Morg drifted over the buckled ridges of the lower mountains in search of some fresh new stimulus for the manling breeder. Over the past two moon cycles he had developed a systematic method of study that was simple yet effective. First, he would collect some interesting object such as a pine cone, shiny rock, curious flower or fruit, a claw-full of this or that, a small animal, or even one of the lesser treasures from his lair. Then he would deposit it into the pit and closely observe how the manling reacted to it. The results were as unpredictable as they were illuminating.
The manling clearly liked the treasure items the best, cooing and chirruping over them in pleasure. Morg was hardly surprised. Manlings and treasure went claw in claw. What he did not expect were the strange and varied uses to which the manling applied them. A short blade was employed as a surrogate tooth to cut meat into smaller parcels which it placed on a gilded saucer for skewering with a three-pronged instrument. There was a wooden cube adorned with the figure of a winged carrier beast (a species whose existence he had yet to verify) and a bent stick (seemingly useless) protruding from one side. When the manling rotated the stick, the most wondrous thing happened: the winged figure spun around and the box emitted a melodic, clicking noise that was most pleasing to the ear. Had the breeder known that was going to happen?
Natural objects produced their own chronicle of discoveries. The breeder treated grass, shrubs and moss with disdain but doted over flowers which it would sniff, fondle or stuff into a container. There was no rhyme or reason to what parts of a plant it considered edible, whether it be the root, leafage, pulp or nut. Sometimes it combined them in curious ways as it did one evening when it added various roots, mushrooms and chunks of meat to a boiling bowl of water. After several hours of steeping, it sloshed up the contents into its mouth with a petal-on-a-stem shaped utensil.
The manling’s behavior was even more mystifying when it came to insects and animals. Spiders it would squash on sight. Crickets and grasshoppers it would play with, building little shelters for them out of twigs. Eggs it would boil and eat, but when he brought it a nest of hatchlings, the breeder squawked at him until he took it away. Snakes it would shy away from and turtles it would ignore. He hoped to catch it in the act of hunting but feared exposing it to something too dangerous. He once managed to capture a small badger, but when he dropped it into the pit, the breeder hid behind a stone and shrieked until he was forced to kill it.
Morg was eager to try the experiment again with something a bit more docile. Later that afternoon, as he was swooping low over a herd of caribou, he chanced upon his answer. The herd bolted into an all-out stampede, leaving behind a young fawn with a broken leg, bleating pitifully for its mother.
* * * * *
Berla’s spirits dampened as the day wore on. It could get downright lonely in the pit at times. She found herself wishing for the company of Little Marcus, kind Master Bokleron or even Benko. It had been well over a month since her last visit to town. While that first trip had been rather harrowing, what with the fear of being dropped or crushed, her outlook had much changed since then. Eager to see another human and confident of the dragon’s gentle nature, she greatly looked forward to the flybys.
“Look at me!” she would call out at the top of her lungs and wave her arms about as they passed over the remaining shops and homes. “I’m flying! Flying like a bird! Wheee!” To her disappointment, the townspeople wouldn’t stick around to enjoy the show. “They’re just jealous,” she told herself. “I bet they wish they could fly too.” She would pfoodle her tongue at them and laugh all the louder. “You’re not going to spoil my fun!”
Despite her best efforts, she still couldn’t persuade the dragon to take her flying again. It must not have understood her, she reasoned. Some tricks were harder to teach than others. If she pointed at the tortoise shell, the dragon would promptly refill it. When she mimed shivering or eating, it would whisk away in search of wood or sustenance. One frantic round of pantomimes performed in a heavy downpour resulted in the dragon spreading a wing over her until the deluge subsided. But other commands such as flying, supplying her with a hot bath, or averting its eyes during private moments never seemed to catch on.
Berla couldn’t bring herself to be sore with the dragon for long. It was so sweet and thoughtful, showering her with all manner of gifts. It did get a bit ornery from time to time, tossing down snakes and spiders and other crawly things, but a good scolding was enough to put it in its place. And the treasures were so delightful, a whole pirates’ trove deposited at her feet: perfume bottles and music boxes, vases, chalices, combs, clasps, mirrors, necklaces and bracelets, rings, daggers and cutlery, all fashioned from the rarest porcelain, gemstones and precious metals. Never since those long-ago days in Alvaron had Berla seen such a collection of priceless objects. Only back then she had not been allowed to touch or handle anything. These treasures, on the other hand, were hers to do with as she pleased.
At the moment, it pleased her to clean her favorite vase. She dumped out its withered contents and buffed it with the torn hem of her gown. Perhaps, Berla fancied, the dragon could rummage her up a new wardrobe, something luxurious like her mother used to wear with puffy sleeves and lacy hems. Fairly drab to begin with, her baker’s gown had turned dishwater gray since coming to the pit. What was more, it had mysteriously swelled to the point where it was in danger of falling off. Reaching up to adjust the shoulder piece, she lost her grip on the vase, causing it to shatter on the stony ground.
“Oh, dear,” she said, feeling very much like she wanted to cry. It had been such a lovely vase. She did hope the dragon wouldn’t be too upset.
“Nonsense,” she said, trying to think of what her mother would have done in this situation. “I do declare. They should know better than to make vases out of glass.”
But stern words were not enough to ward off the melancholy that came over her. To distract herself, she took up her favorite pastime: picking out familiar patterns in the layered rockface of the pit. Ordinarily, it would take only a few moments for fanciful pictures to emerge, but today it stubbornly remained a stone wall, hedging her in on all sides. She picked up a wilted flower and plucked off its petals one at a time. She didn’t bother mouthing the words to the childhood game; each one was a love-me-not.
When the dragon returned at dusk, it did not bring her any red apples. Instead, it eased a small carcass to the ground then curled up by the side of the pit to watch, its eyes shining like golden lanterns through the puffs of fog issuing from its nares. Berla put on her shivering act. If she was going to have meat, then she would need a fire to cook it by. The dragon should know this by now.
“Fire,” Berla said imperiously. “You know, hot. You use it to cook—” Something cool and wet pressed into her hand. When Berla looked down to see what it was, two liquid black eyes gazed back up at her. The dragon’s latest gift, it turned out, was no carcass at all. It was a young fawn, very much alive. It bleated plaintively, its knobby legs all a-tremble. It was a language Berla knew well. The poor thing was frightened and in need of motherly solace. Falling to her knees, she wrapped her arms around its neck and began to stroke its supple coat, cooing to it reassuringly. This, she decided, was the best gift of all.