There was a child in the forest.
Small, asleep, and dressed all in red, the boy was curled into a mossy nook between the roots of a great redwood. His cheeks were rosy and his face was peaceful. He couldn’t have been more than two years old. Morning sunlight illuminated his soft blond curls into a golden halo, as though he was a small angel who had come down to earth for a nap.
Maaza knew better than that, of course. A symbol was embroidered into the front of the boy’s tunic, and even twisted by his sleeping position, she would recognize that coat of arms anywhere. You never forget the thing that takes your children away from you. Maaza folded her vast, scaly wings to her sides and wrapped her tail around her talons. The fire in her chest flared, roiling with confused emotion.
“Well, well, well! What have we got here, Maaza old girl?” A rich, crafty voice cut through the silence of the forest.
“Hello, Shilling.” Maaza eyed a certain squirrel perched on the tree branch nearest her. “Do you know anything about this?” She nodded to the base of the redwood tree.
“I know a great many things, my dear Maaza.” The squirrel leaped to the ground, and halfway down he morphed into his natural Fae form, tall with olive-toned skin and dressed in leaves. Shilling’s eyes twinkled, black and bright. “But if you mean ‘do I know how a human child wound up out in the middle of the Lush Valley’ then I haven’t the foggiest.”
“Hmm.” Maaza turned her great scaled head back to the sleeping child. She breathed deeply. The baby smelled of cotton and porridge and candlewax. At the rush of her warm breath, he shifted in his sleep, pale brows furrowed. The fire inside her flickered again.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Shilling crowed with delight, bending over the child. “The Undersea coat of arms!” He grinned at Maaza. “It seems as if the world has granted your wish, dear lady! Justice, at last, is it not?”
“Be gone from my sight!” Maaza glared in Shilling’s direction. The insolent Fae danced nimbly before her, wagging a finger.
“Let us not be enemies, lady!” He raised his eyebrows. “Such powerful forces at odds? It could only end in disaster.”
“The existence of such idiocy is the true disaster.” Maaza snapped, but she kept her fire in her chest, where it roared quietly.
Shilling laughed. “You have a quick wit today! Perhaps the coming spring has sharpened your senses after all.”
Maaza did not reply. She was back to staring at the child in the moss again. He was so small. So small, and so alive. With each breath, his tiny chest rose and fell.
“It would be kindest to the boy to do it now before he awakes. You know,” Shilling crept up next to her and cupped his hand around his mouth, mocking a whisper, “just one fiery breath and… Poof! Gone! Justice fulfilled. Balance restored. Your children avenged.”
In a swift motion, Maaza flared her great blue and gold wings outwards, catching Shilling square in the belly and sending him flying into the nearest tree. He transformed into a dragonfly just before impact and managed to prevent any damage with a buzzing of his wings.
A dragonfly form suited Shilling well, Maaza thought. The only thing more accurate would be a fly. Or perhaps a mosquito.
“What was that for?” He pouted, buzzing angry circles around the tip of Maaza’s golden horn. “You’ve said it often enough yourself!”
Shilling’s protests were interrupted by a little chirp of a yawn from the base of the redwood. Fae and dragon alike froze, their eyes fixed on the tiny human creature.
The boy stretched, squirmed, and at last opened his eyes. Eyes the color of a robin’s eggshell. The fire inside Maaza flickered again. Blue eyes and golden hair. Blue scales and golden spines.
The child blinked several times, taking in the sight of Maaza’s enormous head, shimmering in the sunlight, and the glittering dragonfly buzzing in mid-air beside her. His eyes widened and his fists clenched, a little sob caught in his throat, but he did not cry.
“Go way!” The child said firmly, still curled with his back against the tree. His eyes sparked with defiance and fear.
Shilling burst into laughter and almost fell out of the air, wheezing.
Maaza gazed at the boy, who stared steadily back at her. Not unafraid, but brave. So young and so brave.
“Shilling,” Maaza kept her growl low, so as not to frighten the boy, “tell him we mean no harm.”
“What?” Shilling did fall out of the air this time. After much cursing and buzzing, he managed to right himself again and flew several agitated figure eights.
“Maaza! You’ve had him handed to you on a silver platter! He’s wearing the royal crest! There’s only one child he could be–prince of the Undersea castle! You know, the same Undersea castle that hunts dragons? Who has killed legions of them? Whose King smashed your eggs in retaliation to a dragon attack you were never a part of? What’s an act of more perfect revenge than this? You could fry him with a sneeze!”
“Do you know who else I could fry with a sneeze?” Maaza lowered her head an inch, nostrils flared in Shilling’s direction. He froze in mid-air.
“Point taken,” Shilling muttered at last. He let out a long groan, just to let Maaza know how boring she was, and then transformed back into his Fae form, dropping down on one knee beside the child.
“We mean you no harm, human child,” Shilling’s tone was unhelpfully deadpan.
The boy flinched, staring up at the man with wide eyes.
“Ask him what his name is.” Maaza pushed.
Shilling gave her an unimpressed look. “If you name him, you’ll get attached.”
“I meant what I said, Shilling.” Maaza said patiently, “I don’t mean him any harm.”
“But why?” Shilling pouted.
The fire flared inside Maaza again. “Because taking a life is wrong, and I know that first hand.” Her eyes blazed, her tone as sharp as steel. Shilling’s eyes widened slightly. “Now.” Maaza continued. “Ask him his name for me.”
Shilling sighed and turned back, speaking in the human language once again. “What is your name, human child?”
“Benny.” The boy glared at the Fae.
“Well, Benny. This old lady dragon wishes me to tell you that she means no harm. I cannot say the same for myself, though I do not wish you harm particularly either. I’m simply bored. Two thousand years of life will do that to a Fae.”
“You’re not very convincing,” Maaza said.
“I don’t have to be here, you know!” Shilling crossed his arms, his velvety voice childishly whiny once again. “I can just leave.”
I wish he would, Maaza thought. But she knew better than to voice the words aloud. They would only encourage him.
“Dragon.” Benny glanced over at Maaza again, he was still glaring.
“Yes, little one.” Maaza leaned down, her eyes level with him, the deep purr of the fire inside her vibrating through her throat. She could not speak his language like Shilling, but she hoped her meaning was clear. Benny had a mother, she knew. He must recognize kindness.
He stared into her eyes for a long time, and a little of the fear that clung to him like cobwebs seemed to draw away.
“I want mama,” Benny whispered, but he was asking her. He trusted her enough to ask. That was something.
“I know, little one.” Maaza dipped her head low enough for him to touch. “And I am sure that she wants you. I can take you back to her if you will let me.”
“What?!” Shilling shouted. “How does that–Why in the name of the heavens–” He dissolved into a fit of incoherent muttering.
At the bottom of the Lush Valley, swam the sea. Clear as glass, bright as crystal. Sparkling, dazzling, a vast turquoise expanse.
Up from the sea sprang vibrant green pinnacles of earth, like mossy chess pieces on a shimmering blue chessboard. They were called Dragon Perches by the people of the Undersea city, Maaza knew. She remembered flying through them with Coma, her mate, laughing, racing each other, many, many years ago,
The smell of salt and water, wind and sky, filled Maaza’s nose. Cold air whistled through her golden spines as she glided. Slowly, for a dragon, and as steady as she could be. For the first time in her life, Maaza had passengers. A disgruntled Shilling, in his eagle form, perched atop one of her spines. Benny rode in an enormous Fae-woven basket, which Maaza carried in her talons. Down below she could hear him squealing in excitement as the vibrant world slipped away below. The fire in Maaza’s chest crackled, warm and contented. The little fellow certainly wasn’t afraid of heights.
The journey was half an hour as the dragon flies. Maaza made each adjustment to her flight as gently as she could.
At last, over the water, a scattering of floating buildings came into view. Plots of farmland and greenhouses, shops, and homes running along a silver web of canals. Boats floated alongside little docks in the water. The city spread over the sea and onto the land beside it, but Maaza knew from tales told by the Fae that the city above was nothing compared to the castle hidden deep below the waves.
Under the water to protect from dragon fire.
Maaza glided a good distance away, coming down carefully among the trees on the land, several wingspans away from the town itself. If she was seen, with the prince in her claws no less, things would not end well.
The basket touched down gently on the spring grass, with a whooping, giggling Benny inside.
“Was that fun, little one?” Maaza bent her head down to the boy.
To Maaza’s everlasting surprise, Benny threw his arms over her snout without hesitation and squeezed tight, still giggling. The fire inside her flickered once more, memories of warm nests and three blue and gold eggs safe under her wings.
“Good human.” Maaza returned in amusement once Benny let her go. “Now off with you, young one.” She nudged him gently forward towards the town that peeked through the trees. She didn’t have much time. Too long here and she would be spotted.
“Bye bye dragon!” Benny waved, then went running through the trees towards the city, both his arms outstretched, as though mimicking flight, laughing all the way. His voice was as bright as the sunlight that spilled through the trees.
Amusement bubbled inside Maaza at the thought of common city folk finding their little prince at the docks. A guard would spot him, surely. There were enough of them around, day and night. He would be alright.
“Do tell me, Maaza dearest, how this is fair in any way.” Shilling’s velvety voice was subdued.
“It’s not,” Maaza said simply. “That’s the point of forgiveness.”
Shilling transformed into his Fae form just to raise his eyebrows at her. “You’ve forgiven them, then?”
“I’m trying to.” Maaza sighed. “I don’t always feel it, but I choose to forgive if you know what I mean.”
“Not a clue.”
Maaza narrowed her eyes in the Fae’s direction. “I know you brought Benny to me, Shilling.”
“Really?” He smirked “Prove it.”
“I am not dull, Shilling.” Maaza raised her head, towering above him. “A toddler could not swim miles through the sea and climb up the peak of a Dragon Perch. How would he have even left the Undersea castle, to begin with? But Fae are experts at stealing human children, are they not? You have enough magic to carry him along in an enchanted sleep, in the form of a sea eagle, perhaps. In any case, you would not have followed me every wing-beat of this journey unless you were invested somehow.”
“Interesting theory.” Shilling continued to smile. “And why on earth would I go to such trouble?”
“You’re bored and were looking for some entertainment,” Maaza said flatly. “Two thousand years of life will do that to a Fae.”
“You meant for that child to die.” Maaza sighed and stretched out her wings. “Is it worth my time to tell you how wrong that is?”
“Probably not.” Shilling shrugged.
“Well, at least you’re honest.” Maaza snorted, a coil of smoke rising into the air. “Unfortunately, whatever your intentions, I must thank you, Shilling.” Maaza took to the air with a sweep of her wings.
Shilling joined her a moment later in eagle form once again. “I’m honored, though I’ll admit, I don’t see why. You can’t tell me you don’t hate humans anymore. Or at least, you must hate the king and his knights.”
“Because now I know.” Maaza glanced down at him with a smile. “I am stronger than they are.”