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A Dragon's Heart, Burning Bright

Written by Bron James

The shadows appeared deeper and darker the further into the forest he wandered.

The fading light of day was giving way to the muted shades of twilight, draping the forest depths beneath a veil of shadow. Gone were the shafts of sunlight which had pushed their way through the canopy above. The beams which had once helped to illuminate the space had grown fainter and fainter, until all that remained was the distant glimmer of starlight, glimpsed fleetingly through the thick crowns of the trees.

Sprawling, untamed underbrush and bracken blanketed the forest floor, masking the uneven earth beneath and making each footfall feel all the more perilous. Even in the light of day, the thick undergrowth would have made the path ahead difficult to navigate. If there even was a path ahead.

Aiden wasn’t sure anymore. He had found himself lost in the woods, separated from his family and his home, and had been trying to find his way back to familiar ground. It had almost been fun at first, as all unexpected adventures are for children of a certain age. He felt like a bold explorer, following the beaten trails between the trees and cutting through the thickets. However, the further his feet carried him onwards, the more astray he was beginning to feel.

The dirt trails had become narrower and narrower, succumbing to overgrown shrubs, until eventually there seemed to be no more path left to follow. The trees had grown taller and broader the deeper into the woods he went, their thick and ancient trunks dwarfing the young boy as they loomed like towering giants above him. And as the black of night had started to creep in, so too had a deep and inescapable fear; as the last of daylight’s dwindling glow faded, Aiden’s hope waned with it.

He could see no way forward, nor a route back. There were no signs of the path he was meant to be on, nor how to find his way towards it. He longed to be back in the comfort of his home, to curl up in the warm embrace of familiarity, to feel safe and secure. Instead, the only embrace Aiden felt was the cold, damp chill of the encroaching mists.

The thrill of the adventure had worn off, replaced with the tight-chested dread of feeling so lost, frightened and alone in the night.

His legs ached from the journey, his body worn and tired, and part of him wanted to fall to the floor. To simply give up, to lay between the roots of one of these giant trees, cover himself with a blanket of bracken, and finally rest. But he couldn’t stop moving forwards; no matter how afraid he was of getting lost even farther away from home, no matter his exhaustion and vanished hope, he had to keep going. For in the shadows there lurked things unseen, and the one thing Aiden feared more than the darkness was succumbing to its blackened depths.

Thick pools of lightless shadow surrounded him, dense and dark and dreaded. An impenetrable blackness which closed in all around him, veiling the gaps between the trees and whatever may lay beyond, shrouding the sightless mysteries which dwelled within the forest depths. And from those shadows there emanated strange and eerie noises; an orchestra of rustling leaves and crunching twigs.

Aiden's mind conjured up images of all manner of horrors which could be stalking through the shadows. Things with twisted mouths and sharpened teeth and wholly too many eyes. Monsters which preyed on wayward children who dared tread too far into the unknown. Yet, whenever he chanced a glance towards those dark depths, he was met only by the sunless void.

He was almost grateful he couldn't see whatever these things were. As much as the thought of what creatures might be lurking in those dark places terrified him, he was all the more afraid of actually laying his eyes on one. It would make the baleful shadows feel all the more imposing and dire.

He dared not think about it.

The twigs and leaves crackled underfoot as Aiden carried onwards. His feet felt heavy and leaden with each step, stumbling through the shrubs and brambles, tripping on the uneven earth. He moved slowly and carefully, struggling to continue, not wanting to fall or draw the attention of the monsters in the dark. As long as he kept moving forwards, he believed he’d find his way back on the path, and back home. He had to believe.

“What brings you this far into the forest, small adventurer?”

The voice came booming through the trees. It shook loose the leaves, rustling the high branches, and caused a flock of nightjars to take flight. It rolled the mists which drifted over the forest floor, and parted the shadows with its sonorous speech.

Aiden’s chest thrummed with each stentorian syllable. The ground beneath his feet quaked. And through the parted shadows he could see something coming. Something vast and powerful. Burning eyes pierced through the darkness. Golden-green scales glistened as the beast approached him.

A frisson of terror rushed through the boy’s body, his hairs standing on-end as he felt the words wash over him. An all-encompassing fear which compelled him to flee. And so he did.

Aiden took off into the forest, deeper into the darkness. His feet pounded the earth. His shins forced through the underbrush, thorns and sprigs grazing his legs as he ran. Heavy, panicked breaths caught in his throat as he raced headlong into the unknown, staggering through the shadows in his directionless sprint. He did not know whether he would find his way back to the path now or not; all that mattered in this moment was the pressing need to escape, with the hot, steaming breath of the beast close at his back.

The earth shook with the creature’s every lumbering, thunderous step. Branches snapped as they were forced aside in the creature’s wake. “You need not run,” it spoke, its voice calm though no less booming.

But Aiden paid no heed to its words. Through tangled bracken and cragged earth he ran. Through sodden soil his feet now slipped. The ground beneath him grew soft and slick, the damp and sliding texture of mud underfoot. Soon, his shoes were sploshing through a thick mire, wet and weighted as he waded through. Reeds brushed against him as he pushed through. The thick sludge of swamp water seeped through his socks and between his toes.

There was no telling how far into the bog he had come. For all he knew, he was slogging his way deeper into the mire, far from the relative safety of the shore. Aiden would’ve turned back for solid, dry land, were it not for the beast which must surely be waiting for him.

Then, with a sudden gasp and the sensation of his heart plummeting into his stomach, Aiden slipped and fell.

He landed with a sickening squelch, but he did not sink into the swamp as he’d expected. The ground felt more solid, though still slick and muddied with the bog. He pushed himself up, sliding forwards onto the bank in a panicked crawl, struggling to get back on his feet.

“This is why you should not run when you do not know where you are running to,” the voice echoed all around Aiden. “Are you unharmed?”

Aiden didn’t answer the creature’s question. His feet slipped and slid as he hurriedly tried to regain his balance. “Who are you?” he asked into the darkness, his voice quavering. “What do you want?”

“How would you like me to answer?” the voice replied. “For those are questions which one can answer in many ways.”

Something moved through the shadows, snaking its way between the trees. Leaves rustled and the ground thumped as it weaved closer, the faint shimmer of golden scales gleaming with the reflection of distant starlight.

“I am who I am,” it continued. “I have borne witness to the turn of many an age, watching the world turn while I dwell within these ancient woods. While time and progress change many things, these old trees and the truth of the forest remain unspoiled. And that is what I want.”

Aiden squinted his eyes as he tried to peer through the night, to better see who—or, more accurately, what—he was speaking with. It was impossible to make out the creature’s shape in the shadows. All he could see was that its scales glistened with even the faintest of light, and that it was something big. Bigger than any creature he had seen before.

He took a nervous step back, his heel sliding against the slick shore of the swamp. He couldn’t turn back, not through the swamp, and nor could he continue forwards with the beast between the trees. With little other choice, he swallowed back his fear, and asked with shaking voice, “What are you?”

In way of an answer, the space around him erupted with a brilliant burst of orange light. The glow radiated out from behind a copse of trees, their trunks casting long, heavy shadows across the ground. Aiden lifted his arm to shield his eyes from the blazing brightness.

Through the haze of stunned vision, however, he could now see the creature. It ambled on four, tree-trunk-like legs as its long and snaking body moved through the trees into the small clearing. Shimmering scales of golden-green sparkled with the burning light, which seemed to be emanating from the beast itself. A large, lizard-like head—adorned with long and proud horns—sat atop a serpentine neck. A pair of leathery wings were folded neatly at the creature’s side.

It stopped just short of Aiden, regarding him with vibrant, burning-yellow eyes.

“I,” the beast spoke, unfurling its grand and majestic wings, “am a dragon.”

Aiden stared at the dragon, caught between awe and terror at the sight which stood before him. His bottom lip quivered. “Are you…” he hesitated. “Are you going to eat me?”

“Eat you?” the dragon replied, almost indignantly. It folded its wings back in along its side. “The thought had not occurred to me. The hour is late, and I would loathe the indigestion of heart-burn from such an untimely morsel.” Its scaled lips curled into a shape resembling a humoured smile, though the sharp teeth it bore somewhat undermined the gesture. “Why, should you be something I would wish to eat?”

Aiden shook his head emphatically. “No,” he replied, “no, please don’t.”

“Hmm,” the dragon mused. “You are too conversational to be food, it seems. So tell me…” It squatted down onto the floor of the clearing and tilted its head to the side inquisitively. “Be you a halfling, small adventurer?”

“N-no,” Aiden hesitated to answer. He wanted to avert his eyes from the dragon’s burning gaze, but couldn’t draw his attention away from it. “I’m n-not a halfling.”

“Be you a dwarf?” the dragon asked.

“No, I’m not a dwarf either,” Aiden replied. “I’m… I’m a boy.”

“Ahh,” the dragon breathed a long sigh of understanding. Wisps of smoke rose from its nostrils. “I see. It is not wise for a boy such as yourself to be so deep within these woods. Are you not a little young to be venturing so far from home?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Aiden protested. “I got lost, and I’m trying to get back on the path.”

“I see, I see,” the dragon nodded sagely.

“It got darker and darker, and then there was the mist, an-and the swamp, and… And now my socks are wet and I can’t find my way home.”

“Yes, the swamp will do that,” the dragon said. “And wet socks can be a most unpleasant feeling.”

“What about being lost, and alone, and scared, and… And…” Aiden quivered. His eyes began to well with tears as he struggled to bite back the agonising need to sob. If he started to cry, he doubted he would ever stop; the swamp would flood with his overwhelming fear and sadness.

“Hush now, young one,” the dragon cooed sympathetically. Its speech still resonated through the earth and the trees, but there was something oddly soothing about the tone of its booming voice. “We all feel lost at times. It can be frightening, and lonely. But we are never so lost that we can not find our way back on the path.”

“But how?” The boy’s voice had been reduced to a mere whimper. “I’ve been going around in circles, and I’m only getting more lost.”

“What is your name?” the dragon asked, seemingly overlooking the question.

After a moment of hesitation, he timidly replied, “Aiden.” His mother had often told him not to speak with strangers, but she had said precious little about dragons outside of stories and fairytales. And, although he found himself afraid and cornered by the grand creature, if it had meant him harm, he would likely not still be having these thoughts now. “Wh-what’s yours?”

“I am Alvar’nen,” said Alvar’nen, “Guardian of the Deep Woods, and Guider of the Ways.”

“Does that mean you know the way back home?” Aiden asked.

“We all walk many paths,” Alvar’nen spoke. “Which roads we choose to travel, and where they will lead, is up to us. I can help to light the way, but only you can truly know the path to follow.”

“That’s not very helpful,” he said. Despite the damp and muddy earth beneath him, Aiden dropped to his knees, sinking into the sodden soil. He began to weep. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t… I don’t know the way, and I can’t even find how to leave these woods.” He slammed his fists against the mud, sending thick earthen droplets spattering in all directions. “I don’t know.”

“You need not despair,” Alvar’nen said in an effort to comfort the crying child. “In the darkness, these deep woods can deceive. The shadows may conceal the paths from us, but one need only shine a light to dispel the dark.”

“You said you can help light the way,” Aiden sobbed. “If you can’t take me home… Can you show me the path?”

Alvar’nen did not answer with words. It rose up on its hind legs, towering over Aiden, spreading its wings so wide that they filled the air above. Its neck stretched up to the point it almost reached the tree canopy. Its chest glowed with the light of a thousand fireflies, radiating up through the dragon’s neck and into the back of its throat. Flames of a vibrant, burning energy licked around its lips. And with a clawed hand, Alvar’nen reached between its scaled lips and pointed teeth, pulling forth a strand of this dragonfire.

Between its claws, Alvar’nen began to weave the thread of flame. Over and over it turned, entwining the wisps of nascent fire about themselves, until it had formed into a small, luminous orb.

The light radiated out from the dragon’s hand. It illuminated the space around them, bathing the previously dark and dreary depths in a warm, orange glow. Shadows receded from the coming of the light, slithering back amongst the trees into those places its rays could not reach. Alvar’nen reached down towards Aiden, slowly and gently extending its hand and holding out the condensed flame to the boy.

“Take this.”

Aiden looked at the dragon’s burning orb warily. Though it may have been fashioned into a sphere, the fire still licked and crackled, blazing and bright. He looked between the orb and Alvar’nen questioningly, reluctant to hold his hand out to the flame.

“Fear not,” Alvar’nen said as he noticed the boy’s hesitation, “for this fire shall not burn you. Allow it to be a light which guides you.”

Tentatively, Aiden rose to his feet and held out his hands, cupping his palms before him. He winced in the anticipation of a seering, burning pain as Alvar’nen gently placed the glowing ball into his hands. The dragon had been right; the fire did not burn. It was warm and tingling to the touch, but not painful. It felt like… Comfort, and safety. And, perhaps most importantly, it felt like hope: a ray of light through the darkness; a beacon shining through the night.

As the orb rested in the palm of his hand, he could feel its warmth spreading through his body. The glowing light spread from the tips of his fingers, through his hands and along his arms, before resting in his heart.

“Thank you,” Aiden breathed, wiping the tears from his face on his muddied sleeve. “But… I still don’t know the way?”

The air filled with sparkling embers as Alvar’nen threw its head back and laughed. “Ah, I think you know more than you realise, young one,” it boomed heartily. “It is merely that the shadows have made you believe you do not. Do not let their darkness cloud your path. For you carry within you the heart of a dragon, and its flame shall surely light the way.”

“This…?” he asked, gazing at the light in his hands with mystified awe. “This is your heart?”

“No, no,” Alvar’nen shook its head, “what you hold is simply the spark. No, the heart of a dragon is your own. You have always carried it. Though sometimes its embers may feel they have grown dim, that bold fire can still be reignited.”

“I’m a boy, not a dragon,” Aiden said, confused. “I don’t have the heart of a dragon.”

“Oh, but you do. Though you were lost and afraid, and knew not where to turn, you forged onwards. You were determined to find your way back on the path. And even as the shadow and mist closed in around you, you persevered, not willing to give up although things may have seemed hopeless. That, young one, is the strength and fire which burns within a dragon’s heart.”

Aiden mustered a smile as he peered up into Alvar’nen’s kindly face. “Then this will help me find the way?”

“Listen to your heart,” Alvar’nen said, “and let its truth guide you forwards.”

Looking around the small clearing in the depths of the forest, Aiden searched for the right way to go. There was the bog behind him, and the dense treeline ahead. Thick tangles of untamed weeds stretched out across the land to the right, while to the left the forest climbed up a steep hill. And, although the dragonfire illuminated the space, still there loomed those infinite shadows, dancing just beyond the perimeter of the light.

“And the things in the dark?” he whispered. “Will this keep me safe from them?”

Alvar’nen bowed its head. “Those that dwell in shadows, dark and deep, fear the flame which pierces through their blackened veil. They can not thrive when their deceiving dread is dispelled by the light. They shall not harm you, so long as your path is bright and true.”

Aiden turned and faced towards the tree-coated hill. It did not take him back the way he had come, nor did he remember seeing the hill from the path. Although his legs were aching and tired, and climbing the hill would be difficult, he knew deep in his heart that it was the right way. The other paths felt hollow and heavy to him, as if to follow these routes would be to delve deeper into the darkness, where even the light of dragonfire may not shine.

It would not be an easy journey, and the thought still filled him with fear and dread, but it was better than to lose himself further in these woods.

He turned back to face Alvar’nen. “Will you… Will you come with me?”

“But of course, young one,” the dragon said graciously. “I will accompany and guard you, though I can not carry you. This journey is one that only you can make for yourself.”

And so they went.

Around the shore of the swamp they trudged, boy and dragon marching side by side. Through thick trees and dense copse they continued onwards, striding across the bracken and brush. Up the hill they pushed, and when Aiden’s legs struggled to carry him further, Alvar’nen helped him to keep moving. All the while, the dragonfire burned bright, lighting the way ahead with a blazing radiance, and keeping those horrors which lurked in shadow far at bay. They watched from their dark crevasses, but dared not set foot in the light.

The journey was long and arduous, but Aiden was happy for the dragon’s company as they travelled. He may have been afraid that even this route would not lead him back onto the path, and still the things which dwelled in darkness filled him with an almost paralysing dread, but he felt all the more assured and safe with Alvar’nen at his side.

They continued their quest over the tree-topped hillocks, out towards the very edge of the forest, until eventually they emerged from the trees. As they looked out on the wide and open space, they could see it a short way ahead of them. A path, twisting and winding, paving the way through the wild unknown. And there, not far along the path, shone a warm and welcoming light. Home.

“That’s it,” Aiden breathed in wonderment, “that’s home.”

“I am glad,” Alvar’nen said. “It has been a long journey. It is about time you were where you are meant to be, and rest.”

“Thank you,” Aiden replied, wrapping his arms around the dragon’s leg in a tight embrace. He hadn’t known what to expect from the feel of a dragon’s skin; the scales were smooth, almost silken, warm like the comfort of the home’s hearth. He looked towards the inviting light, beckoning out to him. “I couldn’t have found the way without you.”

“But you did,” Alvar’nen spoke softly. “You found your own way back on the path. All you needed was the support to help find the strength to carry on.”

Aiden looked up to speak to Alvar’nen, but as he turned to face the dragon, he found that it was nowhere to be seen. Safe in the knowledge that the lost child had now been steered out of the woods, securely back on the homeward path, Alvar’nen had disappeared into the night.

Holding the luminous orb of dragonfire close, Aiden set foot along the path he had spent so long searching for, and headed towards the light of home. He could already feel the comfort and security of being back where he was meant to be, a warm contentment swelling within his chest.

He gazed up at the vast and open sky above, no longer covered by the forest’s thick canopy, marvelling at the twinkling pinpricks of distant starfire. They glistened and shimmered through the night, an infinite series of lights shining through the dark. Aiden smiled. For the briefest of moments, he thought he could glimpse the face of Alvar’nen looking down on him from amongst the stars.

And though he could no longer see Alvar’nen walking by his side, Aiden knew that the dragon’s fire would continue to burn within his heart forevermore.

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