(Book 1 of the series A Dragon’s Guide to Destiny)
The whisper of raindrops awoke Druid. He groaned and covered his ears with his paws. This silenced the dismal dripping, but nothing could prevent him from hearing the call of duty, even when its fulfillment yielded fewer rewards than scratching his scales.
Druid heaved his bulk into a standing position and lumbered from his cave at the bottom of the cliffs that bordered the swamp. He raised his head to the misty sky and recited the ancient water dragon ritual.
“The rains are here. The earth springs alive again. All creatures rejoice, Mother, at the gift of Your tears.”
The words settled like dust in Druid’s mouth. During the five hundred years humans had occupied the land beyond the swamp, he’d had trouble believing in either the litany or the Mother it honored.
The delicate pattern of life that made the earth whole had begun to deteriorate with their arrival. Both floods and drought had become more common. Refuse choked the rivers, and the grass in the meadows close to human settlements grew pale and sparse. Sometimes Druid wondered if these strange animals survived by sucking the life out of the land.
Today the deterioration seemed to have accelerated, like rot biting deeper into the heart of a tree. Agitation stirred the sluggish waters of Druid’s habitual depression. Though humans were probably responsible for this latest disruption, he scanned the swamp to search for a local disturbance: one of the plagues that occasionally swept through the rodent communities or the far more common misbehavior of half-grown wolves.
Nothing seemed changed. As usual, Spanish moss cloaked brooding cypress trees, forming curtains that stretched from tree to tree and muted the sunlight. The ponds that sprouted blackened tree stumps like decayed teeth remained as stagnant as ever.
The dragon’s awareness traveled to other parts of the swamp: the golden seas of saw grass and the dark splendor of the islands that dotted them, the twisted scarlet roots of mangroves belting the area between swamp and sea. He sensed no discord among the creatures who shared this world with him. In a nearby tree, the attention of a hungry hawk was drawn to baby mice who fretted in their mother’s absence. Druid heard a cougar’s distant growl and the delicate hoof steps of deer. Insects, stirred to life by the rain, buzzed in their billions.
Beyond the boundaries of the swamp lay the human world he’d never seen. Druid called on the pictures that birds had given him of the belching creatures used to stab the earth for growing plants, and the caves of stones and wood filled with bloodless beings that hummed and flashed. Still further to the east stood a place of deadness named City, where life tried to survive with little sun or earth.
In the center of this dead place stood tall caves where humans made plans that threatened other animals. Druid focused his attention there, and the discord burned like a tree struck by lightning. His nostrils filled with the acrid odor of despair.
From the first moment he’d seen them, carrying sticks that spewed out fire no more deadly than the hatred they breathed, he’d known them as enemies. His father’s stone-shattering roar had transformed their rage into terror. Physically unharmed, they’d dashed from the swamp, their shriveled hearts swollen with the stuff of nightmares. Only fools and madmen had ever approached the swamp during the following centuries, and the roar Druid had learned from his father had always sent them scurrying back to the safety of their foul cities.
Now the opposite has happened. Their fear feeds their hatred. They approach, the poison of their emotions staining the forest floor. I may finally discover whether my parents told the truth when they said human weapons couldn’t penetrate my scales. Why should I believe them? They lied about everything else.
“Druid! The humans come!”
The screech thrust Druid out of his trance. Tomo, leader of the cougars, bounded down the path to the cave. “They’re near the place in the forest where fire took many trees last summer.”
Alarm ruffled Druid’s scales. “They haven’t come that close in a hundred years. Why now?”
“We can talk about why later,” Tomo growled. “You’ve got to drive them out quickly.”
Druid, not anxious for an aerobic trot, considered the possibility of a psychic confrontation. As a young water dragon, he’d learned how to transmit an essence of terror so powerful it could make humans believe he stood before them. Now he was so out of practice that he’d probably give himself a sinus headache if he tried, and he’d be laid up for days. Worse, if it didn’t work, animals would die. He already heard frightened shrieks that turned his water to steam.
He would have to make a live appearance, but that required exertion. His legs, longer than the length of Tomo’s body, could cover a lot of ground, but they had to carry a body weighted down from a long, idle winter of eating kelp.
He wheezed as he followed Tomo back along the trail.
The cougar glanced at him. “Why don’t you fly there? It would be faster.”
“A faster way to die. Imagine the target I’d make.”
“True, but, now that I think about it, I’ve never seen you fly.”
Druid didn’t want even his best friend to know why he didn’t fly. “Let’s not discuss my exercise habits. Did you see the humans?”
“No, a young squirrel, Tolti, brought me the news.” The cougar stopped so quickly that the dragon nearly tumbled over him. “She heard them speaking. They said they were going to take water from the swamp.”
Druid quivered with an amplified sense of wrongness.
“Dragon, you know this squirrel. Does she have a brain in her tiny head?”
“None of them are empty-headed. Their thoughts travel as quickly as they race up and down trees. Tolti was one of my better students, and she always listened carefully. We can believe her. Did the humans say how they intend to do this?”
“They said only that it would be done and that the swamp would be theirs.”
“It will not.” Rage gave Druid speed, and they soon reached the place where the swamp met the woodlands. Other cougars, alligators and a few eagles waited for them. “I see them,” an eagle shrieked. “Their fuzzy heads bob up and down in the distance.”
Druid’s eyes were not nearly so keen, but he smelled the rank human odor. Fury ennobled him. He rose to his full height, his long neck curving gracefully, his mane streaming in the breeze. Steam poured from his nostrils. He roared, a sound that began at the tip of his long tail, rushed up through his body, and exploded from his mouth in shattering thunder. The humans screamed, and, in a wake of cracking branches, dashed towards the fields.
For long moments the animals waited silently. When the sound of clumsy footsteps disappeared, they shouted, “Hail, Druid! Hail our guardian and protector!”
Druid bowed his head. “It’s my job. Now I need to go home and lie down.”
“I’ll escort you,” Tomo said. “Alone,” he growled at the squirrels and chipmunks who tried to follow Druid in a ragged victory parade.
Tomo waited until they were out of earshot and then asked, “What would you have done if they’d entered the swamp?”
Druid hissed, spraying the cougar with steam. “Do you speak so to the Keeper? Do you believe I hold my vows lightly? The day humans set foot in the swamp with murder in their hearts and the means of it in their hands will be the last for all of them and their kind.”
Tomo’s eyes narrowed to amber slits. “The legends are true? You’ll summon the fire dragons to destroy the human caves and burn their fields?”
Druid shook his head. “I don’t even know where they live. As usual, this lonely dragon will have to take matters into his own paws, but I’d rather humans killed me than know that my cowardice caused one animal to die. Face it, if it comes to that, we can be certain the Mother has abandoned us.”
“I already have my suspicions on that subject.” Tomo growled. “Admit it, so do you. We’re on our own.”
“I keep that thought to myself, and I urge you to do the same. Despair can destroy the World more quickly than even the humans.”
“Especially the despair of a dragon,” Tomo said. “It’s heavier than the spring rains.”
“I try not to let it show, and when I can teach the young only cynicism, I’ll stop. If I have any hope, it’s that one of them, a new being, undiscouraged by a world damp with tears of despair, can lead us back to wholeness.”
“I’ll try to share your hope. In the meantime, what do we do about our knowledge of the humans’ plans? I told Tolti to keep her little nutcracker shut, but she may have told half the swamp already. And we don’t know who else may have heard the humans.”
“Hope it wasn’t Gris,” Druid said. “That hawk has no discretion. Unless we notice rumors getting out of control, I’d rather wait until we’ve observed the rain rituals. Let our friends celebrate this expulsion of the humans. It will strengthen them for what may be coming.”
“I yield to your wisdom,” Tomo said. “And I’ll leave you now to contemplate the events of the day.”
“Thank you,” said Druid, who was tired of contemplation.
So it has come, long after I’d given up hope that the romantic myths spun by that pair of careless drifters called my parents would ever come to pass. Now that I’ve accepted my peaceful, if boring and more than a little disappointing, life, the disruption arrives that makes my heart quicken with the possibility that they might have told the truth, that I’ll yet discover myself as a dragon of destiny.
And probably fail.
On the evening of the rain celebration Druid left his cave to wash himself in the sea. The water spread silken folds over his hide. When he finished washing, he dove to the bottom in search of some particularly succulent varieties of kelp, but after eating a few strands, he lost his appetite, for the waving seaweed reminded him of his mother’s green mane, of abandonment and eons of loneliness. He shook himself dry and headed for the large island in the center of the swamp, trying to think cheerful thoughts about the glories of spring.
During winter, the dry time, life for most of the animals was a continual search for water and food. Spring and the coming of rain gave rise to one of the most joyful celebrations in the swamp. The newest babies were introduced to the community and helped to find their places in the pattern. It was a time when all animals, in tribute to the end of deprivation, were pledged to disregard traditional predatory relationships.
Meadowlarks flew side by side with eagles, and cougars stretched out in their tawny glory to watch fawns pick their trembling way through the meadow. The animals praised the rain and She who showered abundance on them.
As the sky grew dark and the rains abated, the birds and animals gathered together in a large circle. “Let’s have a story,” called out a laughing gull.
Tolti, the squirrel, who had found a place on Druid’s shoulder, said, “A dragon story.”
“Yes, tell us a story, Wise One,” a wolf howled.
A story would distract Druid from the concerns that had marred his enjoyment of the celebration. “What story shall I tell?” he asked the assembled animals.
“Tell us of how the dragons and humans became enemies.”
“That’s a very sad story, and old, older than even me.”
Tomo’s golden eyes raked him. “Tell it.”
Druid sighed. The cougar was right. The celebration was almost over. Tomorrow the animals would have to face possibilities more grim than winter.
“When humans first appeared among us, they didn’t know how to do anything,” he began. “It looked as if they were going to be a small drop in the pond of history when the animals, in the spirit of She Who Teaches Us All, decided to instruct them.”
“The birds and mice and beavers taught them how to build homes.”
“The big cats taught them how to hunt,” said a cougar.
“No interruptions,” someone muttered. “Show respect.”
“The fire dragons looked down from the sky at the poor, shivering human beings and decided to give them their special gift of warmth and heat. At first, the humans were grateful to the animals, but as they learned these skills, they wanted to forget who had taught them. They wanted to believe themselves above the animals who, out of kindness, had helped them to survive and flourish. They wanted to think they had done it all by themselves.”
A young cougar spoke out again. “That’s why they hate cats, for our wisdom. We remind humans that there are other intelligent animals around. For that knowledge they try to imprison us. Even now, our small cousins languish, maltreated and dishonored.”
“Try being a turtle in a cage,” a snapper muttered.
“You’re both right,” Druid said. “Humans do try to imprison or kill the animals they fear. They attempted to do so with dragons. My fire cousins had taught them how to start fires with wood and stones that burned, but humans found that to be hard work. Some human, may he be cursed, got the idea that it would be easier to trap dragons in order to have a ready source of fire.”
Tolti pulled his ear. “May I ask a question?”
“Ask, little one.”
“How did the dragons allow themselves to be trapped?”
“They thought it was a game. For a while they were patient, waiting to see how it was played. When they realized that the rules favored the humans, they decided to break them. They melted the prison bars with their fiery breath and flew away.
“Some humans saw the lovely dragons flying in the air and shot at them with fire sticks. Though the weapons couldn’t penetrate the dragons’ thick scales, this act of hatred ensured that from that time on, dragons and humans would be enemies.”
The animals fell silent—all but the frogs and crickets, who sang a melancholy song about the death of trust. As the final chirp died away, Tolti cried, “Mother, protect us from the humans!”
All the animals echoed her words, and the trees whispered supplications to their creator. Tomo slunk gracefully into the center of the circle.
“Druid called his story an old one, but it is no older than a few days ago, when humans nearly breached the sanctity of our home. This is not the worst of it. Tolti, tell the others your story.”
Druid would have preferred that the cougar consult with him about the best way to spill the bad news, but that was the problem with being a Keeper. He could protect, negotiate, and mediate, but with a crowd of independent animals, he could never dictate.
“Go ahead, Tolti,” he said.
The squirrel clutched Druid’s mane as she spoke what she’d heard of the human’s plans to take the swamp. “They said they would drain the swamp and knock down the trees and build houses. What are houses?”
“Their nests, I think,” Druid said.
“But, Druid, what happens to us?”
Snakes began to hiss, and alligators slapped the water with their tails.
Every animal looked at the dragon. Words never came quickly to him, and he could find no comforting ones now. “We must pray, as Tolti did a short while ago. We must ask Her to protect us and to tell us what we must do to protect ourselves.”
His words were as dry of hope as the swamp had recently been of water. The pattern was being rent, and he, alleged dragon of destiny, stood helpless before its unraveling.
He rose with a wet sigh. “I must go, my friends. It has been a long day.”
Tolti remained on his shoulder. “Keeper, your sorrow shudders through me and makes me want to weep.”
“Water dragons have that effect. One of our tasks is to arouse the deep and hidden emotions in all living things that they may be brought to the light.”
“You arouse love in mine, dear Druid. I don’t like to think of you being alone tonight. Let me be with you.”
Tears stung Druid’s eyes. “You’re kind, small one.”
“Oh, no,” Tolti said as she snuggled into the hollow of his neck. “It’s my honor.”
Tolti chattered as incessantly as other squirrels. “You can’t imagine how shocked I was to hear those humans speaking. Wasn’t it good of me to tell Tomo immediately? I was quite frightened to approach him, even though my tail was raised in truce. He ate my cousin only last week. It was all properly done. Her spirit was ready for departure, and the dance was correctly performed. Still, the sight of his teeth wasn’t a happy one, I can tell you that. It isn’t just the humans, is it?”
Druid, who had drifted beyond the squirrel’s chatter to his own gloomy thoughts, jerked his head up. “What?”
“It’s not just the humans, not even just the swamp. Remember how you taught us to hear and feel the earth’s rhythm? It’s disturbed now.”
Druid lifted the squirrel from his shoulder and held her in his paws so that she faced him. “Tell me what’s wrong with the rhythm.”
The squirrel’s nose quivered. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem to be coming from the ground. It’s a feeling from far away, the trembling of wounded animals, but none I’ve ever known, cries that shiver through me. It’s the sound of hearts that have forgotten how to feel.”
A young squirrel senses more than I have. Druid clasped Tolti to his heart.
The sky was clear now, and the new moon trailed stars across the sky. Reeds quivered with ghostly beauty, and moonbeams painted the charred tree stumps. Slender pine needles glistened as if they’d been dipped in the silver cauldron of the night.
Tonight the swamp was cloaked in grandeur, and its beauty was bitterness in the dragon’s heart as he listened to the reeds and saw grass singing in the faint breeze and heard the distant shriek of a small animal who had surrendered its life.
So the leaves die in autumn, he thought. So they release their hold on the trees who have nurtured them, and fall to the earth to return the gift of life to their hosts. So the seed is food for a rabbit, the rabbit food for the cougar, the cougar food for the seed. It is the way of things that nothing shall be lost or wasted, that we are all important and necessary. Thus the pattern is woven and re-woven.
“How beautiful the World is tonight,” Tolti said softly. “Surely the Mother won’t permit it to be destroyed.”
Do You listen? Druid asked the night. Will you answer this small one’s devotion? Perhaps You are more present than I imagine. Perhaps You hide behind the moon, to mock the fumbling creatures who attempt to survive in this world of Your creation, Your laughter as faint as the fading whisper of dragons’ wings.