Twig named the dragons. He watched them, lying on his belly on a ledge of stone with lingering warmth from sunshine. Night had fallen. A passel of dragons lazed around in a ravine below him, growling at each other, snapping at each other, like a nest of huge hyenas. The moon shined bright enough for him to see them. Caius—Mossback—Clotilde—Earthquake. Various others. All the names reflected something he’d observed about the dragons, although the personal touch made no difference to them. Just to him. They had no way of naming themselves. They couldn’t speak. He almost never had cause to say their names aloud. No one lived near enough to speak to about them. He liked having names for them anyway. It made him feel less alone. He couldn’t remember when he started caring about that.
Twig watched the dragons, unblinking. They had spent the day sunning themselves. They liked this ravine for the sun. It cut through the hills east to west, and its pale stones soaked up the heat. It was one of their gathering places.
The dragons tended to be solitary animals but with a few odd social habits. They hunted together as whelps, built connections, and then went their own ways when they hit adolescence. All the adult dragons tended to keep to themselves most of the time. For some reason they gathered semi-regularly in places like this ravine. Twig hadn’t figured out why they did it. Sometimes it seemed like they needed the opportunities for dominance displays. Their wrestling could carve new canyons, when some of the bulls went at it. Sometimes, like this time, they gathered and did nothing, just lying around for days at a time.
He never found them dull or tiring. Even gatherings when they did nothing, he would watch them for as long as they gathered. Especially this time, because Dusk had returned. Dusk was a dragon that Twig found especially interesting. A while earlier, Dusk had left. They did every now and then—flying as far as the Wretched Isles in the west, thousands of miles over the mountains.
They sometimes didn’t come back. It pleased Twig to see Dusk. Dusk was the color of the gloaming sky at dusk—sandy orange at the front, fading to smoke-grey at the tail. He was neither the largest nor most spectacular of the dragons. Twig liked him best, though, because all the other dragons gave place to him.
Twig had seen Dusk approaching late in the afternoon. Before doing anything else, Dusk had gone hunting on the prairie. He’d meandered ever closer to the craggy hills, where many dragons kept aeries—where Dusk had kept his, not far from this ravine. Hoping he’d make his way here, Twig came at sunset to watch.
Finally, now long after the rising of the moon—it was a nearly full moon, smudging out many stars—Dusk alighted on a pinnacle of stone across the ravine from the ledge where Twig lay. At the sight of him, Twig stood, then jumped off the ledge. He fell down the cliff face, a hundred yards down. On his way, he kicked off outcrops and cracks, slowing his drop. Some sheer and slightly inclined faces afforded him places to slide. It took him only a few moments to reach the floor of the ravine. He landed in a stretch of sand with a whumph.
Some of the dragons looked over at the sound. Not many, though. They didn’t find him very interesting. He had an odd physiology. Because of it he gave off no body heat, and he smelled more like chalk than anything else. Twig figured they saw him as neither edible nor threatening, so they mostly ignored him.
Twig padded in bare feet through the lingering-warm sand to the sandstone rising in boulders from the sand. A tangle of dragon whelps scrapped there. He always liked the whelps best. They had softer skin and more curiosity. They all knew him by sight. The few that still wondered what he was turned and snarled at him, raising their growing neck spikes and baring their teeth. Most of them were as large as him, many were larger. He went among them quietly, patting a few on their necks. The natural furnaces inside their chest cavities made their necks warmer than the sun-warm stone beneath them. They huffed at him. Most of them were distracted. The adults were having interactions. The whelps took interest in the goings on: a big bull had noticed Dusk.
Twig called the big bull Warlord. Twig could have stretched out in his mouth without touching any of his teeth. His wings stretched out large as yacht sails, his body appropriately sized for such wings. When Dusk had left, Warlord hadn’t been full grown. Now that Warlord was, he seemed to think he could challenge Dusk for the comfy hollow that Dusk had grown accustomed to keeping to himself. Seemed reasonable, to a creature without reason. Warlord was a third again as large as Dusk. The dragons never displayed any reason, so far as Twig had seen. Calamities of pure instinct, dragons.
Twig crouched with the front row of the whelps. The vibrating heat of their fidgety bodies thrummed on him. The whelps all scrambled for a place to see what would happen between Dusk and Warlord, but none of the whelps wanted to be in front. All the other dragons in the ravine turned their big heads to watch too.
Dusk slunk, like a cat. He walked with no hurry toward the hollow he liked. Dragons have no lips, but if Warlord had lips then he looked like he’d be wearing a self-satisfied smirk. He lay on his back, scratching his chest with his front claws, watching Dusk approach. Warlord yawned. His eyes closed from the tongue-curling size of the yawn. Midway through the yawn, he began to turn onto his side, deciding to finally engage in the fight he’d started. He seemed to think he had all the time in the world. He moved without the slightest hurry.
Twig knew what would happen next. He flicked his eyes to watch Dusk. Just in time too. Dusk coiled his lithesome body into a pounce—tucking his wings back, digging his claws into the stone. His tail started a long, slow whip. Dusk threw himself forward. His claws scratched on the stone. His wings made one, slapping cut in the air. Before Warlord could turn onto his side, Dusk landed on him. Warlord couldn’t help yowling. Dusk sank his claws into the bigger dragon. Dark blood came out. With one, big heave, Dusk threw Warlord into the wall of the ravine. Warlord’s body shook a handful of boulders loose. The boulders fell on Warlord. None were big enough to very badly injure Warlord. They would hurt him, though.
Dusk crouched on his hollow. He let a howl out at Warlord, letting a huff of bright flame out. There was not enough fire for an attack. Twig thought that the dragons used heat partly to express emotions.
Then Dusk turned his back on Warlord, finished with him. Warlord panted for a while under the rubble. None of the dragons paid Warlord much mind for a while. The conflict had passed. The dragons resolved things with acts of visceral instinct, never signaling that they had any memory of anything that happened.
Twig had an experiment to attempt. Because the dragons never seemed to have any memory, Twig felt that the experiment would probably not work. He’d been wanting to try it for a few weeks, though, and as soon as Dusk returned. It would reveal…well, he didn’t actually know. He hadn’t been able to think of any way of discovering what he wanted to know about the inner workings of the dragons without trying this experiment.
He stood from the whelps, patting a few who he recognized and hadn’t named yet. They deserved patience from him before he named him—that’s what he thought, at least. No reason to rush things. They lived for hundreds of years, if nothing calamitous happened to them.
When they saw Dusk, they enacted a particular gesture: a particular growl, with a cock of the head just so. They did the gesture much of the time, though not all of the time. Most of the dragons had similar little gesture to each other. Something special about Dusk drew that attention a little more often. It almost seemed like they treated him like a chief, but they had no need for chiefs. They weren’t like wolves, they had no need to maintain social pyramids.
Twig had a theory about why they would yield up more recognition of Dusk than many others, though a tentative theory at best. He needed more evidence before he could even start looking into it, so he had an experiment.
He walked among the dragons without fear most of the time. A few glanced at him as he passed, but they had no interest in something that seemed inedible. Caius glanced as him, a warmth churning briefly in his throat. Mossback huffed at Twig—the hot air shushed in Twig’s hair—but then he closed his eyes and laid his head down.
In a moment, Twig crouched in front of Dusk’s warm hollow. Dusk lay on his side, purring every so often, his eyes halfway open and his gaze lazily watching some whelps wrestle. The adults kept an eye on the whelps, never doing anything for them except occasionally breaking up fights if it looked like someone was going to get hurt. Although the dragons didn’t seem to have great judgment, and the whelps did occasionally kill each other.
Twig felt unhurried. He spent a few minutes crouched there, looking at Dusk and making no move. He knew what he wanted to discover: that the dragons had a language, however rudimentary it turned out to be. The thought of it sounded ridiculous.
To get Dusk’s attention, Twig tossed a loose rock toward the dragon. Dusk looked at the rock where it made a sound. Twig tossed a second rock, drawing Dusk’s attention directly to himself. It looked for a second as if the dragon would not focus on Twig. Twig almost preferred that—the option of bowing out of the experiment because the great beast had no ability to focus so meticulously on Twig’s somewhat weird presence. The dragon’s huge eyes lit upon Twig after a long moment, though. Twig met the gaze of the dragon. The dragon looked Twig in the eye. Twig did not know what he saw in the depths of those eyes.
Twig said, “Hello, Dusk.” He hoped it was, anyway. He had been practicing the growl. He knew it was weaker than even the sickliest whelp, but he had the tone and the length perfectly. He cocked his head just so, like shaking off a fly that’d tickled his chin. It was the same as the other dragons, aside from the inescapable fact that Twig was shaped like a man and not like a dragon.
When Dusk received the gesture, more than half the time he had a particular huff that he used to acknowledge. If Twig got that huff—that short growl—back, then…he didn’t actually know if that would mean anything. He’d at least have another piece of information to add to his hypothesis.
More than anything, he felt an urgency. He wanted Dusk to respond. Twig awaited without moving, watching the great beast.
The moment breathed on. Dusk did nothing. The dragon yawned and laid his head down, closing his eyes.
Twig crouched there for a long time.
Nothing came of the research for several weeks. Twig didn’t have the spirit for it. He spent the time visiting the dragon powwows, watching the subservience paid to Dusk. It kept happening—the subtle gesture directed by the dragons at Dusk. Dusk would respond to it, consistently, frequently, with the same huffing growl. Other dragons received the same sort of gesture, responded with similar kinds of huffing growls. Dusk elicited a gesture from the other dragons most frequently.
Twig spent long hours watching the dragons interact. He liked to sit among the whelps to do it. Though they shuffled around a lot, rarely keeping still for any reason and frequently distracted by each other and random events—shifting wind, blowing clouds, new dragons arriving—he liked sitting among them anyway. They accepted his cold presence most easily.
He sat next to one he had taken already to calling Sophia. Though years younger than the age he usually named them, Sophia had already showed a spark of wisdom that he found interesting. She spent more time watching quietly than most of the whelps. He appreciated mulling next to her large presence. She sat for hours with him, large as a horse, warm as sunburned sandstone, and soft as a snake. She often watched what he watched, or he looked at what she looked at. It was the same in Twig’s mind.
“Your father lounges there,” Twig said to her, waving vaguely at where Dusk basked in the sun. He knew she didn’t understand him, but that didn’t always make much of a difference to him. “When he reached your age he already walked with the bearing of a prince, I remember. The other whelps gave him space even in his earliest days. I wish to speak to him. I never shall. You and your kind speak no language, my love.”
Sophia had been watching Twig while he spoke. She sometimes did, never giving any indication she found him intelligible, either from gesture or expression or from the emotive shifting of her heat. He petted her side.
“I wish you could speak to me, Sophia. I know that you would say to me that my experiment would fail the crudest scientific definition. Variables still exist which I allow to overpower me. You would tell me that Twig, in his man shape, will forever fail to indicate sensibility to the dragons. He possesses insufficient anatomy. You would probably say that, Sophia.”
As Twig spoke, Dusk rose and began to walk from his hollow through the dragons. Some of the dragons saluted him in that familiar way. Sophia was one. Twig still had his hand on her side. While she gestured, the heat in her belly rose to a particular temperature, suggesting an emotion—probably excitement, although Twig hadn’t made specific note of all the emotions that the dragons indicated by their heat. He used the word emotion, but he decided long ago that their shifting heat equated more to instinct than anything. Emotion was too advanced a word, he supposed.
Sophia rose to a very specific heat. Because he was watching just then, he noticed a few other whelps rise to the same heat, and a few of the adult dragons as well. He had a special sensitivity to heat, partly because he produced none himself and was more sensitive to it. Twig’s gaze darted around, looking at as many of the sources of this specific temperature as he could manage in the instant he felt most aware of it. Many dragons who had modulated to the temperature had enacted the gesture that Twig had come to equate with, “Hello, Dusk.”
Twig wondered. He petted Sophia’s side, and he wondered.
Twig kept a cave, high in a butte that overlooked the yellow-red plains for hundreds of miles, like a watchtower built by giants. Twig went to it only rarely. It took him a long time to climb to it. He hadn’t bothered building ladders for most of the climb, and he never carried ropes or any sort of gear. He climbed free of any saving ropes or tethers for many of the more hazardous cliff faces, going always as swiftly as he dared, to save time and to challenge himself. He preferred to avoid getting too decadent, even so far from any world conflicts. There had been a time when he liked involving himself in world conflicts—someday he would do so again, though he felt no hurry.
He kept old things in his cave. He kept swords and spears in barrels—relics of another life. He kept his old, leather clothes on a coat rack near the back of the cave, with a voluminous cloak that he never found interesting anymore. He kept piles of books and scrolls, all over the dusty space. His mind retained all the words perfectly, but he occasionally perused them again for the pleasure of looking at the shapes of the writing or the typefaces. He had a corner with a cot where he never slept and sometimes read; all the surfaces in that corner dripped with candles and age-old wax from them.
People from far away had occasionally seen fit to give him gifts. He had a potbelly stove, which would have been impossible to get up here if it had not been for the dirigible operated by the person who’d given him the stove. Twig also had all the parts of a small dirigible, disassembled and taking up more space than he wanted on the floor of his cave. The dirigible parts had been given to him with the idea that he’d be able to build the dirigible and watch the dragons more easily.
Twig had never found it anything but a bothersome, cumbersome excessive of pieces, bundled together as far out of the way as he could keep them. It almost made him smile to think he’d found a use for it.
Twig tugged the wrapped-up balloon of the dirigible away from the rest of the parts. He found a knife, cut the ropes tying the balloon into a bundle, and he laid it out some way across the floor of the cave. The knife was the knife he used, so it always had a good edge. For good measure, though, he sharpened it more before beginning to cut a few pieces from the dirigible balloon.
The great advantage of this particular dirigible was that the man who’d given it to him had been an experienced volcano miner—work done with the aid of dirigibles, sometimes. The dirigibles in volcano mining had fireproofing done on them, which—Twig’s friend had thought—would help in dragon watching too. Logical, yes. Twig had never been interested in using a dirigible to chase dragons. Dirigibles go too slowly, and would not be much use in maneuvering. It felt agreeable to finally make use of the gift, though this was far from the intended use.
Conceptually similar, though. Twig finished cutting the sections of balloon. He rolled them into convenient shapes, tied them with ropes and then to his back. He plunged from the mouth of his cave to make the long half climb, half fall down from his tower.
He next needed charcoal. He had not made a fire in a long time. The weather in the area stayed hot during the days, and he found the frigid nights soothing—another idiosyncrasy of his odd physiology: he liked the cold. He had no need to cook—he had no need to eat. When he made a fire, he made it to heat water for tea. It had been a while since he had any tea, so it had been a while since he made a fire.
Wood was difficult to find in the area, which hardly helped. He walked for a day and a half across the arid plains to get a bundle of it from a creek. The storms to the north had been plentiful, fortunately. The creek was full, and the crooked cousins to cottonwoods thriving. Dragonflies darted through the muggy patches of shade. He’d have an easy time of breaking dead branches from dead trees. Before that, he walked into the creek and submerged himself in the cold water. Dust, silt, chalk sloughed from him.
With his bundle of wood, he hiked back across the plains to the mountains. In among the sharp ridges, he wended along paths he knew. The hot, sharp rocks sometimes felt like ancient bones, long abandoned by vultures.
Night started falling when he found a convenient alcove. It had a boulder at one end, protecting it from the worst wind. There he lit a fire and made charcoal from his sticks. He took his time about it, feeling no hurry. The alcove looked out onto a dry, yellow valley with steep walls. Sedge grew in the cracked stones, and cactus in the hollows. An eagle soared past, appearing to be resting on the thick, hot air, not quite cooling yet. It would soon be cold. The wind rustled in the sparse life, and it whistled between the steep mountain faces. His fire crackled at his back. Shadows deepened. Stars began
sparking in the greying sky.
When he had charcoal enough to satisfy him, Twig gathered it into one of the patches of dirigible balloon. He wrapped it, slung it on his back, and walked the last mile he had left to get to Dusk’s aerie. It was a long overhang of rock with not much in it. Dragons did little in their aeries but sleep. A few of the rock faces had long scratches where Dusk would ply his claws when he grew agitated. Dragons did sometimes if they stayed still too long.
The aerie had no Dusk in it when Twig arrived. That suited Twig. It gave him a chance to get set up. He picked a place to build his fire and set to work. He lit the fire, then spent a long time alternately stoking it and removing coals.
Temperature stuck in his head like smell for some other people. He remembered the exact temperature of Sophia when she greeted Dusk. It took a lot of fiddling to get it just right. To make the heat more of a signal, he rigged a patch of the dirigible balloon on sticks he’d saved. It absorbed the heat and spread it out in a more obvious way, like a speaking trumpet for sound or something. It worked as well as Twig hoped, which was well. He had a high opinion of his own ideas.
Like a localized storm, Dusk returned. He returned while Twig still worked. The dragon padded heavily to the rounded place at the back of his aerie where he slept. From there he watched Twig fiddling about. Dusk looked every bit as interested and aware as a huge goat, which Twig found disheartening. Of the creatures Twig had been stared at in his life, goats seemed best at staring, but did not seem among the most intelligent. He had never met a goat with much imagination.
He considered giving up—simply sitting next to his fire and staring back at Dusk for the rest of the evening. Why not? He’d spent many an agreeable evening before doing such things. Dragons are fascinating. He’d gone to all this trouble, though. He may as well follow through.
The surface of the dirigible balloon facing Dusk finally radiated at exactly the right temperature. It would not last long at that temperature—it already began cooling. Twig had a few minutes to enact the rest of the gesture. He went to stand next to the hot patch of fireproof balloon, and he stared at Dusk. Dusk stared back without anything significant in his deep eyes.
Twig tossed his head, letting loose the correct growl. He felt the fire warming his skin. Couldn’t hurt.
Nothing happened. Dusk kept staring at Twig. The dragon’s head slowly cocked a few degrees to the side. Then, in a moment that—in its smallness—stuck like a quivering arrow in Twig’s memory forever, Dusk returned the huff of a growl that he returned to other dragons who enacted this gesture to him—his, “yes,” to the, “hello, Dusk,” he permitted. Then the dragon laid his head down, closed his eyes, and began to sleep.
Twig sat there till his fire went out.
A few days later, Twig sat among the whelps, watching Dusk and the other adults bask in their places in the social ravine. Twig patted Sophia’s side, watching Dusk, who watched some adolescents wrestle over a patch of unclaimed sunlight at the end of the ravine.
“It could be instinct, Sophia,” Twig said, patting her warm side. “You dragons act instinctively most of the time. You have made that much clear to me.” Sophia looked back at Twig, all the concentration of a goat in her eyes. The dragons had a gesture of dismissal: a slow flick with a fore claw, like they were flicking a mouse away from them. Twig did this gesture to Sophia. And he nodded.
She did the gesture back, and she also nodded. She looked away from him again, out into the ravine and the mess of dragons.
Twig stroked her side. He had never seen a dragon nod like that. For a long time, he sat among the whelps. Their warmth crept into his cold, stony bones.