They flocked to see him as he lay dying, coming in pairs, trios, and whole extended families to touch his scales and to feel the heat of his huge body. Their voices were hushed and full of awe as they surrounded him, children looking up at him with wide eyes while their parents watched warily for any sign of aggression.
He could not see them for his eyes were caked with blood and dust and he was too tired to open them, but he could not sleep for the fingers poking and prying at his flanks, for the susurrus of their voices.
How had he come to this?
When he was young, his strength and vigour had been famed for thousands of leagues around. His might and virility had made him the preferred mate of many a female and he had watched with pride while they fought with each other for the honour of bearing his eggs.
In those days his scales had glittered as though polished by hand, his diamond teeth had shone against the redness of his throat, and the draught from his mighty wings had caused trees to bend and collapse as he launched himself into the air.
He fought proudly and honourably all his life, vigorously defending his territory from who thought to steal it from him, fighting to the death if necessary to safeguard his land and his broodmates.
Then men came, and nothing was the same again.
They had a hunger for land like that of no dragon he had ever met, expanding faster than belief and shaping the world around them to their liking. From valley to mountain to sea the men spread, digging into the earth for the precious metals contained within and cutting down entire forests to fuel their expansion to other lands across the sea.
The dragons defended their territory of course, but what are honour, might and glory compared to stealth and cunning? The men suffered terrible casualties at first but there were more of them, always more. They learned from their losses and began to employ tactics the dragons could never anticipate or even comprehend.
They poisoned wild animals and lakes so that incautious dragons might feed from them and be poisoned likewise, tiny doses of death building and building over time until a victim was weak enough to be attacked in relative safety. They lured a broodmate away from her nest by mimicking the calls of a rival dragon and smashed her eggs meanwhile, then when she returned lay waiting for her to spend her rage and anguish before attacking while she lay exhausted.
They did these things and a hundred more, always adapting and learning with their agile minds while the dragons did everything they could to defend themselves and their territories and still lost.
Out-bred, out-thought and out-done in viciousness, the dragons could do little but struggle futilely against the gradual genocide of their race.
At last, only he remained.
Now he lay upon the hard ground, his scales dulled with time and wear, his teeth chipped and blunted by hundreds of years of use. Manacles affixed him to iron rings embedded in the earth so that he could move no farther than a few inches without reaching the end of his tether. His wings were bound to his shoulders with vast metal hoops, in order that he might not knock people over with them.
The spears and arrows which they’d used to bring him down still bristled in his back and flanks, thin trickles of his rich blood bursting every now and then from the half-healed wounds and coursing down his flanks in sticky rivulets. His great jaw was muzzled by another steel band that bit cruelly into his flesh, the wounds suppurating and oozing pus under the metal.
He was the last of his kind, alone forever, surrounded by human gawkers and waiting to die as he lay half asleep.
Now pain stung him fully awake as a scale was levered away from his tender skin and wrenched free. His eyes cracked open and old rage filled him again. He drew a deep, rattling breath through his nostrils and hissed it out between clamped teeth as he strained against his bonds.
His heart beat faster and faster as chains rattled and iron bands groaned, the crowd scattering away from him in panic as he struggled. At last he had no breath and the bonds still held but he defied his own body, sucking in as much air as he could between convulsions.
His heart stutter-stopped and bright flashes of light flickered across his vision, a terrible pain seizing his chest. He subsided once more, flanks heaving, and felt his rage washed away in a rising tide of despair.
“Look what I got!” a boy shouted, holding the scale aloft like a trophy as blood dripped down his arm and spattered in the dust.
The dragon faded away from the world for a time.
As bells rang out the curfew the dragon woke again, then groaned and subsided once again into an uncomfortable near slumber. At first, it seemed as though he was dreaming when he felt a gentle touch on his eyelid. Water trickled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin as the crust was washed from one eye and then the other.
His eyes slowly, tiredly opened, and saw framed by the moonlight the silhouette of a small human. A youth, he judged. He heaved a tired breath, and slowly closed his eyes again. ‘Leave me alone, human.’ he rumbled, the sulphurous stench of his breath washing around the human boy. ‘Have you not tormented me enough during the day that now I must be tortured at night also?’ The words were muffled by the cruel muzzle, but audible nonetheless.
‘I’m not here to torment you, old fellow.’ the boy replied kindly. His hands came to rest atop the beast’s gigantic skull, gently rubbing the smooth scales there.
‘Then what?’ the dragon moaned. ‘All your kind ever does is persecute me.’
‘You don’t deserve this.’ the boy replied, his voice a mixture of mingled sadness and anger. His hands touched the steel muzzle, and the dragon felt him wince at the feel of raw flesh around the edge of the metal.
‘Whether I deserve it or not, here I am. I am dying, and soon my carcass will be all that remains of my race. Perhaps it is best this way.’
The boy shook his head, the musky scent of his youthful body filling the dragon’s nostrils as he leant forward to embrace the vast creature’s neck. ‘You will die free, because it is the very least a magnificent creature such as you deserves.’
The last dragon snorted and closed his eyes again, feeling the boy against his time-worn scales. ‘And you’d free me, I suppose? Impossible, you’re a mere boy.’
‘I will see you free, this I promise.’
The boy stole away into the night, leaving the hope of his promise behind…
Only for it to fade away as another week of tormented days and lonely nights passed by.
Then, one night, the beast woke from his half-sleep to feel the boy’s hands resting on his snout again. ‘Are you here to release me?’ he asked, not believing that this could possibly be true. He was weak now, from lack of food, and knew with pragmatic certainty that tomorrow would be his last day of life.
‘Yes. You will die free, as I promised.’
The dragon scented the salty taste of tears trickling down the boy’s cheek, heard the metallic clicks as the youth began to release him from his shackles.
‘I must hurry, before they change the guard and find the keys missing…’ the boy murmured, working fast to unlock the great padlocks securing the dragon’s bonds. The beast groaned and opened his eyes to stare up at the moon, his body trembling in anticipation.
‘There.’ said the boy with satisfaction, as the last of the chains fell to the ground. ‘You’re free! Now, fly like the wind and enjoy your last night of freedom.’
The dragon mewled in gratitude and extended his rough tongue to lick the youth’s cheek.
‘Go!’ the boy cried, urgently, laughing and crying at the same time as he felt the lick.
With a growl, the beast unfurled his wings and took tiredly to the air with ponderous flaps of the vast pinions. The boy was knocked down by the first downdraught and lay looking up with an expression of awe as the last dragon took flight and dwindled against the starry sky.
The vastness of the sky seemed to caress his tired, scarred old body as he flew through it with slow beats of his wings, his tail lashing behind him as he travelled under the moon’s cold eye. He flew on with renewed vigour as the moon set and dawn came once again, heading towards the mountain fastness that had always been his home.
He alighted at the peak of a tall mountain, his eyes closing in exhaustion as the warmth of the sun kissed his tired body, seeping through to his aching bones and soothing him with its glow.
With a great sigh, his head collapsed to the ground, the scent of grass and sweet flowers filling his nostrils as his heart slowed and finally stopped.
The last dragon had gone to where no chains would ever bind him.