Sun on the water, seaweed falling over the backs of dragons. My father put his head down and stirred the mud with his horn. Sluggish fish, scared into action. His left forepaw, the one that had been sitting still in the mud for many heartbeats, rose up and caught the fish so fast and easily it could have been made of mud instead of flesh and bone; a rivulet of blood snaked through the water.
Good! Joy! I jumped around the shoreline, sending up silver splashes, overjoyed with the prospect of eating well tonight. My mother already had a pile of fish on the shore, some flapping their tails weakly against the hummock of grass we'd used to mark them as ours. Other ridgeback dragons stood on the shore or waded all up and down the length of the river, the largest and most senior at the top where the fish wouldn't suspect, from the smell of blood and the large shadows, that a hunting group had picked this spot. My uncle, his green skin almost black with age, headed our group.
My father hissed and steamed a breath of hot air in my direction, unhappy that I'd disturbed the water. Uncles grumbled. Fish shifted around in the sun, trying to worry at the grass and get back to water. I turned one over with a paw as I moved away from the river.
Dragon tails lay on the ground like a line of roots, and then beyond lurked the tree line. I was too small to catch fish on my own yet. They wouldn't miss me.
The forest was dark; I blinked my eyes a few times to readjust, fallen leaves and upright twigs gaining clarity. My suggestion to come back here didn't seem all that great once I didn't find a bug or anything else interesting to chase within a few sniffs. It was too dark, too lonely, back here away from cooling water. It was too hot.
I kicked around in the leaves for a few more breaths, idly sniffing the undersides of brown twigs and browning foliage. My skin prickled as drops of water dried.
Then something scurried into view. It wasn't a furry animal, but rather a gray, smooth-scaled little lizard.
The scales were so fine that I could barely see them, but then I saw the wings and gathered that that this was a dragon like me. Its skin was so smooth that the muscles underneath were clearly visible, long like a snake's or a weasel's. It had clever, four-fingered hands, and raised one paw when it saw me. Its ears flicked, oddly mobile for emerging from a skull-plate of what looked like shiny bone. It parted its mouth to reveal tiny, straight-edged teeth.
It would be easier for a mouth like that to get an owlcat or a bird between its teeth than a fish. The feathery body would pad up the gullet of a fish-eater, but supposedly others adapt. And a fish wouldn't catch on straight teeth and small claws like that.
As well as looking different from my family, this dragon didn't smell like me: its scent was small, reduced, faintly rocky. It could have bit me with those teeth, but it didn't look like it was hunting: it was skittish, as if it were running from something, flicking its tail along the leaves. I watched the hatchling quietly. It watched me, four blue eyes staring. The skin along its back twitched a few times.
I realized a few breaths into the stare-off that my talons were digging into the leaves deep enough that that my up-turned dewclaws were in the dirt. The mirror dragon had no dewclaw: this was just one of many things that made it alien. It tipped its head slightly, and I saw my own green reflection slide back and forth on its forehead. The stumpy horn of a young ridgeback, the square jaw. I felt clumsy next to the mirror dragon. Surely I couldn't run faster than this lithe creature.
I wondered: Is this why they call them mirrors? I looked at myself in the beetle-smooth head scale, spittle and fish-gut and the warm smell of my parents on my breath fogging the reflection. Maybe they're called mirrors because you can see themselves in them.
I tipped my head, trying to look at myself, trying to transpose myself over this other child.
The mirror dragon hissed, its ears flaring out and a tiny blue tongue stroking the air.
I hissed back without thinking about it, lapping at the spittle that dashed from my mouth. Immediately my mother drew in a breath I could hear, a gasp edged with the true whooping battle-cry that she would unleash if I were hurt. My wings spread, the black spines quivering and clacking together.
Then the forest was full of mirror dragons. They stank of meat, but their bodies were sinuous and graceful. Hardly seeming to notice the twigs and fallen trees, they nevertheless made only the slightest rustling sound: they moved through the host of crunchable things like ghosts. Their wings, tucked beside them, were twitchy, predatory shapes. They moved with one mind toward the north.
The hatchling opened all four eyes wide, wetly blinked, and dashed into the shadowy pack.
Trees shook as my mother turned from the river and barreled toward us, and the mirror dragons disappeared like snakes down a hole or fog in the morning. I ran back to my mother, suddenly realizing how deep into the forest I'd gone and how many logs I had to jump over to get back onto the sward. She enveloped me in a fishy warm breath and panted at the woods, uncles and father now turning with their spiked noses sweeping the air.
It's all right, I panted, and she sniffed again in the direction of the wood before turning and, almost as an afterthought, scooping me up in one palm and bumping me along the ground in her wake. I squirmed to avoid her long, black claws.
She deposited me by the water, and I sat there for a moment, sniffing at the air, but the mirror dragons were gone.
I pawed around for fish. The first day I ever caught one on my own would come later. That night we wallowed and told stories. My mother told of the way the mirror dragons reflect only the dead things on the earth, and take all the prey in the forests until other animal species cannot stand to live. Ridgeback dragons survive because we can fish better, can go farther out into streams that would buffet the more delicate mirror dragons away. I thought that I could have swiped at that hatchling with my claws. I thought that its parents might have carried me away, and I sank down farther into the muddy river, and amused myself blowing bubbles until we traipsed further up the bank and I fell asleep.