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He woke up before dawn. This wasn’t unusual any more; his bed was exceptionally uncomfortable and he was getting old. He rarely got more than a few hours sleep at a time these days.

He stood up and stretched, his bones creaking as he extended his limbs, easing out the stiffness they had acquired overnight. Turning, he looked at his bed and poked at it. It was painfully thin and needed more padding, but it was so hard to find the right stuff. He huffed. He would have to go out and look, or face yet more sleepless nights.

He peered outside cautiously. You never knew what kind of troublemakers you might run into when you leave your home. Today, thankfully, it all seemed quiet. He stepped outside and looked across to see the sun rising above the horizon, light racing across the distant lands like fire. It was beautiful.

He frowned. Had he heard something? Yes, there it was again. A plaintive little cry carried on the wind. He walked quietly down the path, following the sound.

As he turned the corner he realised what the sound was. Centuries ago, the people from the town down below had set up a stone pillar in a shaded area, with heavy chains attached to it. They had regularly chained delicacies there as bribes for his father, who had been possessed of a prodigious appetite. It hadn’t been used since the day his father died but now, there was something held in those chains once more. One of them. A curvy figure in fine white drapery, wriggling, struggling and crying out.

He stopped and stared. Why would they do this, after all these years? Unlike his father, he had never had any appetite for them, they just weren’t to his taste. He far preferred a nice juicy cow, or perhaps a sheep, even though their fluffy outsides got stuck in his teeth. Cows and sheep were much easier to come by, too, since they roamed in their dozens in the fields nearby. He came a little closer and squinted. It looked like a female. Perhaps he should just leave her there. But then, what if something else came along and ate her? It seemed cruel to leave her chained up like that.

The chains were old, he thought, they couldn’t be too strong. He could creep up close and snap the chain loose with one claw, then she would be able to run free. It was the right thing to do.

He came closer to the pillar, holding his breath for fear of burning the struggling figure, and reached out a claw to break the chains. They were tiny compared to him, and he could only just work the tip of his claw into the largest link, the one that held the chain to the pillar. He wiggled it, focussing on the chain and the stone, carefully levering it loose. Just a little bit further- there! The chain fell away from the stone, and the figure stumbled away from the pillar.

He backed away, keeping his mouth shut, hoping she would run away quickly. He didn’t want to scare her, but he couldn’t hold his breath much longer and he knew that a firebreathing dragon was a fearsome sight to these little things. He watched her stagger, regain her balance and turn to look at him. The sun rose above the hills, and as the light struck her he realised she had a golden crown on her head. She stood straighter, right in front of him, and made some little noises, but didn’t run. He lifted a paw and made a little shooing motion. Please understand, he thought. Please just run away.

She took the crown from her head and held it out at arm’s length, walking forward- she was actually walking towards him. He froze. What was she doing? Why didn’t she flee? She reached his outstretched paw and leaned forward, quickly hooking the crown onto his claw and then darting back.

Abruptly he understood the gift. He nodded his head, and took the crown as she turned and ran. It wasn’t much, this little crown. It was small enough to fit onto his claw like a ring. But still, it was gold, and it would make his bed that little bit more comfortable. He turned, lifting his head up and breathing out a great sigh of flame, and went back into his cave.

© Kari Fay

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