This is the first in a series of short stories I will be sharing to the blog collectively known as “Salerian Shorts.” These stories take place in the world of the Penelope’s Dragon series. Some will focus on the the characters from the series. Others, such as this one, will expand on the myths and legends that shape the world. This story is the first I am going to share, but it is also titled “The First.” I hope you enjoy!
The First© Sara Cleveland 2021
Water dripped from the hem of Marta’s cloak. She’d done it this time. She’d let her anger goad her into foolishly getting herself caught in a summer storm. Now she had no choice but to huddle in this cave and wait for the season’s temper tantrum to run its course. She threw back the hood, and more water splattered the damp stone and dirt at her feet. She ran her fingers through hair that was already as soaked through. Marta hated wet hair, especially when she couldn’t comb it by the fire and dry it into neat waves. Now it would be a frizzy snarl.
Damn her temper. And damn Gerald for stoking it.
Heaving a sigh, Marta removed the cloak entirely before the rest of her clothing went from damp to sopping. She tossed it back into the cave, away from the deluge of water coming down just inches from where she stood. Then she sat, back to the wall, staring through the sheeting rain towards the lake, which had become all but invisible.
It was incredibly dull, waiting out a summer storm by herself, and Marta soon found herself nodding off, lulled by the gentle whoosh, whoosh. She was almost asleep when she felt more than heard the sickening crunch of something striking the ground outside.
Marta leapt to her feet, her hand going to the knife at her belt. It was just a small blade for eating, hardly even worth mentioning in a fight. Yet it was the only weapon her stupid ass had brought with her when she’d marched out of the cottage in a huff.
She squinted, trying to see what was out there that could have made that noise. Had that boulder been there before? She didn’t think it had.
“Don’t be stupid, Marta,” she muttered. “Don’t go out there and draw attention to yourself.”
But what if whatever was out there didn’t like the rain any more than she did? What if it was searching for a place to get dry? A place like this cave? She’d be trapped, with the monster between her and the only exit. And Marta knew this was the only exit. She and Gerald had explored every inch of their father’s holdings as children, and she knew the cave systems in these cliffs as well as the rooms of her own cottage.
Shaking the water and now mud from her cloak, Marta threw it about her shoulders and pulled the hood up. With her sad little knife in a death grip, she eased her way out of the cave and into the downpour.
The dark shape lay motionless not two yards from the mouth of the cave. Curiosity began to overtake Marta’s fear and common sense. She crept closer to it.
A startled gasp wrenched itself from her throat. It was a dragon. A very, very young dragon. Although they lived to be ancient, they still grew fairly rapidly for the first few years. This one couldn’t be more than a few days out of its shell if she had to guess. What was a hatchling doing here? There were no dragon nests nearby. They preferred much higher cliffs with caves nearly impossible for a human to access.
Deep red gouges in the creature’s dark hide told the story. Something, possibly another dragon or a great eagle, had snatched the baby from its mother’s nest while she was away. Perhaps it had meant to make a meal of the defenseless creature, or maybe it held a grudge against the mother. Dragons were highly intelligent creatures, after all. A shiver of fear ran down Marta’s spine. She looked up, anxiously scanning the sky for any dark shapes, but all that got her was rain in her eyes.
The baby dragon made a sound so small that Marta could barely hear it over the driving rain. It was still alive!
Marta felt sick. What pain and terror the poor thing must be feeling. To die out here, all alone in the storm.
“You know you can’t leave it here.” Talking to herself was a lousy stress habit she’d never managed to break.
She spared one last look at the sky before stooping to gently lift the dragon. It was surprisingly light, and Marta wondered if their bones were hollow like a bird. It made another pathetic little mewling sound, and she knew she was hurting it. Normally she wouldn’t move someone with a potentially broken spine. Still, Marta didn’t think it was going to make any difference for this little dragon. She cradled it as gently as she could.
“I’m sorry, little one. But I have to get you inside.”
The little tremors that wracked its body broke her heart. It was so small. So fragile. If another dragon did do this, how could any sentient being be so cruel? Marta sighed. She supposed humans were no better, and dragons were beasts, after all.
Marta sat with the baby dragon for a long time, long after the rain had moved on. She didn’t even notice the quiet of night coming on. She was focused on the baby’s wheezing breathing and the rasp of its scales through the cloth of her trousers as its head rested in her lap.
“Such a strong little one,” she whispered to it, stroking its rust-colored head. “You can let go, baby, it’s okay. You don’t have to be in pain anymore.”
It stirred a little, as if in denial of her words. Fresh tears pricked at the back of her eyes.
“Shall I sing to you?”
She’d thought to sing it a lullaby from her childhood. Something soothing. But instead, Marta found that strange words she’d never heard before rolled off her tongue as if she’d always known them. The dragon seemed to relax as if its pain were seeping out of its little body.
“Please, gods. If anyone is listening. Human, dragon. Anyone.” Marta didn’t know what she was praying for. Was she praying for the little dragon to let go of its suffering? Should she have used her little knife hours ago to put an end to it? Or was she praying instead for a miracle?
“So kind, for a human.”
The voice that spoke rumbled through the cave, its deep register reverberating in Marta’s chest. Her head whipped around to the mouth of the cave.
A head blocked the entrance.
“So many of your kind hunt ours. And we hunt them in return,” the new dragon continued. There was something harsh and jagged in his pronunciation of her language. “But you wish to understand us. To sympathize with us.”
Marta found that her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. The dragon chuckled but then looked to the baby, and its expression grew sad. Marta’s chest tightened in response.
“Don’t say it,” she pleaded, her tongue suddenly loosened from its bonds. “I can’t bear to hear it.”
“The little one’s time grows short. She hasn’t the strength to survive what has been done to her.”
“She…” Marta stroked the little dragon’s head again in wonder before turning pleading eyes back to the adult — no, elder, she thought — dragon. “There must be something we can do. Dragons are magic! You must have some magic that can save her.”
The dragon shook its head.
“Dragons are not healers, dear one. And there are limits even to what your human healers can do.”
“Why would someone do this?”
The dragon — a male, perhaps? — heaved what sounded like a very morose sort of sigh.
“Dragons are more like humans than most of our kind would care to admit, dear one. We can be just as motivated by jealousy and hatred…” he paused. “Or love as any human.”
Marta wiped furiously at the tears that were once again streaming down her face. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the little ones had to suffer for the mistakes of others.
“Dragon,” she said. “Why have you come?”
“Because you called.”
It was then that Marta noticed something peculiar about her visitor. Despite his head taking up the entire mouth of the cave, Marta could still see the night sky reflected on the lake beyond. The dragon chuckled at her awareness.
“Did you think only humans have gods, child?”
“But if you’re a god, then surely you can save her!”
“Mine is not the power of life, but of change. I cannot save the little one as she is. But I can make her something more.” The power in that word filled the cave and made Marta’s blood sing in her veins. This truly was a god of dragons.
“But her spirit is weak; she cannot survive on her own. She must be joined with a spirit strong enough to shoulder with her the burden of Becoming.”
A shiver of fear shot down Marta’s spine even as a thrill of excitement shot through her chest. Her spirit was strong.
What madness. To give up herself, her being for a tiny creature she didn’t even really know?
“If you wish to Become, child, you must say it.” Again his power sang in her veins, and Marta knew in that instant that this was her calling. This was that strange something she’d always been seeking when she haunted the lonely forests of her father’s domain.
“Do what you must, Great One. I am ready.”
The last thing Marta knew was a gentle voice in her mind. It brushed against her fading consciousness with a single phrase.
Orda left the cave with the morning light. The cloak wrapped around her skinny shoulders was far too large, and it dragged on the ground behind her. The part of her that was the human woman Marta knew where to go, even as the part that was Rathla shook at the very idea of it. But the Great Ancestor had warned her that humans would be safer than dragons until she grew into herself. She was Orda, the first. And someday, she would bring peace.