mraan sat hunched beside the canal, and stared miserably at the top of the cliff a thousand feet above. The warm sun soaked into his damp fur but it did little to cheer him. His home was on the high plateau, and he could not fly there.
Now he knew why Dad and Mum and Uncle Mav told him to stay away from the edge. He regularly defied them because the best thermals came from the heated cliff face. Today, though, a sudden gust from the wrong direction took him too far away from the homeland and the loss of the thermal sent him spiralling down. The only clear landing space was beside the canal, but another gust tipped him over and sent him plunging into the water.
He could glide as well as any adult, but at eight years of age his flight muscles were still under-developed. He could not fly the vertical distance needed to get home.
Amraan wondered if the strange dragon had left. He didn't like that one because the stranger was rude and had practically called him a baby, and had flamed at the wizard to drive him off. He sighed again and wiped his eyes. "I'm not crying!" he said defiantly to the surrounding trees. "The water got in my eyes." He looked left and right, but the canal curved around the base of the cliff in either direction so he could see little more than half a mile either way. It occurred to him that Pen the Wizard knew a way up, so he decided that following the canal upstream would lead him to that place. He turned to his right and walked along the towpath that ran between the canal and the cliff. The other side of the canal was a narrow stone ledge a dozen feet away. It was all that stopped the water from pouring down the scree slopes at the base of the wall.
The canal bent sharply to the left around a heel of rock. Amraan ran around the corner, straight under the hoofs of a horse.
The horse reared in fright. Amraan dived into the canal to escape the flashing hoofs. The dwarvish boatman swore as he leaped from the barge and fought to calm his horse. When he had it under control he turned and angrily faced the little dragon. Amraan sank into the water until only the top of his head and snout were showing.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Sorry," muttered Amraan.
"Why don't you crocodiles watch where you're going?"
Amraan lifted his head clear of the water. "I'm not a crocodile! I'm a dragon."
The anger drained from the dwarf's face when he saw how young the dragon was. He motioned for Amraan to come closer. "In that case you'd better get up here and dry off." He helped the dragon ashore and rubbed the water from the thick fur. "What are you doing here?"
"I got blown away from the cliff," sighed Amraan.
"So why don't you fly back?"
"I can't fly that far." Amraan looked away from the dwarf and stared vacantly into the canal water.
"Why not?" wondered the dwarf.
"I can't fly," whispered Amraan. It hurt him to admit it. He wiped his eyes and said suddenly "I'm not crying!"
"I know that," said the dwarf with a smile. He felt the muscle between Amraan's wings. "Your flight trapezoid isn't very developed. How old are you?"
The dwarf nodded. "I reckon in one year you'll be flying up and down this cliff like it's nothing," he said. "My name is Barra."
"So dragon, tell me why you are running along the tow path."
"Pen the wizard knows a way up. I thought it might be up-stream."
Barra shook his head. "I'm afraid not. There's no way up from this end of the canal. I don't think Pen comes along it at all."
"Oh." Amraan sank to his belly and stared gloomily into the water.
"I could take you down as far as The Forest Lock Inn. Pen usually stays there on his journeys into the high country."
"Really?" The young dragon jumped to his feet excitedly. "On your boat?"
"Barge," corrected Barra. "Yes. Get aboard."
The dwarf calmed his horse with an apple and some soft words before joining Amraan on the barge. He handed the dragon a long pole and had him stand in the bow. "When I shout, push us away from the bank." Amraan nodded and waited. Barra pushed the tiller hard to the right and lifted another pole, then shouted "Ho, Sam! HO!"
The horse moved forward until the thick rope went taught. He leaned against the weight until water squeezed from the strands. Barra and Amraan heaved on the poles and shoved the barge away from the bank. It moved forward under Sam's power and turned into the middle of the stream. Barra steered the barge on a straight course.
In minutes the Sam was plodding at a leisurely pace. The rope hung slack, occasionally going tight as the barge's momentum fell off. Amraan examined the strange vessel as he walked along the flat roof back to where Barra stood. It was forty feet long, but only seven feet wide. He jumped down onto the tiny deck at the stern. Before him was a stairway of four steps down into a small room which had two bunks and a wood stove. The chimney, which poked through the roof, had a tiny trickle of white smoke wafting into the air.
"Do you live here?"
Barra nodded. "It's my home when I'm carrying."
Barra looked at him. "It's the stuff we heat up to make the silver come out."
"I have seven tons of the stuff. This load is particularly fine, so it's going to the elvish smiths who work for their king."
"Uncle Mavrik knows some elves," said Amraan suddenly.
Barra blinked at him and looked at his furry hide. "Mavrik is your uncle?"
"Not really. He's Dad's best friend."
"Who is your dad?"
"Mach," said Amraan lightly. "And my mum's name is Paveway."
Barra blinked at him again. "Bloody hell!" he said softly. Every dwarf knew of Mach Dwarf-friend and his mate Paveway. I hope they don't think I've kidnapped you, thought Barra as he watched the little furred dragon scamper along the roof of his barge.
Sam the horse plodded at a steady pace for the rest of the day. The barge never moved faster than a walk. Amraan found this method of travel to be surprisingly enjoyable. The only noises were the faint slosh of the waves against the canal walls and the rhythmic clop clop of the horses' hoofs. The scree slopes gave way to steep, wooded banks. The trees crowded close to the edge of the water, meeting overhead to form a dark green tunnel. As the light dimmed Barra called to the horse. Sam stopped and the dwarf steered the barge so that it ground to a halt on the canal wall.
"What's wrong?" asked Amraan.
"We'll camp here tonight." Barra opened a locker and removed a canvas bag, then filled it with feed from another bag. As he jumped ashore Sam turned and came to him, nickering softly. Barra fastened the bag to the bridle and patted the neck. "There you are lad," he said softly. Amraan watched with fascination. He had no experience with horses except as a food source.
Barra returned to the barge. "Now we'll eat," he said as he jumped aboard. He opened another locker and removed a pot with the lid clamped on. "Do you like stew?"
"I don't know," said Amraan. "What is it?" Barra opened the pot and held it for the dragon to see in. A delicious smell wafted into the cabin. "But... It's cooked!"
"Of course it is!" said Barra. "I can't eat it raw."
"What are those orange and white things?"
"Oh," said Amraan softly, then he added "What?"
"Carrots and potatoes."
Amraan shuddered. "They grow in the ground! You've spoiled it. And you cooked it."
Barra laughed. "You'll like it when I've heated it." He put the pot on top of the stove, opened the door and stirred up the hot coals. He threw a small log onto the fire and shut the door.
"I can't eat hot food!"
"You're a dragon, you flame things. Don't be silly."
Soon the pot was bubbling and steaming. Amraan's mouth watered as Barra scooped the food onto some plates. He placed them on the little table and sat on a bunk, motioning to Amraan to sit on the other. The dragon watched the dwarf use a spoon to scoop the food into his mouth, then examined the plate before him. He extended his forked tongue and poked it into the stew. The vegetables had given the meat a pungent woodiness that was surprisingly pleasant. He picked up his spoon and scooped some into his mouth, then chewed slowly. In minutes he had emptied the plate and was slurping the gravy.
"How was that?" asked Barra. He had watched with amusement as Amraan ate. For a dragon who didn't like cooked food, he seemed to enjoy it.
"Yummy!" Amraan yawned suddenly. The hot food in his belly made him feel tired. He curled up on the bunk and dozed off.
ach shook his head and sighed. "I've lost it."
Paveway gave her mate a worried look. "What have you lost?"
"My finding ability." He slumped to the ground and sighed again. " I can't see him anywhere."
Paveway ruffled the fur around his neck until he purred. "You only have to relearn your magic. It's been rebuilding ever since Mav took that splinter from your hand."
"I'm too old to relearn."
"Nonsense! Look at Mav. He's a mature dragon, and he's learning." She paused in thought. "What's more, he's a scaled dragon. They aren't supposed to do any magic."
"Yeah, I suppose." Mach frowned suddenly and poked his tongue out a couple of times. "That's strange." He sat up. "My mouth feels like I've been eating wood."
"Amraan?" whispered Paveway.
"I think so. But, he wouldn't eat wood." He looked at Pavevay. "Would he?" he wondered in sudden doubt.
"No." She frowned in thought. "No! Of course not!"
"He's alive and happy, I know that much." Mach hugged her, wrapping his wings around her body. "And apparently he's eating wood and enjoying it."
Paveway smiled. "I knew you'd relearn your talents."
arra woke suddenly. He looked across the narrow cabin and saw the other bunk was empty. The dragon was probably out hunting. He thought about the events of yesterday, and wondered how he ended up with a young dragon on his barge. He shook his head.
The sound of something wet hitting the deck above came through the closed door, followed by a curious gargling noise.
The dwarf climbed from his bunk and opened the wood stove. He poked at the hot coals then threw in a log. When the fire was burning he put the kettle on.
Something wet hit the deck above, followed again by the gargling noise.
Barra frowned and opened the hatch. Six medium sized fish covered the deck below the tiller. He recognized perch, canal trout, and a fish called a red-fin because it had red fins. They were all quite tasty. He wondered if Amraan had caught them. Where was that dragon?
He climbed to the deck and looked along the bank. Something in the canal caught his attention. He looked down and felt his heart jump. Amraan was floating facedown in the dark water. "Oh! Jeez! Ammi!" He climbed onto the gunwale and prepared to leap in to rescue the little dragon. At that moment Amraan lunged at something. Barra paused in confusion. Seconds later Amraan looked up at the dwarf. In his mouth was the largest canal trout the dwarf had ever seen.
Amraan removed the fish. "Hello!" he called happily, replaced the fish and paddled over to the towpath.
"What are you doing?" wondered Barra. He jumped ashore and helped Amraan up.
"Fishing," said Amraan. He held the fish up for Barra to see. "Uncle Mav showed me how. I'm hungry! Let's have breakfast."
Barra fried the perch and the smaller trout for himself, leaving Amraan to noisily devour the red-fin and the large trout. While they ate Amraan explained the process of gargling water and poisoning it by bubbling his smoke through it, then using that to stun the fish.
"Doesn't your smoke burn?" wondered Barra.
Amraan hung his head dejectedly. "I'm too young," he muttered.
Barra shrugged. "Maybe. Let's go out and see." Once on deck he rubbed the underside of Amraan's neck. He could feel the two larger glands that felt like baggy sacks under the skin. Usually they held the fire smoke, but Amraan's fishing had emptied them. The third gland was tiny hard ball between the others. "I think you'll be blowing fire real soon. You only need to practice."
Amraan started purring, then he coughed and pulled away from the rubbing fingers. "I wasn't purring."
Barra smiled. "Of course not. Let's get on our way."
The day moved on to mid morning, but the canal under the cliff was still in shadow. Sam pulled them steadily onward without a break.
Barra pointed at a rope tied to the roof of the barge. "Grab that."
Amraan held the rope and looked at the dwarf, waiting for more instructions.
Amraan blinked at him. "What?"
"Flap," repeated Barra. "You know, with your wings. Like this." He waved his arms up and down.
"We aren't doing much, and this will exercise your muscles," explained Barra. Amraan shrugged and flapped. "Harder!" shouted the dwarf.
Amraan flapped harder. After ten minutes he stopped and collapsed onto his belly. "I don't think I can do any more," he gasped.
"Have a rest," said Barra. "I'll need you soon."
Amraan paced the length of the barge, stretching his wings. They felt like lead and the muscles hurt. The canal turned sharply to the right around a heel of stone. They came from the shadows into brilliant sunshine. Amraan shaded his eyes from the glare and looked ahead. They were entering a narrow valley that cut right across their path. His gaze followed the line of the canal, and he gasped.
Less than a half mile ahead was a bridge across the cleft. It was not very wide, and crossed the valley on a dozen narrow stone arches. The spindly legs were anchored on the valley floor many hundreds of feet below. He looked again at the upper edge and saw a fence along the top. He turned and stared at Barra. "Are we crossing that?" he whispered.
The dwarf smiled. "That bridge cuts out a ten mile length of canal," he said. "We'll be crossing it soon, and I need you here." He called to Sam and steered the barge into the bank. The horse stopped. "You've watched me at the tiller?" Amraan nodded. "Good. I want you to steer so the barge stays in the centre of the stream."
Amraan gaped at the dwarf. "Me?"
"You." Barra jumped to the towpath and motioned to the young dragon to take the tiller. "Usually I have to do this on my own, but your help will make it easier."
"How do you do it on your own?"
"With great difficulty. Now, steer steady and don't bash against the sides."
"It would be bad."
Amraan nodded and grasped the tiller. Barra caught the horses' bridle and led him forward slowly. They rounded the last turn, Amraan struggling to keep them in the centre of the stream, and floated onto the aqueduct. The towpath became narrow. The only thing between Barra and Sam and the drop was an iron fence. Amraan looked to the left and was shocked to see how fragile the channel seemed. Between the barge and the fall was only two inches of cast iron trough. The water lapped a mere six inches below the top. Amraan got the feeling that they were floating across the gap. The sounds of a rushing river far below echoed up to them.
"Don't let it hit the sides," warned Barra.
Amraan nodded and concentrated. Ten minutes later they were entering the pool at the end of the aqueduct. Barra halted Sam and helped Amraan ground the barge. The young dragon was exhausted from the effort, and combined with the vigorous flapping from earlier had worn him out. He stumbled down to his bunk and fell asleep.
Amraan woke late the next morning, his stomach rumbling. He jumped to the floor and gasped in pain. His arms, chest and back ached, and his wings felt leaden. It took him a great effort to stagger to the hatch and climb the stairs.
"Good morning!" said Barra happily.
"How do you feel?"
Amraan groaned. "You didn't attack me with hammers last night, did you?"
Barra laughed. "You're stiff from all that work yesterday," he explained. "There's nothing wrong with you." He pointed to the roof. "Well, up you get!"
"Get up. You have to exercise your wings."
"I can't!" wailed Amraan. "I ache!"
Barra sighed and shook his head. "Bloody dragons. You expect everything to happen for you."
Amraan bristled like a cat. "What do you mean?"
"How long before you look like you might fly?"
"Two years. But I can already glide!"
"You really want to fly, right?" Barra waited for Amraan to nod before continuing. "Yet you are happy to wait for two years before you can."
"I don't want to wait!"
"So..." Barra gestured to the roof. "Exercise! Build up your muscles, and fly sooner."
Amraan groaned as he climbed to the roof. He groaned louder as he tried to flap his wings. After a few minutes the stiffness started to wear off and he felt better.
The next seven days passed without incident. They fell into a routine of taking turns to steer, fish and prepare meals, all to the rhythmic plodding of Sam the horse. Toward the end of the week Amraan was delighted to find that he no longer became sore after vigorous flapping exercises.
On the eighth day they came to ten locks. These rose above the barge, one wooden gate after another. Barra demonstrated how the devices worked, and by the end of the day they had lifted the barge almost one hundred feet to a higher section of canal. Now they floated through a grassy upland having left the steep slopes behind. Amraan asked hopefully if this was the way into the higher mountains, but Barra explained there was no way beyond this tableland. High cliffs surrounded it
The horse snorted and strained at the rope briefly. "You can smell your home, can't you Sam-lad," said Barra.
"We're at your home?" wondered Amraan.
"No, we're at his." Barra indicated the horse. "We have the tunnels to run through, then we'll pick up another horse."
Two miles further on Amraan did see. As they rounded a hill he saw a massive cataract tumbling from a high valley. It fell into a wide basin that contained the water and redirected it into a black opening in the side of the mountain. To the left, and slightly lower, a strong flow of water issued from a similar opening before being allowed to continue its flow down the side of the mountain. Hard against the wall was a small wooden hut and a stable.
"The Tunnels," said Barra, pointing. "They were old mines but we turned them into part of the canal. That water flow will take us to the other end in an hour. That's twenty miles." They came to a stop before the ten foot high gate of a lock. Barra took a deep breath and called "Hola Mund!" The door to the hut was opened by an old dwarf. They talked in their own tongue, which made Amraan feel left out. The old dwarf shot the dragon a look of suspicion as he unhitched Sam before leading him away to the stables. Barra followed, and from the tone of voice they sounded like they were arguing. His friend disappeared inside the hut and emerged seconds later rolling two large wooded wheels. Mund followed with another pair. The two dwarves fitted the wheels to vertical axles, two in the bow and two astern.
Amraan looked at the strange arrangement. "It'll never roll!" he exclaimed.
Barra smiled at him. "The barge doesn't have to."
Amraan sighed. "I'll see?"
Barra laughed aloud. "Exactly."
Mund opened the lock, then threw a rope and pulley to Barra who tied it to the bow tow-point. The two dwarves and the dragon pulled on the rope and eased the barge into the narrow lock. Mund unhooked the pulley then climbed the ladder to the top. He shut the gate behind them and vanished from their view. Seconds later the water around the barge surged and boiled as the lock filled. They were rapidly lifted to the upper level.
"Get below," said Barra as they neared the top. "You'll stay dry." He draped a large oil-skinned cloak over his head and shoulders.
Amraan sat on the stairs and watched the lock fill. Suddenly the gate burst open; the rush of water carried them into the path of the cataract. The dragon ducked down as a blast of wind and water spray washed over the deck. The barge bucked in the turbulent stream then settled down as they left the waterfall behind. Barra motioned for Amraan to come up.
They were in a narrow stone channel barely wide enough to fit the barge, and travelling silently as fast as a horse could canter. The barge shuddered slightly as the bumped against the canal sides, the four wheels keeping it away from the walls. Amraan looked ahead and saw the tunnel mouth barely fifty yards away.
"Well!" said Barra. "There's not much more we can do. The wheels will guide us. We might as well pop down and cook something."
At that moment they plunged into the tunnel. Amraan watch in dismay as the arch of blue sky shrank rapidly behind them. He followed Barra down into the friendly lamp light of the galley.
Barra chatted cheerfully while he cooked a meal. Amraan only half listened. He couldn't get over the feeling that the weight of the mountains had settled on his shoulders. The den of his home was in the side of a mountain, but the lair was wide and airy and not very deep. Floating through the heart of the mountains was beyond his experience. Barra placed a plate of raw fish before him, but he poked at it listlessly. The barge bumped and ground around a bend. Amraan looked up nervously and watched the lamp swing.
"Worried, lad?" asked Barra.
"A bit. I've never been this deep in a mountain before."
"It's only an hour, then we'll be in bright afternoon sun." He collected two lamps and lit them, told Amraan to remain below then returned to the upper deck. He hung one lamp on the tiller before climbing onto the roof. Amraan could hear his boots on the wooden deck as he walked above. A minute later he returned and jumped to the deck.
Amraan joined him but the dwarf motioned for the dragon to stay below. Amraan sat on the steps.
"It's safer for you there," explained Barra. "I don't want you being tossed overboard when we hit the guide rails." At that moment they hit a wall particularly hard. Amraan stumbled against the stairwell.
He spent the remainder of the journey through the dark coiled miserably on his bunk. He fully expected something in the black water to tear the bottom from the barge. His thoughts turned to his parents. Were they looking for him?
" cave?" wondered Paveway.
Mach nodded. "I also get an impression of speed and a wooden cabin." He sighed in frustration. "I wish I knew what it means. Are you sure you can't...?"
Paveway hugged her mate. "Finding was never one of my Talents," she said softly. "When those pirates took you, I needed the help of Mav and the Nomads to find you. Remember?"
Mach nodded again, closed his eyes and concentrated. Paveway desperately wished she could lend some of her magic to Mach. Mavrik probably could, there seemed to be no end the his Talents, but he was a long way away dealing with matters of the Dragon Council. She put a hand on her mate. "Mach? Stop. You're exhausted. We should eat and rest and try again tomorrow."
Mach opened his eyes. "You're right, again." He smiled at her. "He's still healthy but something is worrying him."
"Ammi is a long way from home."
ey! Get up here!" called Barra.
Amraan jumped from the bunk and went as far as the stairs. He looked up at the dwarf and saw a strange light shining on his friend. "Is it safe?" Barra nodded and motioned for the dragon to join him, then pointed forward. Amraan jumped up to the little deck and turned to see what was ahead. Far away was a bright spot in the darkness. "What is it?" he whispered.
Barra said nothing. The spot slowly grew larger while he watched. After five minutes he knew what it was. "Daylight!" he shouted.
Barra laughed. "We're through the mountain."
As he spoke they shot into light of the setting sun, blinding after an hour of near total darkness. The narrow channel carried them onward faster than a dragon could run. To their left Amraan saw a second channel running beside theirs; its water flowed rapidly the other way, back into the mountain.
"Just ahead is the basin," said Barra. "We'll tie up there for the night, and pick up a tow-horse tomorrow." As he spoke they were washed into a wide circular bay. The dwarf steered them to the shore where they ground to a halt. He tied the barge to an iron ring set in the stone then jumped ashore. Amraan could see the buildings here were almost identical to the buildings on the other side of the mountain. There were stables, a storeroom and a small stone hut.
The door of the hut banged open and a dwarf ran toward them, pointing at Amraan and shouting in Dwarvish. Barra frowned and replied, then a heated argument broke out. It ended when the other dwarf turned and went back to the hut. Barra stared after him until the door slammed shut.
"We're sleeping on the barge tonight," he said sourly. "I had hoped for somewhere more comfortable, but..." He let the unfinished sentence hang.
"It's me, isn't it?" said Amraan miserably.
Barra nodded. "It's not you personally. It's just that you're a- a-"
Barra nodded again. "Even a smaller-than-average dragon is still a dragon. Bloody Dwarves can't tell friend from foe sometimes."
Amraan leapt to the roof of the barge and flared his wings. "Yeah!" he shouted at the closed door. "We're DRAGONS! Remember that!" He hissed and blew a cloud of foul-smelling smoke into the air. With that he jumped to the deck and went inside.
Barra watched the vile cloud drift slowly on the evening air as it floated toward the hut. He smiled as he joined Amraan below. The smell of the smoke will remind that dwarf he had insulted a dragon.
The next one and a half days were difficult and tedious as they negotiated a long series of locks down to the lowlands. As the new tow-horse, Fred, pulled them from the last lock, Barra said "Well! Only half a day to The Forest Lock. We'll get there just on dusk."
"Not another one." mumbled Amraan.
Barra laughed. "No, it's an inn," he explained. "We'll find a bed there. If you're lucky we'll know where Pen is, and can do something about catching him."
Amraan dozed off to the rhythmic plodding of Fred's hoofs. He woke once to see they had entered a dense forest. The only clearing was the canal and towpath. He dozed off again.
Something woke him. The day was done and had turned to dusk. He peered into the darkening forest on either side but could see nothing. Fred threw his head nervously and halted. "Ho Fred! Ho!" called Barra. The horse moved forward a few steps and halted again. Barra jumped from the barge and went to the nervous animal. "What's wrong, boy?" he muttered as he patted the horses neck.
Amraan knew what was upsetting the horse, but he couldn't put a name to the feeling. A faint scent of something set his nerves jangling. This smell had penetrated his dreams and brought him to wakefulness. "Be careful!" he called to his friend. "I think there's something in the trees."
Barra waved to him then took the horses bridal and tried to calm the animal. Fred moved between them and Amraan lost sight of the dwarf. Something snarled. He heard Barra shout in pain. Fred reared and lunged, snapping the towrope in his terror.
"BARRA!" Amraan jumped ashore to help his friend, but stopped in fear. Hunched over the dwarf was an animal he had never seen before. It was the size of a large dog, had short sand-coloured fur, a long thin tail and a head like a possum. It raised its head and snarled a mouth full of razor fangs.
The dragon looked at his motionless friend, then at the beast. A rage never felt before burst from somewhere deep inside. He bared his own teeth and growled. The creature snarled and clamped its mouth on Barra's neck, claiming the prize.
Amraan roared and charged. The beast looked uncertain but held its ground. As he closed the gap he roared again. Flames erupted briefly and scorched the creature's head. It jumped back in surprise. Amraan leapt over the body of his friend and clamped his jaws on the throat of the animal. It raked its claws over his belly, tearing out tufts of fur, but he felt nothing in his anger. He reared up and forced the creature onto its back.
It stopped attacking and struggled to get away. He bit down harder. Suddenly his mouth was full of hot, salty blood. It tasted foul and he gagged, letting go of the animal. It leapt away into the forest.
Amraan thrust his head into the canal and washed the taste from his mouth. He jerked his head from the water. "Barra!" he gasped, spinning on the spot then running to where his friend lay. He looked with dismay at the gashes on the body and the bruises on the face. He shook his friend. "Barra! Wake up! It might come back!" He stopped and thought. "The wizard can help you! I'll get Pen!"
He turned and ran, flapping his wings for extra speed. He realized his legs were slowing him down so he lifted them against his body and flapped harder. A mile ahead he saw the lights of an inn. He flapped harder still, then glided the last hundred yards. Finally he saw the name of the inn, The Forest Lock. His landing was less than graceful, but he didn't care. He ran to the wooden door below the sign and banged a tattoo.
"Help! Help! Help! Help!"
A fat human opened the door. "What do you want, dragon," he growled. Amraan could see the unfriendly faces in the room beyond.
"It's Barra! He's been hurt!"
"Barra?" Everyone jumped to their feet and shouted questions at him, shattering the quiet of the room.
"Y-yes," stammered Amraan, overwhelmed by the noise. He pointed upstream. "H-he's..."
"What have you done to him?" demanded the man.
The man grabbed Amraan's arm dragged him inside. "What have you done to him?" he demanded again.
Amraan looked nervously at the angry faces surrounding him. "He's hurt," he whispered. The men and dwarves shouted at him, then made suggestions about how to punish the dragon. Amraan felt like he was going to cry, but he held back the tears.
"What's going on here?" The voice was quiet but it cut through the shouting. The men and dwarves fell silent and moved aside to let the man through. Amraan saw the faded brown trousers and looked up. He also wore an old green cloak over an old blue shirt.
Amraan blinked. "Pen?"
The wizard crouched down in front of the little dragon. "What are you doing here Ammi?"
"It's Barra! He's hurt! Pen, you have to help him!"
Pen stood and looked at the people surrounding them. "Has anyone been out to find Barra?" Everyone looked away and coughed. "You idiots. Come on, Ammi. Take me there."
Amraan ran outside with Pen close on his heels. He turned left and ran, flapping his wings to go faster. Once again his legs couldn't keep up so he lifted them against his body. Pen shouted something but Amraan didn't slow. He swooped along the towpath to where his friend lay and landed awkwardly. He listened to Barra's chest and was relieved to hear a faint heart beat.
"Pen! He's still..." Amraan stopped in confusion. The wizard and inn patrons were still many hundreds of yards away. He waited impatiently for them to arrive. "He's still alive," he said as Pen staggered to a halt, totally out of breath.
"Ammi!" he gasped. "You- you can-"
"Help him!" demanded Amraan.
Pen nodded and knelt beside the dwarf. "He's concussed, and he's lost a lot of blood," he said after an examination. He pointed to two dwarves. "You and you. Cut down two saplings for a stretcher." The dwarves disappeared into the forest and Pen turned his attention to the stricken Barra.
Amraan looked at the wizard with large eyes full of fear. "Will he be all right?"
"Yes," said Pen without looking up. "There's an awful lot of blood but it's not his." He looked at Amraan and saw the patches of missing fur. "Are you hurt?"
At the moment the two dwarves returned from the forest with a pair of saplings. "Hey!" called one. "There's a dead 'leo back there!"
Pen looked at him. "A thylaceleo?"
"Yeah!" said the other dwarf. He told some of his friends to get the animal.
"That would explain the blood," muttered Pen. He looked at Amraan and frowned. then turned to help make a stretcher from the saplings and some cloaks. At that moment the group in the forest returned. Two men carried the creature's body between them. They threw it to the ground.
"Looks like something tore its throat out," said someone.
Everyone stared at Amraan. He hung his head. "I didn't mean to, but it attacked Barra, and- and-" His voice trailed off. "Sorry," he muttered eventually. He looked up and saw Pen staring at him.
The wizard blinked. "Bloody hell," he whispered.
"Was it wrong?" whispered Amraan anxiously.
Pen reached over and scruffed the little dragon's furry head. "That was amazingly brave."
"Really! Let's get Barra back to The Lock." He motioned to the group. They lifted the injured dwarf on the stretcher and carried him back to the inn.
en sat beside Amraan and placed a cup of white liquid before him. "What's this?" he asked the wizard absently. Pen said something he didn't hear. His attention was fixed on the prone form of his friend lying before the fire. The wizard had cleaned and bandaged the dwarf, and discovered that his only serious injuries were deep cuts and a loss of blood. Amraan brought his attention back. "What?"
"Goat milk," repeated Pen. "I don't think you're old enough for beer." He lifted his own cup and had a drink. Amraan lifted his cup and sniffed the white liquid. "Try it! I think you'll be surprised."
Amraan nodded. "I suppose so. I've already eaten things that grow in the ground." He drank the milk and found it surprisingly nice. Something in Pen's coat wriggled, and a tiny furry head poked from between the folds. It squeaked at Amraan, then climbed onto the wizard's shoulder. The little bat reached across with a wing and caught Amraan's fur. The dragon froze. "Pen?" he said nervously.
"He can smell the milk. I think he's hungry again." The little flying-fox climbed up Amraan's neck, then settled himself down in the long fur at the base of the dragon's head. "I think he likes you."
Amraan carefully pulled the bat from his head and held him in a hand. "Did I kill the 'leo who killed his mum?"
"Never mind," he said to the tiny animal. "I got one of them." He rubbed its chest and it squeaked happily. A shadow fell across the table and he looked up.
A group of dwarves stood before them. Their leader cleared his throat. "I have to tell you that dragons are not welcome in our buildings," he said. Amraan gaped at him and look at Pen. The wizard was smiling. "So we have decided you're a dwarf, and are welcome everywhere we live." He placed a small silver axe on the table before the dragon. Engraved on the head was a name.
"My dad has an axe like this!" Amraan exclaimed. He looked at the words. "'Amraan Leobane,'" he read aloud. "Is that me?"
The dwarves cheered and laughed. Someone at the back of the group said Barra was awake, so Amraan and Pen went to see him.
"How do you feel?" asked Pen
"I hurt a bit," murmured Barra. He looked at his young friend. "Ammi?"
"There's a fruitbat on your head." He saw the axe in Amraan's hand and smiled. "Good," he sighed before drifting back to sleep.
he dragons gathered around Mach. "Right," he said. "I think we should start searching along the cliff. I'm certain he's been travelling along the canal, which is why we can't find him." Mavrik and Paveway nodded, but Mavrik's family looked at each other in puzzlement. Fae had told Prahan, Stargazer and Bindi that Amraan was missing. Now they gathered around Mach. Cyclone wanted to come, but with Fremantle so close to having their clutch they decided he should be with her.
"Why is that?" asked Striker. He had never forgotten how Mach had looked for Mavrik that time he was lost, and now he could repay his friend.
"Water disturbs... things," said Mavrik.
"And it makes it hard to see what's there," added Paveway.
"Now," continued Mach. "I'll head South to the source of the canal. The dwarves there will talk to me. The rest of you should follow it North. He has been gone for two weeks so he can't be further than the Ten Locks."
"Two weeks?" wondered Fae. "Why didn't you come to us sooner?"
"We knew he wasn't in danger," began Mach. He paused and hissed, "A human comes!"
The group turned to face the forest. "Hello!" called Pen. The eight dragons spun to face him, then relaxed when they saw who it was.
"Jeez, Pen!" sighed Striker. "We could have incinerated you, sneaking up like that!"
"That's not likely," said the wizard. "I've faced-" He looked at Mavrik and paused, searching for the right words. "...angry dragons before."
Mach and Paveway ran to him. "Is Amraan with you?" asked Paveway anxiously. Pen did not answer. He simply smiled and pointed to the sky. Everyone looked up.
Circling above them was a tiny dragon. He spiralled down and landed clumsily, then pointed his head to the sky and flamed. The fire was orange and full of black smoke, but it was fire nonetheless. They stared at him, dumbfounded. Finally Paveway and Mach ran to him and scooped him from the ground.
The other dragons gathered around, asking questions all at once and laughing. Pen stood outside the ring and chuckled to himself. He reached under his cloak and scratched the little fruitbat sleeping there, then pulled something silver from a pocket. As he examined it, turning it to flash in the sun, Mavrik wandered over.
"He's had a real adventure," he said.
"What's that?" He pointed at the axe.
"It's his. I'm carrying it because he doesn't have a carry-bag."
Mavrik frowned. "That's a dwarf axe!" He looked at the name engraved in dwarvish runes and in elvish. His eyes grew wide.
Pen chuckled again. "It's true!" They went back to the group. "Ammi!" the wizard called. "I have your axe!"
Amraan scuttled over and took his precious trophy. He held it aloft for all to see. "I'm a dwarf!"
aveway sat in the early morning sun with her eyes closed. Her breath was rhythmic, and those who did not know her would think she was asleep. She felt the pulse of the lines of magic flowing through the area. To her senses the surrounding area felt like slowly undulating plain except for the turbulent gash that marked the course of the stream. Not far behind her was a tight knot that marked Mach. She smiled to herself. He was gradually regaining his magic talents but it would be many years before he had half of his old powers back. What worried her the most was his growing depression.
She felt a tiny knot break away from Mach and move toward her. "Good morning Ammi."
"Mum! You're no fun."
She turned toward him and opened her eyes. He looked very innocent. "Where are you going?" she asked suspiciously.
"I thought I would practice flying."
"Yes Mum." He turned to go.
"And stay away from the cliff!"
"Yes Mum!" Amraan ran and flapped hard. He lifted awkwardly into the air and cleared the tops of the surrounding trees by inches.
Paveway realized she was holding her breath and let it out with a sigh. She knew he was still too young to fly. By rights he shouldn't be in the air for another two years, but she knew he didn't like being the smallest young dragon in the area. Flight and flaming, however small, were things he could use to impress his scaled friends.
Mach sat beside her, and together they watched the receding back of their son. They stood as one and walked back to the den.
"Pave?" said Mach.
"Have you seen Ammi's dwarf axe?"
"Yes," said Paveway. "It's on the shelf beside yours."
"It was, but now it's gone."
"Who would have taken it?"
Mach stopped suddenly. "Oh boy!" He turned in time to see the tiny black dot in the sky drop below the trees.
"I'll get your axe," sighed Paveway. "You'll need it when you meet with the dwarves."