“No man has escaped alive from it yet. I caught a glimpse of it many years ago, but no one has seen it since.”

Overhearing the soldier’s conversation, Cerelia shivered. Dragonwood loomed yonder. Each time a hunter returned, the dragon’s wings grew longer, its claws sharper, and its fire breathing hot enough to melt a horseshoe in five seconds.

She squinted up at the sun. Its rays scorched her arms like burning coals, but failed to warm her beyond the skin. She slipped under the cover of her shack, brushing the ashes into the street with a broom. Shoving the charcoaled wood aside, she sat down on the remains of a fireplace. She hugged one of the timbers as her family’s cries echoed through her mind. Even though the fire was doused five years ago, the memory still burned in her heart.

She wrung her hands as a lump formed in her throat. If I could just have a sip… She glanced at the well. Her tongue felt like a sun-dried brick that became heavier every time she swallowed.

She stumbled up and over to the well. The closer she got, the lighter her steps became. She could almost feel the moistness on her lips. She heaved the bucket up, but it carried only mud. She blinked rapidly, refusing to waste water on tears. It’s almost noon—I only have to wait a little longer.

The villagers started lining up, and Cerelia joined them. People cut in front of her until she was pushed back to her usual place near the end. She counted thirty people ahead of her; she didn’t know if she could endure the thirst until her turn.

A child’s wail interrupted the villagers’ bickering. The men scowled as the mother tried to silence the toddler. Tears streamed down the child’s cheeks, washing away some of the dirt coating his skin. Cerelia covered her face, then popped her head out. The child’s tears lessened. Cerelia covered her face again.

“Boo!” she whispered, uncovering her face. The child giggled, filling Cerelia with warmth. She smiled at the mother, but the woman frowned and moved the child away from Cerelia’s view.

The official opened the gates and distributed the food and water rations. When Cerelia reached the head of the line, he shoved a couple pieces of stale bread and a cup of water into her hand.

“My children need more than this!” the lady with the toddler cried, but the official remained impassive. She grabbed his shirt. “Please, sir!”

He flung her hand away as if it were a dirty rag. “If you’re not content with what you have, maybe you shouldn’t have anything at all!” He knocked the water cup out of her hand. The woman sobbed as she watched the water absorb into the ground.

Cerelia stared into her cup. The water sparkled like liquid gold dust. I need the water as much as she does… She gripped the cup tightly so no one could pry it from her. The child gazed in her direction, red eyed.

Cerelia stretched out her hand. “You can have some of mine.”

The women snatched the cup and guzzled the water, letting it drip down her chin. Then she tossed the cup aside. Cerelia scampered after it. She picked it up, gazing at the one drop left. She’d given away her gold only for it to evaporate in the breeze.

“I saw it!” a man yelled, blasting the crowd with a chill of fear. The second he scurried past the gates, the soldiers slammed the doors behind him. The women covered their mouths while their children hid behind their skirts.

Cerelia sucked in a breath. The dragon? No, this isn’t possible … he couldn’t—

The man waved his arms around. “I was scavenging for wild mushrooms when a shadow blinded the sun and fire exploded from the heavens. A creature with talons like an eagle landed in front of me!”

A knight leaned down from his stallion, smirking. “Tell me, how did you escape?”

“I … I …” the talebearer sputtered.

The knight shoved the talebearer over and galloped off, laughing hysterically. The crowd pointed at the man as he fumbled on the ground. Cerelia winced. How dare they treat the old man that way? Even if he is a liar! She held out her hand, but the talebearer scowled, pushing her hand away. She sighed as he limped down the street. Maybe I should… She shook her head. He probably prefers to be left alone. She remembered all the nights she’d spent by herself in her shack. No one wants to be alone.

She dashed after him, tugging on his cloak. “I’d like to hear more of your story.”

He slammed the door in her face and the sound vibrated into her bones. The pounding of horse’s hooves mimicked the pounding in her head, but then a familiar whistle wafted through the air and the pain vanished like vapor in the sunlight.

“Lothario!” She rushed over and clutched his hand. “It’s wonderful to see you! I haven’t seen you since Lord Sylvester promoted you to knight.”

His somber expression started to brighten, but three knights rode over, and instead his frown sunk deeper into his face. “Get your grimy hands off my armor!”

“Lothario—”

“Knights don’t have time for peasants.”

As he cantered away, her head began pounding again. The sweet memories of them playing together in the square when they were children turned black and rotten, crumpling under the pressure of his words. Lothario promised he’d never leave me. Now all I have left is—

She gazed toward Dragonwood. The trees bid her to enter while the villagers brushed by like she was invisible. Cerelia lowered her eyebrows and darted toward the east wall. I’m never going back.

Bonk! Bang! Clank! The clamor of chisels and hammers drowned out the villagers’ voices. She slipped through a chink in the wall while the workers were busy on the larger breaches. Mist clouded her eyes as she forged through the rough, brown stalks of grass. She stopped briefly at the riverbed, remembering the rush of the water that had once flowed through it. She lifted her skirt and tracked through the few muddy puddles that remained.

A horse neighed, and the hunting party emerged from the forest. Their shoulders sagged as a hunter held up a single, scrawny rabbit. They rode off toward the village.

The hot breeze melted into a cool wind as she stepped into the forest. Sunlight sprinkled down from the treetops like raindrops. The further she wandered into the forest, the further the tranquility settled into her heart. She sat on a rock, watching the tree branches sway.

A twig cracked. She jumped up. Was it a wolf? A bear? When two skinny deer pranced past, her tension eased. She rested her hand on a tree as they disappeared into the bushes. Returning her gaze to the tree, she leaped back and tripped.

Deep claw marks scarred the trunk. And the hole she’d stumbled over wasn’t a hole but a large track. She whirled. The carcass of a wolf lay stretched out on a rock, three two-inch-long teeth embedded in its lungs.

The ground shook. Thumps reverberated through the forest like the steady beating of drums. Cerelia looked back and forth, backpedaling. The thumping grew so loud that it eclipsed all other sounds. Then it stopped. Warm breath grazed the back of her neck. Slowly, she turned.

Thirty teeth glittered from a gaping mouth.

“Drenokar!” she cried, collapsing at his feet in a fit of tears. Drenokar nuzzled her with his snout. She smiled, rubbing his legs tenderly. Teal stripes adorned his green scales like the stitching of an elaborate tapestry. His head was as big as his arms were small and she often laughed at the disproportion. She would never forget the day she found him. She was huddled behind a tree, watching a group of hunters smash a clutch of eggs. Afterwards she noticed movement under the nest. When she lifted the leaves, she saw they’d left one egg untouched. Drenokar had been so tiny then that she’d never expected him to become as tall as an oak.

He flopped over, sending a poof of dust into the air. Cerelia fanned it away before scratching his belly. A dragon indeed—he can’t breathe fire or fly. He is no more a dragon than I. Drenokar was more real than a dragon. Her father had spoken of similar creatures that he called “fearfully great reptiles.”

If it hadn’t been for Drenokar, she would have drowned in an ocean of tears. She withdrew her hand from his scales, walking away. Drenokar followed as the sun descended behind the trees.

“But … you’re just an animal,” she mumbled. “You can’t even understand what I’m saying—let alone how I feel.

Drenokar’s eyes darted to the east and he sniffed the air. Cerelia spun around, scanning the shadows. Several feet away, a figure crunched through the underbrush. The hunters were desperate—if they spotted Drenokar…’

“Drenokar, go! Go!” She slapped his side. The figure was coming closer. Drenokar wasn’t budging. She bolted toward the person, hoping to distract them, but they seemed to have vanished.

“Who goes there?” A knife pressed against her throat for a split second before her assailant recognized her.

“Cerelia?” Lothario released his grip. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

“What’s it matter to you?” She stomped off in the direction of the village.

Lothario grabbed her shoulder. “Listen, about earlier—”

She jumped over the riverbed. “I don’t want to hear about earlier! You stated yourself plainly enough.”

The guards started closing the gates for the evening. She trudged past them with Lothario still trailing her.

“The knights were around. I couldn’t let them think—”

“What? That you were once friends with a pauper’s daughter!”

“I had to, don’t you see? I’m finally somebody … I’ve had enough of being a stable boy!” he shouted, startling her. He sighed and leaned against the well. “It’s a hard world—if you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will.”

“That’s … not … true. Love can tame anything.” Cerelia’s lips quivered.

Lothario pulled the bucket up, dumping the muck on the ground. “Kindness is no better than mud. It doesn’t help you or anyone else.”

“Mother always said—”

“Your family’s dead, Cerelia! And so are their ideals. You and your parents were the family I never had. You didn’t care who I was or what I had been. I would have died for them, but when the villagers burned them out, a part of me died with them.”

The trumpet sounded, cutting off his voice. The villagers shoved past, forming a line as the official mounted the platform.

“Hey, where’s the food?” a man yelled, shaking a fist. A murmur rippled through the crowd.

“Quiet down.” The official held a lantern up to his scroll. “Due to the lack of provisions, the food and water rations have been reduced—”

“You can’t do this!” a man bellowed. Everyone hollered at once and their voices blended into gibberish. The men picked up every heavy object in sight and raised it above their heads.

A bloodstained soldier hobbled through the gates, dragging another soldier on his back. Their appearance extinguished the uproar.

“A dragon, it’s—” The soldier collapsed.

Lothario and some other soldiers rushed to the wall. Cerelia scampered up the ladder after them. The soldiers studied the landscape with their hands on their sword handles. Her breath quickened. It can’t be Drenokar. He’s never harmed anyone before.

“What are you still doing here? You must go somewhere safe. Don’t you realize how dangerous this is?” Lothario seized her arm.

An older knight obstructed their path. “Who is she?”

“She’s … she’s a friend of mine, sir.” He let go of her arm.

“You’d best escort the young lady home,” his superior advised as he started rallying the men.

“Shouldn’t I join you on the detachment?”

“I gave you an order.”

“Yes, sir.” Lothario grimaced, taking her arm again.

“You needn’t bother!” She wrenched her arm loose as the knights stampeded past the gates. Lothario took his post while she pretended to go home. A few minutes later, she snuck back up the wall.

Maybe it’s another false alarm. Her hands trembled as she strove to erase the image of the wounded soldiers from her mind. Perhaps they tried to hurt Drenokar. He’ll go back to the woods. He has to.

Silence settled upon the field like a shroud of doom. As the shadows lengthened, so did everyone’s expressions. A flock of birds flew out of the bushes. Everyone’s eyes shifted toward the woods. Something moved. She squinted.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

People’s pots and pans rattled.

Drenokar’s outline appeared on the horizon and Cerelia felt like her heart stopped. She covered her mouth. No! It’s not Drenokar … he wouldn’t. A gentle creature can’t transform into a ferocious beast in a few hours. She glanced at Lothario. If he had abandoned her, what would prevent Drenokar from doing the same? After all, he was a wild animal.

Drenokar swiped his feet and charged, roaring. The soldiers drew their swords as he headed straight for the wall. Bows twanged. Dozens of arrows soared through the air, but they were less effective than twigs.

Drenokar rammed into the wall. Cerelia tumbled. Bricks crumpled off the top. A few more hits and the gap would be wide enough for him to fit through.

“Drenokar!” she screeched, but he didn’t react. She kicked the bricks off her and leaned out the opening. Where’d he go? Her heart skipped a beat. He’s returned to the woods!

A lady screamed, plunging Cerelia’s hopes into darkness.

A soldier sprinted through the streets. “It’s attacking the east wall!”

Lothario and the rest of the soldiers clambered down the ladder and stampeded in that direction. Drenokar emerged from the shadows, blocking the pathway. He stepped forward; the ground cracked beneath him. Cerelia dashed in front of the soldiers, holding her hand out to Drenokar.

“Cerelia, get back!” Lothario shouted.

Cerelia didn’t flinch. Drenokar could kill her, but she couldn’t bear to lose another friend. She’d rather be torn to pieces than have her soul torn apart by sorrow. Drenokar paused to sniff the air. She peered into the reptile’s eyes.

This wasn’t Drenokar.

The dragon’s mouth crashed down on her. Lothario yanked her back, knocking over a row of barrels. The creature roared and the soldiers scattered. Cerelia and Lothario fled into an alley. Glancing behind her, she saw the dragon smash through a cottage like it was made of feathers.

Creak!

A man lifted a door off a cellar and a cluster of villagers descended into the hole. She and Lothario lunged inside just before the man shut the door. Someone lit a candle and the group huddled together in a corner, listening. The floor muffled the screams from outside, but not the beast’s footsteps.

A flicker of light shone through the cracks as someone banged the door. The person tugged the door up a couple inches, but the bolt held it shut.

“Let me in!” the woman cried.

Cerelia scrambled up the steps. Lothario grabbed her waist, jerking her back.

“She needs help!” Cerelia yelled, kicking Lothario’s legs as she tried to break free.

“You’ll only get yourself killed!” Lothario held her tight. The creature’s footsteps drowned out the woman’s voice. The door stopped rattling.

“You killed her!” Cerelia screamed. The creature roared, beating against the door.

“Look what you’ve done—you attracted the beast!” The people crowded around her.

Wood splinters caved in as the dragon’s claws jabbed into the door.

“Let her lure it away!”

“No! You can’t do this! It wasn’t her fault!” Lothario attempted to fight off the mob but the people seized him too and flung them both outside the second the creature lifted his foot off the door. Lothario rolled away as the reptile’s foot landed where he had been laying.

Cerelia plummeted through a window into a blacksmith’s shop. The roof started to collapse. She bounded over the furniture and dove out the other window. Her dress snagged on an anvil. She heard a horse approaching.

“Help!” she shouted.

The soldier pulled his reins; the horse reared. He looked behind her and all the color drained from his face. He galloped away. Cerelia ripped her dress loose. She put a foot on a crate, hoisting herself up onto the roof. She jumped from cottage to cottage and onto the village wall. Dropping onto the other side, she lowered herself into the grass. She’d be safe once she reached Dragonwood. Drenokar would protect her.

He could save the village. She glanced over her shoulder at the village walls. Suddenly all the cruelties and indifference of the townsfolk pelted her like rocks. She didn’t care if they were all eaten—it’d probably be better that way.

She dashed forward. It was time she began looking out for herself.

She tripped over a log, bruising her left leg. Blood trickled down to her foot. A shriek pierced the night air. She plugged her ears, but the crying toddler’s face flashed before her. What about all the other children in town?

No, she wouldn’t risk losing Drenokar for that. The children would grow up to be as despicable as the adults who had murdered her sick family.

She crawled to the river, barely able to make herself move. Why can’t I let them die? They deserve it! She buried her face in the grass. Her father’s dying words answered her question: Never let hate kill your kindness.

Boom!

The dragon burst through the walls, barreling toward her. She lurched forward but the reptile’s legs propelled him faster than she could run. She fell into the riverbed and struggled to climb out. The creature’s shadow enveloped her. She closed her eyes.

The clang of metal caused her eyes to fly open. Lothario arced his sword. The beast snorted, its eyes flaming red. It thrashed, knocking Lothario off balance. A young child waddled through the opening in the wall behind him. A lady screamed. The creature eyed the toddler, drooling. He lunged after it.

“No!” Cerelia scrambled out of the riverbed. “Drenokar!”

Her voice echoed through the meadow into the wood. Everything went silent. The dragon halted as if it sensed something. The soldiers and knights froze. Lothario hurried to her side as a roar erupted from the forest so loud that it seemed to make the earth tremor.

Drenokar thundered out, crashing into the town. Lothario and Cerelia raced after him. The dragon shook its head, growling. Drenokar nudged the child away, then swung his tail at the creature’s body. The woman snatched her child and hid behind a wagon.

The dragon bashed Drenokar. He stumbled. Cerelia held her breath, clenching her fists. The creature stepped on Drenokar’s neck. He yelped and Cerelia gasped. Drenokar bit the creature’s tail, spinning him into a building. Drenokar dug his claws into the ground. The dragon backed away, retreating into the forest.

“Drenokar!” She rushed forward, beaming. But before she reached him, a man plunged his blade into Drenokar’s heart, and the great reptile toppled over.

The soldier raised his sword high, stepping on Drenokar’s foot. “I defeated the dragon!”

“No!” She collapsed onto Drenokar’s scales. A tear dripped from her eyes into his wound. The villagers opened their doors, crowding around as she stroked his back.

“It wasn’t enough that you killed my family—you had to murder my only friend too! I called him here to save you, and you killed him! You fear the dragon so much when the real dragon is you!” She laid her head on Drenokar’s head, sobbing. If only you had died a natural death. Your life was wasted … because I cared too much about others.

People grimaced at the wounded, kicking them aside. Drenokar’s death had no more impact on their hearts than a broken sword. She clenched her fists as a crust started forming on her heart. She tromped over to the well and rested her arms on the ledge, not caring whether it ever rained again. Nothing mattered anymore. Her tears splashed to the bottom of the well, shattering the glassy reflection like a hammer.

Reflection?

The well was supposed to be dry. The shock dammed her tears as she gazed below. When she looked up, she noticed the official leaving his post. He walked over to the woman who had drank Cerelia’s water and handed her his ration. The woman smiled, took one sip, and then stepped forward, placing the cup in Cerelia’s hand. The talebearer limped over and placed his hand on Cerelia’s shoulder. Two knights rode past and signaled for Lothario to come with them. But he shook his head and grasped Cerelia’s hand.

Lothario studied the talebearer, the official, and the woman.“Maybe you were right—kindness isn’t pointless.”

The sky blackened as clouds rolled in from the west. Lightning flashed, striking Cerelia’s heart with a spark of hope.