Today is special. A year ago today is when Getta and I first bonded- She, a helpless, soggy dragon hatchling, I, the village cripple.
I feel the creeping chill of early winter’s cold on my shoulders, and lean closer against Getta’s velvety blue neck. Below us the sleeping hills roll past, trees still holding onto their last frost blackened leaves. Soon those that remain will also fall away, and then, too, the last memories of Summer’s brilliant death pyre will fade away under Winter’s cold blanket of snow.
Flying makes me free. In the air I am no different than the rest of the village. I am no longer the weakling. I am not Brekkan the cripple; I am Brekkan the strong.
In the distance, the river gleams like the pretty cloths and ribbons that the eastern traders bring. Our village is sprawled among the trees by the river’s edge. Large clearings are the mark of a dragon village; Sandy, churned by the takeoffs and landings of generations upon generations of dragons, leading all the way back to when time began and the earth was new.
As we fly above the village, Getta banks and we spiral lazily to the ground. She gives a final thrust with her wings then we land with a jarring thud. She folds her wings and harrumphs smugly.
I slide off her back and land awkwardly on my stiff leg. I grin at her and she curls her lips up to show her teeth, a mocking attempt at a smile. My hand lingers on her flared snout a moment before I back away. Getta twists and leaps into the air, wings flashing, and she is in the air.
I watch her fly off, and only when she is out of sight do I sigh and turn away.
I limp up the sandy path. On either side of me are the log dwellings of my village. They are sprawled among the trees, some of them mere fire shelters, some long and high enough for a mature dragon. Trails of smoke wind their way to the sky and the smell of roasting meat fills the air. The village is empty except for these tell-tale signs- most of the village are still out hunting and gathering autumn’s bounty.
Above the rise my stiff foot catches on a root and I fall forward onto the semi-frozen ground. I pick myself up but freeze when I hear the low, gruff language of the easterners.
Three men stride from a low log house to the right, pompous and sure in their speech and demeanor. For five years they have come from their land over the mountains, to trade colorful cloths, beads, and jewelry in exchange for the right to hunt for hides, especially the snowy white fur of the winter fox.
Bard trails after them and stops at the top of the rise. The village leader is lithe and slightly built, like most of the village, but also tall and strong.
He watches the traders closely as they make their way out of the village and disappear into the woods towards their camp. Harsh, loud and quick to fight, they come each year in even larger groups with both their spears and their eyes sparkling with greed.
Bard is wary of the easterners.
Maybe he is right.
The next day I go to the river to gather the starchy, sweet tubers that grow there. Getta is off far away, hunting. I pick my way carefully down the bank. The sun is glistening off of the water. It runs and skips gaily over the smooth stones of the river bed and its low, thunderous tune fills the air. Slowly I pull and gather tubers from the edge of the water. They come out of the cool mud easily, and my hands are chilled from the frigid water. Tendrils of ice hide in the watery shadows under the willows and the world is very still.
I wander up a small stream that spills into the river pulling roots and bundling them into the small basket I carry slinged over my shoulder. The low stream meanders its way up into the forest and I follow it, soon filling my basket. I am about to turn around when the wind changes.
It had been blowing gentle and cool, following the creek’s path up into the forest. Now it comes from before me, a rush of cold air winding through the trees and sending their bare skeletons dancing.
I freeze. The faint but distinct smell of wood smoke fills my nostrils. Garbled voices are carried down by the wind. I must be close to the Easterner’s camp.
I stand in indecision for only a moment before I head up the stream bank, laying my basket of tubers down.
You can learn a lot from just watching and listening.
It takes me a while to get within sight of the camp. Their tents are made from heavy grey wool which flaps idly in the wind. I slow as I near, taking each step carefully. Finally I reach the thick shrub bordering the camp and I awkwardly ease myself down behind it, my leg stiff and clumsy.
Men gather around a fire. The easterners are giants. They tower above all but the tallest in my village, and their shoulders, clad in furs, are broad and thick. They talk and laugh around the fire in their garbled speech. Spears lie against the trees and the ground.
I do not know their tongue and my eyes soon wander. Their tent flaps lie open, and they flutter in the breeze. In one near to me bundles are heaped, silvery furs and large bundles of a hide I do not recognize. I hold some leaves aside to see clearer.
The odd leathery hides are many colors. , grey, brown, reddish, light blue…
I feel the bile rise in my throat.
Who would kill a dragon?
I jerk back.
I’ve got to get out of here.
Choking with shock, I rise and turn to get away.
My bad leg catches on a root hiding under the leaves and I fall. I cry out.
The easterners’ voices come behind me. Harsh, loud, they come. Rough hands grab me and drag me back to the camp. Their strange pale faces over me as they argue.
Finally they throw me in a cage. They stand around me for a while, speaking.
I do not know these words but I know what they mean.
They laugh as they walk away.
Baskets line the sides of the tent. One of them is knocked over and inside I see a pale glimmer. I look closer and it is a dragon egg.
I shudder and curl up in the middle of the cage. Outside the sun sets and the camp comes alive. A sense of expectancy pervades the easterner’s tense voices and waving spears. There are many of them. Many more than before.
I wonder what they are going to do to me.
The easterners leave one by one, carrying their spears with them. The camp is empty now.
I begin to feel scared. I lie still, sometimes awake, sometimes asleep.
My dreams are haunted by a great white dragon. He is wounded. Blood streams in rivulets down his neck, and it rains down upon the red landscape below.
I am woken by the scream of a dragon.
Framed through the tent opening a half moon hangs, its backdrop the dark midnight sky and the hushed treetops. I listen and it is not long before I hear it again. The terrible death keen of a dragon tears through the night and floods me with fear. I scramble up and listen. The terrible silence fills me. The sound comes again.
I kick at the wooden slats of the cage frantically. Tear at the ropes binding the cage together. I find a loose knot and pick it loose, a slat comes free and I squeeze through.
I run out into the clearing, the campfire smothering in its own coals, the trees silent and haunted. Bowls of food lie on the ground, unheeded, left behind. Through the trees I fly following the path the easterners took, my stiff leg going out to the side with each stride, unable to run.
The trees race by, the bushes catch at my limbs, the sound of fighting grows louder. I burst out of the woods and stop.
For one terrible moment, time stands still.
Before me the village is in chaos. Figures clash in the half-light, and I glimpse the silvery flash of the easterner’s spears. In the clearing a wounded dragon lies, terribly injured and bleeding. Men dance around him, spears darting.
The dragon is dying. His black hide is slashed, and he does not strike as the traders come closer. He calls for the others, his cry vanishing into the night. And they come.
They come down out of the darkness and assault the attackers. Men fall left and right, but there are many of them. They swarm together and I watch as another dragon falls to their attacks.
Where is Getta?
I scan the melee frantically, searching for the small blue dragon among the trees.
Then I see her. Five of the Easterners surround her, darting in with their spears and leaving crimson wounds down her side. She swipes fiercely, teeth bared, not smiling. Each time they step back out of her reach, easy and sure.
I run as fast as I can. I stumble down the hill and somersault, but I get up and keep running. I find a sharp, long stick and clutch it in one hand as I run. Just outside of the trees where Getta is, I fall. My foot is stuck and my stick tumbles away.
Getta screams in pain and terror.
“Getta!” I cry out.
She has fallen to the ground and her assailants stand above her, spears stained with her blood.
She looks at me.
Run, she says.
Goodbye, I say.
And I run.
We won that night. The Easterners were driven away, and they fled into the woods, and were gone.
But so was Getta.
In my dreams I fly on a white dragon over rolling green hills.
And once again I am free.