Morg rooted between his teeth with the tip of a talon, picking out the stringy filaments that had gotten lodged in the crevices.
Seldom had he ever felt so enraged, or so confused. He had all but broiled the breeder where it stood, and still it refused to sing. Perhaps, like the lowly maggot, it was too witless to register fear. If only he could be certain, then he could rule out other more disturbing possibilities. What if the breeder had seen through his hollow rampage? What if it was mocking him? The sheer insolence of the thing! That a mere manling, no better than a worm, would dare to look Morg, master of beasts and mighty among dragons, fearlessly in the eye!
Morg had come within a scale’s breadth of slaying the breeder right there and then, but scientific curiosity stayed his claw. There must be a logical explanation for its behavior. The reasonable thing to do was watch, observe and learn.
Lest his anger get the better of him, he withdrew to the foothills where he spent the afternoon pursuing more traditional quarry. By the time he turned back to his lair, the sun was already turning to rust. The breeder would need a change of water and a fresh fire to last it through the night.
If the breeder had been acting strangely before, what he witnessed upon his return was far stranger yet. The manling leaped up from a boulder, approached him on the rim-wall, and proceeded to make a series of quick, chattery sounds. This done, it paused as if expecting some response. When none was forthcoming, it set about moving its forelegs. Stroking its abdomen with one grabber, it gesticulated at its mouth with the other. Mother of all Serpents! The breeder was sending him a message, and its meaning could not have been clearer. It was hungry.
* * * * *
Fairly certain she had gotten her meaning across, Berla listened with satisfaction as the beating of leathery wings receded into the distance. She had first tried talking to the dragon real slow and simple like she would to a dog, but she had not really expected that to work. After all, it rarely even worked with dogs. She remembered how Little Marcus hadn’t spoken to her for over a month when they first met. She had assumed he couldn’t speak at all, but it turned out he was just shy on account of his impediment. Perhaps the dragon too might also be shy and embarrassed about the way it talked.
So Berla devised a plan. She would act out her meaning with gestures just like she had had to do when she came down with the silent sickness. She hoped the dragon was as good at guessing as her grammy had been. If she had to go another day without food, she figured she would starve and die.
Berla prepared three different pantomimes and spent the afternoon rehearsing them in the reflection of the tortoise-shell water dish. The first one was the trickiest as it involved a hand to mouth motion accompanied by a stomach rub. Keeping both hands moving in their respective directions strained her coordination to the limit.
When the dragon returned toward sundown, Berla wasted no time setting her plan into motion. She had barely finished the first pantomime when comprehension, clear as a bell, registered in the great golden eyes. Without delay, the dragon set off to do her bidding, leaving her hopeful of a good meal and just a little disappointed that she hadn’t got to perform the rest of her gestures.
When the dragon failed to return straightaway with food, anticipation gave way to hunger and melancholy. She supposed she should be grateful just to be alive. Only that morning the dragon seemed perfectly ready to make a light snack of her. But this line of thinking only served to remind her that she herself had had nothing to eat. As the minutes crawled by, images of plump loaves paraded through her mind.
The last sunlight leached from the sky, and the moon rose desolate and bright. Still there was no sign of the dragon. What if it never came back? she fretted. What would she do for food then? She tried counting stars to distract herself, but new ones kept popping out faster than she could keep up. It was getting chilly too. She hugged herself to keep warm, but that only transferred the cold of her chest to her arms. She started to shiver.
At last there came the slow drumming of the dragon’s wingbeats. “Over here!” she shouted, jumping up and down in her excitement.
The dragon flew over and dropped something into the pit. About the same size as herself, it landed with a fleshy whump. Berla rushed over and pawed at it eagerly. It was some kind of furry bundle, and whatever was inside was still warm. She was probing for an opening when her fingers encountered something wet and sticky. When she held her hands up to the moonlight they glistened darkly. Blood, she realized. Her hands were covered in blood! With this revelation, the bundle took on a whole new aspect. She could make out the broad hump of a back and a lumpish head resting at an odd backward angle. It was not a bag at all but the carcass of a large animal, freshly killed!
Berla’s hopes were crushed. Even if she had a knife, she was no butcher. When Little Marcus proudly demonstrated how to disembowel a cow, she had closed her eyes. The dead carcass might as well have been a bag of stones for all the good it did her. Bitterly disappointed, revolted and still ravenously hungry, frustration and despair welled up from the inner depths of her being. Tears squirted from her eyes as if from squeezed lemons. From her throat came a mortal scream of anguish.
* * * * *
To Morg’s ears, the stretched notes of the breeder’s song were as sweetly musical as the death bellows of an alpha buck. The first notes were breathy and rasping, but with every passing second, they grew in strength, building into a whistle, rising to a gale.
* * * * *
From his seat in the backhouse, the mayor of Manfred’s Mill had a clear view of the full moon which, like a lost coin that had been much weathered and trampled upon, still carried itself with an air of dignity. A gust from the dragon’s wings had blown off the roof but left the walls thankfully intact. Despite having finished the business at hand, he was not inclined to leave his roofless sanctuary.
For Kadav Ersley, the last thirty-six hours had been an unmitigated disaster. In the moments following the dragon’s fiery assault, the townspeople had bonded together, forming water chains and taking orders like well-disciplined soldiers. But once the fires were doused, those same rugged Edgelanders were reduced to sniveling babes. Kadav Ersley, respected mayor and chief magistrate of Manfred’s Mill, was forced to play wet nurse, cooing and aww-ing their fears away. You’re safe now. The dragon is gone. We’ll rebuild. And all the while he wanted to scream, You spineless cowards! Pull yourselves together for Rhojë’s sake!
He ran a finger over the fox medallion at his chest, taking comfort from its familiar contours. Kadav had seen a lot of adversity in his life. He watched three brothers perish from the wasting sickness. He watched his father bury his mother in the pre-dawn darkness before heading out to work the fields with the same spade he used to dig the grave. Then he watched those same fields shrivel from drought, leaving their family of eleven to face the winter with empty larders. But he had never been reduced to meaningless sniveling and tears.
Through it all, he had learned to become hard and resilient, turning situations to his own advantage, just as he had done so many years ago when a band of brigands chanced along. While they were occupied plundering the Ersley farmstead of its meager belongings, Kadav quietly slipped into their camp and did some plundering of his own. When the brigands returned, they found their valuables gone and Kadav warming himself by their fire. That night, he struck his first of many shrewd bargains.
For the next several years, the band raided and plundered its way across the low kingdoms. When a fire scorpion found its way into the leader’s bedroll one night, Kadav stepped into his fine studded boots, both literally and figuratively. After a bit of culling, the band proved sufficiently capable and loyal, and the profits of banditry were not to be scoffed at. But Kadav tired of the itinerant life. So he traded in his studded boots and a satchel of silver for a tavern, a mayorship, and as much respectability as a man could lay claim to in a place like Manfred’s Mill.
The backhouse dimmed as something passed over the face the moon. Looking up, Kadav picked out the silhouette of the winged serpent—a shape forever etched in his memory—moving across a field of stars. Had the dragon come back to finish them off? Only it wasn’t coming in low and fast over the treetops like it had the day before but circling lazily at height. In its back claw it gripped a large object which caused it to wobble a bit clumsily.
A demonic shriek brought Kadav lurching to his feet. Suddenly unable to breathe, his heart thudded against the bars of his ribcage. Every instinct told him to flee. If he hadn’t already voided his bowels, he might have done so now. As he struggled to bring himself under control, the shrieking abruptly ended and was replaced by a long and plaintive wail. Though there was nothing demonic about this sound, it was even more disturbing in its own way. It was the cry of a tortured, human soul.