Light filtered through the golden leaves and white branches of a tree onto Cathan’s scales as he stood nearby on a cliff. His nostrils flared as he inhaled the heady smells of the forest below. He breathed in the smell of leaf mulch stirred by his clawed feet.
Cathan craned his long neck to observe the golden leaves of the Drachenwald tree, his green eyes glistening with a hint of matching gold. He snorted in satisfaction, lowering himself and tucking his front legs comfortably beneath his belly.
The forest was silent, just the way he liked it. No squirrels chattering as they collected their nuts, no birds twittering as they made their nests—they wouldn’t dare! All the creatures of the forest knew who he was: Cathan, last of the dragons, guardian of the Drachenwald tree.
Cathan lowered his head toward the ground. A yawn revealed twin rows of long, sharp teeth and a forked serpentine tongue as he settled in for his afternoon nap. He closed his eyes, heaving a sigh.
An unfamiliar scent floating on the air caught his attention. He raised his head and looked around the edge of the clearing below, searching for an intruder—they were close. Very close. A low growl rose in his throat. How had he missed them until now? His shoulders rose in anger as he stood and stalked away from the tree, down into the clearing.
Cathan followed the scent to the lake’s edge beneath his cliff, searching for the intruder. He stepped close to the water, his gaze sweeping the trees.
A twig snapped, and Cathan threw his body to his left, unfurling his wings. His ears pricked as he heard heavy breathing, and he lowered his head closer to one of the trees as he peered around it. The intruder gasped, flailing their arms as they fell. As they backed into a tree and pulled their legs to their chest, their hood fell to their shoulders.
A human girl.
Rage formed in the pit of his stomach. A human! Here, in his woods! He reared on his hind legs, extending his wings to their full length, and bellowed a thunderous roar that echoed through the valley and shook the ground beneath his feet.
How dare a human come here, near the last Drachenwald tree, after the others were destroyed? Did she not know the story? Cathan studied her face as she raised her hands over her ears, covering them with her palms beneath messy, curly brown hair. Two green eyes surrounded by a rounded face gazed up at him and Cathan snapped his jaw shut as his roar faded, then he lowered his head to look down at the girl.
Part of him wanted to strike out at her right then—humans had invaded his home, hunted down the other dragons, and destroyed the other Drachenwald trees, leaving only one behind. Though he had gotten used to his life of solitude, the ache in his heart for his fellow dragons had never faded.
As he watched the girl shaking like a leaf on the ground in front of him, the voice of Cathan’s empathy spoke out. She’s just a girl, he thought. She has nothing to do with the actions of other humans. She couldn’t be more than sixteen years old judging from her size and scent, and the other dragons had been gone for decades. Despite his feelings toward humans, killing her seemed distasteful.
Cathan huffed, baring his teeth, his nostrils flaring. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my forest?”
The girl raised her head, staring up at him with wide eyes. She started to speak, but could barely form the words as they caught in her throat.
Cathan bared his teeth again, growing impatient. “Tell me your name!” he growled.
“Niamh. Please, don’t eat me,” she begged, her voice shaking.
Cathan’s cold laughter echoed throughout the clearing. “Child, if I wanted to eat you, I’d have done it within seconds of seeing you. Now, what are you doing in my forest?”
“My sister has been taken by slavers. I need help finding them and getting her back,” she answered in a trembling voice. “I was following them and found my way here, but I tripped and hurt my ankle,”
Cathan raised his head. Did that mean there were others in the forest looming closer to the tree? “Come closer. I will not hurt you,” he said.
He waited for the girl to obey. The fear fell from her face, replaced by curiosity, as she leaned forward from the tree. “You really are a dragon, aren’t you?”
“My name is Cathan. I am the guardian of this forest, and you are trespassing,” he growled.
Niamh stared up at him in awe. “I’ve never seen a dragon before. I was always told they’d all been hunted down. Some said they weren’t real.”
Cathan lowered his head toward her. “I assure you, I am quite real. See for yourself.”
Niamh hesitantly raised her hand toward him. Her fingers hesitated for a moment before she finally touched the end of his snout near his nostrils, running her hand over his rough, warm scales.
Cathan closed his eyes, breathing in her scent as Niamh’s fingers touched him. His snout twitched, and her earthy human scent filled his nostrils as he tried to sniff out the scents of the slavers. There was something else, something faint but familiar. He shut his eyes tighter, trying to remember. He’d smelled something similar a long time ago, but recognition eluded him. Abandoning the effort, he lifted his lids and watched Niamh’s eyes fill with even more curiosity. They held an interesting mix of innocence and sorrow.
“I never expected to talk to a dragon,” Niamh said, lowering her hand.
Cathan watched the girl, contemplating his response as he pulled his head back. He didn’t want to stray too far from the tree, and who knew where these slavers were by now?
“Do you know where these slavers were going?” he asked.
“Toward Rhothia,” Niamh replied.
Cathan studied her skeptically as he considered her story. The city of Rhothia was much further outside the border of the forest than Cathan would have liked. Nearly a half day’s walk for a human. He didn’t like the idea of her kind being here, and the sooner they left, the better. He couldn’t risk leaving the tree unguarded for long, though.
It won’t happen again. Not under my watch, he thought, remembering the beautiful leaves of the other Drachenwald trees burning before shaking off the painful memory. He had to get Niamh as far away from the tree as he could.
Staying in this form would make the journey difficult, however. Riding was a special privilege reserved for those bonded to a dragon. Besides, it would be easier to pass through the trees and keep a closer eye on her if he wasn’t in this form.
Cathan huffed and rose from the ground. “I will help you. But first, I must take care of something. Stay here,” he said.
He entered the shallow lake and walked toward the cave behind the waterfall. As he entered the cave’s darkness, his shifting magic stirred within him, clawing at his insides. A long growl escaped him, echoing throughout the cave as it continued ripping at him. Bones crunched and flesh squelched as his body shifted. Wings shrank into his back and disappeared. His claws did the same, forming human hands and feet, and his limbs shortened into arms and legs.
He fumbled in the darkness as his eyes struggled to adjust, and he searched for the pile of human clothing made in the nation of Elisora he kept for when he shifted to this form—not that he shifted very often. He detested being in his human form.
Niamh’s jaw dropped as he approached after emerging from the cave. “You can shift into a human?”
Cathan glanced down at himself and considered what he looked like to her. He wore a long-sleeved tunic, simple pants and boots, and a cloak wrapped tight with the hood drawn down, revealing a short beard and sharp jaw, and a head of brown hair that was shorn close to his scalp.
“I assure you that dragons are capable of far more than simply burning down villages, or whatever your fellow humans would have told you,” Cathan answered with a shrug. “Now, come along. The sooner we find your sister, the sooner I can return home.” He jumped from the last rock onto the beach, then walked toward Niamh. “Can you put any weight on your foot?”
Niamh stood straight against the tree and placed her foot on the ground. She winced and shifted her weight off of it. “Some, but it’ll slow me down.”
Cathan sighed. This would take longer than he’d hoped. He searched for a sturdy branch, found one that satisfied him, then offered it to her. “Here, use this as a walking stick.” He grabbed the crook of Niamh’s arm, staring her hard in the eyes. “If we pass anyone, say nothing about who I am if they ask. Understood?” Cathan kept his voice low.
Niamh silently nodded, waiting for him to let her go. Cathan watched her for a moment before he turned back toward the Drachenwald tree. Its leaves contained protective magic that could prove useful on this journey. He considered returning to the tree to collect a few, then dismissed the notion with a confident shrug as he turned back.
They traveled until it became too dark to see and made camp for the night.