Groanheart the Wild
by Margaret Speaker Yuan
Groanheart opened one eye. Her other eye was already open. She groaned and blinked but her eyes weren’t working together yet. When the eye that had been asleep all night caught up with the one that had been on watch all night, she glanced around her cave. Shining piles of gold and silver and gemstones lay everywhere. It was cluttered, but every piece brought her joy.
She stretched and groaned again. Damned lumpy bed. Somehow during the night, the chainmail she used as a futon had gotten bunched up. Instead of a nice firm mattress full of gold dust, she’d sprawled across a dozen jewel-encrusted shields, an assortment of ceremonial pearl-handled daggers, and her entire collection of silver drinking horns. Her sides ached where they had poked her.
Groanheart favored her left back leg as she stood up. She folded her futon with her claws. About a ton of gold dust spilled out. Damnation. It needed to be mended and re-stuffed. Again. She scratched her side and sighed. A small gout of flame puffed out. Maybe she would wait until her flames were hotter. It was too early in the morning for chores and she hadn’t had her charcoal yet.
First things first. She had to pay her respects. Her leg ached as she slithered to the back of her cave. Her futon, that she could repair. Not her back leg. She couldn’t reach it with her flames. She would have to connect with another dragon who did body work. It was on her to-do list.
Her mother’s voice played in her head. “Take care of yourself,” she had scolded. “Never pretend that you’re too busy.”
Most of Mom rested in an urn surrounded by Groanheart’s eggs. Old she might be, but dragons laid eggs their entire lives. And dragon sex only got hotter and hotter. She felt her flames sizzle inside her as she thought about her last lover.
Eggs and urn stood on an altar between two gold statues of some random god and goddess that she had plundered years ago, when she still had the habit of flying out to spread terror across the land.
“Morning, Mom, morning, you gorgeous eggs.” Her eggs chirped back at her. They would need moonlight soon but they weren’t quite ready. She carried them to their nest inside the deepest chamber of her cave. She heard them settle down when she covered them with the finest gold she owned. Pure elemental gold, no alloys for her eggs. Only the best environment for them, before and after the hatch.
She slithered between her piles of treasure, stopping to admire some of her favorites. She had stopped marauding when her hoard outgrew her cave and started to attract vermin. Warriors, witches, mages, a few dwarves, elves, and many other kinds of two-legged rodents, they were only out to steal from her.
The warriors she didn’t mind so much. They had contributed to her chainmail futon. It was easy to pick them off when they snuck up to her cave. Spreading terror, that was different. She didn’t think people were afraid of an aging, forgetful dragon whose scales, well, they would probably call her Groanheart the Gray, these days. She’d need to dye herself back to her former fearsome glory before she’d be scary enough. That was a pain, plain and simple. So no more marauding. For now.
She edged along a path between two huge piles of treasure. The clutter had made her consider downsizing. She had heard from some birds that dragons were infesting a few small caves near the sea. That sounded enjoyable, but she wasn’t sure what to take with her. She would have to figure out how to move whatever she decided to keep. Humans would steal anything she left unattended unless they were properly terrorized.
She limped out to the kitchen and poured charcoal into her favorite mug, the gold one with the little legs that ended in tiny jeweled claws. It fit nicely in the palm of her foreclaw. People had used it as a soup tureen. She’d been trying to cut down on the charcoal because it kept her awake, but she needed a full mug this morning. Because of the bad night. Smaller mug tomorrow. She’d been saying the same thing for the last few decades.
She carried her charcoal onto the balcony in front of her cave and crunched contentedly as the sun rose over her valley. A few bits of treasure had spilled out of the cave when she tossed and turned last night. Nobody came to collect it now, although humans lived in the valley these days. They were peaceful and had never tried to harm her. She returned the favor. They even climbed up the mountain to talk to her sometimes.
Recently, it seemed that they’d been coming every few weeks. She didn’t quite understand them. What exactly was a university with a dragon-studies program? She guessed they were some kind of wizard. They dressed that way, long robes and pointy hats, but they didn’t have the slightest whiff of magic.
She nodded off in the warm sunshine with one eye open. Something moved up the trail to her cave. Her back leg protested when she leapt to her feet. She hissed at the pain and a strong charcoal-fueled flame shot out.
“Ma’am? Please?” said a human voice from behind a rock. “Um. I’m Barry? What’s your name?”
“Just Groanheart. I never made it to the Greats.” Mom had wanted her to take her Ranked Dragon Aptitude Tests. But she’d never studied for the RDATs. Her natural abilities were more than enough to start pillaging without spending any time in school. Her career had been excellent despite her lack of education. She’d taken care of Mom until the end and stayed on in their old cave afterwards.
A pointy hat on a stick waved from behind a rock. “Truce?”
She groaned. Mom had said she groaned all the time, even before she’d hatched. Now what did she need to do? Oh, yes, she needed to get her scales soldered, that was it. She settled down to finish her charcoal.
Wait. Somebody had said something. She needed to focus on the here and now instead of daydreaming.
The pointy hat on the stick had been replaced with a white cloth. Barry repeated, “Truce?”
“Sure. You one of the grad students? They always send you guys up to talk when there’s some new study or other.”
“I’m not a student.” Barry had a lovely voice, mellifluous and soothing. “I’m not from the university. I’m from another facility completely. I’d like to talk to you. We actually have a study we’d like you to participate in.”
A small human stood up. They were all small, from Groanheart’s point of view. Male. Maybe. It was hard to tell. Robes covered just about everything. When they didn’t wear robes, they all wore those tight blue pants. Honestly, what dragon could tell the difference between one human butt and another?
“Like I was saying.” Barry was in fact wearing blue pants. No robes, just a long white coat. “About the study. Would mind us coming to take some readings? And to catalogue your hoard?”
“Nobody touches my stuff except me.” Groanheart tilted her head back and shot flames into the air at the thought.
“No, no, of course not.” Barry dusted a few ashes off his white coat. They left smears on his sleeve. “We’re here for your welfare. We’ve seen a number of dragons lately getting harmed by hoard-collapses. You’re endangered, you know that, don’t you?”
Groanheart peered around her balcony and across the valley. “By what?”
“Excuse me?” said Barry.
“What’s endangering me? I don’t see any warriors.” She sniffed. No magic, not a speck. “That pointy hat is a fake. You’re not a wizard, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m a scientist. Dragons are an endangered species. Your kind has been dying out. There isn’t enough breeding going on. We keep finding dragons that have died when their treasure fell down on them. We refer to it as hoard-collapses. We could just, you know, shore things up, make it safer for you—”
“What did I say about my stuff?” roared Groanheart.
Barry ducked behind his rock again. He stuck his hat out before he peeked around it. “Oh, we don’t need to touch it. We’ll put in rebar to reinforce the piles, with nets to catch anything that shakes loose. We won’t move your hoard. Not even for the catalogue. Unless you want us to. We would just, you know, do a visual survey and write it all down. Then we’d plan how to make it safe for you. We’re not against hoards, not at all. We just don’t want any more dragons to get hurt.”
Groanheart wanted to agree with anything he said. She blinked, both eyes together, and refocused on the meaning, not on the persuasive quality of Barry’s voice. Must have learned that from studying dragons. Or tried to. As he rattled on, Groanheart’s attention drifted away, although it was pleasant to hear that hypnotic voice. She blew some smoke-rings out of one nostril.
“And our readings are not invasive. We put a transponder on your skin that shows when you move. That way, we know where you are. If you don’t move for a few hours or so, we’ll come by to see if you’re OK. It also measures your hormone levels. Then we can tell if you’re fertile or not.”
One word caught her attention, although his meaning escaped her completely. “Fertile? Like, laying eggs?”
“Laying eggs that will hatch into little baby dragons.” Barry dropped his hat on the ground. “Sometimes eggs haven’t been properly, um, if the daddy dragon hasn’t…”
“Do you think I’m a hatchling?” Groanheart snorted and choked on her own flames. Coughing, blinking, she wiped her eyes with one claw knuckle. When she could talk, she said, “I know all about that. What do you mean?”
“You could spend more time with some guy dragons. They’re eager to meet you. I take it you’re alone up here?”
“My little ones have all flown.” She crossed her claws as she said it. It was mostly true. No need to mention her batch of perfectly healthy eggs. They weren’t dragons. Yet. “They should be here for the holiday, now when is it?” She thought for a second. Walpurgisnacht was still a few months away. That was when they visited, because witches made such good snacks.
They had all come, every one of her broods, last year. They’d caught dozens of witches mid-air. They tasted better that way, broomstick and all. A few of her old lovers had shown up too, just like they always did. Steam rose from her snout at the memory.
The eggs from that night were stowed in their golden nest. Was that what Barry meant? Not enough eggs? It didn’t seem that way to Groanheart.
“We have a captive breeding program, to keep dragons from going extinct. In fact, if you have some eggs, we can give them a check-up. Sometimes they suffer from arrested development. We have techniques, proper heating, ventilation, bathing them in moonlight, all intended to bring them to a successful hatch. We haven’t seen any baby dragons for centuries.”
Longer than that, she thought. We started keeping our little ones far, far away from humans more than a millennium ago. She sighed, remembering how wonderful it had been to see her babies grow and get strong and fly off. The birds all talked about empty nests. Dragons didn’t. They liked it. Most of the time, taking care of an elderly relative or having a cave to one’s self was just fine. Until it was time for the next brood.
“And we can help you resettle if you want. Lots of dragons have moved into our retirement community. We call it Golden Acres. You can spend your golden years there. Everyone seems to like the company. You can fly over it to see what it’s like.”
“Resettle? Like, leave my cave?”
“You would have your own new cave, all the modern conveniences, and we’d help you with your hoard, once you let us. Would you like to come and see it?”
“Um. No, not today. Too much to do.” She didn’t want to limp around in front of humans and other dragons. Plus, all those gray scales… Maybe she would go after she’d gotten her leg soldered and had a dye job.
“We can trim your claws, polish them, maybe have your wings waxed. You can sample as many of our spa treatments as you want.”
Spa treatments? What did that mean? She had never heard of wing waxing. Come to think of it, her scales were a little itchy. Maybe wax would help.
“Some of our lady-dragons, you know, they love to start new fashions, like getting designs on their wings after the wax treatments. So how does it sound? How about a little time at the spa today?”
“A spa? For dragons?”
“It’s a perk of living at Golden Acres. We also have a complete body shop. For any little problems with your scales. I can make an appointment for you right now.” He pulled some sort of wand out of his pocket, not a pointed wooden one, but a metal rectangle a little longer than his hand. He said something into it.
Dragon fire burst up over one of the finger valleys on the side of the main one. “There goes the welcoming committee. We set up a room for you, too, with a temporary hoard to sleep on. Until you move in permanently.”
“Tell me,” said Groanheart, “what’s the charcoal supply like down there?”
“It’s wonderful,” said Barry. “Most of is it artisanal, fired in the shade, small batch, single origin charcoal. We’ll arrange a tasting so you can pick the variety you prefer. You can change your order anytime you like.” He talked into his wand again.
A few minutes later, Groanheart ran off the edge of her balcony and soared over the valley. Barry said he would meet up with her that afternoon. She landed next to the fire, only to find it was fake. There weren’t any dragons, just some large tubes shooting flames into the sky. They smelled like volcano fissures, with an odd aftertaste of metal. Iron. She had expected at least a mild aroma of gold but she didn’t smell it at all. She wondered what the dragons slept on at Golden Acres.
Humans stood next to the tubes, wearing white coats like Barry’s. One of them said, “Hello, Groanheart. We’re so glad you’re joining us today. Let’s start with some repair work, a hot-stone massage, a facial with a silicate mask treatment, then you can choose what’s next. Dying your scales, maybe. May we escort you inside?”
“Barry talked about other dragons?” Groanheart didn’t see anyone. Didn’t smell them, either.
“Later. After you’ve had a chance to freshen up. I’m Donna, by the way.”
Donna and the other humans walked beside her into a large cave. It was a fake too. From the outside, it looked like a cave but it was a building, not part of a mountain.
“Barry said you’d like a tasting. Here’s our most popular varieties.” Donna offered her a tray covered with small heaps of charcoal.
It smelled delicious, but she needed to cut down. “No, thanks. I’ve had enough for today. I get the jitters if I crunch too much.”
“We don’t want to work on a dragon with the jitters,” said Donna. The humans twittered just like the birds did, in high-pitched, squeaky voices. “Here, try these. They’ll help you calm down.”
Donna held out a second tray. Groanheart licked one piece of it and almost spat it out. There was a bitter under-taste that made her tongue feel numb. “I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Sure,” said Donna. “So how about letting us see that back leg?”
Groanheart settled down and let them examine her scales. One eye kept watch. She saw the humans scurry away. As soon as they left, some kind of metal creature dragged a huge chain toward her leg. Before it reached her ankle, she stood up and kicked it out of the way. That hurt, but her aim was true despite the pain. The creature righted itself and tried to crawl toward her. She turned her head and flamed it. It collapsed into a lovely glowing puddle of liquid metal.
Groanheart stalked to the entrance of the cave. Two floor-to-ceiling doors had started to close but she ripped them down and slithered outside.
The fake dragon fire tubes belched at her. Their fire wasn’t nearly hot enough to hurt. She wondered exactly how far the dragon studies program had gotten, over at the university. She didn’t think these humans had ever met a dragon before.
She leapt into the air and realized they hadn’t fixed her scales. They had only removed a few from her back leg. It didn’t matter. If they had known anything about dragons, they would have taken off some of her breast scales. A bare spot might let an arrow pierce into her vitals. Now, she was invulnerable. Even if they hit her leg, it wouldn’t kill her.
My eggs, she thought. They’re not as tough as I am. If they’ve harmed my eggs, everything in the valley will burn.
She flamed Golden Acres before she sped to her cave. The rodents inside scurried out when she landed on her balcony. One burst of fire charred them to dust. She shoved the ashes off her balcony with one claw.
She ran to her eggs. Their pile of gold was undisturbed. They chirped when she uncovered them. Relief flamed through her.
Spa treatments, hoard collapse, my fat dragon ass. They were just an excuse to get me out of my cave so they could plunder it.
Groanheart grabbed a travel bag that fit under her wings. She loaded it with satchel of charcoal, Mom’s urn, and enough treasure for a bare-bones hoard to sleep on. Her eggs and their gold went into her egg pouch, the space on her neck where dragons carried their young. She left the flap open as she flew out.
A few bursts of flame brought the mountainside down to seal the entrance to her cave. Buried under tons of rock, her hoard would be safe. She could come back and unearth it any time she wanted to.
The spa or whatever it was still burned when she flew over it. Golden years at Golden Acres, what a joke. All of a dragon’s years were golden.
She crooned as the moon rose. The light played over her eggs. She’d been waiting for just the right moment to help them hatch. Now, she heard loud squeaks as her babies called to her. One of them groaned.
Groanheart, gimpy, gray-scaled, and absent-minded, sang in her dragon’s voice, the soothing, persuasive voice that humans would never be able to master, no matter how much they tried. She actually had been paying attention to one small piece of what Barry said. He talked about captive breeding. That meant the dragons had to be captives. Not Groanheart. Not her, and not her eggs. They would be free. Just like she was. No matter how long she lived, she always would be wild.