by Julie Jackson
art by Amisgaudi
The burning started last night. My mother woke up crying as the dying forest called out to her for help. Once Father had calmed her, he told me to climb into the canopy with him to see what was happening. Sirona, my younger sister, tried to come along, but Father firmly sent her to bed despite her pouts.
We watched silently. The flames marched determinedly across the forest, licking the trees before devouring them. The fire went on for miles in a long and narrow string. Humans were at the edge of it, fruitlessly pouring water on the flames. They had a city several miles north of the forest.
“Where is it coming from?” I whispered.
At first I did not see it, but then it moved, scattering leaves and bending branches; I heard a tree break. While we watched, a burst of flame lit up the night air, igniting a new forest fire.
“Is that a dragon?” I asked, incredulous. I had never seen one.
“Why is it burning the forest?”
“I do not know.”
“What will we do?”
“What men before us have always done.”
I gazed at him. As the oldest child, and the only son, I knew that I could not let the fear forming in my throat come spilling out of my lips.
“Father, but what about the legends? That a dragon is a human reborn after a heroic death? Maybe we should just go talk to it, and see if something is wrong.”
He laughed bitterly. “The legends are not true, son. They are bedtime stories. The dragon is a monster: no more and no less.”
I wondered how father was so certain, and if he had ever actually seen one. I wasn’t going to ask.
“And there is no reasoning with a dragon,” he continued. ”A dragon cannot be commanded like other animals. He must be stopped.”
“Borvo, you cannot tell your mother. She cannot follow me. It will not be safe. If she tries to follow me, you must stop her. Do you understand?”
“Father, I am not sure if I can-“
“You can stop her,” he said knowingly, glancing down at the divining rod that I always carried.
He put a finger to his lips in a shh motion, and slipped silently out of the canopy and into the night.
Sirona and Mother slept while I kept myself busy with a few chores. I was sweeping out leaves at dawn when something on the forest floor caught my eye.
I slipped quietly outside and approached the sapling. It was two feet tall and dark gray, with oily black vines circling the skinny trunk and all the limbs. Coming off the vines were clusters of shiny black thorns, some of which were three inches long. The ground around it was black.
“Be careful,” my mother said, just as I was outstretching my fingers. I jumped, startled at her presence behind me.
“What is it? I have never seen one before.” I gazed in wonder.
“It is a Locust tree. They are the sadness of the Earth, spilling out of the soil.” Mother knelt beside it and lovingly placed her palm on bare bit of vine. It nuzzled against her.
“Where is your father?” she asked, without looking at me.
I steeled myself. “I don’t know.”
“Borvo,” she warned. “Do not lie to me. Where did your father go?”
I shook my head. She stood up, tall and willowy. The plant rose too, another four inches, and impossibly I felt it looking at me. Mother’s face was pinched with anger.
The thorns of the locust tree were getting longer.
“Tell me where your father went. Now!”
“He said we cannot follow!” I blurted out. I was ashamed at how little time it took for her to get the truth out of me. “He said to keep you here! I have to keep you and Sirona safe!” I was shouting and tears were stinging my eyes before I knew it.
“Borvo, go to your room. Stay there until I return,” she commanded, before breaking into a run. I waited for a few seconds, and threw my divining rod. It landed perfectly between her feet and the locust tree. The ground opened up and filled with water from deep inside the earth. She tried to run out of the trench, but the water swirled and the pit filled with mud up to her knees. The more she struggled, the thicker the mud got until she couldn’t move her legs.
I ran and yanked the rod out of the soil. I didn’t want to leave her like that, but I didn’t see what choice I had. Mother reached for the little black plant and began whispering. The plant, now four feet high, stretched out to her. She broke the longest thorn off into her hand. She managed to stand up and turned her head to face me. She cocked an eyebrow.
I knew then that I had made a mistake.
Mother raised the thorn high into the air, and gave it a good swish.
The ground exploded.
She stood perfectly still as the locust plant violently spurted into the sky.
Thorn after thorn unfurled, some over a foot long, and one bare vine wrapped itself around her waist and lifted her out of the mud. It set her back on solid earth behind its trunk. I threw my divining rod again, and it was swallowed quickly by a thick swatch of kudzu.
I had never seen Mother use so much of her power. I was terrified.
Several more black trees spilled angrily out of the ground. They tangled their vines around one another as they grew tall enough to block out the sunlight and completely dome over the canopy. The shaking stopped.
“I will tell your father you put up a good fight,” Mother yelled, her voice muffled by the wall of black trees. “Take care of your sister.”
Several hours passed and Sirona asked questions that I could not answer. We were eating the last of the blackberries when we heard a scratching sound. I blew out the candles, but it was too late. The dragon had found us.
It circled the locust tree wall, over and over, sniffing and scraping.
“Can it get in here?” Sirona whispered. I shook my head.
“There is no way it can break Mother’s Magic,” I assured her.
The sudden crashing and tearing noise let me know I was wrong.
We were scrambling to hide when the door was ripped away. We felt the heat from the dragon’s nostrils and the room filled with foul smoke. I pushed Sirona halfway up the stairs, screaming at her to move faster.
“Excuse me!” the dragon snarled, and I felt another wave of heat. I froze on the stairs.
Its giant head peered inside the doorway. The skin was scaly gray, with leathery horns arching away from its face. The eyes were giant and bright yellow, but most of the face was taken up by long, needle-like teeth. It curled its lip and spit.
My divining rod landed on the floor with a wet splat.
“Is this yours?” it asked me.
I was paralyzed.
“Well, is it?” The dragon tilted its head questioningly.
“Good. Come with me.” It took its head out of the doorway and stuck a clawed foot inside. It wiggled its talons.
I looked wide-eyed at Sirona. She was staring at the dragon’s foot.
“What do I do?” I whispered.
The dragon stuck its head back inside. “Get your divining rod and come with me!” it demanded, and produced the foot again.
I looked helplessly at Sirona, and she gaped back at me.
“The child comes too,” the dragon said. ”I promise you she will be safe.”
“She stays here,” I said sharply. “In case my parents return home.”
The dragon tapped a claw impatiently on the floor, leaving deep grooves in the wood.
“Fine,” it said. “Now come.”
I climbed gently into the foot, and the dragon told me its story.
It was actually a she, and her name was Orypa. She had lived under the river in a cave for a thousand years. The humans recently dammed the river, causing her cave to dry out. The large schools of fish she normally fed on were stopped by the dam. She was starving and angry. Despite her towering height and her thick skin, I could tell that she was thin. We walked together through the woods for a long time, pausing only once for Orypa to swallow a deer whole.
“These taste terrible,” she complained. “I miss fish.”
We stopped at the shore of a tributary hidden deep in the trees.
“Is that why you are burning the forest? Because you are angry?”
She laughed. “No. Your race hides very well. I needed to find you because I knew one of you would be able to command the water from Earth.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Make me a new home.”
I looked around. Several feet from the riverbank, the ground dipped sharply against a large rock formation. Upon closer inspection, I noticed several gaps between the rocks.
“Is it hollow back there?” I asked.
“Yes, it is,” she said with a smile. “I can move the rocks. If you can get the water to move enough of the earth, the tributary will flow into the rocks, giving me a nice wet cave. Can you do it?”
It would take several hits with the divining rod, but I felt sure that I could do it. I was careful, making small punctures so that muddy water wouldn’t sweep me away. The dragon was busy moving the large stones. Just as the water was trickling down, I saw a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye.
My parents were creeping through the woods. Orypa had her back to them. I waved my arms frantically to get their attention, but they mistook this as a cry for help. My mother set upon the dragon before I could protest. She waved the thorn at Orypa and shouted commands at the soil. Orypa howled in rage as sharp black vines erupted from the earth and dug into her skin. Erratic flames shot out of her throat and filled the night sky. My parents ignored my screams. Orypa caught my eye. She looked terrified and sad.
I ran a little closer to the tributary, and shoved the rod deep into the Earth. The ground separated. Water and mud began flowing It knocked my parents off their feet, and broke Mother’s spell just enough that Orypa was able to escape. She scrambled to cave, but she hadn’t cleared enough stones yet to wiggle inside. Mother was preparing to attack again. I drove my rod into the Earth at a deep angle. The shoreline shattered open, producing a canyon filled with water, and I was sucked into the now-raging river. Cold blackness swirled over my head and into my mouth, and I felt sharp rocks banging into me. There was a sudden burst of warm pain in my stomach, and stars filled my vision. I came to an abrupt stop when I smashed into the back of the cave. I heard screaming and thundering footsteps, but it all sounded so far away, and I was so sleepy.
Darkness enveloped me. I blinked and pushed on it, and saw a tiny crack of light. I leaned my face into the crack and shoved harder. Finally I burst through, tumbling over my awkward leathery wings and squawking. A puff of gray smoke escaped from my throat, and I shakily stood. I craned my long neck all around, and admired my ocean blue scaly skin. I smiled and ran my tongue over my long, needle-like teeth. Orypa laughed.
“Come, Borvo,” she said. “Let’s go show your father that the legends are true.”
Julie Jackson is 32 and currently resides in North Little Rock AR. She grew up in a tiny town outside of Memphis, TN. She is married with three spoiled bunnies. She enjoys writing, reading, cooking, making jewelry, and doing decoupage. She has other works on Writer’s Carnival she would love for you to read, and her story ‘A Trick of the Light’ was published in Aurora Wolf’s April issue. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter @JulieEmerson10.