The dragon looked down at the little man, its hide encased in pitifully thin strips of steel. It held a torch aloft, the weak flame flickering uncertainly with every puff of cold air that whispered through the cavern. The light reflected off the plate armor, making it almost beautiful. But this armor was plain and dull; it had no fine tracery, no designs worked upon it in emerald and ruby, nothing of gold at all. Even the steel was not finely wrought – the dragon could smell the flaky tang of rust and weakness mingled in with the man’s scent of sweat and fear. The creature moved forward uncertainly, its weak eyes unable to see beyond the pale glow cast by its torch. Never once did it look up to the raised shelf where the dragon lay watching it, half crouched and perfectly still. Even if the wretched thing had troubled to look, it would most likely would have seen nothing, and men’s ears and noses were even feebler than their eyes. Men were such strange things – seemingly frail and yet their clever hands and cunning minds gave them great power to work mischief. No other race in all of existence possessed such a gift for cruelty and murder. They took indecent pleasure in killing anything that crossed their paths and in taking what was not theirs.
He watched the figure advance, the echoes of its steps sending ripples of sound into the heavy silence. The torchlight was nothing but a wan brightness cast by a cool flame, too weak to burn anything but wood and the softest flesh, and yet even in this sickly glow, the gold was beautiful. The figure paused, raising the tiny light high and he dimly heard its soft intake of breath. The treasure gleamed, reflecting the dim light in a thousand different rich hues. The rubies flashed in different shades of crimson, now the color of wine now of blood now autumn leaves in the morning. The flame flickered and danced in diamonds and moonstones, taking on an ethereal quality, flashing back to his eyes with glimmers of every color.
The man saw only flashes of rainbow light coming off white gems, but the dragon’s eyes were far keener; they saw every color, every shade, every glint split into its component hues. He’d seen his treasure in sunlight, starlight, moonlight and firelight and yet he never tired of gazing at them, never ceased to wonder at their endless beauty, at the intricate interplay of light and shadow. The gems, the silver, the opals set in delicate tiaras of copper. He saw it all and marveled at each color and each piece, wondered at how the gems studding a helm complemented each other and created an intricate scene of some epic battle long past. Yet, most of all he stared at the gold, like sunlight made solid, like frozen fire it glowed with majestic beauty. Coins and cups, crowns and rings – it easily outshone the rest and made up the bulk of the hoard.
For a century he had guarded his hoard and added to it. It was his, and his alone. His own cache of beauty and light. Only a dragon could truly see its beauty; it was profanity for other eyes to see it, death for any but its rightful master to touch it. Even when the heat was on him and the females came to his cave, drawn by his calls and the smell of gold he would not suffer them to touch his hoard. To look was enough. To stare for hours at the mesmerizing beauty – which he would gladly share with them, when the mood was on him, for like him, they could see what was before them, could lose themselves in the twisting paths of light and the heady scent of metal and stone. That he would allow, but still, the treasure was his alone to touch, to move so that it caught a different light, to gaze at for the rest of eternity. He wondered if the figure could see any of the true beauty that lay before it, if that gasp contained anything of wonder and awe, or if it was only an expression of greed, of lust for what such a treasure could buy him.
Men knew nothing of light and beauty. Their hearts were filled with darkness and avarice. If the creature had come to stare and nothing more, perhaps the dragon would have suffered it. Men’s lives were so short, so pitiful, so blind. What was it to him to allow one or two of them, on occasion, to gain some dim understanding of the divine? But it was not here to gaze in wonder. It was greedy and low and mean. It was here to steal. It reached out its hand, each finger a blind grasping worm wriggling towards an elaborate necklace of gold set with fire opals and diamonds. The dragon’s snarl shuddered through the cave, magnified by the close surroundings, reverberating through the air as though a thousand dragons had snarled instead of one, and indeed now that the rage had woken within him, he felt strong as ten thousand. The figure scurried backwards and looked around in alarm, its weak eyes searching for the source of the noise. Still too close to the hoard though; the dragon would not risk melting a single coin. He sprang down from the ledge, half opening his wings to slow his descent. The creature squealed when he caught it in one claw and threw it away from his hoard, towards the entrance of the cavern. He reared back, his flame sack contracting. The creature was trying to scramble away, but it did not go far. The flames filled the front half of the cavern and spilled out the mouth. When they subsided, the stony floor glowed red as the setting sun. The dragon turned away from the paltry light of day, pale next to his secret cache. He gently touched the golden necklace with his nose, to ensure all was in order. His reflection appeared dimly in the rich metal, reflected a thousand times over in each diamond, twisted into fantastical forms. It was so beautiful.
Image Source: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; Ben Ashmole; https://www.flickr.com/photos/86528528@N07/