eyes toward the bard.  “I too am glad to have a companion on this journey, small though he may be.”

“Ah, but my voice is large is it not?” the bard cried out.

The dragon chuckled again, and she was glad to hear the booming voice, for she had feared the bard was growing weak after trudging through the ocean of sand.

Just as the ocean of water had, the ocean of sand grew more tumultuous as they came to its end and its edge.

They approached the tunnel of wind that seemed to serve as the entrance to the ocean of air.  The dragon folded one of her wings around the bard to protect him from the whipping winds and the pelting of sand.  She coughed, for she was an air-breather as the bard was, and though the storm of sand did not damage her scaly skin, it began to trouble her lungs.  She told the bard to climb atop one of her legs.  She would run toward the tunnel and leap in.  The bard wrapped himself up as best he could and then tied himself to the dragon’s leg. 

The dragon Wynmerhiu then dropped to all four limbs and charged forward against the winds that blew her back, narrowing her eyes against the strafing of sand.

~***~

Dragon and bard found themselves floating in the air.  Gentle breezes nudged them this way and that.  But the bard quickly untied himself from the dragon’s leg, and they were able to orient themselves to face each other.

The bard’s eyes widened as he gazed at the dragon. 

“Oh no…your wings.”

The dragon’s wings were stretched out beside her.  She looked at them and saw that both were tattered and full of holes.  Though her scaly skin was proof against the pelting of sand, the fleshy skin of her wings was too delicate to survive intact. 

“It’s my fault!” the bard lamented.  “Had you kept them folded, had you not needed to shield me…”

“Done is done,” the dragon said.  “But now we are trapped here, I fear.  If I cannot propel myself by flapping my wings.”

The bard peered ahead as they floated, and he thought a while.  Then he snapped his fingers.  “You can breathe air!”

The dragon blinked.  “I can.  But neither of us can survive on air alone.”

The bard shook his head.  “No, I mean that you can throw air, or blow it, with great force.  The way dragons in our stories throw fire with great force.”

The dragon frowned.  “I don’t know if I can blow with enough force to propel us.  But it is worth trying as I have no other ideas.”

The bard tethered himself to the dragon, thinking of how pleasant it would have felt to be floating in the air, if they were not in such desperate straits, without water or food, and still three days away from the realm of the dragons. 

But they still had the stars above.  The bard oriented them.  And then, the dragon drew in the deepest breath she could manage, which was deep indeed, for the bard was able to count to ninety-nine before the dragon stopped.  Then she blew with as much force as she could manage, and she was thrown backward.  The bard smiled at her expression of sudden surprise just before he was yanked along with her.

They traveled that way for a day before the dragon proclaimed that she was out of breath.  And they rested.  The bard licked at the sweat on his brow, so thirsty was he.

After a brief rest, the dragon began blowing again.

Two days hence, the dragon looked behind herself, and used the magnifying enchantment on her already keen eyes to look for fire.  But she found none.

She was weary now.  She wanted only to close her eyes and drift, but the bard, through the delirium of his own exhaustion, encouraged her.  And she drew in a breath.  Now she could only draw enough breath for the bard to reach a count of fifty.  And the dragon blew as hard as she could, and propelled herself and the bard farther and farther.

And farther.

~***~

The bard did not remember falling asleep, but he did remember waking, engulfed in flame.  He gasped and tried to scream, but could not.  When he breathed, a strange sensation filled his nose and his lungs, a warm and watery sensation.  The flames were a bluish white. 

Suddenly, they were extinguished, and the bard found himself floating.  With a gasp, he realized that he was floating in air.  He took a few quick breaths.  He glanced around, but did not see the dragon.  He realized that the ache of hunger in his belly was gone and his lips were no longer chapped and dry.  And though he was floating anchorless through the air, he did not feel dizzy.  He felt warmth at his back.  He struggled to tumble through the air and turn himself around.

When he succeeded, he found he was facing a wall of many-colored flame.  And before it stood two beings.  They were made of flame too, one of a deep red flame, and the other of a shadowy black flame.  Both were shaped like dragons.  And both were three times as tall as he was, but nowhere near as large as the dragon that floated beside them.

“Wynmer!” the bard called.

“She is still recovering,” a voice spoke, and the shadowy flame flickered.  “She is much larger than you and exerted much more of herself in this journey than you did.”

The bard nodded.  “But…she is alive?  She is well?”

“She will be,” the red flame flickered.  “A healing flame works within her.”

The black flame spoke.  “We know why you are here.  You have come far, but this is the end of your journey.”

The bard was refreshed, no doubt by the flames in which he’d woken, but he was still tired, too tired to argue.  He needed a moment to gather himself.  He glanced at the sleeping, floating form of his friend.  “What about Wynmerhiu’s journey?”

The black flame flickered.  “Hers too is at an end.”

“She only aimed to return to her home,” the bard said.  “She is mortal now.  If she enters the fire realm, she will be consumed and will die, is that true?”

“No being who has lived can ever truly die,” the black flame said.  “But the dragon as you know her now and as she knows herself now, yes, she will die.”

“So she will no longer be able to live in the fire realm.  Just as I will no longer be able to live in the mortal realm after I die, unless…are there such things as ghosts in your realm?”

Neither dragon answered.

My aim in journeying here was to find out, on behalf of my people, what treasure it is that lies within your realm.”

“Treasure?” the black flame flickered.

“Yes, that which the dragons guard, at the center of your realm.  What is it?  A seed?  An embryonic god?  The beating heart of the cosmos itself?” 

The black flame sparked.  “You are a bard.”

The bard nodded.  “Legends passed down to us from dragons who have come to our realm speak of something precious and dangerous that abides in your realm, at the center, and that you guard fiercely.  A few humans, the wisest and worthiest among us, were told what this precious thing was, but they kept it secret and then they passed from our realm.  So we have lost that knowledge.”

“If the wisest and worthiest among you judged that their knowledge of this ‘treasure’ should be kept secret, why then do you seek to regain that knowledge?” the red flame asked.

“Because we are curious.”  The bard huffed a laugh.  “Even when it may be foolish to be curious.”

“We too are a curious people,” the black flame said.  “So while we will not give you the answer you seek, we will give you what answers we can.” 

The bard understood.  And he asked, “Why is it that the dragons were entrusted with guarding this treasure?  And by whom?”

“We dragons are old,” the black flame said.  “Very old.  And you humans are young.  You are so young that you have not yet cast off any of the elements you are born with.  You keep them all until you die.  You are so young that you think you are wise.”

“Though we are old, some of us separately are unwise,” the red flame said.  “But all of us together, together we are wise.”

“And so we can be trusted to watch over the most precious of things.”

The bard nodded.  “And who or what is it that entrusted this task to you?”

The black flame flickered.  “Ah, that we will not answer.”

“We understand that you have journeyed far and suffered much.” 

“And we thank you for guiding our sister back to us.”

A flame sprouted before the bard.  He recoiled, but the flame vanished, and it left behind a suit of armor shaped like a man.

“When our people were casting armor of different shapes, different creatures, we cast a few in the shapes of humans,” the black flame said.  “This is one of those suits.  Dragon-forged armor is quite hardy, you will find.  But keep it hidden.  There may be warriors in your realm who deem themselves more worthy of this gift than you.”

The bard’s eyes widened.  “This is a rich gift.”  He glanced up and between the red flame dragon and the black flame dragon.  “But I have no need of armor.  If I am not to see and know the treasure you protect, than your indulgence of all my other questions is reward enough.  Oh, but if I may just have enough provisions to make it back through the maze and back home.  I assume I will be allowed to return home.”

“You will,” the black flame said.  “And you need not take the maze.  We can send you through a safe passage.  A tunnel of flame.  The choice is yours.”

The bard had envisioned the moment of meeting the guard at the gate.  He had devised many an argument for allowing himself to be let in.  The first of them was that if dragons could live in the mortal world, then mortals should be allowed to at least visit the dragon realm.  He had expected the dragon guards to be…unpleasant.  Arrogant and perhaps ignorant.  Or perhaps he had not so much expected it as hoped for it.

“I am still curious,” he said.  “I always will be.  And I hope that one day, I will be…old enough to know what it is that abides at the center of your realm.”

“Someday, perhaps you will be,” the black flame said.  “Then we will welcome you into our realm.”

The bard glanced over at Wynmer’s sleeping form.  “May I stay, long enough to say goodbye?”

“She will not wake for many days.  We cannot sustain you at the edge of our realm for that long.  You may say goodbye to her now.  We will tell her when she wakes.  She will understand.”

The black flame summoned a twisting fire that created a vortex of wind that pulled the bard toward the sleeping dragon’s form.

The bard placed his hand on the side of the sleeping dragon’s face.  “You waded through an ocean of water, crossed an ocean of sand, and blew through an ocean of air.  Truly, you do not match your name, dragon Wynmerhiu.  For you are extraordinary.  Thank you, my friend, for the adventure, and for guarding me.”  The bard smiled.  “And thank you for the company.”

As he lifted his hand, wild silvery flames swirled about him, forming a tunnel.  But he did not gasp or recoil this time.  Though he could not see them, he waved to the flaming dragons, and he inhaled, breathing in the flames.

 

Copyright © 2020  Nila L. Patel

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