All good things must come to an end.
Fuego lay in the entrance to the cave all morning long. Soaking up the wan, late-summer sunshine, should have brought contentment and a sense of well-being. His belly was full, having sated his hunger on a fat buck three days before. Fuego had nibbled on a few choice greens to aid in digestion, as was his habit these many years. The aches and pains were mostly gone.
Sooner or later they would flare up, and he should have been enjoying the sloth, the ease--the sheer luxury of not having to work for his living. But it was no good.
At first, he thought she wasn’t coming, and his heart ached. But it would ache, and it was going to ache, and there was nothing to be done about it. As the sun rose higher in the sky, his ears caught the click of a stone, dislodged from its habitual resting-place with a small cry of indignation. He knew it was her foot that had kicked it. A flicker of white dress caught his eye through the trees lining the trail. He sat up then, with anticipation, and a sense of dread. He watched the gap in the cedars with the intensity of the hunt, with his big old heart beating coldly but insistently in his deep, hard, barrel of a chest. Flaring, pebble-skinned nostrils sought her precious scent on the wavering breezes. Her complex tangle of emotions were sensed rather than seen, although there were signs; as she clambered up the bluff to the base of the cliff, where the caves began and the forest was dark, wet and thickly-festooned with creeping vines. Something about the tension in the neck and shoulders, a clue in the tightness of the chest, the unhurried pace somehow languid and hopeless-looking; unconsciously putting off the telling of some unpleasant truth. He could feel the heat of her now. Even closing his eyes, he could follow her path as she managed the last few twists and turns.
So it was true, then.
Diana was going off to school. There was nothing he or she could do about it. Higher powers had decreed it. And once having gone, there was no coming back. He knew he would inevitably lose her. Little girls grow up and turn into tall, healthy, intelligent young women. They go on to other things. The slender, raven-haired girl, with the bottomless, sea-blue eyes, with her berry-like lips pursed up in tender pain, looked at him, and he just knew.
“Fuego.” She said it with pleasure, and regret.
He cringed and cowered at her feet, tongue hanging out, and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, he rolled over on his back, exposing the wide, flat, cloud-grey scales, fading into the sky when he hunted, just where they were the smoothest and the finest.
What had to be had to be, but not just yet. One last precious moment with her…
She stood just ahead of his thigh, and reached over and scratched him so, just the way he loved it. As she stroked and scratched at his abdomen, just where the ribs stop to make way for the soft, white underbelly, he rolled from side to side and his tail whipped gently and yet with blinding speed around to sweep itself about her feet and then crawl up to wrap her hips in a loving caress. He held her there, with a tender gentleness that belied his sheer size, speed and strength. The very symbol of courage, wrapped around her little fingers, if only; if only; as he tasted the base of her throat with his lighting-forked tongue, with the red centre, and its long stripes of jet-black on each side…the two lobes as sharp as a pin at the extremity. But he could never have hurt her. Never.
“Oh, poor Fuego.” She was half laughing and then a sudden catch, like the very breath had seized up in her throat.
She stared into the hollow orbs of his golden eyes and he felt a kind of panic at losing her.
She was uncomfortable with this moment, and yet it had to be done. He felt her pain as she shifted a little, back and forth, and forwards and backwards. He danced with her in sweet regret and joyful longing, a kind of grieving for a past that they could never forget, still laying flat on his back and swooning in physical contact with her. She put her hands into his wickedly sharpened talons, and they danced there for a moment, both feeling the same unspoken song of sadness, and love, and parting. He lay on his back and danced with her.
“I’ll never forget you.”
He carefully jetted out small bursts of smoke and ringlets of fire from his nostrils.
It was his way of saying that it was okay. Since they had known each other for quite some time, she understood. He had watched her grow up. She had gotten to know him as a gentle and lonely creature, with no other creatures like himself to be with. The girl walked over to the ledge and he followed. She stood beside the dragon for a moment, looking out over the valley, with its horses, pastures, fields of softly-bending ripe grain. They could see her manor, the red roof of the house where she lived on the far distant hill-top. He only had eyes for her, as she stood there with her arms wrapped around herself in a kind of desolation. Fuego lay on his back again, with his legs and forepaws sticking up in the air as if gravity had gone on vacation, and just stared at her in hopes of remembering this moment forever, to remember her just as she was at just this moment.
“I want to see you fly, for one last time, Fuego.”
The dragon felt her using both hands to rub and stroke him under the chin, which always made him feel so sleepy…but this time he felt tears, big salt drops of tears, each enough to fill a bucket, forming in the corners of his golden-orbed eyes, with their inscrutable, black vertical pupils.
To spare her as much pain as possible, he leapt up ever so carefully, yet startling in its sheer quickness, spinning right-side-up, and flapping his wings in a joy that he hoped was well-feigned, hoping to fool her. He fluttered up and down in lazy figure eights, backing and diving, and hovering there in an exhibition of pure, unrivalled vitality. She looked down at her feet for a moment, and he knew that he had failed, but it was all right, that she understood, and he settled to the ground momentarily. The strong beat of his leathern wings slowly subsided. The dragon rested his heart, aware that she had a long journey ahead, and that so did he; although he was trying not to dwell upon it.
Standing there, she looked so alone. The girl allowed him to approach; and yet what courage she had shown the first time they had met! What kindness…what compassion.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him close.
“Good-bye, Fuego.” They clung together for a long time.
He had to let her go, to set her free. He could not keep her forever. To attempt to do so would be wrong.
Fuego sighed deeply. Sucking in one huge, vast, barren sob of air, he tried to speak. It turned to a low, forlorn howl, starting deep and low and building to a siren-like crescendo of love, and longing, fearfulness, and loneliness, grief, and despair. She stepped back, her eyes staring at his face, all lumpy, and green, and with the bones, great huge bones so alive and hard under the skin, as his muscles worked in response to emotions he could not articulate. Tears ran down her face.
Fuego turned his back on her; forcing himself to take two, then three steps; and dropped over the ledge, and then catching the rocks and boulders one by one with his talons, he thrust himself into flight over the hillside, with the gloomy darkness of the trees coming up from below. He gave a series of strong beats, with the heart and lungs responding magnificently, with his wings reassuringly flexing without unexpected cricks and aches. Turning into the stronger winds coming up from the far valley to the west, cautiously hooding his eyes internally to avoid burning them in the blazing globe of the sun, he stroked his way up to safety. With careful timing, matching his breath to the beating of his wings, purging his vast lungs each time with a forceful grunt, he clawed his way up, and out over the river, foaming in the rocky valley below.
And then he had no choice but to turn again…
There was time for one last look back, to see her standing there in fragile dignity. Her outstretched arm, the pale glimmer of her outspread fingers, her last, gentle, farewell wave, was almost more than he could bear.
She was all grown up now, and it was time for them both to move on.
This story originally appeared in Breath and Shadow.