A steady rain fell in the forest, insistent but not torrential. The Warrior walked along a narrow path. She wore an old leather cowl over a travel-stained and muddy leather cloak. In one hand she held a wooden staff, intricately carved and inlaid with metal engravings that sparkled and coruscated, regardless of the light in the forest. Sometimes the staff threw off sparks when its metal-shod foot struck a stone, even in the rain.
Tied to her staff was a thick rope, made of woolen yarn and also shot through with thin wires. The rope stretched behind her and upwards. As she walked the rope pulled taut and she stopped to look over her shoulder. She tugged on the staff twice and behind her branches snapped.
At the other end the rope was connected to a woolen knit bonnet with long flaps, tied under the wearer's chin. Like the rope and the staff, the bonnet was made with thin metal strands shining here and there among the weave.
Wearing the bonnet was a large green dragon, fully twenty feet long and ten feet high, rain running down his sides, his glistening scales steaming. His wings were folded back along his flanks. Presently he shook them, both in irritation and to shed some of the rainwater that collected in the folds.
“It's slipped over my eyes again,” The dragon growled, low and quiet. He lowered his head and the Warrior slid the bonnet back, readjusted it and re-tied it under his chin.
“Better?” She asked.
“Mmmmm. No. This is still undignified.” The dragon said, his voice low and smoldering with anger.
“But is it uncomfortable?” The Warrior asked.
”....Also no. And I can see now. Where are we going?”
“It's not far now. Don't worry, nobody will be out in this weather, you won't be seen. And I've already apologized for the appearance of the bonnet; it was the only yarn I had to hand.”
“But you haven't apologized for capturing me.”
“I was trying to spare your scaly pride, sir. How often did you apologize to the knights you killed or the girls you held captive?”
The dragon didn't answer. After a moment they continued walking.
The dragon reflected on that horrible moment, two days ago, when the Warrior had snuck her way into his cave while he slept. He awoke, feeling his power flowing out of him, into two sharp things behind his ears. As he struggled to rise he heard the words “Be still, or it shall go poorly for you.”
“Who are you? How are you doing this?” The dragon had asked. He tried to rise and burn this intruder, but instead he found himself sagging down on his hoard, his muscles betraying him, his fire quelled. Moving his head to either side dug a point into the soft, scale-free spot on the back of his head, blinding him with pain yet somehow quieting his rage.
“I told you to be quiet, sir,” was all the response he got, and he felt a large something pulled over his head and tied under his jaw. That “something” was that same varicolored bonnet that would later slip down over his eyes as they walked.
“What is this? How are you weakening me? What magic is this?” The dragon said as she pulled him to his feet.
“Alloy of cuprite, argent, and gold,” the Warrior said, tying the long rope from the bonnet to her staff. “Now come on, we've got a long way to go.”
“No mortal is meant to know that formula.”
“Well, this one does. Come, sir. The weather is turning on us, and I've no desire to be in the rain longer than necessary.”
In the two days of walking that followed, the Warrior had been polite, even courteous, but she spoke little. When she did speak she would ask a few questions and then watch the Dragon closely as he answered. Of course the Dragon also had time to observe her.
She hadn't ever mentioned her name, which was, inasmuch as the Dragon understood humans, somewhat rare. Most of his interactions with humans had included speeches like “do you know who you are dealing with? I'm the Princess of [some local kingdom] and my father, king [whatever] will have you killed!”
Alternately, he had heard many variations on the theme of: “Behold your death, foul wyrm! I, Sir [whatever] the [some adjective] shall put an end to your days of tyranny!”
In either case, names seemed to be important to humans. But not this one.
Presently the arrived at a cave, overgrown with ivy and vines. The Warrior pushed these aside and led the dragon inside. Set back in the cave was a large door which the Warrior unlocked. Beyond was a hallway, high and wide enough for the dragon to enter easily, but clearly shaped by human hands. Torches stood lit at intervals along the hall.
A young man, portly and with sandy hair, came around the corner. “There you are! Lady Delphinia, you are incredibly late for your tonic! You were supposed to be here hours ago, as I'm sure you know.” His voice bounced and squeaked, fitting his youthful appearance.
The Warrior looked embarrassed for a moment. “I've been later, Terrance.”
“That's hardly an excuse, my lady,” Terrence said, bustling out of the room and returning with a steaming mug.
The Warrior accepted the mug and said, “this is the Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Marches,” then took a sip.
“Yes yes, how do you do, the dragon cave is all made up, the hoard gathered, et cetera,” Terrence said, hardly even looking up. He took the Warrior's cloak, gloves, and cowl, then left the room muttering about tonics. The dragon was offended. He was unused to making such a slight impression.
Meanwhile the Warrior—Lady Delphinia, apparently— led the Dragon to a large and admittedly well appointed cave. As Terrance had said there was a respectable hoard piled in the middle of the room, large enough to rival that of an established dragon. But not, the Dragon told himself, larger than his hoard back in the Eastern Marches. Probably.
The Warrior tied the rope to a ring set into the wall and the Dragon felt his power flowing into that ring. The Warrior set her mug on the arm of a priceless golden throne set against the wall and took two knitting needles out of her hair. They hurt the Dragon's eyes to even look at, and he guessed they were the weapons she had pressed against his head.
Her hair fell in a thick silver braid, hanging to her waist. Now that they were in good light, out of the rain, the Dragon got his first good look at his captor.
Her skin was translucent, thin like parchment. Still, she had a vitality about her that had nothing to do with youth. Her lips were thin and bloodless, but her jawline was strong and her gaze was firm. Her eyes were a deep and sparkling brown, catching everything and seemingly amused by it. She wasn’t smiling; she hadn’t smiled since he’d met her. But even a dragon got the sense she was smiling on the inside.
She smoothed her sky-blue tunic. It was long enough to almost be a dress, but she wore cross-tied leggings of dyed leather underneath it. Still not looking at the Dragon, the Warrior picked up her needles and settled on the golden throne, took a sip of her tonic, and looked up.
“Lady Delphinia?” The dragon asked.
“It's as good a name as any.” She answered with a shrug. “I suppose you want to know why I've brought you here.”
The Warrior sighed and took a longer daught of her tonic, finishing it, and set the mug back down. She picked up a skein of yarn and her knitting needles, and started performing the magic that turned wool into clothing. The terrible needles flashed and glinted and hurt the Dragon's eyes, but he found himself transfixed. After a few minutes he forced himself to pull his gaze away, feeling that she was somehow knitting his mind and will into that pattern.
“You are here because times have changed,” The Warrior said after knitting in silence for a while longer. “There was a time where this land was more accepting of dragons and your depredations. The local kingdoms felt that having their princess stolen and rescued was a mark of honor. Granted, it usually meant that kingdoms shrank by half every generation, but before too long there would be a war and conquest aggregate what had been broken.
“But it's all different now. The local kingdoms have merged, peacefully this time, and they acknowledge a single king...well, queen.”
“So? Why should I care how many kings or queens there are?”
“You shouldn't, of course. But I do. This little coalition is the best chance these people have for peace, and if they can make it work I'd like to see them do so. You dragons were valuable, in a way, in the past. You were a common enemy, and enemies can give a people direction. But now, sir, you represent a serious risk of regression. The kingdom needs to stop trying to recapture its past glory and find a new glory.”
She paused and frowned slightly. “Inasmuch as there is any glory in a committee.” She sat quietly for a long moment before continuing.
“And so you need to be removed.”
The Dragon tensed. Her words were quiet, and seemingly without malice, but talk of his 'removal' was disturbing. Before he could ask her to clarify, Terrence returned, removed the mug and handed the Warrior a smaller, steaming cup. She nodded her thanks, held it in both hands, and took a sip. The Dragon recognized the scent.
“Reading the future in your tea leaves?”
“Ha! No. There is no future in leavings. The most you can see in a cup of tea is that you'll feel a bit warmer for a few minutes.” She looked sidelong at the dragon and the corner of her lip moved up ever so slightly. “Doesn't apply to you, of course.”
This is madness, the dragon thought. This wasn't right at all. He should be fighting knights, killing brave young men and holding simpering young women hostage. But instead he was settling on a surprisingly comfortable hoard and listening to a human.
It has been said—by people who are far away and safe inside a castle—that dragons’ bodies are so large so that they can contain dragons’ egos. Dragons are solitary creatures. They have no use for other dragons except for during a very specific season once a century, and no use for any other creatures except as food. They are functionally immortal; no dragon has ever died of natural causes, only the occasional prince with a magic sword. Given their long lives, even if they are unwilling to admit ignorance they still pick up facts and information over the centuries. Without really trying, dragons become educated and occasionally erudite. But they are seldom wise, for wisdom is the result of using your knowledge, which they generally don't do. Why bother with knowledge when pyroclastic breath and foot-long, razor-sharp claws will do the trick?
But the Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Marches was starting to learn wisdom. He didn’t like it. Sitting before him was one that hadn’t come at him with singing sword or glowing shield, who hadn’t blown a trumpet to announce her arrival, who had simply gone about the business of putting him in captivity, like it had been a chore on her list. Perhaps, he realized, this human was worth listening to.
“So there is no longer a place for me in this world?”
“World? I don't know about that. But this kingdom needs to grow up and that means that you need to move out. We are currently on the edge of the kingdom. Tomorrow I'll guide you beyond the border. You're free to go where you wish, provided you never return here. Other kingdoms can deal with you as they please, that's not my problem.”
“And what about my hoard? My cave? My trophies?”
The Warrior raised an eyebrow. “Are you so lowly a wyrm that such things matter to you, sir? Surely you can gather a hoard just as impressive in less than a century.”
“And what is to stop me from returning?”
The Emerald Dragon considered this statement. Bravado demanded that he roar defiance, but his nascent wisdom showed him the end of that conversation. The words “I caught you once, I can do it again” loomed in that future, and he wasn't sure his pride could take it.
Instead he asked, “And after you're gone?” his tone was quieter than he intended.
The Warrior looked at her hands and flexed them, feeling her years, perhaps.
“If they still need help handling a dragon in a hundred years that's their problem. I can't live forever just to babysit them,” she replied, and again the dragon thought there might be the slightest hint of a smile.
The Emerald Dragon shifted on the borrowed hoard, and considered. It was true; he could and would find a new cave, a new territory, a new hoard. Dragons don't move around more than they have to once they're established, but Emerald wasn't lazy or a coward. Settling somewhere else, somewhere that wasn't protected by this lady and her terrible knitting needles seemed to be the path of least resistance.
But there was a new need suddenly revealed in his heart, one he had never before considered. He found he didn't want to leave, but for a different reason. Slowly thoughts coalesced in his mind, un-draconic but somehow pleasant...if he could find a way to realize them. He chose his words carefully.
“So I am to be banished from this kingdom for as long as you protect it, under no circumstances to return?”
“Correct,” The Warrior replied.
“What if I want to come and...visit...you?”
The Warrior smiled, fully this time, her eyes twinkling. She stood up, slowly and with careful grace. She walked over until she was facing the Emerald dragon, her quick eyes studying his much larger ones.
“Well then. I'll be sure to have the hoard ready, friend.”
And she untied the bonnet.