There once was a dragon, the last of his line, tainted by his father’s human blood. He was not as tall or as large or as loud as the other dragons, what few there were, but his command of fire was second to none. The other dragons teased him, thought him weak, and, because he was not prone to grandstanding like they were, he kept his silence and let them believe what they wanted, choosing instead to focus his energies on devouring every word of every book he could get his hands on. He was often found haunting the libraries of his ancestors, hiding behind a tome.
But as the years went on the taunts turned to jibes, jibes became cruelty, and the youngest dragon decided something needed to be done.
The same boys that taunted him spoke of a man – and, indeed, the dragon had read tales of this man – who had the uncanny ability to talk to animals. It was said that his voice could charm the birds from the sky and the bears from the woods; animals from all around flocked at his call.
“He is so beautiful that no man or woman can resist him,” the dragon overheard. “He holds sway over both the animal kingdom and humanity. What chance does a dragon have against him?”
“I’m telling you,” the boy insisted. “He is the reason we are so few. The humans feared our power, so convinced him to charm our ancestors into a sleep so the humans could then kill them.”
The path before the dragon lit before him like a lake of fire, leading straight to this man. He would find this Master of Beasts and he would bring back his head, and along with it the respect of his peers and peace from his tormentors.
As soon as night fell the dragon took flight, resting by day. At a stream he overheard a girl tell her friends that the lions had left and all the snakes had gone back into hiding. Another girl mentioned that the Owls only sang at night now, and wasn’t it nice when the foxes and wolves used to help carry the water pails back to the village.
“Excuse me,” said the dragon, whose voice could hold its own charm when he wanted it to. “Has something happened to the man who speaks to the animals?” If he is dead already then my journey is for naught.
“Nobody knows,” said the first girl. “No one has seen or heard from him in days. But the animals have gone.”
“Where is his home?”
One of the boys pointed. “At the top of the hill.”
“Thank you.” The dragon set off in the direction pointed, leaving in his trail a cloud of confused mutterings about men with beguiling voices.
The Beastmaster’s house was the only one atop the hill. The dragon tried the door and found it unlocked, and so crept into the waiting gloom. The house was so dark that the dragon, whose night-vision was excellent, had to call fire to his hands to guide his way. He crept through the house, silent as winter, eyes straining for any sign of the Master of Beasts. With every step he took his heart dropped into his feet and bounced back up into his throat. His eyes watered with the attempt to pierce the shadows. Any minute now he will jump out, and he will charm me, and then he will kill me. The flames on the dragon’s hands sputtered. Sweat beaded along the top of his brow.
One of the stairs creaked and the dragon thought he would choke on his own tongue. This time the flames went out completely.
He stood in the dark, coloured spots whirling before his eyes, waiting for the voice that would be his demise. His ears – which were not the best – pricked at the sound of muffled sobs coming from somewhere nearby. He called the fire back to his hands and moved swiftly onward, all thoughts of his own safety forgotten.
“Hello?” He called softly. The light from his flames burned brighter, dancing shadows around the room. In that room he found a young man sat on a bed crying into a pillow. His hair was a lighter brown than the dragon’s own, with russet tones, and he looked up at the dragon with tear-stained green eyes.
He was indeed as beautiful as the tales had said.
“Are you the Beastmaster?”
“I am. I was. What do you want?”
The dragon faltered. “I… I’ve come to make you answer for your crimes against my ancestors.”
“What?” The Beastmaster wiped at his eyes.
“The dragons you killed. You will answer for every life you took.”
“I-I didn’t kill any dragons.”
“Oh really?” The dragon scoffed. “It was some other Master of Beasts then?”
“The previous owner of the keystone, perhaps. Certainly not me. I would never…”
“The stone that allows me to speak to animals – or, at least, it did. The man who possessed it before me was not very pleasant. It must have been him.” The Beastmaster stared at the dragon. “I’m sorry.”
The dragon sat down on the end of the bed. “Where… Where is he now?”
They sat in silence, the dragon reeling. Finally, he said, “you said ‘it did.’ Why does it not let you speak to animals anymore?”
“Because it is no longer in my possession.” The boy’s voice cracked.
“I’m sorry,” the dragon said. “Tell me what happened.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, please.” The dragon shuffled closer and laid a pale hand on his leg. “Tell me.”
So the Once Master of Beasts told the dragon his tale, one of infatuation and adventure, betrayal and loss. The Emperor had charmed the charmer and taken from him the very thing that gave him his sway over others, an emerald stone.
“He keeps it on him day and night. He has a guard of both beast and man. He sleeps high in a tower, close to the stars, behind a moat, behind high walls. I have no hope of getting my stone back.”
The dragon was silent for a moment. “I will get it back for you.”
The dragon stood and smiled. “I have ways. How will I know it?”
The boy looked doubtful. “It is strung on a gold chain around his neck, shaped like a heart. But how-”
The dragon laid a finger on his lips. “I will get it for you. Rest until I return.”
The dragon waited for night to fall before flying for the Emperor’s castle. He gained entrance easily, his smaller size and dark scales helping to hide his approach. In the tower he found the Emperor asleep, as the Beastmaster had said, with the keystone around his throat. Moving silently as smoke, he unclasped the chain, thinking how easily his quest had been, when a low growl sent ants crawling down his spine. He turned to see two lions blocking his escape. Heart pounding, he placed the chain around his own neck, fumbling with the clasp and almost dropping it. The lions were a few feet away.
“Go. You’re free.” He whispered. The lion on the left shook his head. The dragon didn’t hesitate, he darted between them and leapt from the window, changing as he fell, diving and then soaring high into the clouds.
The Beastmaster woke with a start, and was of course overjoyed at the return of his power.
“What will you do now?” He asked the dragon.
“Well, without you predecessor, my quest was for naught.” He told the Master of Beasts of his troubles with the other dragons. “I’ll just have to think of some other way to make my tormentors leave me alone.”
“Why go back if they do not accept you?”
“Where else will I go?”
“Stay here with me if you like.”
The dragon smiled brightly, fire dancing in his eyes. “Really?”
The boy laughed. “Yes. But I’ve only just got my heart back,” the Beastmaster warned. “I’m not ready to give it away to anyone just yet.”
The dragon grinned. “That’s okay, you keep it. I’ll just steal it again.”