The Dragon’s Mask

by Mary E. Lowd

A Deep Sky Anchor Original, January 2023

“Faye smiled tentatively, settling into this new reality they were creating together out of lies, a reality where what she’d seen — a true dragon’s face, staring into hers from only inches away, begging to be seen, understood, and maybe loved — was only an illusion.”

Bark broke from the trunk of the sharillow trees in large, curved chunks, littering the forest floor along with their fallen leaves.  Storakka sifted through the pieces at the base of the biggest tree she could find, her talons running over the slightly curved sheaves of wood, rough on one side and smooth on the other.  Finally she found an oval one she liked, about the same size as a human face.

Storakka’s own dragon face twisted into a fearsomely happy smile at the sight of the brown oval held in her talons.  She took the piece of bark to the edge of the forest where several of her kin-folk had charred the trees, found a nice piece of blackened twig, and drew a simple, smiling face onto the oval.

An older, more powerful dragon might have been able to cast the spell Storakka had in mind without a physical focus for it, but she didn’t have that kind of power or skill.

Storakka spread her wings, took to the sky, and flew to the nearest lake, deep in the middle of the sharillow forest.  She landed at the lake’s edge, held up the mask she’d crafted from bark and a simple drawing, and cast the glamour.  She watched her reflection in the water — green scales sparkling in the summer sunlight — fade away and be replaced by the image of a human woman, wearing a simple cloak and gown, with a plain, oval face.

The face moved whenever Storakka moved the mask.  The woman stood on tiptoes when she held it up high, looking toward the sky, then knelt down low when she moved it close to the ground.  The illusory image followed the physical focus of the bark mask.  It was perfect.  Finally, Storakka would be able to use her magical abilities to enter the human town beside the forest, instead of only watching it from afar.  She would be able to meet and mingle with humans.  Her heart thudded in her broad, scaly chest.  This was what she had dreamed of for years, only now possible because she’d learned an invisibility spell to accompany the glamour.

Storakka flew toward the village shielded from sight by her invisibility spell.  She kept low to the ground and landed far enough away from the outskirts that no one would see her glamour puppet appear as if from nowhere.  She walked into the village on three of her four legs, using a funny, hobbling gait, so she could keep the mask held at an appropriate height.  The glamour of a human woman needed to seem like she was walking normally.

Perhaps if Storakka enjoyed her visit to the human village and wanted to come again, she would figure out how to wear the mask strapped around her long neck so she wouldn’t have to hold it all the time.

Humans waved and smiled at Storakka’s human glamour as she entered the village.  The dragon softened her naturally booming voice to a low, gentle whisper and nervously returned the humans’ greetings.  She was half sure her voice would give her away, and she’d find herself flying out of the village with flaming arrows sailing through the air after her.

But none of the humans noticed anything odd about the newcomer to their village.  And eventually, after strolling the roads at the outskirts of town for some time, Storakka got up the courage to ask a human for directions to the village market.  Sure, she had seen it from the sky before, but she found herself all twisted about and lost, trying to navigate the town she’d seen from the sky whilst down here in the middle of it.

The woman who Storakka asked for directions offered to walk with her to the market.

“What should I call you?” the woman asked as they walked together.

“My name is Stora–”  Storakka couldn’t finish saying her own name. It was too clearly the name of a dragon.  She had not planned for this.  Her heart raced, and she feared the woman would hear it.

“Story?  That’s pretty. I’m Faye.”

But the woman didn’t hear the racing of a dragon’s heart; she simply saw the face of a potential new friend.

Storakka and Faye walked together, and the dragon listened while the human told her all about the town — the local gossip, her own dreams of traveling across the countryside someday, and which stalls in the market had the best treats to buy.

Storakka would need to bring money next time she visited.  She pictured the paltry hoard of gold in her cave back in the mountains.  She didn’t care for hoarding gold much, but it’s what dragons do.  So, she’d done it.  And while her hoard was paltry compared to that of other dragons, it would surely be enough to buy herself a few sugary treats in a human market.  But she’d need a better way to store it than spread across the floor of a cave.  Some kind of pocket.  Perhaps a satchel.

Storakka noticed a selection of cloth and leather satchels hanging from the top of one of the market stalls and stopped to stare at them.

“You like those?” Faye asked.

Storakka moved the oval mask in her talon, causing the glamour of Story to shrug.  “I wish I had one to fill with my gold.”

“Your gold?” Faye asked.

“I didn’t bring any with me…”

Storakka looked down at the human who had befriended her.  Faye chewed her lip, stared at the mask in Storakka’s talon, and crinkled the skin around her eyes.  She seemed to be thinking.  Judging the glamour of Story very carefully.

Storakka looked around the market and saw other humans looking at each other — less intently, perhaps, than Faye stared at Story — but still, they looked directly at each other, staring into each other’s eyes, looking at each other’s faces.

Storakka wondered what it would be like for a human to look at her face that way, look into her real eyes and not the imaginary ones conjured by the focus of a piece of sharillow wood.

“You’ve run away from home, haven’t you?” Faye said.

“Maybe,” Storakka conceded.

“You have a rich family… but you don’t feel like you belong, and you had to run away?”

All the dragons Storakka knew were very rich.  Faye’s interpretation was not entirely wrong.  She waggled the piece of wood, making Story nod in agreement.

Faye reached a hand out and took hold of one of the glamour’s hands.  Storakka’s talon itched, wondering how it must feel to touch the hand of this woman who was being so kind to her.  She would never know.  All she could do was watch.

“I don’t feel like I belong either,” Faye said.  “Come with me.  I know a beautiful hollow in the woods where we can hide and talk.  And you can tell me everything.  We’ll figure something out.  A plan for you.”

Storakka felt a shiver over her scales, like the coldness of a waterfall splashing over her back.  Excited and uncertain.  She felt so close to this human woman, and yet so very far away.  But she agreed to come, and Faye led her through the market, buying a few treats for a picnic as they went.

Finally Faye led the disguised dragon back to the edge of town and into the forest.  Storakka had to hobble all the way, though she watched her illusory human shadow walk with ease.

The hollow was one Storakka recognized.  An enchanted grove.  Few humans would ever be able to find it, as it was the place where a unicorn had once died, leaving behind a protection spell for the woodland creatures she’d loved.  It was beautiful, brim-full with buttercups and foxgloves — yellow and purple, peeking from between the swooping fronds of ferns.  And thousands upon thousands of tiny white flowers, shaped like stars, dotted the mossy ground.

Faye settled on the grass, and Storakka found a comfortable way to squat beside her, holding the bark mask at the right height.

The human and dragon talked for hours.  They shared the kind of secrets that you only tell when drunk on the heady potential of a new relationship.  The kind of secrets that only come out after you’ve stayed up all night, discussing philosophy and meaning under the silver light of the moon.

As morning dawned, Storakka explained that she must return home before she was missed, but Faye urged her to meet her at the hollow again in a few night’s time.  And so they planned to continue their conversation then.

Weeks passed, and the two friends met under the waning and then waxing moon in the unicorn’s hollow more and more often.  At first, Faye always brought a picnic, but Storakka never dared to try the delectable treats laid out on a blanket for them.  She didn’t see a way to do so without breaking her glamour and revealing herself.  Faye never pressured her, and eventually stopped bothering to bring them.

What Faye did bring was stories of the human village and her own struggles to fit in there.

Storakka watched Faye clasp her ghostly glamour’s hands as the two of them grew closer.  She watched Faye’s eyes light up and sparkle as they connected over the ways they felt like outsiders among their own people.  She watched Faye smile — shyly at first and then like the sun itself — at the face she’d created but that wasn’t truly her own.

Sometimes the dragon and human met at the outskirts of town instead of the unicorn’s hollow and walked through the village together, whispering secrets and seeing sights.  Storakka began to develop a limp from walking three-legged so often, but she tried not to mind.

The dragon started to feel jealous of her own creation.  Why couldn’t she be the mask?  Why did she have to be a dragon?

And yet… dragons weren’t all bad.  In her time, Storakka had used her strong wings to fly from one end of the continent to the other.  Her hard, metallic scales protected her from the elements, meaning she could curl up on a mountainside in the middle of a thunderous rainstorm and still sleep comfortably.  She used the fire she could conjure with her breath to roast dead deer before eating them.  And although, she certainly could use that same fire as a weapon, she never, ever had.

Wouldn’t a clever human like Faye understand that a dragon wasn’t inherently bad?  Wouldn’t the hours they’d spent talking  and sharing count for something — a built trust?  Mightn’t Faye be able to see that many of Storakka’s dragon traits which humans feared were also strengths?

As the sun broke over the horizon and filtered through the branches of the sharillow trees in brilliant, golden beams one morning, Storakka decided to take a chance.

“I… want to show you something,” Storakka said.

“Okay,” Faye agreed, smiling warmly at the bark mask.  Storakka wanted the warmth of that smile for herself, not for it to be wasted on a piece of useless wood.

“It might scare you,” Storakka warned.

Faye shrugged.  “You?  Scare me?  You’re my best friend.  I’ve never felt closer to another person.  And I’ve never met anyone else as much like me.  So whatever it is, I want to see.”

Storakka drew in a deep breath and let it fill her lungs, the air roiling around inside of her, filling her with the potential to breathe fire.  But she had no intention of breathing fire.  She was going to do something much harder.  Much scarier.  And she needed to feel the fire inside of herself to gain the courage.

She was brave.  And so was Faye.

But their friendship… was nothing if she had to hold up a mask for Faye to look at, week after week.  Storakka had enjoyed her time with Faye, but she couldn’t play this game anymore.  She wanted something real.

Storakka let the fire inside her cool, and slowly breathed out, trying to release all her fear along with the air.

Then, for the first time in front of Faye, she let her glamours dissipate.

The image of Story disappeared, and Storakka’s scaly, scintillating, emerald green body emerged from the cloak of shadows and misdirection she’d worn.

Faye’s gaze fell on a massive dragon, contorted into an awkward position, holding an oval of sharillow bark with a smiley face drawn on it in simple black charcoal

But all she saw — all her brain had time to process before she began screaming — was a dragon.

As Faye screamed, she threw herself at the ground, cowering and shaking, and hiding her face.

Abashed and horrified, Storakka cast her glamours again.  “I’m sorry,” she said, holding the oval mask farther away, trying to give Faye a respectful space.  “So sorry.”  Her apologies burbled out of her like a well-spring, pure and sweet, completely natural and uncontrollable.

But the aftertaste the apologies left curdled in Storakka’s throat and belly, making her hate herself for being a dragon.  And she couldn’t help being a dragon.

She didn’t know who was more wrong — herself for lying to and deceiving her friend, or her friend for only loving her conditionally.  Only loving her if her body was the right shape — small, smooth-skinned, wingless, and human.

The two women of wildly different species fell into an awkward silence as Storakka’s apologies withered away and Faye’s frightened sobs dried up.

Faye lifted herself from the ground, twisting around to see her friend again.  She smiled at what she saw:

A human woman, wearing a simple cloak and gown, with a plain, oval face.  Her friend, Story.

Rubbing the back of her wrist across her eyes, smudging away the tears of fright, Faye said, “You told me about your magic… but… I didn’t…”  Her words halted, and the dragon could almost see the gears turning in Faye’s head, the work being done to create a story she could live with.  A story that felt safe.  “I didn’t realize what a powerful witch you are.  You must have very strong magic to make yourself look so completely like a dragon.  It startled me.”

Faye was offering Storakka a way out.  A way to cover up what had been revealed and go back to the way things were.

Storakka had never felt so deeply misunderstood in her entire life.  She had always been an odd dragon — too peaceful, too fond of human things, too much uninterested in gathering wealth and hoarding it.  And obviously, she was not really a human.  But Faye had seemed to see beyond all that.  Beyond the mask and the species to the person underneath.  Not dragon.  Not pretend human.  Just a curious and hopeful mind.  A mind who had thought she’d found a friend.  A real friend.

“You should warn me next time before you do that, okay?” Faye said, still shaking from the sudden fear of seeing her friend’s true face but trying to turn the shaking into laughter.  An invented, fake sort of merriment.

“I…”  Storakka had so many things she wanted to say.  So many ways she wanted to defend herself and dragons.  They weren’t all bad.  She wasn’t bad.  At least, she didn’t think so.  But the words turned to ashes in her mouth as soon as she thought them, before they could be said.  If she said them out loud, the defensive anger in them would burn too much like fire.  And the force of her feelings would melt Faye’s pretty story about her being a witch away.

Faye would understand Storakka was a dragon — a real, true dragon — for sure.

And then she might start screaming again.

And Storakka could not handle Faye screaming at the sight of her.  Not again.

In all the decades of Storakka’s life — not fitting and not belonging and not knowing what was wrong with her — that moment had been the worst, and she couldn’t face it happening again.

Looking at Faye, still quaking from a single sighting of her true face, Storakka knew it would do no good to defend herself or dragons.  “Of course.  I should have warned you.”  She laughed, a rough sound — more of a sob, disguised as a laugh than a sound of true merriment.  The perfect match for Faye’s falsified laughter meant to cover her fear.

“I hadn’t realized my illusion had gotten so strong.  The last time I showed it to anyone, they only laughed.”  Technically, not a lie.  Storakka had shown her human glamour to another dragon once, and the beastly oaf had rolled on his back, wings flapping and belly shaking with helpless mirth at the ridiculousness of a dragon wanting to fit in with humans.

Perhaps the beastly oaf had been right.

Storakka waggled the piece of bark with her human face drawn on it, as if the face were shaking its head sadly.  She felt sad, and she wanted her puppet self to show it.

Faye smiled tentatively, settling into this new reality they were creating together out of lies, a reality where what she’d seen — a true dragon’s face, staring into hers from only inches away, begging to be seen, understood, and maybe loved — was only an illusion.  “Well, it’s gotten really good.  I think you could fool anyone with that illusion.”  Her smile got stronger, truer, and suddenly she laughed for real.  “Sorry,” she said, “I was just imagining the trouble we could cause with such an illusion!”

Storakka shifted uncomfortably and forced herself to hold the bark oval steady and stay her own forked tongue while her friend told her about all the pranks they could pull by showing such an ugly, scary dragon illusion to other humans.

With each insult of her true face, the air in Storakka’s lungs soured, growing ashier and ashier, until it felt like her own fire was burning her from the inside out.

“I don’t think I like pranks very much,” Storakka said.

The two friends struggled with an uneasy awkwardness between them for the rest of the night, and Storakka bought herself some time to adjust to the evening’s disappointment by pleading that her rich family had grown suspicious, and she couldn’t afford to sneak out for another few weeks.

When they did meet again in the unicorn’s hollow, Faye acted as though nothing strange had happened at their last visit.  Everything could have gone back to normal.

But Storakka could feel the two of them growing farther and farther apart with every interchange, each step down the conversational path that had started with her lie — agreeing she was not a dragon but a witch.  Somehow, this new lie seemed to be so much worse than the original lie — pretending to be a human.

And Storakka felt their friendship becoming more and more divorced from reality with every word, no matter how inconsequential it seemed.  She couldn’t take it.  Fitting herself inside a fake friendship hurt more than a clean, clear, straightforward rejection possibly could.  Because at least a rejection ends.  There seemed to be no end to the pain of fitting herself inside the box she’d built for herself.

And so Storakka decided to stop walking down the path of lies.  She didn’t want to see where it led.  Even if it was the only path she could walk along with Faye.

“I’m sorry,” the dragon said, painfully aware of her own, hidden dragon-nature and stumbling over her own words.  She didn’t want to be saying them.  But she had to.  “I lied to you. I deceived you.  But we would never have had this time together if…”  No, she would not defend her lies.  She said simply, “I’m sorry.”

Faye looked startled and confused by her friend’s interruption and confession.  “What do you mean?”

Storakka turned the bark mask away from Faye, and then she turned her own scaly back as well.  She didn’t want Faye looking at a fake face while she said what she needed to say.  And she couldn’t say it while looking at Faye.  The fear of what she was losing — which was nothing, because Faye didn’t know her, but also everything, because Faye was the only person who had ever really known her — was just too much.

This might be the last night she had with Faye, and she couldn’t end it by watching Faye’s face crumple in disappointment and horror at the revelation of her deception.

“My name is not Story, and I am not a human, nor a witch.  My name is Storakka.  And I am a dragon, just like I showed you before.  Everything else I’ve said was true, and I think… our friendship is the most important treasure I’ve ever seen.  I think, it might even be more than friendship.  If you can still care for me… knowing I’m a dragon…”  Her voice choked off, like a fire dying.  “I will return here at the full moon.  If you’re too scared of dragons, all dragons… even me… to come.  I’ll understand.”

Storakka hated that she would understand her best friend rejecting her.  And yet, she would.  Dragons could be scary.

Storakka dropped her glamours again.  Spread her wings.  And flew away into the starry night, trying so very hard not to think about the gasp she’d heard when the glamours fell for their second and final time.

Was it fear again?

Or could it be… awe?

Could Faye see Storakka as something beautiful?  Storakka thought Faye was beautiful.

She didn’t know if Faye could see the real her and still like her.  She didn’t know if she wanted to know.  It might have been easier to reject Faye herself than to have given Faye the power to reject her.  And either way, she would have to wait until the full moon to find out.  That would give Faye time to adjust.  Time to decide whether she could accept Storakka for who she truly was…  Or whether their friendship would be destroyed, because Storakka’s self lived inside the body of a dragon.  Was inextricably tied with the body of a dragon.

As her wings flapped, and she felt air flow over and under them while the air inside her boiled with the potential to burn, Storakka accepted for the first time that her body wasn’t merely something she was trapped inside of.  It was her.  Part and parcel.  Wings, scales, and mind — all one piece.

And although other dragons burned down fields and villages, ate humans, and terrorized the whole of human society, she wasn’t one of those dragons.  But she was a dragon.  And she didn’t want to change that.  So maybe, there was no space in the world for the flickering embers of connection she’d felt to Faye.  And maybe, although she’d loved seeing the human village so much during her few visits there, it simply hurt too much to ever go to it again.

Maybe she needed to accept her place.

And yet, the flickering ember continued to smolder in her heart.  A touch of hope.

The hope burned painfully, but it wouldn’t go out and leave her in peace.

For long days, Storakka awaited the full moon, draped miserably over her paltry pile of gold in her dank cave, staring at the wooden oval with its scrawled face, wondering what made it so much better than her own face.  So much easier to like and possibly love.  She was the very picture of depression, but dragon-style.  And yet, even in her sadness, she had to appreciate the way that the kink in her neck finally relaxed, now that she wasn’t always hunching herself over the glamour of Story.  She hadn’t realized how much pain the limping and hunching to fit herself behind the glamour had been causing her, until it finally went away.

When the night of the full moon finally came, Storakka burned the bark mask with her fire, leaving it charred and ruined at the mouth of her cave.  Discarded.  Destroyed.  She didn’t want to be tempted to bring it with her, say she’d lied, and try using it again.  And she was tempted.  But lying about herself had only hurt her.

It took everything in Storakka to fly to the unicorn’s hollow without turning back.  She had made this flight so many times before, but this time was different.  This time might be the last.  Her heart clenched at the sight of the sharillow grove — the trees and their long shadows made her heart jump, each one looking like it could be Faye, disguised by the cloak of darkness.  And with each jump, she admonished her heart, telling it to stay calm and hard, braced for Faye to not be there.

Or to be there — because she was there, and Storakka’s heart was so confused by the sight of her friend, it didn’t even think to jump again — but filled with recriminations, or worse, leading the charge of a hidden army who would chase the evil, lying dragon away with arrows and screams.

Reluctantly, Storakka landed on the far side of the hollow, folded her wings primly behind her, and waited with her eyes cast downward.  She couldn’t bear to watch.  So she stared at the dirt and tried to imagine it was a glittering pile of gold and that gold under her talons could ever make her as happy as Faye’s friendship had.

The human woman approached the dragon.  Her footsteps were heavy, suggesting she carried a burden of some sort slung over her back.  When she stood directly before Storakka, Faye said, “I’ve heard of a place — across the ocean — where humans and dragons live side by side.  Do you think…”

The pause stretched out long enough for Storakka’s brain to fill in the blanks with so many different options, but most of them were ways that Faye must be trying to soften her rejection by sending Storakka away, offering a substitute for her own friendship.  But Storakka didn’t want a panoply of potential friendships with hypothetical humans across the ocean.  She didn’t want to fly around the world alone.  She wanted Faye.

“Do you think,” Faye repeated, “you could fly us there?  Together?  I want to run away with you.”

Storakka raised her eyes, heart leaping, filled to the brim with new hope, more hope than she’d ever felt before.  A whole new life suddenly stretched out in front of her — a life she actually wanted to live — brightening all the coming days in her sight of them.

Faye stood before her, a large sack slung over her back, heavy and bulging at the seams.  It looked like it could hold all of a human’s belongings.  She was truly offering to leave this place — her village, this entire continent — and seek out a world where humans and dragons could be accepted as friends.

Faye held out a small leather satchel in her hands and said, “I got you something to put some of your gold in.  I remembered you liked it, the first time we walked through the village together.”

Storakka’s heart swelled, and she reached out, ever so delicately, with one of her talons to grab the tiny gift.  The leather strap was too short to go over her head, and the pouch would only hold a few human handfuls of gold.  A miniscule fraction of her paltry hoard.  And yet, she loved it more than any treasure she’d ever seen before.  It was a gift, from her friend.  “Thank you.  It’s perfect.”

Faye looked Storakka in the eyes — her real eyes — for the first time, and the intensity was almost too much to bear.

And Storakka loved it.

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