Morg watched the scene in the pit with great fascination. When the breeder came across the silver disc, which must have slipped out while he was lowering the tree, his first instinct was to leap down and reclaim it. No treasure, however small, should ever go to waste. But the breeder’s reaction held him in check. It stood straighter of a sudden, the sagging furrows of its face hardening into resolve. Picking a stone off the ground, it set upon the day-old caribou.
Morg had always hoped to catch a manling in the act of feeding. Most land animals had jaws that were conveniently distended but these manlings had it all backwards; their nares jutted out like fleshy beaks while their mouths were flat and fish-like. Their square, stubby teeth were poorly suited for either rending flesh or sawing off grass. The secret, he was now realizing, was not in the mouth but in their grabbers and five, wiggly fingers. With the aid of a sharp stone, they could be employed as incisors to rend and saw. Still, they were no match for the likes of talons, beaks and claws. A vulture could have picked the caribou leg clean in half the time it took the manling to cut through it.
With mounting interest, Morg watched the breeder wrestle the leg free. Now that it had a manageable hunk of meat to work with, he expected it to commence feeding straightaway. What the breeder did next, however, turned his blood to ice.
Over the prodigious span of his lifetime, Morg had seen a great many wonders. He had witnessed mountains rise smoldering from the earth. He had seen flaming boulders shriek down out of a clear sky and ghostly curtains of light shimmer across the heavens. He had seen clouds coil into giant snakes and drag their tails along the ground. He had even seen the earth crack open like the shell of an egg, spilling out its molten innards. Yet nothing had prepared him for the sight of a manling, the most revolting of creatures, purifying its food in the fire like an enlightened dragon.
* * * * *
Berla slept little that night. Uplifted by the discovery of the fox medallion, flush with accomplishment, and sated on meat, she felt completely rejuvenated. She had never felt so strong, so free. She could sing. She could dance. She could fart out loud. There was no one to laugh at her. There was no one to tell her she was fat or slow or stupid.
I once had a bonny lad so fine—Ta-tee-da-da Ta-dee-dee-dine. Singing at the top of her lungs, she shook out her hair and skipped with glee. She pictured herself at the Bader Day Festival, gliding around the bonfire while the rest of the town looked on, the girl all the handsome boys wanted to dance with.
Barely two months had passed since the last Bader Day festival. Berla had watched the preparations take place with great anticipation, the women sporting their new finery and packing their picnic baskets, the men ribbing each other as they practiced their bowshot and ax throwing, and the children dancing in rings and blowing off-key through hollow reeds. There was something for everyone to do. The butcher butchered, the tailor stitched, the mayor bustled about meaningfully, and Berla baked rack upon rack of breads and pastries, barely pausing to sleep.
In prior festivals, Berla had always been an outsider. When people spoke to her it was to jeer. When they asked her to dance it was only to ridicule. She had convinced herself this time would be different. Surely, the townspeople’s ravings over her tantalizing morsels would translate into expressions of goodwill and acceptance. But this had not been the case, at least not at first. For most of the evening, the festival went the way of all the others. She lingered unnoticed on the fringe, discarded like a piece of burnt crust. But the bonfire blazed hot, the ale ran freely, and Berla’s moment finally came when Kark, a tall, comely boy with flame-red hair, asked her to dance. Berla’s heart leaped for joy as she was led to the well-trodden patch of earth around the bonfire. It was a sublime moment, dancing with the handsome youth. She didn’t even notice how his hands hovered just beyond hers, never quite touching.
The dance may have been heavenly but what came after was the devil’s own doing. The moment the song ended, Kark backed away so quickly he almost stumbled. “Get away from me you ugly warthog,” he said in disgust. “Fornicating with you wasn’t part of the deal.” Nearby, a group of boys were huddled over in laughter. The laughing broke off as Kark strode over to them, palms outstretched to collect on his dare. Berla may have been slow, but it didn’t take a wizard to figure out what had just happened. Shamed and disgraced, she ran from the bonfire and spent the rest of the night sobbing into her pillow.
“Thank you, Kark,” Berla told her flickering fire-shadow, “but I think I would rather dance by myself tonight. Oh, and you can tell your friends over there that they better like crusty, week-old bread—because that’s all they’re going to get from me!”
With a dismissive toss of her head, she spun and glided away toward the bonfire. She could almost see the other couples parting for her as if for royalty, almost hear the leaping flutes and the racing beat of the drums. She hiked up her skirts and danced, twirling until she felt drunk.
The next morning Berla slept well past the time the first batch of loaves was due to be put in the oven. “Sorry, Benko, but I don’t feel like working today,” she said with a yawn. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll take a stroll around.” There wasn’t anywhere to stroll to really, but she wasn’t about to let that dampen her mood. On her third pass around the pit, she noticed a plump yellow caterpillar humping its way across a stone. “Dragon catch you too?” she said. “At least it doesn’t seem to be such a mean ol’ dragon.”
When the dragon didn’t appear that morning to refill her water dish, Berla treated it to a round scolding, just as her mother would have done back in their big house in Alvaron. “Eh-hem… Oh dragon sir, I believe you have forgotten something. I always like fresh water in the morning and this, as you can see with your own two eyes, is most certainly not fresh. I suggest you not let this happen again or I will be most cross with you.”
Perhaps the dragon caught some inkling of the rebuke it was about to receive because it didn’t appear that night to bring her the welcome fire. Berla wasn’t too put out at first. The water was drinkable if a bit stale and she still had plenty of cooked meat left. The chill mountain air presented a bigger challenge, but she managed to keep tolerably warm by snuggling up between the furry carcasses. After a while, she didn’t even notice the smell. But when the dragon didn’t appear on the second day or the day after that, Berla began to get worried. Maybe it had gotten lost. She remembered how vast and confusing the mountains had seemed from above, making her grateful for the cozy confines of her pit. Surely the dragon wouldn’t just leave her, would it? What if something had happened to it? What if it had died and gone to be with her grammy in Rho? Berla took out the medallion and ran her fingers over the image of her Fozzy. Everything was going to be all right, she told herself.
* * * * *
Morg spent the next three sun-moons ruminating in his lair. The cavern pulsed from deep ocher to bright crimson in time to his breathing, a steady rhythm that helped bring some order to his tumultuous thoughts. After the disturbing scene in the pit, his thoughts were in much need of ordering.
Surely the breeder’s behavior was an isolated fluke. Manlings were erratic to begin with and even more so in captivity. Yet the manling had acted with deliberate purpose, waiting until the meat was thoroughly cooked before dragging it from the fire and then, after allowing it time to cool, proceeding to hack off pieces small enough to fit into its fish-like mouth. To see a manling cooking its food like a civilized creature—the scene could not have been more horrific if it had hatched from a dragon egg!
While dragons were indisputably more beautiful, powerful and intelligent than any ordinary beast, it was their moral code, the unswerving adherence to the sanctity of fire, that truly set them apart. Fire was infused with the spirit of the Great Serpent. Flesh was purified by it. Jewels were born in it. Rot and decay shrank from its presence. What could it mean if manlings had learned to harness the sanctifying power of fire?
The revelation came to him during the third sun-moon of his vigil, so astounding in its clarity that it cast new rays of insight onto memories going back millennia to his earliest years as a hatchling. The signs had been there all along: the hoarding away of treasure, the orderliness of their hives, their mastery over the lesser beasts, and their doomed courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Vile and loathsome as they were, manlings were clearly no ordinary creatures born of dust. There was the touch of the immortal in them. And if one granted them divine provenance then one must also grant them a role in the age-old saga of good and evil. As surely as dragons were the offspring of the Great Serpent, manlings were the spawn of the Worm.