By Kat Heckenbach
The cry came from the underbrush below a giant oak. Jordan set down the basket of magical plant clippings he’d collected and crept closer, pulling the hood of his cloak away from his face. Distant clicks and caws pierced through the rustling trees, but Jordan focused on the tiny cry.
He scanned the area for signs of a predator—paw prints, claw marks, anything—but found only blood splashed atop the underbrush. Something had taken flight directly from the spot. He touched the congealing blood. It was mixed with a slick, clear fluid. Not blood from an injury. Something had given birth.
Thorns clawed Jordan’s fingers as he pried an opening in the underbrush. Despite the brightness of the day, not enough light filtered through the canopy to illuminate what was squirming inside the thorny vines and thick leaves. Berating himself for forgetting his gloves, he plunged his hands in deeper, the flesh on his forearms tearing.
The tiny creature nearly slipped from his grasp as he pulled it from the brush. He drew it close, cradling it as he lowered to the ground.
The baby dragon’s chest jerked with ragged breaths. Jordan gently smeared away caked-on amniotic fluid, revealing scaly skin and a ridged spine. He felt for protruding or broken bones and found none. Yet the baby weakened even as Jordan held it in his arms. Had it been born early? Jordan couldn’t identify its species to know for sure.
As he turned the baby over to inspect its front, it released a feeble squeak, and then its chest fluttered and became still.
Jordan’s throat clenched. This tiny, abandoned creature hadn’t had a chance. He stroked its forehead and ran his fingertip along the bumpy ridge that lined its spine. Dirt stuck in the congealed afterbirth, and Jordan methodically picked off leaves and tossed them on the ground.
With a deep breath he rose to his feet, careful not to drop the still slippery baby. He weaved his way through trees and brambles until he stepped onto the bank of a stream. Kneeling as close as he could get, he scooped water with one hand and drizzled it over the baby dragon. The poor thing had been abandoned by his mother, buried in the underbrush for hours. Jordan felt a need to at least get him clean.
Some of the blood loosened and washed away, but it was too thick in places to come off without dunking the dragon. Jordan sighed, and wiped a tear from his cheek.
He held the lifeless body in his palms and lowered it into the water. The biologist in him took over, examining the dragon’s features through the crystal water as he worked the blood and grime away with his fingertips. The curious markings told him he could very well be holding a completely unknown species.
His colleagues at the university would be thrilled by this discovery, eager to dissect the baby. They would treat it as emotionlessly as an engineer disassembling a machine to discover how it worked. Jordan had never been able to approach his work that way.
It wasn’t as if he’d never dissected an animal. He’d done so many times, but he always mourned the loss of life and treated the remains with respect, not as some slab of meat.
And this little creature… something felt terribly wrong about cutting open the tiny body.
He continued rubbing the baby, massaging its hide with loving fingers.
“You may be the only one of your kind right now, if your momma didn’t make it. And judging by the trail she left, I’m sorry to say that’s probably so. She wouldn’t have left you if she wasn’t very, very hurt though…” Which meant it was only a matter of time before she was torn apart by scavengers looking for the rare taste of dragon meat.
Another tear trailed down Jordan’s cheek and dripped into the stream, merging with the water that washed over the baby. It was embarrassing even with no one as a witness. Yes, he felt the loss of this creature, as he always did, but he’d never cried before. What had come over him?
“Don’t worry,” he continued as he blinked the moisture from his eyes, “I’m not going to let anyone get their scalpel into you.”
Jordan scrubbed more vigorously as he realized he’d soon be running late to teach his next class. His thumb slid across the baby’s neck, dislodging a clump of blood-encrusted dirt. A subtle movement grabbed his attention—a barely visible pulsing under the skin. Jordan rubbed the baby’s limbs and torso, willing the blood to flow. As its head lolled to the side, the pulsing became more distinct. Moments later, the baby’s head turned and its mouth opened.
Jordan yanked the baby dragon out of the water as its chest began to heave. Water spewed from the tiny mouth, followed by the same cry that had alerted Jordan of the creature’s presence in the underbrush.
It shouldn’t have been possible. The stream carried the same water it always had, with no known magical qualities. Jordan had done nothing but clean the dragon, yet it squirmed with renewed life in his hands, bright eyes blinking. Its cry ceased as it found purchase and clung to Jordan’s arm. Jordan stroked its tiny back, stopping with a gasp when he spied the red marking on the dragon’s side.
Against tawny scales, just over the baby’s heart, a teardrop.
Jordan touched the mark, and warmth flared both in his fingertip and along the trail his tear had left on his cheek. The baby’s head turned and its gaze locked on his, and the warmth flared more intensely.
Sensation flowed through Jordan, of emotions not his own: fear dissipating into relief and gratitude. Another tear gathered in the corner of Jordan’s eye.
Jordan tucked the baby into his arms more securely, returned to his abandoned basket, and set off for the university.