Berla watched in awe as the two-story bakery shrunk to the size of a birdhouse beneath her. Small figures darted about as flames leaped from several rooftops. From her new perspective, they appeared harmless as cook fires, diminishing to candles. Soon the town was nothing more than an anthill, and the forest swallowed it up. Still she rose and rose.
The ground took on the appearance of a tacky green fleece. It seemed strangely close, as if she could reach out and run her fingers over it. But the ground wasn’t nearly so interesting as the sky. It was blue and depthless with flat-bellied clouds scudding along like hill-sized globs of cream. She held her breath as they soared up into one. Ephemeral wings reached out to envelop her, but the next instant she was immersed in a murky fog. When she emerged damp and shivering from the other side, she realized the bitter truth about clouds; for all their bright puffiness, they were quite dismal and empty on the inside. It was all very disappointing really.
Suddenly, Berla wasn’t enjoying this very much at all. Though she figured they must have flown halfway to the sun by now, it was surprisingly cold up there among the clouds. She watched with growing discomfort as the forest’s fleece gave way to a paler, pricklier surface, like a chicken skin that had been poorly plucked. Mountains loomed darkly on the horizon. Wherever they were going, she hoped they got there soon. A hot pressure was building in her nether region, and the dragon’s crushing grip wasn’t helping matters any.
On and on the journey went. The cold air scalded Berla’s cheeks and set her teeth to chattering. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes only to be ripped away by the wind. One of her legs was starting to ache, but she dared not squirm for fear of being dropped. Meanwhile, the pressure in her groin was unrelenting. Unable to hold it in any longer, she finally gave in. The sense of release followed by the sensation of warm liquid running down her goose-pimpled legs filled her with something akin to ecstasy. But then she got even colder.
* * * * *
More than once during the long flight to his lair, Morg considered jettisoning the breeder. Now that he knew where the colony was, he could always go back later for a smaller one. But he had not become the mightiest of dragons by shirking difficult tasks. Besides, he was curious to see what success he would have with this jumbo-sized specimen. Would it draw soldier manlings in even greater numbers?
The final descent demanded his full attention. The winds were gusty on the heights, and the extra weight skewed his balance. Over the centuries, he had squashed more than a few manlings on the floor of the holding pit while he perfected the maneuver. But this time he executed it flawlessly, alighting with the grace of a gargantuan butterfly.
He was still congratulating himself when he noticed the amber liquid dribbling down his claw. Rotting ice! The odious creature had gone and peed itself! Holding out the soiled claw, he bounded from the pit and scoured it raw against the nearest boulder. He followed that up with a spray of fire for good measure. Still, he could not rid himself of the feeling of taint. What he really needed was a long soak in a hot sulfur bath. But that would have to wait. The first few moments of captivity were crucial to a breeder’s survival.
He filled a large tortoise shell from a nearby pool and lowered it into the pit. Next, he uprooted a small pine, placed it against the wall opposite the breeder and set it aflame with a targeted blast. He didn’t bother giving it food. Either manlings didn’t like to eat in captivity or he had yet to stumble upon their particular brand of diet.
If the breeder’s size was exceptional, its behavior was even more so. It didn’t do any of the usual things: run in circles, claw at the walls, go berserk, or just curl up in a ball and play dead. It didn’t even sing. Most breeders, like that colorful pair in the colony, broke into shrill song the moment they laid eyes on a dragon. Singing, he surmised, was their natural response to fear and danger. It was this song that attracted shelled manlings by the droves.
Yet this one hadn’t made so much as a peep. Was it sick or injured? It was hard to tell with manlings; they all looked so frail and ill-equipped for survival. It didn’t appear hurt. Showing no sign of distress, it edged closer to the blaze to bask in its warmth. When it gazed up at him, its tiny, pebble eyes were dull and inquisitive.
Vaguely unsettled, Morg pulled himself away from the pit to attend to his own needs. When he had feasted, he treated himself to the promised sulfur bath. He spent all night basking in the aromatic waters, but he enjoyed it less than he might have. The manling’s silence vexed him.
He returned at daybreak to find the breeder lying prone on its side next to a mound of smoldering ashes. He could tell it was alive from the noise it produced: a raspy gurgle somewhere between a burbling spring and a caribou fart. So it wasn’t mute, after all. Yet it hadn’t sung either. Perhaps, he considered, he had not given it sufficient cause to be afraid. Curling up beside the edge of the pit, he waited for the breeder to wake up.
* * * * *
Berla had left a tray of pastries in the oven too long. She opened the door to find them black and shriveled with scorched jam oozing out liking boiling viscera. The smell of char was unbearable. Ruining one batch was bad enough, but as she bore the smoking tray back to the cooling racks, she was met by a sight that nearly stopped her heart: a veritable pastry crematorium.
Berla’s eyes snapped open onto a blue, sun-drenched sky. Her first reaction was relief; she hadn’t burned all those pastries after all. But as the nightmare dissipated into the thin, chill air, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. Shielding her eyes against the sunlight, it finally came to her—she had overslept! There would be trays of uncooked bread and pastries laid out from the night before, drying out and gathering dust. Worse yet, Benko might have gone ahead and baked them up himself, ruining them on purpose. Patrons would be arriving any moment for their fresh Berla-bread only to be turned away empty handed. With a sense of impending doom, she made as if to fling away her covers and roll out of bed, a maneuver made all the more awkward for want of bed and bedding. Lurching to her feet, she took several purposeful steps toward the bakery before stopping dead in her tracks.
Before her was a soot-streaked wall of stone. To one side was a mound of smoldering ashes, to the other a tortoise shell half-full of water. Apart from that, there were some lichen-spackled boulders, spiky weeds and scattered bones. More disturbing was what there was not; there was no cramped provision shed; no backhouse; no trees; no stream that ran behind the bakery; no bakery.
She raised her eyes to the enormous dragon head resting on the lip of the chasm wall. Stirred by the sight, last night’s memories came bounding forth like rabbits started from their holes. A dragon, this dragon in fact, had swooped down out of the sky, set the town ablaze, and spirited her away to this mountain chasm. What was it going to do to her now? Whatever it had in mind, it would surely be better than facing a mob of hungry patrons.
The dragon was perfectly still. Were it not for the twin plumes of smoke rising from its nostrils, Berla might have mistaken it for a magnificent statue like the ones she remembered from her childhood in Alvaron. Not only was it larger than any ten animal heads put together, but its features had been drawn from as many sources. The high nose-bridge was distinctly horse-like while the uneven, tooth-studded jaw would have been more at home on an alligator. A pair of forward fangs, each one long as an arm, put one in mind of a vampire bat, while the curved horns behind its ear clefts took their inspiration from a ram. The slitted eyes were all viper. As for the scales, they were like those of no other animal at all.
Unlike the octagonal shields that plated its belly and flanks or the studded domes that armored its back, the scales on its face were leathery and irregular, fitted together like puzzle pieces. They had an oily sheen that caused them to flash iridescent in the early light. Berla could have stared at them for hours.
The dragon stirred. Its jaws stretched wide in the mother of all yawns, saliva dripping from its milky teeth into a glassy pool from which a thick tongue rose like an eyeless sea monster. A cavernous rumble welled up from the glowing depths of its maw, and its jaws clamped shut with an outrush of sulfurous fumes.
Ponderously, it uncoiled and raised itself up on massive hind legs, scales scraping and ringing. Its wings spread like dark sails across the sky, and its head rolled from side to side, setting off an explosive chain reaction as millstone-sized vertebrae realigned themselves along the length of its spine. Sufficiently limbered up, it looked down upon Berla in her pit.
Berla had a pretty good idea what came next. She used to watch with rapt attention the spider on its web, the praying mantis on its twig, and the lizard on its rock, waiting for that fateful instant when the tiny ropes would twitch, the green hatchet-arm drop, and the red tongue uncoil like a whip. She wondered how dragons ate. Did they swallow their meals whole like a snake or rip them to pieces like a pack of wolves? It was a bit of a shame, she reflected sadly, that she would never get the chance to find out.
Berla watched the dragon’s head plummet earthward, its jaws wide as a giant oven of death.