This poem came out of the April 2, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from meeksp and aoife. It also fills the #9 Palimpsest slot in the Vellum list for the Rainbowfic fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the series A Conflagration of Dragons.
When the Conflagration came,
there woke along with the elders
a young dragon hatched in the last cycle.
His scales were the pale green of new grass
and he breathed a faint blue flame.
He hid himself from the older, larger dragons
so that they would not devour him.
He flew but rarely, and spend most of his time
slinking through the undergrowth.
All around him the world was strange and frightening.
When he went to sleep, it had been inhabited
by small enclaves of the six races,
camps and villages and a few muddy towns.
Now there were villages and towns everywhere,
and huge cities -- riven cliffs filled with inhabitants,
a whole forest turned into a metropolis,
vast sprawling settlements across the flatter habitats --
that seethed with people of this race or that one.
They had, seemingly, formed alliances amongst themselves
and sometimes lived together, squabbling or cooperating
with a familiarity that baffled the young dragon.
They had lived through all the years he had slept,
done a great many terrible and wonderful things,
learned and grown and left behind the world he'd known.
Only the bones of it remained, hills in the city centers
where people had rebuilt over ruins time and gain,
history a palimpsest of strange messages
like parchment scraped and overwritten
until the ink feathered and the letters blurred
and he could not make out the meaning of any of it.
What had been a scatter of individual races
scratching out a living on the surface of a charred land
had become a thriving, vital civilization full of marvels
that he could observe but not comprehend.
It impressed him, but he longed for the simplicity
and quiet of the world he'd left behind.
The other dragons did not care.
He heard their roaring laughter as they plotted
which cities they would destroy, and how,
and their intended terrorism over their hapless prey.
Dragons were not immortal,
but they lived so long
that they might as well be.
The eldest of them
had memories that reached back millennia,
into the dim prehistory before civilization.
The fledgling had no such depth to cushion him
against the shock of loss that he felt
for the only world he could recall.
Dragons were not reincarnated,
but with their life cycle,
they might as well be.
They flamed and feasted
until the world lay in ruins around them,
then slept away the centuries while it renewed itself.
All that they had known was wiped away,
as if they had died and been reborn.
The fledgling wondered how the elders
could stand to do that time and again.
He watched the refugees stream across the plains --
the Madhusudana with their feathered wings
tattered like the sails of storm-wracked ships,
the Shu with their velvety skin wings
clutched close like grubby blankets --
and he let them pass by without attacking them,
for he knew what it was to weep for what was lost.
The Beneberak held the plains,
and where the dry grassland petered out into marsh,
the Hachi took over the wetlands.
They let the refugees take shelter in their territory ...
and if there was one more who blended into the grass,
well, the prairie and the swamp hid many things.
They were tiny creatures, even compared
to a dragon as young and small as himself --
he was not much bigger than one of their horses --
but fear was a habit of survival for a fledgling
and so he hid himself even from them.
They watched him despite his hiding,
for they were clever creatures,
but they chased him only sometimes.
They called him Shalmaneser,
which meant peace but also retribution,
which meant one who was tied, chained, confined;
and he could not help thinking that somehow
all of that suited him.
He lurked at the edges of their world
and wondered if he could find a place for himself
while there was still something left of it;
and wished, though he knew it was futile,
that six races might become seven.
* * *
A palimpsest is technically a page that has been cleaned and rewritten, but has come to mean any kind of layered thing.
Layered ruins exist in many ancient cities, often forming a hill or hills over numerous strata of rubble.