Gwyneth huffed as she climbed the mountain. She had no sword and no armor; both had been stolen by the dragon. Many other things had been stolen too, and not just her things. Her father’s sword, which the elves had gifted to him, disappeared one night. The minute hand of the town’s clocktower also had vanished, leaving a ragged and bent stump behind that still ticked pathetically as it counted the time. Her king’s flag had been ripped in half, the guards’ helmets taken right off their heads, and even the royal treasury had lost half its wealth, at least as the rumors went. No one had seen the dragon take any of these things, but there was no doubt it was a dragon who did. Who else would wish to? And who else could?
“It must be stopped,” Gwyneth’s mother whispered to her father one night. Gwyneth was supposed to be sleeping, but she couldn’t quite manage that, and so she had eavesdropped instead. “You must speak with it. You know you are the only one who can.”
“Gwyneth can,” her father said. “I’m getting old for adventures.”
“I am not sending my daughter to a dragon’s lair,” said her mother.
“But you’re fine sending your husband?”
Her mother was silent. Bed sheets rustled as she turned over. “Well, somebody has to stop it, and it won’t be me.”
“It won’t be me, either,” said her father. “This is someone else’s battle.”
Gwyneth fumed. Who’s battle was it, then? She knew everyone else in her town felt the same way her father did, so she got out of bed. She packed a few snacks. She opened her closet to retrieve the armor passed down from her great-great-grandmother, but found it missing. She groaned and opened the drawer where she kept the sword her uncle had given her as a birthday present. That, too, was missing. Muttering curses, she took a knife from the kitchen and stuck it in her belt. She wrote a note to her parents saying where she was going, left it on the kitchen table, and slung her pack across her shoulders, heading out the door. The night was quiet. The air was crisp. Her breath formed wisps in front of her. She blew into her hands to warm them, then set her gaze on the mountain that grew above her town. Pulling at her pack’s straps, she started up the mountain.
And now it was morning, and the sky was pink, and Gwyneth did not really know where the dragon lived, or even what it looked like, but she refused to admit either of these facts. She wiped her palms on her skirt. They had started off cold, but now they were sweating. Her face was red. Strands of dark hair stuck to her forehead by sweat. Reaching a fairly level piece of rock in the mountain path, she flung herself and her pack down, letting out a loud breath. She sat on a rock, panting. Opening her pack, she pulled out one of her snacks and bit into it. She had overlooked packing a waterskin. The juices from the apple she ate would have to do, though she longed for something to wet her throat. Musing over where she might be able to find clean water, she ate slowly. There was no rush in looking for something when you didn’t know where to look.
Finishing the apple, she threw the core aside and leaned back on her hands, staring at the sky. It was blue now, with thin wisps of clouds. On the horizon large white clouds like lumps of mashed potatoes sat. Gwyneth hoped they wouldn’t mean rain later, but figured in this time of year, spring showers were expected. She stood.
Something tugged at her belt. She looked down. A little black dragon, no larger than a cat, backed quickly away. Her knife was in its mouth.
Gwyneth yelped and jumped backward. The dragon hissed at being discovered, dropping the knife to open its mouth wide. Its tail lashed behind it and its wings raised.
The two stood there, staring at each other, waiting for the other one to attack first. Gwyneth held her hands out, palms forward, and breathed deeply. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said at last. Her voice was small.
“That’s what they all say,” the dragon mumbled, and picked the knife back up with its small, sharp teeth.
“I’m not them all, though,” Gwyneth said. “I’m just me.”
The dragon blinked. Its wings lowered and its head raised. It dropped the knife again. “You understand me?” it said.
Gwyneth nodded. “One human in every generation can. A gift passed on by my ancestors since the beginning of time, for some reason. I’m that human for my generation.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. They were amber, the color of autumn leaves when the sun shines directly behind them. Its pupils were slits. “And what do you wish, if not to hurt me?” it said.
“To take back my things,” said Gwyneth. She snatched the knife away from the dragon’s feet, moving quicker than the dragon could react. It arched its back and hissed. “And everyone else’s things.” She sheathed the knife and held up her hands again. “You’ve been stealing them.”
“Who says it’s been me?” the dragon demanded.
Gwyneth raised an eyebrow.
The dragon growled. “Alright, so it has been me. But who says I’ll let you take my hoard away?”
“Because it isn’t your hoard. You don’t own any of the things you’ve taken.”
The dragon shuffled its wings and raised its head. “I took them. They are now in my possession. That makes them mine.”
“I don’t think so. To own something you must know it.” She held up her knife, balanced between her thumb and index finger. “For instance, this knife came from my mother’s kitchen. It is used every day to chop vegetables and thin cuts of meat and feed myself and my father and my two older siblings, when they are home to visit. It has a dent in the handle from when my brother tried learning to throw knives and threw it at the wall, nicking the doorframe and the knife at the same time. I know this knife’s history, and I possess it. That means I can say it is mine. Can you say the same about all your things?”
The dragon paused. It cocked its head. “I know where they came from, if that’s the same thing.”
“I don’t think it is,” said Gwyneth. She looked at the little dragon. It wasn’t exactly what she was expecting when she imagined a dragon taking all her things, though she supposed it explained how it managed to steal things that were kept in small places. She frowned. Its size, however, did not compute with the large things stolen, like suits of armor or a minute hand off a giant clock. “Are you a young dragon?” she asked. “I was expecting someone bigger. How did you manage to break off the clock’s hand?”
“It was rotting anyway,” said the dragon. “And don’t underestimate the strength of even a newly hatched dragon! I am nearly two weeks old and can carry anything twice my weight.” It raised its snout. Twin columns of smoke coiled up from its nostrils.
Gwyneth’s eyes narrowed. “May I see your hoard?” she asked. “I want to see this strength of dragons displayed.”
The dragon gave a happy little squawk and jumped into the air, spreading its wings. It flapped awkwardly, beating one wing at a time before gaining control of itself and flapping both together. Gwyneth followed it on the ground, trying hard not to grin at it. She had met one dragon before, but that one had been large and old, and slow and somber. She liked this little one, and its foolish energy. She supposed she was foolish herself, following a dragon back to its lair, especially a young one who might have protective parents. Still, if it could get her close to the hoard of stolen goods, maybe she could steal at least a few back without getting scorched. Besides, she had always been very persuasive. If all else failed, she doubted her words would.
The dragon led her to a cave in the mountainside, deep but not terribly dark. Far above her head, a passage led heavenward, and sunlight fell through it onto the dragon’s mound. The little black dragon landed on the cavern’s floor before it, taking large leaping steps until it bounded into the pile itself, gold tinkling around it. Gwyneth nervously glanced around the cave, but there were no other passages she could see, and no other dragons.
The hoard itself was quite impressive. The sunlight from above sparked off its treasures, sending filaments of light dancing on the cavern’s walls. Most of the hoard was gold coins, all marked with the emblem of her king. So his treasury had been plundered. There was a crown, too, and there was the half of the country’s flag, its golden lion looking sad with only its head and front paws. She saw her father’s sword, and her own not too far away. The minute hand of the clock stuck up from the heap like a dead tree, bent and not shiny at all, now that she was looking at it at eye level and not shielding her gaze from the sun as she craned her neck to read the time. Pieces of her armor lay scattered about, along with other unfamiliar armor bits. The guards’ helmets lay among the gold like silver turtles or overturned beetles, and Gwyneth even thought she spied a spool of golden thread, though she had only heard of such a treasure in fairytales.
The dragon’s head popped up among the treasure, a helmet perched atop its small curling horns. Gwyneth thought it was grinning. “Isn’t it grand?” the dragon said.
Gwyneth nodded. “It is very grand,” she admitted. “What do you do with it?”
“Hoard it, of course!” said the dragon. It shook its head, and the helmet tumbled off and slid down the pile, stopping at Gwyneth’s feet. She picked it up. “What else would I do with it?”
“But hoarding doesn’t have a purpose,” said Gwyneth. She dropped the helmet and casually bent to examine another bit of treasure. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a purpose for everything?”
The dragon watched her, amber eyes slowly blinking. “It did have a purpose,” it admitted. “I used to need it for sleeping.”
Blinking, Gwyneth straightened. “What do you mean?”
The dragon crawled out of the pile, curling up in the open breastplate of a dismembered suit of armor. “My mother used to warm them with her body. She kept my egg in the middle of the metal, and she’d warm the metal, which would warm me. That kept me strong and healthy, so I could grow into a big dragon like her.”
“Where is your mother?” Gwyneth asked, suddenly nervous.
“I don’t know.” The dragon’s wings lifted in a shrug. “She wasn’t around when I hatched. I remembered her warmth, though, and used to sleep in the middle of the hoard to keep myself warm. But I’m not warm enough myself to warm the treasure, and so it doesn’t really work.”
Gwyneth stared at the dragon. Something stirred in her heart. Could she pity a dragon? Somehow she did. “Why keep adding to the hoard, then?” she asked.
“I thought it was the hoard that kept me warm as an egg,” said the dragon. It scraped a small talon through the breastplate below it. “When I figured out the more treasure I had did not match with the more heat I had, I knew it wasn’t the treasure, but who sat on it. But I also… I thought maybe the more treasure I had the more likely my mother would want to come back. She must like gold a lot if she kept me in it.”
Gwyneth said nothing. Suddenly her desire to bring everything back to her town dissipated.
The dragon looked up at Gwyneth. Its eyes were wide. “Why would a mother leave her egg?”
“I won’t leave you,” blurted Gwyneth. “I can be your mother, although I don’t know how a human would compare to a dragon mother. But if you want, you can live with me. My father will be able to understand you, too. And if both he and I are on your side, my mother is sure to follow.”
“Really?” The dragon stood in the breastplate. Its tail whipped behind it. It jumped from the pile of treasure and trotted over to Gwyneth. “Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” said Gwyneth.
The dragon looked at its hoard. “I suppose that means I don’t need all this treasure anymore.”
A grin split Gwyneth’s face. “Why not take it with you? We wouldn’t be able to fit it all in my house, but we could ask others to watch some of it for you. I know lots of people who would be glad to say they are keeper’s of a dragon’s hoard.”
The dragon nodded. It leapt onto Gwyneth’s shoulder, tiny claws digging into her skin. She flinched, not expecting this, but when she felt its hot breath feather her cheek, she grinned. “I like the way you think,” said the dragon. “I shall share my useless hoard, then. But when I am older and need it to build a nest for my own egg, I expect it all back.”
Gwyneth’s smile faltered. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Still, she thought it more unwise to retract a promise she had made with a dragon than to bring said dragon home, so she turned out of the cave and headed down the mountain. As the dragon chatted away on her shoulder about each item he had stolen and where he had gotten it from (and, “Hey! What if the people I stole it from could watch over it for me?”), her smile returned. Who cared if it was a bad idea? She had befriended a dragon, and while it wasn’t what she had set out to do, it was way cooler.