Summer heat radiated off Morg’s scales as the rising air currents buoyed him eastward. It was his first far-venture since his awakening, and it felt glorious. The sun was a smoldering diamond in a bottomless sky. The ground was lumpy and mottled as a toad’s back, its patterns unfamiliar after long-sleep. He took his bearings from the timeless mountains, the bones of the earth.
It had taken all winter and most of the spring to recoup his strength and restore his lair to a semblance of its former glory. Restoration complete, he sallied forth to indulge in his favorite pastimes: chasing big-horned caribou across the uplands, flushing snowy eagles from their aeries, and diving for silver-backed fish in the canyons. But he tired of these diversions. As the sun cycles passed, his thoughts were inexorably drawn back to the empty spaces in his lair. It was time to start hunting his real prey—manling.
A peculiar kind of hairless ape, manlings came in several varieties, most of them useless. The exception was the manling soldier, whose ornate carapace made it the perfect collector’s item. Harvesting one undamaged was no mean feat, however. Armed with sundry stingers, barbs and claws, soldiers could become quite feisty when provoked, but he couldn’t just squeeze or pummel them as their delicate shells were easily scratched and dented. Flame left permanent scorch marks and must also be avoided. Soldiers were quite rare, seldom venturing far from their stone hives across the plains. Even when they did, they usually clumped together in groups, making precision work all but impossible.
Through much trial and mutilating error, Morg gradually perfected his methods. He first needed to locate one of the smaller colonies that sprang up like anthills during a long-sleep. Then he would cause a fiery ruckus to get their attention and draw the soldiers away from their hives. Finally—and this part was key—he would capture a young breeder to lure them out into the open one or two at a time where they could be easily picked off.
The sun was dipping toward the horizon when he caught sight of several scraggly gray wisps rising from the ground like steam off a dung heap. At last, a manling colony.
* * * * *
The door to the bakery swung open, and two girls entered with a loud rustling of skirts. The way they floated up to the coin table reminded Berla of a pair of dead butterflies floating on a pond.
Krystal and Miramelle were no strangers to Berla. They had been part of the town welcoming committee—if that’s what one could call the heckling pack of children that swarmed around the rickety merchant wagon Berla and her grammy rode in on. Berla’s grammy, who could always find a bright side, spoke encouragingly into her ear, “Lookee, Berla dear, at all the other little boys and girls for you to play with. You’re going to love it here.”
Her grammy had been right, strictly speaking. There was no shortage of children her age, and Berla quickly fell in love with the little town on the edge of nowhere. In contrast to the crowded, hard-cobbled streets of Alvaron, the woods around their cottage were full of wonders: birds with emerald-banded wings, speckle-backed spiders, checkered snakes and lizards with fanned necks that changed colors before her eyes.
But Berla’s bungling attempts to make friends brought her only shame and disappointment. Apart from Little Marcus, the boys horrified her, the way they were always squishing, plucking and stabbing things. One time they snuck up on her while she was feeding worms to a fledgling sparrow that had fallen from its nest. Two boys held her down while the others took turns tossing it into the air, shouting at it to fly away. When the fledgling failed to oblige, they smashed it against a tree.
The girls were cruel in their own way. If she dared approach their tight-knit group, they would scatter like doves, but if she tried to avoid them, they would circle like wolves. “Berla. Berla. You’re so slow—” Wherever there was such a pack of girls to be found, there were Krystal and Miramelle, giggling, pointing and calling names.
“What are you staring at?” demanded the girl in yellow.
“It’s all right, Miramelle. She was just admiring our new dresses, weren’t you?” said the one in raspberry. She hiked the hem up above her slim white ankles and performed a graceful quarter spin. “Mother made them special for us. Aren’t they grand?”
Berla nodded eagerly. She liked it when she knew the answer to a question.
“They’re just for holy days,” Krystal went on. “But mum is letting us take them out for a stroll to test the seams. It’s too bad you don’t have a mother to make you dresses. We asked mum to sew one for you, but she said there wasn’t enough fabric in the whole town for that.”
“You asked her to make one for me?” Berla asked, incredulous.
The two girls burst into giggles. Berla wanted to join in, but she had the distinct feeling she wasn’t invited. She reached for the nearest pastry and bit off half of it, causing them to giggle all the harder.
“Excuse me.” Krystal composed herself. “Aren’t you going to ask us if we want some bread?”
“Yeah, like sometime today maybe,” said Miramelle.
“I’m all out of bread,” Berla said.
“Well, aren’t you going to bake some more?”
Berla felt uneasy at this turn in the conversation. When she had tried setting aside loaves for patrons before, she all-too-often forgot where she hid them. Master Bokleron had been livid to discover moldy, ant-infested bread tucked into every nook and cranny of the bakery. After that, he forbade her to hoard any more loaves even if the king himself asked her to, which, fortunately, the king never did. If she needed more bread, she was welcome to stay late and bake until the cows came home.
Berla took her master’s advice to heart. From that day on she seldom wandered far from the ovens, retiring late at night to the provision shed she shared with a family of sparrows and rising an hour before dawn to stoke the oven. But this arrangement had its own problems. Taking notice of the bakery’s extended hours, patrons began to frequent the shop late into the evening. As her culinary skills did not carry over into business matters (she often forgot to collect payment) and Master Bokleron was an early sleeper, the situation soon came to a head. The shopkeeper resolved the dilemma by making Berla promise to lock the doors after the dinner hour. Absolutely no one was to be allowed inside—apart from Benko and himself, he added as a cautious afterthought. Absolutely no one.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” Berla blurted in alarm. “The bakery’s closed after dinner.”
“But we haven’t had dinner yet,” Krystal pointed out. “Anyway, the door was open.”
Berla tried to process both objections at once but found the task too daunting. “The bakery’s closed,” she repeated.
“It’s all right. We won’t tell anyone you let us in. We just happened to be walking past when we caught a strong whiff of Berla—eh-hem—bread.”
“I’m all out of bread,” Berla repeated.
“What’s that there on the rack then?”
“Jelly rolls.” She brightened.
“Oh, jelly rolls. I just love jelly rolls. And by the looks of you, I would say you love them too.”
“Yeah, looks like you’re really big on them,” chimed in Miramelle.
“So,” Krystal said. “Can we have one?”
“Pleeease,” Miramelle begged. “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow.”
“If you want a cow, you have to go to the butcher’s,” replied Berla.
“Looks like there’s a big, stupid cow right here,” sneered Miramelle.
“Where?” Berla looked around. Had the girls brought a cow in with them? Master Bokleron certainly wouldn’t be happy about that.
“What we’d really like,” Krystal said through choked-back laughter, “are some nice, hot jelly-rolls like those ones over there.”
Berla pondered long and deep. “I’m not supposed to sell anything after dinner. Master Bokleron said—”
“If you gave them to us then it wouldn’t be selling,” Krystal reasoned.
Berla had to admit that made pretty good sense. She picked out two of the most scrumptious-looking rolls and extended them proudly into the girls’ waiting hands.
Throwing her friend a conspiratorial wink, Krystal crammed the pastry into her mouth. “Mmmm-mmmm. Delithiouth!”
Miramelle crammed in hers. “Mmm! Mmm-MMM-Mmmm-MM!”
Their moans sounded like copulating cows, but their ecstasy was cut short when Krystal held up her jam-smeared hands to stare at them in horror. “Look at my hands!” she squealed. “They’re fat! This is all her doing.” She leveled an accusing finger at Berla. “She magicked the jelly rolls to make us fat like her.”
The strange curse now beset her friend as well. “Oh no, my hands are blowing up! My arms too! Oh Krystal, your face!”
Krystal prodded at her cheeks, shoulders and—”Oh no-no-no, my hips! How could you do this to us?” she shrieked. “And here we thought you were our friend. Now we’ll never be able to show our faces in town again!”
None of this was making any sense to Berla. “Um, why not?”
Half a jelly roll struck her beneath the chin and oozed down the broad slope of her breast. “Because we’re too fat, that’s why! C’mon, Miramelle. I think the spell is wearing off, but if I have to look at that fat warty hog anymore, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Me too.” Miramelle appeared to gag.
As Berla watched the two girls rustle out of the bakery, tears overflowed the berms of her cheeks and collected in the deep folds of her chin. Turning away, she was surprised to see Benko standing just inside the back door. It was not unusual for the baker to drop by in the evening to knead dough for his specialty pastries. In her distraction, she hadn’t heard him work the latch. By the time she lowered her eyes, he had already seen her crying.
Benko opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by a piercing scream. “What in the seven hells?” he swore.
After gaping dumbly at each other for a moment, they turned toward the half-open front door where the sound was coming from. Berla bolted out first with Benko fast on her heels. All up and down the row of shops, people were emerging in a state of confusion and alarm. Krystal was standing in the middle of the road, frozen stiff, screaming. A few feet away, a wide-eyed Miramelle crouched beneath a fruit cart, one arm outstretched to the east. Thirty hands went to thirty mouths as sixty eyes saw what she was pointing at. Nobody moved. Everyone was petrified from fright, everyone except Berla, that is. She was spellbound with pure awe.
The dragon moved with the undulating motion of a shaken rope—so graceful. Each pinioned wing was wider than a barn roof. They snapped in unison like sheets in a high wind. It banked around and lined up for an approach, giving her the chance to admire it from the front. While the tapering snout was studded with interlocking fangs, there was intelligence, even wisdom, in the creature’s gold and sable eyes. Then there were the scales. Oh the scales! In the fading rays of the sun, they gleamed and sparkled like the shiniest of coins—a dazzling, living river of them! Mesmerized, Berla didn’t even notice the jet of flame that exploded into the roof of the tanner’s shop until the wave of heat washed over her. Then the dragon was winging past.
It would be back again, she knew. Unlike people, beasts were easy to understand. An animal wouldn’t just swoop in and set fire to a place unless it had a good reason. Was it hungry or lonely? Had someone said mean things to make it feel bad? It must be nice to be able to fly around and burn things up whenever you wanted to.
The dragon came sweeping down from the north this time, aligning itself with the road. Curlicues of chimney smoke formed in its wake as shutters banged and pieces of thatch flapped loose like startled birds. People shrieked and scrambled for safety as fast as their wobbly legs could carry them.
Flaring its wings to reduce speed, the dragon extended its massive hind legs, hooked talons splayed wide like an eagle about to snatch a field mouse—and that mouse was Krystal. In that instant, Berla knew exactly what she had to do. Rushing forward, she slammed into the raspberry-garbed girl with the force of a charging bull, throwing her into the fruit-cart where her friend in yellow was still cowering in terror. Having fainted dead away, both girls lay on the ground in a gruesome heap of smashed berries.
She had done it! Berla exulted. She had rescued the town belle from the clutches of the dragon. She would be a hero, and the townspeople would revere and adore her ever after.
As she watched the burning roofs of the town fall away beneath her, Berla became dimly aware of the pressure squeezing in on her from all sides.