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A Dragon's Desire

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If you have read the story called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you will know all about how a boy called Eustace Scrubb slept on a dragon's treasure and became a dragon in turn; and you will have heard about Lord Octesian's arm ring, worn by Eustace in his dragon form and left behind with relief as the company sailed on. But a ring is but a dead object, revealing little of what had happened on the island before the Dawn Treader's arrival, and now you shall hear what happened to Octesian himself.

Lord Bern, as you know, had decided to forsake his companions and stay in the Lone Islands. This caused some general discontentment amongst the other Lords, for their orders to go East had been clear, and some felt it was not only disloyal of Bern to stay behind, but unfair to the other Lords as well (and if you have ever had a classmate who boldly skives off your shared detention, you will probably empathise with them). Others pointed out that Miraz was not their king, and they owed their fealty to Caspian, not to him. Some even said Bern was the one who would suffer, shying away from the great adventures of the unknown and settling for a dull provincial life.

Be that as it may, they were not at all as friendly as they usually were after several weeks' travel, for their disagreements on Bern's decision had festered and spread, and now they were prone to fighting over the pettiest of issues. By the time they reached the island which you have come to know as Dragon Island, nobody wanted to speak much to anyone else. After a tense afternoon spent refilling their water barrels and preparing food, they went to sleep -- on board the ship, for they had not yet explored the island and knew little about what dangers might lurk there.

Octesian, who was the youngest of the group, could not sleep. For weeks he had been needled -- or so he felt -- for his lack of adventurousness, so ill-becoming in a man his age -- all because he had expressed, more than once, his doubts that their journey would be fruitful or serve any purpose other than to keep them out of Miraz's way. He was certain everyone else in the company shared his thoughts, even if they would not say so aloud. Earlier the same day, Mavramorn had said something about 'boys who still clung to their mothers' skirts in their thoughts'. The resentment burned sharp and bitter in Octesian's heart now, making him writhe in his bunk, gritting his teeth.

At length he got up and went on deck. The ship felt stifling and small, and he stood for a long time staring at the form of the island in front of him, a black form against the starlit sky, indistinguishable from the darkness of the sea. It suddenly seemed strangely appealing, though he knew well enough the potential dangers lurking there. Suppose there were monsters, like in the Narnian woods, animals who spoke like men -- or perhaps trees that moved? He swallowed at the thought, his right hand moving to his sword.

And yet: was he not a Telmarine and a lord? Should he fear the unknown? Should he go back to his narrow bunk bed and spend a sleepless night there when he could take the island into possession at night -- when he could greet his companions in the morning, smiling at them from the shore as they stumbled sore-eyed onto deck?

The thought of Mavramorn's face decided him. A short time later, the ship's small dinghy was securely dragged onto the beach, the bay was again silent, and Octesian had disappeared among the trees, sword in hand and triumph in his heart.

Though he had no specific goal -- he certainly had not intended to explore the island in the darkness -- he found himself climbing upwards until he had reached a summit, where he rested, breathing heavily and squinting to the East, where the tiniest strip of golden dawn had appeared on the horizon. He felt exhilarated and excited. For the first time he felt no particular desire to return home, and no particular resentment at the thought of going onwards.

There was a small valley below him, and down there he could see a small lake or pond, which reminded him that he was thirsty. The climb down was steep, but he was strong and unafraid and soon he was kneeling by the pond, scooping up water with both hands. After he had finished drinking, he had a proper look around, and now he saw a cave in the mountain, not twenty feet away.

The night was silent as ever as he approached, sword in hand. Right inside the mouth of the cave, something was gleaming. When he realised what it was, he almost gave a yelp of surprise.

It was, of course, the same gold treasure you have heard about elsewhere, and it was, of course, a dragon's treasure. But like Eustace many years later, Octesian had no idea what it was. Telmarines are not interested in dragon lore. He assumed, not unreasonably, that it was the treasure of pirates and outlaws who had stored away their loot in this small secluded valley and left it there. Stepping closer, he saw that the treasure was so rich as to cover the entire floor of the cave. He knelt down and touched it, buried his hands in it and raised them, coins and jewelry spilling between his fingers.

"There has to be more gold here than in Narnia and Archenland combined," he said to himself. "What could I buy with this? A palace to rival Miraz's, surely." But at this thought he shied away, fearful of the sentiment that had passed through his heart, for despite his anger and his bitterness, and his rightful distrust of the regent, he was a loyal man still.

As if to compensate, he took off his golden ring and turned it over in his hands. Then, with a laugh, he placed it on top of the heap next to him. "Look now," he said. "I contribute to your wealth. Stupid pirates! Did you think all Telmarines fear the sea?"

The noise behind him killed his good mood like a sudden gust of wind kills a tiny flame. It was a terrible sound, like a heavy iron door on rusty hinges -- old and hard and merciless. What is more, it somehow sounded coldly furious at the same time. Octesian whipped around, his sword immediately in his hand.

What he saw was a creature like a giant crocodile with misshapen wings, or a snake with large, lumpy legs -- a dragon. It is not easy to say whether it would have terrified him more if he had known what sort of creature it was. All he knew was that he would rather have faced a hundred pirates; still, Octesian did not drop his sword. He was a Telmarine and not a coward, and he had just found a treasure greater than any wealth in Narnia or Archenland combined.

It is quite possible that not knowing anything about dragons helped Octesian. Had he known that a dragon's hide is impenetrable except for a small bare patch on its breast, he would have lost all his courage before the fight even began, and it is highly unlikely he would have managed to hit that same patch -- but that is indeed what happened: Octesian aimed for the heart as the creature lunged at him, and by some mysterious chance the sword skidded away from where he assumed the heart would be, to that bare patch. The creature's flesh gave way, there was a loud and terrible yell or groan -- Octesian had never heard anything as awful -- and, convulsing so hard he lost his grip of the sword, the creature rolled onto its back and away from him, and soon lay still.

Breathless, chest heaving, Octesian stood still for long moments. Then he knelt by the pond to wash away the creature's blood. After that he attempted to retrieve his sword, but it seemed to be stuck in the dead body, and he was now feeling deadly tired. "Just a short while," he told himself as he went inside the cave. The gold shifted under him as he lay down, and if he had been just a little bit more awake, he might have realised it was far more comfortable than it should have been.

***

You can imagine how terrible it was to wake up and find out he had been transformed during his sleep -- for indeed that is what happened to Octesian, who had fallen asleep on a pile of dragon's treasure, and you do not need me to tell you how gruesome the realisation was that he could no longer speak, or use his hands, or explain to anyone in any way that he was not a monster but a man. Suffice it to say that when he finally made it back to the beach, his companions -- who knew little more about dragons than Octesian himself -- responded with weapons to his approach. When he let out a howl of despair, he was as shocked as them to find fire bursting from his mouth, and when the ship left in a hurry, taking his erstwhile friends with it, he was even more astounded to find that he could cry.

He went back to the cave and his treasure, but took no joy in it. The fights and quarrels were almost forgotten already, wiped from memory by his new and intolerable loneliness. What had any of it mattered? He could not find it in himself to blame his friends for leaving; they surely thought the beast had killed him. And in a way, it had.

Octesian stayed in the cave, sleeping on dragon's treasure and wearing a dragon's hide. At first he thought of Narnia every single moment of the day, but then he started to forget more and more. He killed animals and ate them, and drank from the pond. He watched the sun rise and set and waited for new ships to come, if only to break the monotony, but none came. He noticed the turning of seasons and the shifts of weather and cared not, growing old before his time.

***

There came a time, too, when he fell asleep by the pond, and when he woke up everything was different. The pond looked like one of the pools he remembered from his childhood home in Narnia, and the steep slopes of the valley were gone; instead there were soft silhouettes of trees against a pale blue morning sky and a sweet smell to the air. Octesian lay in the soft grass, crippled and grotesque, his dragon's eyes slowly blinking against the clear dawn.

A lion came walking towards him. Memories stirred in what was left of Octesian's mind, legends of a demon in a lion's form -- but he could not speak, he could not move, only lie there, unmoving, as the lion came to a halt in front of him.

"Son of Adam," the lion said. "Come with me."

Octesian knew not why he was called by such a title. But still he understood. He hobbled to his feet, and found that he could walk. He followed the lion the few feet to the pool. The water was more tempting than anything he could remember having seen before, so tempting he instinctively shied away from it, ashamed of his own foulness.

"Son of Adam," said the lion again, "will you not bathe?"

He shook his head. Then he nodded. Tears welled up in his eyes and fell large and heavy to the ground. He felt the lion's eyes on him but could not bring himself to meet them.

"Look at me, Octesian," the lion said now, "Telmarine of Narnia," and at this Octesian was forced to raise his head, enduring the lion's golden gaze on his monster's brow.

"You killed a creature for desire of gold," the lion said, very softly. "And the gold has been your curse. But nothing is forever. Here, at least, you will find rest, and company, if you so desire. I ask you again, Octesian, son of Adam: will you not bathe?"

His whole body shook. He fell to the lion's feet, baring his throat. If he could have spoken and asked the lion to kill him there and then, he might have. But what happened instead was perhaps even more painful and even more terrifying: the lion's claws to his neck, his chest, ripping him open -- leaving him naked, bleeding, vulnerable, his hide stripped away forever until there was nothing but pain, nothing but the honest clear air on his raw skin.

And then he was in the water, at last, and at last he could look at his own body: vaguely as he remembered it from years before, but stronger, healthier, a glow to his skin that had never been there even in his most intense memories. He flexed his fingers, again and again, thinking of how the last act his hands had been used for was an act of killing. He bowed his head and cried, letting his tears be washed away by the water though he knew the lion saw them -- though he knew the lion saw everything about him.

At last he was on the ground again, kneeling before the lion, who in turn was resting in the grass, relaxed as a housecat. The lion smiled -- there was no other word for it. "Welcome, son of Adam," he said.

Octesian bowed his head. "My lord," he whispered. "Will I ever see my friends again? And..." He swallowed, still not used to the gift of speech. "Will I ever be able to go home?"

The lion smiled again, then leaned forward. He let out a breath, like the sweetest wind you can imagine; it held in it the promise of spring, the joy of summer, and the calm of autumn, all at once. "My dear," he said. "Let me take you there."