Enter the Dragon

Renaissance festivals are somewhat odd places. Those who attend them, not to mention those of us who work them, are looking for something other, to see or hear or do or be something different than normal. At its best, Faire is where the world we have and the world that should be intersect. With corndogs and porta-potties.

Crossroads are where magic happens.

I’ve worked just about every job one can do at a Faire. I’ve squired the joust, sold sno-cones, been the Queen’s Lady-In-Waiting, hawked CDs and roses. I once did an entire seven week run playing a nun in the morning and pub wenching in the afternoon. Mostly these days I just fill in where I’m needed. I’ve considered business cards: Have Garb, Will Cover Privy Breaks. Which is how I ended up working the Helping Hounds Animal Shelter booth at the Lone Mountain Renaissance Faire. We provided bowls of water and treats for visiting dogs, showed off our adorably adoptable animals, handed out poop scoops, and solicited donations.

People who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a bodice or tights are delighted to dress up their dogs, which is why the first time I saw the creature I thought it was a Min-Pin dressed in a pair of fake bat wings. It was lapping daintily at a bowl of water, and I had just enough time to notice it wasn’t on a leash when a friendly Labrador decided to give it a good-morning sniff. They touched noses, and the Labrador gave a loud excited “Woof!”

The “Min-Pin,” startled, exhaled a tiny jet of flame right up the Lab’s nostrils.

The Lab YIPPED, and the dragon, because it was obviously a dragon, scurried for the closest shelter, which happened to be under my chair.

What the hell? Was I the only one who saw that?

Apparently I was, because the Lab’s owner, after making sure her big fluffy-wuffy baby hadn’t gotten actually bit by the presumed teacup terror, headed off towards the turkey leg stand.

I crouched down to look under my chair to meet a pair of malevolent eyes. I grabbed a couple of dog biscuits and gingerly offered him one. “Wanna cookie?” I crooned in what I hoped would be a soothing voice.

After a moment, the dragon stretched out his neck and took the treat, retreating back under the chair to crunch it up. One treat at a time, I slowly coaxed him out and slipped one of our promotional leashes around his neck. Up close, the dragon looked not at all like a dog. It was about two feet from tip to tail, with a wingspan half again as long. Black on top and brown beneath, like a Rottweiler, it had blunt scaly spines along its backbone.

“Where on earth did you come from?” I asked him, and with one finger rubbed behind his head. Like a cat, he craned his neck around until I was scritching in exactly the right spot. Dragons purr when happy.

“What is that?” Rebecca, the shelter director, had returned while I was busy.

“A dragon,” I replied, “a real, fire-breathing dragon.”

“Is it wild? What is it doing here?”

I shrugged. “It likes dog treats, and doesn’t seem to mind the leash. Maybe it belongs to someone.” I offered another treat, and this time he took it directly from my hand, then nuzzled my fingers asking for more.

Of course we had to keep him until his owner showed up. Rebecca sent one of our volunteers to inform Security that a lost reptile could be claimed at our booth, and after devouring a few more dog treats, the dragon curled up and went to sleep.

I swear to God, I only looked away for a second. That’s what all those frantic parents say, right? When their child disappears into a crowd? But the first sign I had of trouble was when the glass artist in the next booth hollered. I dashed around and found the little dragon, an elaborate glass bead clutched tightly in his front talon, hissing loudly and starting to fume at the nostrils.

“Drop it!” the glasser was ordering him, “Drop it now!”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know he’d gotten out! What has he got?”

“A bead I’m holding for a customer, part of a matched set.”

I tried reaching for the bead, but the dragon hissed at me wildly, and clawed at me with his other talon. Thick smoke began to pour out of his nose, and I was worried that he was about to open fire, as it were. Seeing this, the glass artist dived for the valves on her gas tanks, shutting them off.

“I guess it’s true. Dragons really do love jewels,” I said. “I think he’s trying to amass a hoard.”

“Maybe he’ll trade?” she suggested. She dug into a cardboard box under her counter and came out with a piece of fused dichroic glass almost as big as my palm. “This one cracked in the kiln; you can have it if I get my bead back.” It was iridescent blue and green, with a dragon design.

I offered it to the dragon as if it were a biscuit. Suspicious, he reached his neck out and sniffed the glass. Regarding me warily, he took it in his free talon, claiming it for his own. It was big enough he needed both front talons to hold it, and I quickly picked him up and cuddled him to my chest as the glass artist retrieved her bead.

Back at the Helping Hounds booth, I settled the dragon on my lap, where he curled up and happily chuckled over his prize. As the sun set over the faire, I realized that a dragon makes an excellent lap warmer.

Nobody ever claimed him, and I ended up taking him home. I named him Smaug, and he and I have been traveling from Faire to Faire giving performances for the last three years. A friend of mine who is a master falconer helped me train him to fly from a glove.

Smaug still loves his “jewels,” of course, especially the little glass pebbles sold as “Dragon’s Tears.”

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