This short story is inspired by Sue Vincent’s gorgeous photo.
In the middle of a distant ocean was an island fringed with inlets that made natural harbours, and with many rivers that made fertile valleys. The island should have been prosperous but the lives of the farmers and fishermen were blighted by the presence of a dragon. The uplands were blasted bare by the dragon’s breath, and the land could not be farmed. Any sheep that wandered out of the safety of the valleys were soon swept away in the dragon’s claws. Fishing barques that ventured too far from the sheltered coastal waters were also game for the beast. The fishers and farmers had not the means of killing the dragon or chasing it away, and their children, one after the other, packed their bags and went to seek their fortune on the mainland far away.
At night the dragon slept, but with half an eye open. The boats that slipped away under cover of dark waited for a strong tide and a good wind that would carry them far away by morning. On one small farm, an old couple said goodbye to their youngest child at sunset and watched in silence as the muffled oars pulled out into the tide and the dark sail unfurled. Their eyes were dry, but they knew that soon they would be unable to work their smallholding, and they in turn would have to leave and seek the charity of their children on the mainland.
On the dunghill in the farmyard, the cock, a vain and aggressive creature, heard their sad words and understood in his limited way, that the life he knew and loved as chief of all he surveyed, would soon be ending. He had sometimes seen the great leathery bird with feathers that looked more like fish scales, swooping and diving in the sky above, and was full of envy. To envy was added anger, because the leathery bird had driven away the farmer’s flock, and there would be no one to take his place when he died, no one to feed the cock and his flock of hens.
The morning after the last of the farmer’s chicks left the nest, the cock crowed a defiant challenge. The hens listened, the dog heard but took no notice, and the cat watched to see who would answer. The sun rose and the morning wore on, but for all the cock’s singing, he could not attract the dragon’s attention. So he left the barn, he left the farm, he fluttered along the narrow track that wound up to the plateau. At the end of the valley on the edge of the uplands stood a single tree with singed black branches. The cock flew up onto the topmost branch and crowed again.
In his lair, the dragon opened a lazy eye and saw the fiery bird with its peacock pride in the lonely tree. In the dark depths of the scorched earth, a spirit stirred and saw a glimmer of light. The dragon stretched his wings the colour of scarabees and leapt nonchalantly into the air. The earth spirit breathed fire from the depths into the bird spitting angry sparks, and the cock spread his wings, russet and red and green and blue, and fluttered in his ungainly way to meet the dragon. The earth breathed, and the cock grew. His wings spread wider and wider, his feathers caught the sunlight like burnished bronze, thicker and stronger, wider and taller, and he threw back his head and gave a cry like the shriek of an eagle.
When the two met, the cock was as huge as the dragon and his spurs glittered wickedly. The dragon, who saw only an angry, outsized chicken, plunged with outspread claws, that raked through the cock’s flourish of plumes and caught thin air. The cock kicked, once, twice, and the dragons leathery wings were ripped in two. The dragon belched flame in fury, but the earth breathed again and turned the fiery breath back on itself. The dragon roared and plummeted, twisting and turning, as his useless wings wrapped him in a strait jacket of flame.
The cock crowed a song of victory and cast his cunning eye over the valleys, searching out the barns where the grain was stored. He turned his awkward flight away from the plunging dragon, intent on destruction of his own, when the wind veered from the north and hissed, No more!
In an instant, the air froze as cold as a January midnight, and both the cock and the dragon turned from fire to ice, creatures of frost, until the wind blew through the crystals of their scaled and feathered effigies and blew them away.
In the valleys and the villages by the sea, snow fell for a day and a night, though the year was almost at midsummer. But when the snow melted and the sun returned, the first green shoots in a dragon’s lifetime appeared in the fire-blackened soil of the plateau.