“Hey, you lazy, overgrown, ugly excuse for a lizard! Food’s here!”

The call resounded in the depths of the yawning cave, and was presently answered by a low, rumbling growl. Something large began to stir, coming closer to the entrance, but the brown-skinned young man who’d shouted stood his ground, leaning on his spear. Even when a horned, black-scaled reptilian head emerged that could swallow him in, if not one gulp, probably no more than two, he still stood there with that mischievous grin on his face.

“Rrrrr… Kelt,” that head hissed, followed out of the cave by a considerable length of sinuous neck, with the suggestion of great sickle-clawed feet looming in the sunlight at the cave’s edge. “You’re lucky this smells tastier than you do, you know that?”

Kelt laughed, hefting the brace of hares on the spit. “They’ll be even better for some time over the fire. Think you can wait a bit longer for that?”

“Mmm. Tempting. Pass one over, at least, but I think I can hold out for the rest. Mind your toes.” The great head turned downward, aiming at the logs and tinder already piled in the firepit, and exhaled a short stream of flame, more than enough to set the tinder alight. As Kelt was working one of the hares off the spit, the dragon settled its head on his forepaws.

“Still have plenty of wood piled here, I see,” said Kelt as he pulled one of the carcasses free.

“Living on mostly the tidbits you people bring me hasn’t left me much inclined to wait for my food.” As Kelt hefted the hare, the dragon paused and opened its jaws so the man could toss the morsel right in, and gulped it down before continuing, “I’ll never understand the fascination your people have for the colder months.”

“Have you been going short?” Kelt frowned, laying the spit over the posts. “It’s not that hard for us to find a little more…”

“Please. It’s harmful enough to my pride as it is. I’ll make do; though I’ll be far happier when I can do some hunting of my own.”

“Everyone’s looking forward to that. A bit more variety for everybody, yeah?” Kelt sat on a rock next to the firepit, idly turning the spit as the flames rose to their full strength. “How did you get by in the old days, before our people were here?”

A deep, rumbling laugh followed. “I may be old as you reckon things, Kelt, but I’m not that old. Your ancestors were here when I found this place, back in my own youth.”

“Well, what was life before that, Sarthalos?” the man pressed.

“Uncomfortable, difficult, and often hungry,” Sarthalos replied shortly. “Not a time I much care to recall. Life’s been far better since then.”

With the dragon’s tone growing more gentle, Kelt thought that might be an easier tale; so he asked, “How did you and they meet? Did it take a long time, to come to this sort of arrangement?”

“Actually, no. It was high summer when I came this far north, and found the steam vent that now keeps my lair comfortably warm. The hunting was plentiful. I’d brought down a few bison and was eating my fill when four of them came upon me – three men and a woman, doing hunting of their own.” The dragon tilted its head. “They respected my claws and my size – I was smaller then, but still far larger than they – but they didn’t have the fear for me that most men do in lands where my kind are common. They had some hares with them, much like the ones you’ve brought today, and the smallest man held forth his catch and pointed at the second beast I’d brought down. I didn’t know the words he was saying – not then – but it was easy enough to get the notion. They couldn’t bring down a few beasts without angering the herd and taking injury – and that young man rightly figured that I couldn’t readily fetch something so small as a hare. I tore off a portion of my kill, and we made a trade there and then.”

“That must have taken a great deal of nerve on their part,” Kelt remarked. “Even if they didn’t see you breathing fire.”

“Oh, yes. I learned afterwards that that young man had given his companions a terror.” A laugh. “I liked him. He made it easier to settle here.”

“You knew him well, then?”

“In time? Oh, yes, we came to know each other quite well indeed. Intimately, even.” Again Sarthalos laughed. “Not many of your ilk have been that brave. But there he was, one day after he’d given me my share for the day, asking if I yearned for the company of my own kind…”

“You don’t get along with each other, do you?”

“No. When we live as long and eat as much as we do, any other dragon is competition. We meet only briefly to mate, and eggs are left in a safe place, but to their own devices. This I explained to him, as best I could.” A laugh. “He was the delight of the village women. The notion of shunning company for so long was rather foreign to him. But he could be convincing. Convincing enough to get me to see what all the fuss was about, and flexible enough of mind to make it an enjoyable experience indeed.”

Kelt blinked, staring along the dragon’s considerable length, vanishing back into the darkness. “He actually…?”

“Oh, yes.” A wicked, sword-toothed grin. “Despite my having, even then, a piece as large as his whole body. A very adventurous young man, that.”

For a time, silence settled in, save for the sounds of nature and the crackling of the fire. Finally Kelt managed, “And the people think I’m brave just for bringing your food so often as I do.”

“And that you probably are,” Sarthalos replied, “even if you needn’t worry on that score. Still…” He tilted his head, forked tongue flickering over the man’s jaw. “If you ever feel like testing your courage a little more…”

Kelt flushed. “I’ll… think about it,” he managed with a nervous chuckle. But he did muster enough nerve to reach out and run his hands over the fine scales on the dragon’s jaw.

“More than I could demand, that,” said the great beast; and then he turned his attention to the firepit. “How much longer for that, do you think?”