The Dragon of Kedran’s Wood
Tare and the Puppies
by Deborah O’Carroll
Autumn leaves fell around Tare and the Chess Club and crunched underfoot as they set out on a hike through Kedran’s Wood. A cold wind swept through their hair and rattled the mostly-barren branches overhead. Beyond the branches, dark clouds lurked as the little group made its way through the trees: Lavender and Baz hand in hand, as were Ivy and Adrian, and wandering in and out were siblings Marie and Jake. These six were the Chess Club proper, merely missing Mr. Larch; he wasn’t a teenager like they were, so he didn’t always count. A damp Fall scent filled the air and made them want to go off on adventures.
“It’s a Tookish thing,” Marie said.
This particular excursion was a vague Chess Club scheme to get out and tell spooky stories while clambering around near the minor set of cliffs looming deep within Kedran’s Wood. Tare, who was not officially a member, but often lurked around, had come along for some reason.
“Keep you from breaking your necks,” he had said—though he didn’t actually need such an excuse. If he was going to be honest, he rather enjoyed their company, even if he never told them this. They were glad to have him along (though Baz protested that necks were far more difficult to break than, say, wrists, and that he didn’t intend to break anything).
“You should know better than to hike around in the woods the evening before November first,” Tare said comfortably, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket. “The night of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, when the veils between worlds are thin and you might run into a Faerie . . . or something less pleasant.”
“Like Kedran?” Adrian asked, referring to the legend of the Faerie after whom the wood had allegedly been named. Adrian helped his girlfriend Ivy hop over a crevice in the rock at their feet. “Or are we talking about something else?”
“Ghost stories!” Baz said happily, clambering around a large boulder on the rocky path.
“Faerie stories,” Tare corrected. “Much more interesting—and, I might add, more accurate.”
“But ghost stories are creepier,” Baz pouted. “And that’s the point of spooky stories on hiking or camping trips, especially on Halloween. I defy you to come up with something scarier than a ghost story.”
“Don’t!” Lavender said hastily, wide-eyed. She was just here for the sweater-weather and the leaves and the company. Spookiness was not her favorite thing, and she definitely didn’t want Baz daring Tare like that—both because she didn’t know how Tare would take it, and for fear that Tare might rise to the challenge and come up with something scary.
Jake, too, looked uncertain, but more undecided than specifically against the idea. The youngest teen in the group, he was cautious, but also liked a thrill at times.
Marie and Ivy, as well as Adrian—who was nearly as old as Tare—were made of tougher stuff and didn’t care either way.
Tare knew far scarier things than ghost stories, but wasn’t about to bring those up. Some memories were best left undisturbed. “I read a legend about a dragon in these woods, back in Kedran’s day. It’s a scary story if you want one,” he said casually.
“Dragons are awesome, not scary,” Baz said.
“They can be both,” Marie put in firmly.
“Well, I bet this one isn’t as scary as my ghost story,” Baz went on, skipping further up the path in a blur of blue jacket. “It’s about a— YAAHH!” Baz’s sentence—and Baz himself—disappeared abruptly, leaving only his startled yell and a swirl of leaves.
“Baz!” shouted several voices in alarm as the Chess Club rushed toward the hole he had disappeared into. Tare was there almost instantly, before any of the others, peering down into the dark.
“I’m okay!” Baz’s voice echoed up out of the rocky hole. “I think.” He coughed, and added, “I’ve found a secret cave! I wonder if it’s haunted . . .”
The Chess Club laughed in relief.
Tare grunted, muttering about priorities, and swung down into the hole, landing lightly in a crouch at the bottom and glancing around.
It wasn’t a very far drop, easy to climb back out of, and Lavender, Adrian, Ivy, and the Valerian siblings clambered down after Tare.
“I didn’t even break my wrist,” Baz remarked, on his feet and dusting himself off. He was dirty but unharmed. “Oh, look, there’s a passage,” he added excitedly, clearly having forgotten his ghost story. “Let’s explore it.”
“Mmm.” Tare eyed the shadowy opening in one wall of the cave. Despite knowing the wood and cliffs quite well, he had never been in here before, but caves had certain unpleasant connotations in his mind from an incident in his past. Some instinct suggested an edge of danger involved, which made him want to get the Chess Club out and safe first, and investigate it by himself, before they could go rushing into harm’s way.
The Chess Club, however, were chattering cheerfully, getting out flashlights and preparing to explore.
Tare stepped in before them, leading the procession. If they were going to go about this whole thing, as least he could be there to keep them from—well, from breaking their necks, or getting lost, or any other shenanigans they might get up to.
It was the Chess Club: there was sure to be something.
They weren’t accident-prone in particular, but things tended to happen around this wood nowadays, and Tare was normally there to get them out of one scrape or another—often when they poked their noses where they shouldn’t have. Like in Tare’s business. Or when they thought they were “helping” him. For all that, he wouldn’t trade them for anything—he just never said so aloud . . .
Rough brownish stone with uneven floor, walls, and ceiling, formed the tunnel they crept along. Shadows clung to the edges despite the flashlight beams Adrian and Jake shone in front of them. It was very dusty.
“I wonder if anyone’s ever been in here before,” Ivy said, ducking to avoid brushing her red hair against a cobwebby low spot in the ceiling.
“Maybe— Whoa,” Adrian began, and broke off, shining his light around as they stepped into a more open underground chamber, and stared around with many oohs and aahs.
The stone room yawned hugely, with an even floor, and was roughly circular—no, exactly circular, Tare noticed. He narrowed his eyes as they pierced the shadows, not needing the light from the flashlights since he had excellent night vision. Nature didn’t, on the whole, produce perfect circles, which meant someone had made this place. And something about it bothered him.
“Wait,” Tare said sharply, lurking by the wall as the six others wandered into the open space.
They stopped near the center, training their flashlights on him. “What?”
“There’s something . . .” Tare trusted his instincts—they’d kept him alive this long against some pretty extreme odds—and right now they were acting up something fierce. “I can’t explain. Just stay put a minute. Don’t move.” He padded carefully around the chamber.
Tare half spun and sent a Look over his shoulder. “Stay.”
“Just as if we were a lot of puppies,” Baz muttered.
“The thought has crossed my mind,” Tare said dryly as he continued letting his gaze wander around, looking for—something.
“Now I’m just imagining us all as little puppies,” Baz said.
Adrian grinned. “We’d be adorable.”
Lavender and Ivy laughed. Jake and Marie grinned too.
“Yapping and being annoying,” Ivy said, smirking. “Is that how you think of us, Tare?”
More or less, but he didn’t say so.
“I can just imagine us all running around as puppies in here,” Marie said, sticking her hands in her pockets and looking around.
“Or we could wag our little tails, sitting in a circle,” Baz said, “right here—” They had unconsciously been moving around a little, despite Tare’s directive, and were gathered near the center. Of course, a perfectly round room would have an exact center . . .
Something clicked in Tare’s mind and he instantly spun toward them. “Don’t—!” he began.
But just at that moment, Baz and the others had all stepped right into a faintly-etched circle on the floor, directly in the middle of the circular room. Tare dived toward them, but too late. There was a clicking sound as the circle of stone indented slightly, and a sort of POOF. A cloud of purplish-grey smoke instantly appeared, enveloping the little ring of six people standing in the circle. A moment later, it cleared away, and . . .
Tare’s gaze moved downward.
Six pairs of eyes looked up at him from much nearer to the ground than they had been a moment before . . . as six puppies sat on the circular stone in the floor and blinked. All of them were thinking one collective thought, which somehow Tare heard from six startled minds at once:
Tare stared down at them and blinked twice. “You have got to be kidding me.”
* * *
It was a very interesting thing, being suddenly turned into a small dog. Yet another interesting thing was the fact that, while they could not exactly speak, they seemed to be able to hear each other’s rapid thoughts in their minds. And Tare, being in the room and somehow connected, despite being still in his natural form (thank goodness), could hear their thoughts too.
Instantaneous puppy-transformation and telepathy. Well then.
Adrian seemed to be a golden retriever puppy, very yellow and furry. Ivy had become a little red setter—no wonder, with her hair. Jake was a young black lab, like a bundle of fluffy-silky adorable midnight. Marie was a poof of grey and white as a Siberian husky puppy who could have killed with her cuteness. Baz was a chocolate lab puppy, all big paws and velvet ears. Lavender seemed to be some sort of white puppy, with bristly fluffy fur and a little trembling black nose.
They were all aggressively adorable.
Their reactions were something like this:
Adrian: I’m a dog! I love dogs and I’m a dog now! Whoa. This could be cool. (Examining paws.) Granted, a very small one. (With some disappointment.) It was rather odd going from being an eighteen-year-old to a small puppy. (Pause.) I’M A DOG! Followed by excited panting and attempts to get his new tail under control.
Lavender: Oh my goodness! What just happened? Where are my hands?
Ivy: Oh, great. What am I going to tell mom?
Marie: Hmm. This is interesting. I wonder if I can smell— Yes, I can smell everyone and they have distinct scents. Fascinating.
Jake: Halp! I’m a dog! This is weird. And creepy. And . . . kind of awesome.
Non-dog-Tare: (Mentally face-palming.) What did I do to deserve this.
All the puppies paused in their frisking about, to glance up at Tare.
Oh, hey, I can hear what Tare’s thinking—awesome! was a collective sort of general thought from them all.
Tare blinked and instantly closed off his mind so they could no longer hear his thoughts, while he could still hear theirs. His experience with mind-communication in another world made him able to do this, while the Chess Club had no such abilities.
It was like slamming a mental door in their faces, and affected the Chess Club puppies acutely. All six of them sat right down, staring mournfully up at Tare with tragic eyes, ears drooping.
It was absolutely devastating.
Tare blinked down at them. But he didn’t let them back into his mind. He cleared his throat. “Now, what am I supposed to do with you all?”
A confusing mixture of responses followed this, jumbled up in the mental pathways like a traffic pile-up, so that it was difficult to discern who was thinking what. And some of it had nothing to do with his question.
Oh, wait, how about we figure out how to turn us back.
Being a puppy could be fun!
I’m so short.
Fix it, Tare!
It’s scary and dark in here.
Where’s the flashlight? Oh, over there on the floor . . . but I guess I can see better as a dog.
Ooh, I wonder what Tare’s boot lace tastes like . . .
How do I work this tail thing?
My paws are cold. Wait, what? Must focus! I’m a person.
Maybe we could change back if we go back in the circle?
This is too weird.
Make it stop!
This last was repeated several times by different Chess Club puppies.
“Okay, hold it—hold it!” Tare held out his hands, and the thoughts quieted down. “You’re going to have to be more organized. We’ll figure something out. And stop panicking.”
You’d panic too if you were suddenly a dog, Lavender thought, tail wagging worriedly in little jerking motions.
“I like to think I wouldn’t. Now calm down, and we’ll—” Tare broke off as an eerie sound of booming laughter echoed through the cave. He glanced around, instinctively in a fighting stance.
The puppies whimpered, tails and ears down, and crept to crouch near Tare’s feet where it felt safer.
“Who’s there?” Tare said warily, ready to reach for a gun or knife hidden away in his leather jacket—weapons he still kept handy, despite the lack of monsters of late. There were friends—well, puppies—to defend.
No one answered, but the laughter went on and seemed to be moving overhead and toward the entrance to the passage they had come through. An indistinct shadowy cloud—left from when the puppies had appeared—lurked there, concealing . . . something. Whoever—or whatever—was laughing, exited through there, and the voice faded away.
Okay, I’m scared now, puppy-Baz announced to their minds.
I was already scared before the creepy laughter, Lavender thought.
Can we go home now? Jake asked.
What? We can’t go home like this! Ivy spluttered.
Yeah, my dogs might not like me . . . Adrian mused.
We need to change back first, somehow, Marie thought.
They all looked hopefully up at Tare, shiny button-black noses quivering.
Tare sighed. “Look, I don’t know how to fix this right now. Let’s get out of here to start with, while we can get out.”
A short while later, Tare climbed out of the hole in the cliff with six little puppies clambering after him on clumsy paws too big for them, and down a little stony path to the autumnal forest floor of Kedran’s Wood.
The change was instantaneous.
A thousand sights and scents—from the trees, underbrush, leaf-strewn ground, and wildlife—kaleidescoped in a crescendo of new experiences for the heightened puppy-senses of the erstwhile Chess Club members. Everything smelled new and different and exciting, in desperate need of being investigated at once. They shot off into the wood, scampering about on overgrown paws, sniffing everything and yapping happily, their thoughts running as wild as their furry bodies, in a confusion of excited curiosity mixed with the half-obscured thoughts from their human selves, buried deep, who kind of knew better.
Tare put a hand over his face, muttering, “Why. Why did I get saddled with Chess Club puppies.”
We’re sorry, it’s just—
It’s so exciting, and there are all these smells—!
“I don’t want to know.” Tare made a half-hearted move to go after them, made difficult by the way they were scattering. “Now would you get back here?”
There followed a somewhat chaotic scene in which Tare attempted to herd them back together where he could keep an eye on them. There were also some awkward moments where they wanted him to throw sticks for them. He didn’t. They needed to get together and talk about this, but it was like their attention spans (already rather short, to Tare’s mind) had suddenly gone extinct. It was basically hopeless.
Tare finally gave up other methods and instead sent a stern mental message to the effect of “You. Back here. Now.”
They instantly transformed into meek, obedient puppies, and trooped angelically back toward him, a little sheepish.
Sorry . . .
Tare shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Don’t—even apologize.” Then he drew back and leaned against a tree, looking down at the small dogs. “All right. We need to figure out how to turn you back into . . . yourselves. Which means we have some questions to answer. Like how, and why, you got turned into a bunch of dogs.”
Puppy faces turned to look at each other in conference.
We were just imagining being dogs—talking about it—and suddenly we were, Ivy thought.
And we stepped into that circle in the middle, Marie added.
“Ye-es . . .” Tare drew out the word meaningfully. “And?”
And you told us not to? Lavender asked, with a guilty tilt of her ear.
Which means you guessed something was up, thought Adrian.
“It was just a bad feeling.” Tare folded his arms. “I’m no more certain about the cause than you are, though I do have a couple of hunches.”
Baz went on, Then there was that creepy laughter . . .
I didn’t like that. Jake shook his fur. It made my paws cold and my hackles go up. . . . Sorry, too doggy.
Tare quirked a wry eyebrow. “If dog instincts are all you’ve got, that’s better than nothing.” He straightened. “I was wondering how far you could get. So far, I’d gotten that stepping in the circle set off something—a transformational trap, if you will—and it had to do with what you’re thinking about at the moment. No one else was in the cave before that, so it also seems to have released someone, or something—whatever was laughing—which seems to have left and is presumably at large now. I bet it came through from somewhere else when you set it off—because the Faerie world’s veil between our own is thinner around now, like I said.”
Are you saying it’s a faerie, or just from Faerie?
“I’m saying I don’t know what it is, but I have suspicions. And whatever it is, it probably shouldn’t be wandering around in our world. What we—I—need to find out is where it is, what it is, how to stop it, and how to get you turned back. Because I’m not going to dog-sit you lot forever, or explain this to all your families,” Tare added forcefully.
Their little pink tongues lolled out as they sat and panted, grinning puppy grins up at him.
But we’re so adorable.
Don’t you just want to pet us and keep us forever?
Tare rubbed a hand over his mouth to cover a grimace—or some other facial expression.
Anyway, we can help—with our noses, and our detective skills.
Several puppies looked hurt. (Never underestimate the amount of devastating that six sad puppies can pull off.)
We’re not doing too bad . . .
Tare conceded this for the sake of getting anything done. “You’re not doing too bad. At least your brains aren’t totally gone.”
Ivy bristled, annoyance clear in every line of her fur. Well, thanks for—squirrel!
The gaze of five other puppies shot in the direction her nose pointed. A second later they were off again, crashing through the underbrush and dead leaves, yapping and panting, delighted with the chase.
Tare rubbed a hand down his forehead and over his eyes and left it there. “This is going to be a long day.”
* * *
In the end, it was the rain that allowed Tare to herd them together this time. The overcast clouds which had been threatening rain up beyond the looming, clutching, half-bare autumn branches, at last made good on their threats, and the rain started coming down.
All at once there were several alarmed puppies who hated being wet and didn’t like thunder at all looking for shelter—the nearest of which seemed to be Tare. They scampered back to him and he suddenly found himself with six damp puppies all trying to somehow hide by his boots under the partial shelter of him and his leather jacket.
Tare sighed. “Come on, let’s find somewhere dry.” He marched grimly off through the trees, while the puppies tried to stay as close to him as possible. It was likely only his fighter’s grace that kept him from tripping over six little round canine bodies all pressed against his legs—certainly anyone else would have ended up flat on their face on the forest floor a few times before they reached their destination.
It was not far: an old abandoned house in the woods. They stopped just under the eaves of the building, not quite out of the rain, before the door, looking up at it.
Because coming to the haunted house on Halloween is a great idea . . .
Oh, be quiet—it’s dry in there. Adrian reared up against the old wooden door, scrabbling at the tarnished doorknob, which didn’t help. Okay, hands are useful. He turned and blinked liquid brown eyes up at Tare. I hate to ask this, but—
Let us in—let us in—let us in! One of the puppies—who shall remain nameless—bounded up and put eager front paws against Tare’s leg, leaving large amounts of extremely wet mud on his black jeans.
Tare’s eyebrows were as formidable as the sad-puppy looks were devastating. “Down.”
The unrepentant puppy frisked out of reach. The others hunched in the rain, looking wet and miserable.
“Fine.” Tare relented and opened the door.
The puppies bounded up and rushed inside, joyously, paws pattering across the unsteady floorboards, which creaked hollowly as Tare stepped in after the erstwhile Chess Club.
What now? asked several thoughts, as blunt claws clicked on boards (leaving muddy pawprints all over) and curious noses sniffed and pointed cautiously toward different shadowy corners.
“We wait out the rain. Unless you want to stay here while I see what I can figure out.”
There was alarmed yapping and several of them jumped up against Tare with their front paws. Don’t leave us alone in the creepy house in the rain!
“Mm-hmm. Didn’t think so. Now what did I say about down.”
He didn’t seem about to leave, so they complied.
Tare lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the floor in the open doorway, looking out at the rain.
At least it’s dry in here . . . Still cold though. And we’re so wet— Adrian planted his four paws firmly on the floor and—
“Don’t do it,” Tare said.
All six puppies briskly shook themselves, sending rainwater everywhere. (Hint: everywhere included Tare.)
Tare sat grimly where he was, wordlessly wiping water from his face. The six little furry critters came up to lie down to either side, leaning against him—more or less in his lap, but not quite. Tare remained unmoved, and in a few moments they were all cozily situated close to him. They smelled like wet dog, but they were cute—and also impossible. Tare wasn’t sure quite what to do about them.
Especially when a few of them started spontaneously licking his face as if they couldn’t help themselves.
Tare recoiled. “Don’t even—!” He pushed their soft furry heads back down, hands petting slightly-damp velvety ears in the process.
Purely by accident.
Tare pulled his hands back and quickly folded his arms.
Sorry. It just happened. They didn’t sound sorry at all.
Tare gave a wordless noncommittal grunt.
You said you’ve thought of us as puppies before, Tare. Admit it, this is far worse.
“This,” Tare conceded evenly, “is far worse.”
With contented little puppy sighs, they settled down in the shelter of the old house next to Tare, and stared out at the falling rain along with him.
The peace did not last long.
A sudden roaring sound came in a rush of air through the rainy trees, with a cracking of branches. There was a kind of crashing, groaning noise, shaking the floor and walls as if a large thing had just landed on top of the “haunted house.”
What was that?
Tare had gotten enough of a glimpse as it passed overheard to know what it was. He was on his feet instantly. “That was a dragon, and we need to get out of here now.”
And why would we leave shelter to run around in the open?
“Because it already knows we’re here and will just burn the house down around our ears and pick us out of it like a buffet if we don’t get out.”
Tare jumped down from the threshold into the rainy forest again, with the puppies scrambling at his heels, hoping this was some sort of joke to scare them—
They spied a large scaly green dragon perched on top of the “haunted house,” bat-like wings half spread, peering down at them through the rain.
Hello, my fluffy little succulent morsels, the dragon thought to them.
Okay, Tare, your dragon story is scarier than my ghost story, Baz thought, all the puppies shrinking away to hide behind Tare’s legs while they peeked out at the dragon.
“It’s not my dragon story,” Tare murmured. Then, louder, to the dragon, he said, “What do you want?”
Lunch. Being stuck in a Faerie cave for a few centuries until some careless people let you out is a hungry business. These little things look like just the thing as a small appetizer before exploring the neighboring villages for a few dozen people for lunch. You look a little tough for my palate, so I have no quarrel with you, if you’ll just step aside.
Tare stood his ground in the rain. “No.”
The dragon’s tail swished across the roof, carelessly, rather like a cat’s. Its red-gold eyes narrowed and a tiny wisp of grey smoke drifted up from its nostrils. Is that so?
Tare watched the creature evenly, and kept his mind closed off against the dragon, but opened it to the Chess Club and sent them a mental message. I need you to run. Run as fast as you can and make it back to cliffs. Find some small cave too small for a dragon, and too far in to get burned if it found you. I’ll handle this.
The puppies, although almost radiating fear, were not so easily persuaded.
We’re not leaving you here to face that thing by yourself.
Tare kept his gaze fixed on the dragon—not looking directly into its eyes—but a muscle in his set jaw twitched. Don’t be difficult. What are you going to do? You’re puppies. Now get somewhere safe. Don’t worry. I won’t let you get hurt.
The Chess Club puppies stood their ground too—they could be nearly as stubborn as Tare sometimes, and that hadn’t changed in their smaller, fluffier forms when faced with something like this.
We’re sticking with you!
The dragon heard them, though it seemed not to have heard Tare.
How touching. But ultimately misguided. You should have run while you could. The dragon laughed as it pushed off from the roof and floated lightly down on its wings to land heavily on the ground in front of Tare among the trees. It was not as huge as they’d thought at first—of course, it must have been slender enough to make it through the passage they had come out of—but still loomed a few feet taller than Tare, curling its wings in to get them out of the way of the branches. It moved sinuously forward, serpent-like, tail curled around a nearby tree. The wet ground hissed with steam where it touched. Now I only have to get through this one, and you’ll be mine. It spoke to the Chess Club puppies, but watched Tare with its sinister gaze.
Tare faced the dragon and was unmoved. “Why don’t you pick on someone closer to your size? Like me.” He pulled a handgun from inside his jacket, leveled it at the dragon’s head, and fired.
The bullet struck the dragon’s forehead. It blinked, then shook its scaly head. The bullet fell to the ground, leaving a slight dent between the dragon’s eyes, like dented armor, without bothering it. The dragon blinked balefully at Tare.
“Didn’t think that would work, but it was worth a shot,” Tare remarked.
Literally, thought Baz.
“Don’t go punny on me.” Tare holstered the gun, pulled out two long knives, and charged at the dragon, yelling over his shoulder, “Get out of here!”
The large creature breathed fire at him. Tare rolled neatly out of the way, and then he was beneath the dragon, slashing and stabbing. Sparks flew from blades and scales, but the knives couldn’t pierce its natural armor. Then the fight was on in earnest with a mixture of flames—which Tare dodged—and slashing claws and tail and knives, whirring about with startling speed. The rain fell on them, hissing on the hot dragon and the patches of flames where the forest floor caught on fire.
I SAID— Tare’s thought reminded them.
The puppies looked at each other, formed a collective Chess Club agreement—which Tare and the dragon were far too occupied fighting to listen to—and made their decision.
Over here! they chorused at once, in the equivalent of a mind-shout. Come get your lunch! And they scampered off into the woods as fast as their paws could carry them.
Roaring (not laughing now) the dragon took to its wings, crashing through the trees, which hampered its movements. It broke off large branches as it went. Tare ran after it, attacking, distracting, while the Chess Club puppies drew it on toward the cliffs and caves.
In here, you ugly scaly thing! the Chess Club puppies taunted, and dived down into the hole leading into the passage and cave where everything had started.
The dragon hissed in rage and dived in after them. Tare grabbed its tail and yanked it back, burning his hands. That gained them a moment. Then it shook itself loose, tossing him against a tree, and disappeared after the sound of the Chess Club’s taunts echoing inside the cave.
“Idiots,” Tare muttered, rolling to his feet and ignoring his bruises. He sprinted down the passage after them. But he suspected what they might be doing, luring the dragon back here in case they could get it trapped again, and it was something he’d considered trying himself—with the Chess Club safely out of danger’s way, of course. But they never knew when not to get involved. How he ever kept them alive was a mystery to him.
He dashed into the cave and attacked the dragon before it could crisp the puppies, which were on the other side of the large circular cavern. The dragon roared in rage and batted Tare away with its tail again, sending him sliding into the middle of the room.
NOW! the Chess Club puppies thought loudly, as if they had been counting down to something which Tare had been too busy to attend to. Groaning and trying to roll over and get up, Tare vaguely heard them thinking very specifically of dragons. Black dragons. Dragons—
What? Tare suddenly found himself enveloped in smoke, and figured he was probably dead—except the smoke hadn’t come from the green dragon . . . Oh.
Tare rose to his feet—all four of them—and spread his wings and lashed his tail, staring the dragon down with eyes now as fiery as its own. He had landed in the middle of the circle in the center of the room, and the Chess Club had been thinking very hard about him being a dragon—and consequently he was vaguely thinking it too—just like they had been thinking of puppies, which had turned them into their current furry shapes.
Tare was a dragon.
He was smaller and more lithe than the green dragon, and his scales gleamed black with an almost purple-ish glint. But he was a dragon, and that was what counted.
Don’t mess with my Chess Club! Tare roared, blasting fire at the green dragon and attacking it.
The puppies sent up mental cheers and then stayed crouched out of the way while the two dragons fought like a whirlwind of furious . . . well . . . dragons.
They rolled around over and over on top of each other, clawing, biting, breathing fire. The stone chamber echoed around them and lit up in sporadic red flashes of light. Smaller and more agile than his enemy, Dragon-Tare managed to wrestle the green dragon over and shove it directly into the circle in the middle of the floor.
The green dragon gave a roar of thwarted anger and vanished in a flash of light and smoke.
Sudden silence fell.
Tare spun to be sure the Chess Club were all right—they were still puppies, but alive and well. Tare breathed out a long breath.
Then he looked down at himself.
Still a dragon.
He looked back at them—a large black dragon towering above six small puppies who ought to be afraid in the presence of such a creature, but instead radiated content, relief, and a feeling of safety, along with some mental cheers.
They clearly weren’t thinking about the fact that they were still puppies and that Tare was now transformed too.
Now look what you’ve done, Tare thought to them.
You’re a dragon—that’s awesome!
The puppies wilted very slightly.
Sorry, but getting you turned into a dragon was all we could think of so you could defeat it without—you know—dying? they thought uncertainly, and tilted their little soft ears, as though wondering if they were in trouble or not.
Tare’s dragon shoulders slumped. He sighed and slid down to lie on the floor, front claws folded, great head resting on them, and black wings furled tight against his scaly back, tail curling around his side.
The puppies hesitantly approached, and they tentatively put their paws on his tail. Tare didn’t mind. They climbed up him and curled up on his back together in a little pile of fluff.
Sorry you’re a dragon, Lavender thought. But you do make a nice one.
I could get used to it, Tare grunted. I’m just not sure I want to.
At least you’re not freaking out like we were, Baz quipped.
How do we change back? Marie asked.
I don’t want to be a puppy forever, Jake mourned.
Don’t worry, you’ll grow into a big dog someday, Ivy thought dryly.
That’s not what I meant! Jake wailed.
Adrian licked Jake’s head. It’s okay. We’ll figure it out.
We’re getting more dog-like all the time . . . Baz thought.
I know. It would be awesome if it wasn’t so ominous, Adrian answered.
Wait, are you going to start getting more dragon-y? Lavender asked Tare in alarm.
Yeah, like hoarding gold and wanting to eat small puppies and getting super smart and cunning and living in a lair by yourself? Baz contributed.
He’s already super smart and living in a lair . . . replied several thoughts.
Right. My bad.
Tare grunted and heaved himself to his feet, with the puppies still on his back. Thanks. I think. And no, I’m not going to eat you, and hoarding gold is not on my list of things to do in the near future; who has time for that. Besides, I don’t plan to stay a dragon long enough to get any more dragon-y than (you claim) I already am.
I wish I was me again, Baz thought forlornly. It was fun at first, but I’m with Jake.
Me too, thought the others, ears drooping as they lay flopped sadly in their pile on Tare’s back while he prowled across the room. I wish I was me again. I wish I was me again . . . they repeated in their minds.
And Dragon-Tare stepped into the center of the circle, and merely thought: I am Tare.
The next instant, Tare, Adrian, Lavender, Ivy, Baz, Marie, and Jake all tumbled in a tangled heap on the floor—in their own human forms again. There was no sign of a repeat performance of a dragon returning.
“Whoa,” Adrian said, getting quickly to his feet and pulling his backup keychain flashlight out of his pocket for a little light. “I can’t believe that worked!”
Several of the others laughed in relief, trying to get untangled.
“I’m me again!”
“I have hands!”
“Yesss, no tail!”
“I’m kind of a person again.”
“You’re kind of on top of me,” Tare grunted.
The others hastily stood and stepped away, a little awkwardly.
Tare climbed to his feet, stretched his limbs a little stiffly, and rotated his neck. “Dragon-fight aftermath,” he explained when they looked at him anxiously. “I’m fine, though.”
“Um. Thanks for, you know, saving us from being eaten.”
Tare straightened his leather jacket, possibly shrugging in the process. “It’s an occupation. Thanks for being nuisances and helping out.”
They laughed. “Any time.”
“But wow, puppies and dragons,” Jake said, wide-eyed
“Won’t we have something to talk about,” Baz laughed.
Tare cleared his throat. “We never speak of this again.”
The Chess Club looked at each other and grinned.
Then Lavender sighed and said, “Let’s go home.”
* * *
It was still raining—which fortunately had put out the small fires the dragon had started—but they made it through the woods back to Mr. Larch’s house, where they usually gathered for meetings. It was light and warm inside, a welcome change to the cold, wet, somehow currently spooky-feeling woods.
“Ahh, I have hands again,” Adrian said as he opened the door.
“Yeah, let’s put them to use—anyone for chess?” Marie asked.
“Hi, everyone,” Mr. Larch called from the kitchen.
“Hey,” the Chess Club chorused.
Yapping barks met them. Small Occasion came barreling over to greet them enthusiastically—he was their actual puppy, fluffy and white, and they found themselves laughing, realizing they’d never look at puppies quite the same again . . .
It was also a little weird to switch from communicating mentally to not hearing each other’s thoughts, but they were pretty good at understanding each other without that, like they always had, so it was all right. (They never knew what Tare was thinking, but that wasn’t new; and they hadn’t much while they were puppies, anyway.) It was also nice to be tall again and be, well, people. They left wet coats and muddy boots by the back door and ambled into the living room.
Small was catching some odd smells about them, and didn’t know what to do with these. Puzzled, he followed them over to the couches, where they collapsed comfortably, tired from all their adventures. They started setting up a couple of chess boards on the coffee table.
“Staying?” Ivy asked Tare.
He shrugged, draping his leather jacket on the back of a chair. “For a bit. ’Til the rain lets up.” He dropped into the chair, stretching out his long legs.
“So how was your day?” Mr. Larch asked them, sitting in the easy chair at the head of the room, and letting Small hop up onto his lap.
“Fine,” Tare said noncommittally.
The rest looked at each other over the chess pieces. “It was . . . interesting.”
Baz grinned innocently. “Nothing happened. Nothing at all.”
Tare quirked an eyebrow and sent him a resigned “Really? That’s how subtle you’re being?” look. But he didn’t seem to really mind.
Mr. Larch smiled while Small Occasion tried to lick his owner’s long nose. “Sounds like there might be a story here . . .”
* * *
The next day, there was a piece of news on TV.
“There has been a report of the aftermath of a small forest fire in the woods just outside of town. The fire took place sometime on October 31st. Locals found several fallen burnt branches and patches of burnt ground, near an abandoned house. It appears to have been started by lightning, although there are no eye-witness accounts. Fortunately, the rainstorm seems to have contained the fire and kept the damage from spreading. There were no injuries.”
“Weren’t you out hiking in the woods yesterday with your friends?” Lavender’s dad asked her as she passed through the living room.
Lavender paused on her way to her room. “Yes, why?”
He nodded at the TV and repeated what the reporter had said. “I guess it must have been somewhere else in the woods, or at a different time.”
“Mm,” Lavender said.
“How terrible!” Lavender’s mom said. “At least no one was hurt. I’m so glad you were safe.”
Lavender smiled. “Me too.”
Humming, she went upstairs to her room, dropped her school backpack on her bed, and pulled her window curtain aside to look out at the woods just beyond her back yard. Was it her imagination or was there a faint wisp of smoke rising, left over from a fire in the woods?
As she looked, a dark patch of movement caught her eye. Tare came into view, walking past within the fringe of trees at the edge of Kedran’s wood. A dog from the neighbors’ house bounded up to him. Tare picked up a stick and threw it off into the trees for the dog, who chased after it. Tare stuck his hands back in the pockets of his black leather jacket and walked on.
Lavender let the curtain fall back over the window, and she smiled.
Note: I’m posting this (extremely late) in honor of Jenelle Schmidt’s #Drachtober story challenge. “The Dragon of Kedran’s Wood or Tare and the Puppies” belongs to my contemporary fantasy series work-in-progress Kedran’s Wood, which (if for some reason you are new to my blog or live under a rock and have never noticed me talk about–JUST KIDDING) you can read more about here. Thanks for reading—I hope you enjoyed. 🙂