The Alaskan wind bit through the layers of Nell’s clothing like a beast gnawing away all the warmth in her soul. She had been lost for hours, stumbling between ragged boulders, sliding into drifts of snow, scuttling crablike over treacherous slopes of scree. She had been left behind when her hunting mad brother and his friends tore away from camp, guns waving, at the glimpse of some monstrous flying beast. Slaughtering bears and moose had begun to bore them.
If she’d had any sense, Nell realized, instead of scrambling after them, she would have stayed in camp. She might have been lonely in her awareness that she mattered to no one, but, she thought ruefully, she could have warmed her hands with a fire.
“Hallooo!!!” She called again. She had been shouting for hours. Soon the sun would give up its late winter peeping over the far horizon and fully set…and then the cold would finish its relentless work.
She wondered wearily how long her brother would hunt for her. Not long, she realized. He had no use for this sixteen-year-old sister who had no inclination to train to be a schoolteacher nor anyone she wanted to marry.
“Why can’t you be like other girls?” he had demanded petulantly.
Nell had had no answer for him, but the life he’d mapped out for her seemed a living death.
“You have no right to depend on me for your livelihood,” he’d snarled.
She did not point out that half of the money he’d squandered since their parents had died in the great flu epidemic was rightfully hers.
So in a fit of contrariness, Nell had insisted on coming along on this wretched trip. The surreal landscape enchanted her with its magic and mystery. But now it was killing her.
The wind gusted stronger now, seeming to carry an eerie howl of pain on its wings. Nell stumbled again. Her feet and hands were frozen, without sensation. Her shivering had become uncontrollable. The end would be soon.
She wondered distantly if her brother had managed to shoot the giant eagle or whatever it was that had sent him scrambling across the ghostly landscape. She hoped not. She hated his pleasure in the murder of innocent creatures. Would he have a similar surge of satisfaction when her death released him from irksome duty?
It didn’t matter. She would not be there to witness it.
Nell’s faltering steps led her into a hollow between the jagged boulders. Perhaps here at the base of the mountain the wind would be less fierce; perhaps the low cries of agony would be blocked.
But no, the sound was louder. How confusing…clearly an animal sound…and yet in her benumbed state, Nell thought she could understand a cry for help. How odd. A cry for help out here in the barren wilderness.
But I’m the one who needs help, she thought with a dying flicker of amusement.
And then she saw it. For a moment she stood still, swaying on her feet, thinking this vision must be the delirium of death.
But what a beautiful, terrible delirium.
The injured dragon lay among the rocks, its sinuous, silvery blue body glowing weakly in the scant light. As Nell stared, it lifted its head, and stared at her with eyes like molten sapphires.
For long moments Nell half-held her breath, waiting for the creature to attack, to spring at her and end her life with a swipe of savage claws or a bite from dagger teeth.
Time crawled by. A minute. Two. Nothing but the sound of soft panting and the scent of burnt sugar steaming from the dragon’s maw.
At last Nell tore her gaze from the terrifying face and looked farther. The dragon’s front leg was twisted, and a scattering of silvery blood and ice blue scales glinted among the scree. Its fall from the sky must have triggered a rockslide, she realized. Stones and boulders pinned down a bent wing, the glistening membrane shredded by a splatter of gunshot holes.
A wave of anger and pity swept over Nell.
“I’m sorry he shot you,” she mumbled. She was unsure if words had come out of her frozen mouth, but she regretted to her soul that her brother had wantonly harmed such incredible, wild beauty.
For several moments, swaying with exhaustion and cold, Nell stared at the injured creature. She thought she should scream, possibly faint. But she shivered too hard to scream and if she fainted, she would never stand up again. It was too cold and night was falling.
“Doesn’t matter,” Nell muttered. “Dead by morning…”
“Not if you help me…” the smoky, warm voice hung in the air.
“Did you…?” Nell lurched a step closer. “Did you speak to me?”
“Yes…I am injured, not dumb.”
“Clearly not,” Nell felt a bubble of hysterical laughter lift up through her. “Are you, in fact, a…a dragon? Or am I delirious and dying?”
“I am a dragon,” the creature replied, “And in need of help.”
Nell hesitated, fear and desperation warring in the icy shards of her mind. Desperation won and she wobbled closer still.
“Could you be a fire breather? I am extremely cold.”
The dragon shifted uncomfortably. Stones rattled. A sound like a sharp, suppressed cry came from its mouth. “Lay down beside me and get warm. When you are no longer so cold, I will need your help. Or we will both die.”
Nell stepped closer. “Will you eat me?”
“Why should I trust you?”
Something suspiciously like a gasping chuckle came from the creature. “If you do not come closer, you will be dead of cold very soon. And I, too. I promise I will not harm you. You have a choice to make.”
Nell couldn’t hold off any longer. She was sinking down fast into the arctic sleep of death. “I will trust you,” she forced out.
The dragon shifted his unhurt wing and leg so that she could first crouch, then lay back into a circle of blissful warmth. The shivering began in earnest…and then finally eased. The dragon’s breath, drifting from the fanged mouth above her head was sweet.
Like caramel candy, Nell thought drowsily. And her aching body was strengthening a little from it.
Sighing, nestling back into the sapphire warmth, Nell ignored the tears dripping down her cheeks. Safe haven at last…not with her horrid brother…but with a beast from fairy tales. For a moment her mind flickered at the thought that she had come home. Silly…delirium….
The long terrifying day, the seductiveness of the blazing warmth, the sense that she had dared such a thing created a wash of pleasure in Nell’s mind as well as her body. Looking at the luminous blue skin, aware of the glorious eyes above her, Nell tried to marshal her thoughts. They were disturbingly unwieldy.
“I suppose,” she said sleepily, “that I must question your existence and my sanity…whether I am lost beyond hope…imagining one magnificent being to rescue me from my dreary life…. My brother doesn’t approve of my fanciful ways.”
“I am not a dream or a fancy,” the dragon rumbled. “And I am not a unique being. If you are warm enough, would you help me now? Then I will show you what I am.”
Nell was reluctant to leave the improbably snug nest, reluctant to again face the frigid world. “My brother would think I should shoot you.”
“Because he likes shooting things. He…he is a hunter.” Nell stared at the icy side of the mountain. “I hate it. He just kills, hacks off a trophy, and brags about it. The animals did him no harm and are so beautiful alive, so sad in death. I hate it.” She twisted her head up to look at the dragon’s face. “Do you kill animals?”
“To eat,” the dragon replied. “It might have been your brother who shot me.” There was a rumble of a laugh. “I swept down and prevented them from slaughtering a bear cub. One did shoot me, but then they scattered like mice.”
“Good,” said Nell. “Wonderful, in fact.” She took a long determined breath and scrambled to her feet. “What do you need me to do?”
“Can you move the rocks off my wing?”
Nell eyed the boulders. “I don’t think I am strong enough.”
“Then you must have dragon strength. Come closer.” Nell edged toward the dragon’s head. “Closer than that…closer….”
She stood within a foot of his face. The sapphire eyes gleamed as she took short, sharp breaths.
“Now,” he hissed. A cloud of air, smelling of burnt sugar and magic enveloped Nell. She coughed, inhaled, and suddenly felt strength – enchanted strength – flow through her.
She stretched out her arms wonderingly. “I’m powerful,” she whispered.
And she began. For an hour she lifted and moved rocks almost as heavy as she was. The dragon helped when he could by shifting his body and wing to give leverage. He said nothing, but the occasional soft moan slipped through the fanged lips.
Finally, under the dragon’s direction, she pulled his torn wing straight and with a jerk, snapped the twisted leg into a more natural position. The dragon again suppressed a groan, but with his limbs straightened, he stretched out.
“Step back,” he commanded.
The dragon extended his vast wings, gave a few experimental flaps, and then closed his eyes. A glow emanated from his skin; icy light gleamed across his scales. Before her eyes, Nell saw the limbs strengthen, the tear in the wing mend. With a shake of his massive head, and a triumphant roar, the dragon leaped into the sky.
Powerful wing thrusts sent him higher and higher. Nell watched in awe, tears freezing on her face, hands clutched before her. He circled the mountain peaks, shining sapphire in the fading light.
And then he was gone.
Nell stood watching the empty sky until the bite of cold forced her back to her own survival. Would the dragon warmth and strength keep her alive long enough to find the camp? The thought of returning to her brother made her groan in agony, just as the dragon had cried in pain.
But there was no help for it. Death or her brother seemed to be her only choices.
Nell climbed slowly from the narrow shelter of the rocks. Already she could feel the power in her limbs lessening, the cold increasing. But the surge of magic had awoken her mind; she would not give up, would not die out here alone.
Somehow, she would survive this. And then she would set the course of her own life, not simply obey the dictates of society and her brother. Steadily Nell trudged on, not sure of the direction, but determined to keep the dragon will-to-live.
Moonlight shone over the landscape, eerie and beautiful. There was no sound but the endless soughing wind around her, the ice crunching beneath her boots, and her own soft panting. Occasionally Nell glanced up from the treacherous footing to determine the best direction.
And then she stopped. A short distance away, she perceived the figure of a man standing, waiting. Her brother had found her after all. Nell suppressed a sigh and walked slowly towards him.
But, it was not her brother. A young man with ice-white hair and sapphire blue eyes, stood at his ease in the frigid landscape.
“I can guide you back to your brother,” he said before she could speak.
When she said nothing, he simply waited, as patient as the vast landscape.
“You are my dragon,” Nell said suddenly. “How?...but I know, you are my dragon.”
The dragon-man smiled widely, delight shining n his eyes. “Yes. And if you can see this, you are one of the few who are called…."
“Called by the wild heart that beats. We have a small settlement not too far away. Silver Claw is hidden from the world. You could join us…be one of us?”
Nell laughed, joy bubbling inside her. It had not been delirium or ice dreams. She had come home at long, long last.
“Yes, please,” she said, and held out her hand.
If you enjoyed this short story, check out my other free short dragon stories: Dragon Love and Dragon Dreams. My full-length novels Dragons of Desert and Dust and Dragons of Frost and Fire are available in paperback, Kindle and other ebook platforms.