At night, Lord Hephaestus dreamed of flying. In his mind’s eye, he burst forth from his lair like an undead spirit rising from its cerements. His soul soared as he rose, circling with the currents high above the cliffs and mountains of his home, creating his own thermals by breathing forth fire to heat the night sky. Onward and ever upward he flew, his wide wings beating tempests that would knock even the hawks and eagles from the sky. He was lord of the heavens, of the lightning and of the fire, which he rained down on a world that, rightly, feared him, leaving a path of charred devastation in his wake. He imagined himself as the villagers must have seen him, his form silhouetted, diving, as if straight out of the moon, the embodiment of death and terror, the smoldering evil of the Weather-Maker mountain range.
He would play all night, swooping and soaring, and then, with the first rays of the new dawn, he’d awaken and realize he was still trapped in this same cage.
A dragon with clipped wings, earthbound, like a common house pet. Cruelly, they called him Lord Hephaestus: a lamed fire god, like a dragon whose wings had been cut to prevent him from flying away—a small joke created by small minds. It was patently absurd, but then again, it made about as much sense as the rest of his life in captivity among the humans.
If he had been bested by a brave hero in combat, he could have lived with that. There was a long history of such noble encounters, and though the balance of outcomes was strongly in favor of his species, there was enough of a precedent that he hardly would have been the first werm vanquished by a valorous knight. If that hero had proven worthy, and if he had been merciful enough to let his adversary live, Lord Hephaestus might have even let himself be saddled and ridden as, together, they could have accomplished great deeds and long be remembered in ballads. And, if he had not been merciful, at least the dread dragon would have been a dead dragon, free from the humiliation of his defeat and its consequences.
But that was not his fate. He had been captured by the humans’ cunning artifices, ensnared by machines that were just as soulless as their creators. There was no banter, no battle, no romance, just an underhanded nerve agent and an invisible net. His doom, it seemed, would not be sung by bards. No, his lot was to be taunted as he lived out his life in this cage, or, “artificial habitat,” as his captors called it. They spoke in euphemisms to cover their cruelty.
Still, he was a dragon lord, and, even in this situation, he was honor-bound to comport himself with dignity. He therefore indulged them in their pretenses of kindness. He did not complain when the barbecued goats they fed him where not charred enough, and he pretended to struggle to defeat their chess masters (though he would never go so far as to lose, even when facing the best thirty in the kingdom at the same time). He obliged them with a spectacular show of fire at the appointed times, and cooled his overheated belly on the bed of blue ice packs that substituted for his mound of treasure.
Over time, his indignation cooled like the fire in his belly after a satisfying hunt. His anger blunted as so many swords had against his scales. It had started when the human caretakers (when did he stop thinking about them as captors?) brought in a sphinx to live in the adjacent “habitat”. He commiserated with her about her given name—they called her Cleopatra, how unoriginal—and joked about the quality of the cuisine. With the natural pride indigenous to all dragons, he made light of his situation so as not to seem weak or unchivalrous in front of her. His efforts to buoy her spirits ended up raising his own, and in time, Lord Hephaestus and Queen Cleopatra became friends. Here, finally, was a mind to match his own, a worthy foil in debate and a delightful companion in conversation with whom he shared many common experiences.
Each night, they would challenge each other with riddles. They would wager portions of the treasures the humans had confiscated, knowing full well they would likely never get a chance to pay their debts, and then compare notes on the day’s indignities, comforting each other to sleep with soft words and gentle praise.
Often, after the sphinx had fallen asleep, Lord Hephaestus would lie awake on that mound of cold blue ice and compare his plight to that of his lady friend. If he was being honest, she had it much, much worse. There were many stories of dragons, and his crowds usually greeted him with awe (especially after a well-timed display of fire against the tempered glass of his enclosure). The children carried around stuffies and figures resembling his likeness, and though it hardly lived up to the fading memories of the piercing cries of terrified villagers or the look of ultimate resignation in a dwarf king’s eyes forced to relinquish his treasure, that tribute was, at least, something. In the world of the magical menagerie he was the star, just as he had been in the realms of myth and legend. The sphinx, on the other hand, didn’t draw large crowds, her merchandise wasn’t as popular among the young ones, and, though she possessed a regal bearing when still and blinding speed when she chose to move, her act just didn’t have the flash or sizzle of his best pyrotechnic display. Worse, she was forced to endure taunts of, “The answer is man!” hundreds of times each day, as the humans had few legends in which she featured prominently.
Seen in this light, his captivity didn’t seem that bad. He began to appreciate what he had. He took pride when one of the grandmasters told him that the royal chess team’s record had improved exponentially since its members started regularly training with the dragon; he roared back good-naturedly when children growled at him with their toy dragons; and he learned how to blow whimsical shapes in the smoke rings he expelled from his great nostrils to further entertain the masses.
In truth, it was harder than he had worked in years. Even in his youth, he would spend most of his day lounging on his treasure, and now, after years of captivity, he was beginning to grow fat and old. There was comfort here. While the blue ice packs were not very romantic, and while they certainly weren’t as pretty to look at as a mound of golden treasure, they were, in point of fact, much colder than precious metal and therefore more efficient at cooling the smoldering in his belly.
There was also friendship. Dragons were usually solitary creatures, which now that he thought of it probably contributed to their ill-tempered surliness. Had he lived out his days under The Weather Makers, he would have lived and died alone, with no one to talk to except the voices in his own ever-working brain. Here at least he had Cleopatra. She would keep him from growing bitter in his dotage. Gone were the fires of Svarog and Pele, gods whose names he would have been proud to bear in his youth, and only the maimed Hephaestus remained.
All things considered, it was almost enough to embrace these conditions for autumnal years—almost enough to not only bear it, but perhaps to enjoy it. It was almost enough to allow him to forget the affront of his captivity.
But only almost. When he fell asleep each night, Lord Hephaestus couldn’t escape the memory of flying. He couldn’t escape the dream of drafting vectors into the vortex. And when he awoke each morning, he couldn’t escape that echo of the pain he had felt when they clipped his wings. He could not escape the shame of knowing he was no longer—and would never again be—a great green wyrm wending up into the welkin.
–by A. A. Rubin
This story first appeared in the March/April Issue of The Kyanite Press.