Part 1. Question
o lower," said Mavrik.
Amraan crouched until his belly touched Mavrik's spine. Mach laughed at his son. "I think Uncle Mav means he wants you to go towards his tail."
"Oh." Amraan walked along Mavrik's back, pushing hard into the scales as he went.
"Oh, yes!" sighed Mavrik. "There! Just stamp around between my wings. Right there." His back felt healed, but sometimes a little too much exertion made it cramp. Lying in the early spring sun and letting little Amraan walk over the sore spot helped. Mavrik groaned happily then noticed Mach absently rub his right hand. "What's wrong with your arm?"
"It feels a little cold," said Mach. "It's nothing." Mavrik indicated he wanted a look but Mach held back. "It's nothing!" he insisted.
"I still want to look," said Mavrik. Mach sighed and held out his hand. It felt very cold to the touch. Mavrik turned it over and examined it closely. He ran his thumb over the naked, black skin, feeling for anything that might be wrong. "This is the hand you touched the sorcerer's gem with." He felt between the knuckles of the first and second fingers, then jerked his hand back.
Mach nodded. "Yes. Why?"
"I think there might be a splinter in there."
"After all this time?"
Mavrik nodded. "It's possible. Let's get inside." He jumped to his feet. There was a shout of surprise from between his wings.
"Hey!" Amraan struggled to keep his footing as he walked back to the shoulders.
"Sorry Kid," said Mavrik. He offered to help the little dragon to the ground but Amraan climbed down without assistance.
"I'm not a baby," muttered Amraan. Now five years old and over four feet long, he had passed the "baby" stage and wished everyone would remember that. He was big for a furred dragon, but the scaled dragons of the same age were twice his size. That galled him a little, but he could already blow smoke whereas they could not. He followed the two adults to Mavrik's lair. As they reached the cliff wall two dragons landed behind them: a grey male and a silver female. Amraan spun and bounced over to them. "Uncle Cyclone! Aunty Fremantle!"
They laughed and hugged the young one then walked to where Mavrik and Mach sat. "Hello Mach. Little brother," said Cyclone.
Mavrik smiled at the greeting. Cyclone was only three hours older, but Mavrik was noticeably bigger and more powerful. "Hello big brother. What brings you over to my humble hole?"
"We we talking-" Cyclon pause for a moment. "Freo and I are... um. We're... uh." He stopped in confusion.
"We need somewhere private away from our families," she said. "Cy thought you might know of a place."
Amraan tugged at the fur of Mach's front legs to get his attention. "Dad? Why do they want somewhere private?"
Mach looked at the young one between his legs. "You'll have to ask your mother."
A shadow passed over them and Paveway landed lightly. She greeted everyone, then held out a freshly killed calf for Amraan. He pounced on it and fed noisily.
Mach glared at Mavrik and hissed "Stop laughing."
"Sorry." Mavrik gathered his thoughts and turned to his brother and new sister. "I do know a of place. But first, can I borrow that goblet and little dagger made of elvish silver?"
Cyclone narrowed his eyes. "Mav, if anyone else asked that question I would demand to know how they knew so much about our personal hoard."
Fremantle laid a hand on her mate's shoulder. "It's all right, Cy," she said. "We healers know exactly what we need and where to find it. Mav's healing goes beyond finding herbs." She looked at her new brother. "It goes far beyond anything dragons have ever had," she added quietly. "This is a healing matter then?"
Mavrik nodded. "I think I know why Mach has taken so long to recover from the touch of that filthy gem and why he has little magic."
"I am not surprised at the time taken," said Paveway as she joined them. "Anyone else would be dead." She nuzzled her mate. "What are you thinking, Mav?"
"There may be a splinter still there. You know how to destroy them. I need those things to cut it out, Cy," he added.
Fremantle ran her hand down the side of Cyclone's face. "Could you get the dirk and goblet, dear?" she said. "We can trust Mav to return them. And get my bag of healing herbs." Cyclone nodded and launched.
Mach and Mavrik looked at each other. "The thumb," said Mach.
"He is definitely under it," agreed Mavrik.
Paveway sat back on her haunches and hit both males on the muzzle. They winced and looked at the ground. Fremantle laughed.
"Sorry, my love," said Mach.
"I think we should go inside," muttered Mavrik. The three adults entered his lair but Amraan sat outside, staring in the direction of Cyclone's departure. "Amraan?"
The young dragon roused himself and trotted over. "Uncle Cyclone is grey."
"Yes," said Mavrik. "All my family are grey or grey-green."
"You're almost black." Amraan sat at Mavrik's feet and looked up at him. "And you have grey stripes on your back. Why?"
"I'll tell you later. Look! Here comes Cyclone!"
They gathered around the table inside the lair. Paveway told Fremantle the story of Mach's rescue while Mavrik examined the hand. He handed the silver goblet to Amraan.
"Fill this at the spring for me, and don't spill any as you come back." After the young dragon had left he asked Cyclone to stand at the entrance. "When I give the word I want you to block out as much light as you can." Cyclone nodded. Finally Mavrik took the little dagger and looked at Mach. "Ready?"
Mach nodded and closed his eyes. Mavrik made a tiny incision between the two knuckles and spread the edges of the apart. There was no blood. "Okay, Cy." Cyclone reared and spread his wings across the entrance. The cave became very dark. "There it is! Look!" In the darkness they could see a tiny speck glowing with a faint green light. Mavrik used the point of the knife to tease it out. As he lifted the splinter from the wound blood began to flow. "Elvish silver is the only thing that will not carry its taint," he muttered.
Mach gasped, then sighed. "My arm feels warm again." Paveway and Fremantle fussed over him with healing herbs and bandages.
Cyclone let the light in and joined them. "Is it safe?" He glared at the tip of the dirk but could see nothing.
"No," said Mavrik. "Paveway can make it safe. What we need is Amraan's cup of water."
Amraan entered the cave at that moment. He was walking very slowly on his hind legs and taking great care to not spill any water. Mavrik thanked him and took the goblet. He placed it on the table and dropped the dagger point first into the water. Paveway grasped the goblet, and from within the water came a tiny white flash.
"Done!" she exclaimed.
"Why are you a different colour?"
"Amraan!" gasped Mach.
"It's all right," said Mavrik. You'll find out eventually anyway." He looked Cyclone in the eyes and said, "I'm adopted."
"What?" exclaimed Paveway incredulously. Mach and Fremantle gaped at him.
Cyclone closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I suspected, but I wasn't certain."
"What happened to your mum and dad?" asked Amraan. He struggled as Mach clamped a hand around his muzzle.
"They were killed."
Fremantle gave her new brother a hug. "Oh Mav! I'm so sorry!"
Cyclone jumped to his feet. "Who did it? We'll avenge-"
"NO!" shouted Mavrik. "No. There will be no avenging. My father was Myall," he sighed. A deathly silence fell on the group. Fremantle moved away from him. He looked at the stunned faces. "My father was Black Myall." He saw tears in Paveway's eyes. "The stories of what happened all came second hand from humans, apart from what Mum, Dad and Watcher told me," he said quietly. "I am going to find the truth. In fact, I was planning on leaving today, which is why I called you and Mach over." He turned to Cyclone and Fremantle. "And I'm glad you are here too. You can look after my lair while I'm away."
Fremantle hugged him again and Cyclone gave him a lop-sided smile. "Good luck, little brother." He clasped Mavrik's arm. "Bring us the truth when you have it."
"I'll be gone some time," said Mavrik. "Move what you need here, and call my den your own." He gave Paveway a wordless hug Mach clasped his arm. "I'll see you later."
"Look after yourself."
"I always do. And you look after that hand." Mavrik left the cave, paused to scruff Amraan's head, then launched into the clear blue sky.
The days became warmer as Spring moved on to High Summer. The Wizards announced this Spring would end with Dark Days, when the sun moved behind the moon for three days. The people readied themselves for celebrations.
At Dragon Head Castle the preparations were interrupted as a shadow passed across the market square. They looked up and saw a large black dragon coming to land in the parade ground before the keep.
A cry went up. "Black Myall has returned!" they shouted. Guards poured from the building, armed and armoured. If any had bothered to watch the dragon they would have seen a look of amusement cross his face, only to be replaced by one of alarm as a ballista aimed at him.
Mavrik raised his right hand and gestured at the weapon. The gun crew cried with alarm and backed away as the quarrel crumbled into dust, leaving behind the iron tip and fletches. The knights surrounded him in a ring of steel. Spears and swords pointed at his chest.
He looked at the nervous faces and realized he was in very real danger. He saw a face he recognised and advanced on the frightened man. A forest of points thrust at him so he halted.
"I know you," said Mavrik, pointing. The knights glanced at their comrade. The man sweated. "Seven years ago near Rainbow Fen," he went on. "You shot me in the wing." He spread his right wing so all could see the scar.
The action alarmed the men but the knight in question laughed with relief. "This dragon is named Mavrik, not Myall," he told his companions. The tension broke like a wave and the knights lowered their weapons but did not sheathe them. "Although when we last met he was a dark grey, not black and scaled."
"I was almost ready to shed my juvenile skin," explained Mavrik. "I would like to talk with your king."
The knight motioned for Mavrik to follow and led him to the keep, where he told the dragon to wait. He disappeared inside the fortress. The wait seemed long and every time Mavrik fidgeted the surrounding knights raised their weapons. Eventually the knight returned. Another man was with him.
Mavrik guessed the new arrival was the King. He wore no crown, but the others deferred to him. "Sir dragon," said the King with a bow.
"Your Majesty," answered Mavrik. "And it's just Mavrik if you don't mind, your worshipfulnessness," he added.
"My name is Derrek," said the King. He motioned to the door and a slender young woman came to his side. She was dark-haired like the King, but fear showed in her eyes. "My daughter, Arianne," he said. Mavrik bowed to her. "May I ask what brings you to my humble keep?" asked the King. "We have no gold for your hoard."
"Sir Derrek, all I ask is a little of your time," said Mavrik.
"Time is gone for ever once it is passed," answered the King.
He sounds just like Watcher, thought Mavrik. "I have a tale to tell," he said. "It involves both our houses. I think it is important to know this story."
The King spoke to a servant who nodded and ran inside. He returned quickly with two chairs. "Well then," said the King as he sat. "We had better listen."
Mavrik closed his eyes to gather his thoughts. "About thirty seven years ago a dragon and her mate had their first clutch..."
Part 2. Destruction
yall wrapped his body around Aurani and cradled her head in his arms. His right wing almost completely covered her coiled body, and provided additional warmth for the four precious eggs that sat together in a hollow in the sandy floor of the cave. He lifted the edge of his wing a little so he could look at them again, and wondered about the tiny lives inside. He remembered something her mother told them. "One will look like the father, two will look like the mother, and the rest will look like either or a bit of both, or even the grand parents. Or a combination of them all."
He lay back again. That's one black and two golden, he thought. And one will be anyone's guess. Aurani stirred slightly in her sleep. It had been a difficult clutching and she slept the sleep of exhaustion. Myall's stomach rumbled and Aurani opened her eyes.
"Hello," he said softly.
She didn't answer but rubbed the top of her head against his chin. "You must be starving," she muttered.
He disentangled himself. "I'll catch some game for us." He watched her coil tightly around the eggs and drift off to sleep, and then he left the lair.
The warm summer sun shone in a cloudless blue sky. Myall sat on the flight ledge, a small glade he had cleared from before the cave mouth, and warmed himself. Trees surrounded him on all sides, even on the hillside above the cave, so they would be well protected when the cold winds of autumn come. His friend Striker told him about this cave some months ago. Striker and Fae had a similar lair not far away on the other side of the little valley.
Almost on cue Striker landed fifty yards away. He stood as far from the cave as possible, not wanting to intrude. Myall went over to him. "Four eggs!" said Striker excitedly. "I'm a Dad again!"
"We have four too," said Myall with a smile.
Striker frowned. "That's a large first clutch. How is Aura?"
"Very tired. I was about to hunt down some food for us."
"I saw a large mob of kangaroos on the flats to the West," said Striker. "You could try there if you want an easy kill"
Myall thanked him, waited until his friend had gone then went in search of the mob. He crisscrossed the area but could not find the animals. All the signs of their presence were there but no sight of them anywhere. After an hour of searching he became worried about being away from Aurani for so long. At the end of the second frustrating hour he spied a small bullock. Worry had driven all caution from his mind as he pounced. He broke its neck in one clean hit, then butchered it on the spot. In fifteen minutes he carried a clean carcass to his mate.
That evening, in the tavern of a near-by town, a farmer complained loudly to his five friends.
"They think they own the place! I mean, there's the guts of my best cow and a bunch of dragon tracks. On my own farm! What a bloody liberty."
"Now Frank," said one of his companions. "It was only a bullock. Your best cow is on my place."
"That's not the point, Jimbo." Frank waved his mug at the other man. "The point is, it could have been my best cow! I was lucky it wasn't."
A traveller sitting in a dark corner stood and walked over to the group. His long cloak parted slightly to reveal the gleam of mail. "Dragon problems?" he asked.
The group turned to look at him. "Yeah, a bit," said Frank. "Can you fix it?" They all laughed.
"Yes, I can," said the traveller. The group fell silent. "For a price."
The farmers held a whispered discussion. Eventually they nodded. "How much?" said one of the others.
"Twenty silver crowns." He noticed their hesitation and added "Of course, if you don't value your stock-"
"All right," said Frank quickly. "But you have to bring us the head of the animal." The other farmers nodded in approval of Frank's condition.
"Done," said the Knight. "If you show me where the animal's lair is, I'll start out tomorrow."
The day of Hatching was still a month away but Myall felt his excitement growing. Aurani was weak from carrying the eggs for eleven months but she had improved. Myall kept touching the little spheres and could not help marvelling at the tiny sparks of life he felt inside.
He sighed loudly. "I suppose I'd better go."
Aurani smiled. "You won't find game outside the cave mouth just waiting to be caught."
Myall sighed again. "You're right." He gave her a quick hug. "I won't be long. Try to get some sleep." He watched her relax and close her eyes, and waited until her breathing was deep and regular before leaving for the hunt.
He chased a mob of kangaroos hither and thither until he caught one and devoured it. He hunted them up again, enjoying the chase as though he were a young dragon again. Finally he caught and killed another. As he lifted the carcass he saw the sun near the horizon. A chill ran up his spine when he realized he'd been out for many hours. He launched and flew rapidly for the lair.
He landed in the glade and ran for the cave. "Sorry I took so long," he panted. "I didn't notice the time." Myall frowned when Aurani didn't stir. Something felt very wrong. The silence grew until he could hear the pounding of his heart in his ears. "Aura?" He walked forward and put his hand in something wet. Myall looked at his hand in confusion and sniffed. Blood? A cold feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. "Aurani!" He ran to her side. She was cold. "No!" he shook his head, not wanting to believe what his heart was crying out. He went to cradle her head.
Fae jumped to her feet in fright as Myall's howl rang across the valley. It was a cry of such anguish it tore at her heart. She whimpered with confusion, knowing she would have to see him but not wanting to leave her eggs. Finally she covered them with a large cooking pot and flew for Aurani's cave. Just inside the entrance she found Myall hugging an egg and crying. "Myall?"
He looked up her and shook his head mutely. She went to Aurani's side and stared in horror. Her friend's head was missing. The sandy floor was awash in blood. Fae felt lightheaded as her breath came in quick gasps. She reached out for the eggs but they were all dead. She backed away from the corpse until she was against the wall with Myall.
"What happened?" she whispered.
Myall shook his head again. "I left her! I- I left her!" He looked at the little egg, then thrust it at Fae. "Take him! I will not have my son grow up an orphan."
"Orphan?" wondered Fae in confusion. She took the last living egg. "But you're not-"
"Get out!" roared Myall. He breathed fire at her until she fled.
Once more in her own lair, Fae placed Aurani's last egg with her own and coiled around them. Her tears blinded her as she wept.
"Fae?" Striker had returned. He looked worried.
Fae lifted her head and tried to tell him what happened, but her voice would not come. He came to her side wondering if something had happened the their eggs. He was greatly relieved to see they were safe. But-
"Five?" he gasped. "Where-?"
Fae sniffed as the tears rolled down her face. "Aurani-"
Striker spun and left the den in a rush before Fae could say any more. He flew across the valley in a panic and in his haste almost crashed into the far hillside. He ran to Myall's cave but was astonished to see a pile of rubble completely blocking the entrance. "Myall! Aurani! Can you hear me? I'll dig from this side!" He scrambled to the top of the pile and grabbed the first boulder. Then he stopped and stared. Scored into the bedrock were the unmistakable grooves made by a dragon's claws. He reached out gingerly and touched them. A dragon his size had done this: a dragon like Myall.
Striker leapt to the ground and gaped at the rubble in horror. This was no cave-in; the lair had been sealed! He sniffed the ground at the base of the rock fall. Mingled with the scents of Fae, Myall and blood was another smell, much fainter. A human had been here. The trail lead toward the nearest village.
He flew back to Fae. She looked at him for answers but he had none to give. They spent that night in silent misery, coiled around the precious eggs.
Myall fell on the village like a thunderbolt. In seconds he had the surrounding buildings blazing. People ran screaming from the square as Myall sent blasts of flame after them. These were no warning blasts; they were aimed to kill. He stalked the streets, burning and killing. Eventually he found himself in the market square, facing a poorly armed group of men. He leapt at the nearest and pinned him to the ground. The others broke and fled.
"Where is my mate's head?" he growled.
"The knight!" gasped the man. "The knight had a dragon's head!"
"The one from the north!"
Myall launched immediately and flew North. He razed the next village and killed many people before moving to the next town. Once more he burned and killed, looking for the knight. The armed resistance was better organized, but Myall killed the guards with a single blast. He looked around the deserted square. The buildings around him crashed to the ground in showers of sparks. The smell of smoke mingled with the reek of charred flesh. The feeling that he was being watched came upon him, and he spun. A man stood there, silent. Myall roared and sent a blast of fire at him. The human raised his staff. The flames struck an invisible wall, causing Myall to step back in confusion.
"Get out of my way, wizard."
"What do you want?" asked the man quietly.
"I want the murderer who killed my mate," growled Myall.
The wizard nodded. "A knight with the head of a dragon is heading North for Townby-Whelming," he said. Myall launched instantly and was gone. The wizard stared after the dragon, motionless until a guard disturbed his thoughts. "Sergeant," he said with a sigh, "I just sent that dragon to his death."
"There's enough death here, Pen," said the sergeant.
"I know," said Pen. He roused himself suddenly. "Right! Let's see to the injured."
The watch at Whelming Keep saw the columns of black smoke rise, each new column a little closer to their town. They speculated over the cause and made ready for trouble. As the most recent cloud became visible, a cry of alarm went out.
The knights and officers gathered at the gate and waited impatiently for the horseman. They did not have long to wait for he rode as if a pack of wolves was on his trail. He galloped through the gates and fell from the horse, exhausted. "Dragon!" he gasped. "A dragon is attacking the villages!" The people gathered around murmured in surprise. "He has killed many people, and is headed this way!"
"Men to arms!" called the Captain. "Sound the Warning Horn!" The great call rang across the town. The people stopped in amazement then ran to their houses. The Captain sent riders into the town to tell the people they were not to go to the Keep. Within an hour most of the town had been evacuated. The people gathered in the woods and small forests nearby, and waited.
Myall hit the town like a fiery hurricane. The thatched roofs burst into flames as he passed, but a hail of arrows met his flight over the keep. He turned and landed beyond bowshot in the market square before the main barbican. Silence fell as the men on the walls waited for his attack. Myall glared at them for some time, then leapt straight up and flew high.
"Get ready, Lads," said the Captain of the Guards. "We'll be his next target."
Myall paused in his flight, turned and fell, aiming straight for the castle. He ignored the arrows this time and landed in the parade ground. The Knights attacked but they were no match for the enraged dragon. He flamed and rent until none stood before him. Even the tops of the walls were no protection from his anger. Finally he stood alone in the yard, panting. His flame had gone out from over use but he still had his claws.
A movement on the wall caught his eye. A young squire was struggling to aim a ballista. He was alone. The rest of his company lay dead around him. Myall rose high on his hind legs. The squire pulled the trigger. A loud crack echoed around the silent yard as the ballista fired.
Myall sat suddenly and looked at his chest. A puzzled frown crossed his face as he fingered the feathered shaft protruding from his chest. A spasm wracked his body and he sank to the ground.
The squire scrambled from the wall and ran to the dying dragon. He was crying.
Tears were also in Myall's eyes. "Aurani!" he gasped, and then he died.
triker hissed and flared his wings at the five dragons who stood before his lair. "You will not kill that hatchling!"
"The Council has voted," said the leader, an old dragon named Hero. "It's for the best. You heard what Myall has done. We don't want a repeat of the terrible thing."
"What Myall did has nothing to do with his breeding," protested Striker.
"That is a risk we do not wish to take," said Hero. "Let us through."
"So be it," sighed Hero. "If you will not let us in then we will do it another way." He turned to the smallest member of the group, a light grey furred dragon. "Boral? Do your duty."
Boral's head snapped up. "My what?"
"Use your magic!"
Boral frowned. "No."
Hero towered over Boral. "You will do as you are told," he growled.
Boral looked up at the old dragon. "I will do as I am asked, and only if it is right," he said softly. "Killing a defenceless hatchling is wrong. To do so by magic is evil."
Hero scowled at the two dragons opposing him, then launched and flew off without a word. The remaining three dragons exchanged looks before following.
Boral stayed with the furious Striker, staring at the departing backs. "It is said that some humans are born with the heart of a dragon." He turned to Striker. "Now I know dragons can be born with the heart of a snake."
Striker shook his head. "There is only good and evil, and all races have some of each." He sighed loudly.
"The council did vote to have the hatchling killed," said Boral. "I want you to know that it was not a unanimous decision, nor a popular one." He hesitated as he glanced at the entrance of the lair. "What happened to Aurani?" he asked in a low voice.
"I don't know," whispered Striker. "Fae can't talk about it."
"It must have been serious if Myall couldn't heal her."
Striker frowned at the smaller dragon. "But Aurani was the healer in that family."
"No, Myall-" Boral stopped. He eyes grew wide. "Were Aurani's parents-?"
"Both healers," said Striker. "What's wrong?"
"So were Myall's parents," muttered Boral. He blinked at Striker. "Nothing's wrong. That little hatchling is a third generation healer, that's all."
"What does that mean?"
"I've no idea! It's never happened before." The furred dragon sat silently staring at the lair. "May I see him?" he asked suddenly.
Striker ushered the smaller dragon inside to where his mate lay on a bed of cattle skins. Fae had stretched out to rest on her belly with the hatchlings between her arms. She looked up as they entered the chamber. The young ones heard their father and began crawling toward him. Their tiny mouths gaped and they called for food with piercing cries of "Nyak!" Fae scooped them back to her chest.
"I heard," Fae said. "Boral, you are welcome here any time. I am afraid your time with the Council ended with what you did."
Boral stared at the tiny hatchlings. Two had a grey skin that would one day be grey scales like their fathers'. Two others had a grey-green skin like their mother. The last baby had a light grey skin with dark grey stripes across his back. "Hmm? Ah, yes, I don't think I'll be on the council any more," he said absently. He walked over to her. "Is that him?" Fae handed the hatchling with stripes to him, and he held the tiny creature carefully. "I don't think there is a mean bone in his body," he muttered. The baby growled then bit Boral's thumb.
Striker smiled, but he shook as he suppressed all his instincts to drive this stranger away from his mate and babies. Finally the urge to protect became unbearable, so he took the hatchling from Boral. The little one coiled up in his hand and went to sleep.
Part 3. Reconciliation
avrik stopped talking and closed his eyes. The people had gathered all around to hear the tale, and now they stood silently. Someone touched him on the arm. It was the King's daughter. He smiled at her.
"I'm so sorry for you," she said. "That anyone could kill your mother-" she choked to a stop. The people around them murmured in sympathy.
"I don't remember any of it," said Mavrik. "It was all a long time ago. But your people still think of us as animals."
King Derrek stood. "From this day on they do not!" The people shouted "Yea!" in agreement. "Why do you bring us this tale? I cannot pay compensation for we are a poor fief."
"I don't want compensation," said Mavrik. "I tell this tale so that you may know the truth, and will tell me where I might find the knight who took Aurani's head."
"Ah," said the King. "You want my late uncle, Keith." Derrek rubbed his jaw. "He- uh- He was sort of killed by his brother, my father. The official reason was that King Keith was a Bad King." King Derrek scowled. "Actually, he was a complete bastard and got everything he deserved."
Mavrik nodded. "Good."
he long, hot days of Summer dragged on. Mavrik returned home to find Cyclone making silly noises at Fremantle's belly. Cyclone was acutely embarrassed as he explained that Freo was pregnant. Mavrik gave his lair to them, and went searching for another. He found a sheltered glade in the forest and decided that would do for now. His family gathered in the clearing and heard his story several times. Fremantle brought her family over to hear it, and from that day the relationship between the two groups thawed.
The weeks passed. Mavrik visited Mach and Paveway often while they trained him in the use of Magic. During one particularly long session Amraan went to sleep from boredom. Mavrik sneaked over to the young dragon and let out a deafening roar. Amraan jumped with fright.
"AAAAAAARG-oof!" Mavrik doubled over in pain and gasped for air. It felt like someone had thrown a boulder at his stomach, winding him badly.
Mach started to laugh, then ran to Mavrik's side with concern. "Mav? What happened?" Mavrik gasped and pointed at Amraan. Mach looked at his son, now almost five feet long, and at Mavrik, who was six times Amraan's size. He shook his head.
"Mag-ic" gasped Mavrik. "Bloody hell, that hurt."
Amraan came to Mavrik and hugged his neck. "I'm sorry uncle Mav. I didn't mean to hurt you so much."
Mavrik patted the little furry head. "I think I deserved it."
Paveway trotted over to her prone friend. "I know you deserved it," she said as she massaged his stomach. "You're winded. There's no damage. I was twice Ammi's age before I could do any magic," she added thoughtfully.
Mavrik struggled to his feet. "I'm almost forty, and I'm just starting." He lifted his head and sniffed. "A wizard is coming."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before someone called a loud "Hello!" from the edge of the wood. They turned and recognised Pen Mithdae. Amraan ran to the wizard but stopped before he was halfway there. He turned and ran back, flapping his stubby wings for more speed. He looked frightened.
"There's men with him!" he said in a worried voice as he stood under Paveway's belly.
Mach and Mavrik advanced a few paces and waited, ready for trouble. The four humans left their horses tied at the edge of the wood and walked forward. Mavrik relaxed when he recognised the man with Pen. "That's King Derrek," he muttered to Mach. "And two of his household cavalry."
Mach grunted but made no signs of movement until the men were a few yards away. "What brings you here?" he said angrily.
The King took one step forward. "I am returning something that should never have been taken." He gestured to the gold box carried between the two knights. "It is what gave my keep its name." Paveway and Mach gaped at him. Mavrik walked forward slowly until he stood before the knights. "If your father would show me," the King went on, "I will take this to the resting place of your real mother."
Mavrik placed his hand on the casket, then turned to look at the King. He opened his mouth a few times, but no sound came. He looked at Mach, who simply nodded and launched into the air. Amraan decided the men were safe and ran to Pen, the only human he knew. He stood on his hind legs and rested his hands on the wizard's chest. Pen smiled and scratched the little dragon's neck.
"That place has been sealed for decades," said Paveway. "I don't think we can open it without disturbing anything"
"I brought a pair of dwarvish miners along," said Pen. "Could you carry us all to the place? It would take days on horseback." He gave Amraan a final scratch and asked him to get down.
"You can't get there on horse," said Mavrik. "But my family will carry you. Dad and Mum know the way well, but I-" He hesitated, then said "I haven't been there."
Before long they heard the rush of wind made by a large group of dragons, then Mavrik's family landed in the clearing. He went to meet them. The two knights looked somewhat nervous to be surrounded by eight large dragons, but they did not move even when Bindi and Stargazer came over to study them.
"I told Cy and Freo to stay behind," said Striker. "They have their own worries." He nodded at the King and said, "Mach told me what he brings."
"I hope you don't mind carrying these men and Dwarves," said Mavrik in a low voice. "It's the only way we can get them there."
"Carry on our backs?" asked Prahan. "Like in the old tales?"
"Yes." Mavrik looked at his brother. "That's nine words in a row! You'll start telling those tales one day, and not just listening to them."
"I'll take this one!" said Bindi, pointing at a knight. "He's cute."
The knight blushed and his companion stifled a laugh. Stargazer leaned close to the second man and purred "You can ride me."
The group flew to Striker and Fae's old lair. Mavrik carried the King and the precious casket, Bindi and Stargazer carried the knights and asked them embarrassing personal questions, Mach and Prahan carried the Dwarves, while Pen clung to Striker's back. The only one not uncomfortable was Amraan, who rode between Paveway's wings.
They landed at the old home across the valley from Aurani's grave. Striker had moved his family from this unhappy place as soon as they could stand the journey. Amraan leapt to the ground and stared wide-eyed at the foreign cave. The air of three decades of desertion hung heavy on the old cave. Striker looked in surprise at the tiny clearing. "I thought our landing stage was much bigger," he exclaimed.
"The trees are growing back," said Pen. "They are reclaiming their territory."
As the men demounted, Fae sank to the ground. "I can't go there!" she whispered.
Striker gently placed a hand on her neck. "I know," he murmured into her ear. He straightened and said loudly "Amraan! I need you to stay here and look after Fae. She's scared."
The young dragon looked at Striker in surprise. "All right," he said brightly.
"I'm scared too," said Paveway. "I think I'll stay here." She smiled at Striker and silently mouthed "Thank you."
Striker simply inclined his head. He then told the others to follow and set off into the bush. He remembered a path that once ran through here from lair to lair, but it had vanished long ago. He pushed his way through the bracken; the others followed his beaten path. The trees grew taller and denser and soon the bracken was replaced by tree ferns, each standing twice the height of the men and had fronds spreading twenty feet in all directions. The ground below became damp and covered by a thick leaf mould that silenced their footsteps and muffled their voices. Soon all talk stopped because no one wanted to break the silence.
They walked for half an hour before coming to another wall of bracken. Striker pushed through, and they followed him into a clearing before the rock fall. They all looked around in wonder. The clearing was covered in lush green grass studded with a myriad of wild flowers. The trees did not encroach the glade or crowd the lair as they did at the other old den. The silence was so deep they could hear their hearts beating.
"Aurani liked wild flowers," murmured Striker. He looked away for a moment and blinked his eyes. "Okay, let's get on with it," he added gruffly.
The silence was broken by a metallic clank as the Dwarves dropped their bundles. Pen stirred "How do you want to do this?" he asked Mavrik.
Mavrik turned to the two Dwarves. "Can you build a wall with what we have here?"
They held a whispered conference before answering. "We can build a strong dry-stone wall with this," said the elder dwarf.
"Will it last long?"
"Oh yes!" exclaimed the dwarf. His companion nodded in agreement. "It would last many hundreds of years."
"Will it fill the entrance?" asked Mavrik. The Dwarves nodded again. "Okay. Dad? Help me tear this down."
Mavrik and Striker set to work on the rock fall, digging and heaving away the stones. Prahan and Mach replaced them as they tired. All the while, the Dwarves collected the stones and roughly shaped them with broad strokes of their hammers.
Finally the entrance opened. Mavrik called a stop when a hole big enough for a dragon had been excavated. The group backed away and stared at the black hole in awe. Bindi sniffed loudly and hugged Striker. Stargazer sank to the ground and Prahan tried to comfort her. Mavrik realized he was breathing heavily. "I suppose I should go in now," he muttered. He felt his mouth go dry as soon as the words were spoken. He took the casket and walked forward slowly, but when he came to the opening he found he was unable to enter. His legs would go no further.
Pen stepped up to his side. "Shall I do it, Mav?" he said quietly.
Mavrik nodded. Pen lifted the casket easily and disappeared into the hole. He was inside for a short time before he returned, his face lined with sorrow. He started to say something to Mavrik but choked, so he gestured to the Dwarves instead.
They set to work quickly and with the help of the dragons had sealed the lair in less than two hours. Now a stone wall had replaced the upper third of the rock fall, held in place by its own weight. Mavrik tested it and found it to be very solid. He nodded in satisfaction and climbed down to join the others. They gazed silently at the sealed lair.
"Let's leave this place in peace," said Pen eventually.
Striker nodded and disappeared into the gloom of the forest. The others followed one at a time until only Mavrik was left at the grave. He took in all the sights and smells of the place. The oppressive feeling lifted suddenly and he sighed. "Bye, Mum," he said softly, then turned to follow the others.
The mid-summer sun sat on the horizon as they returned to Mach and Paveway's lair. The colours of the land were muted by the red light, and the shadows it cast were black. Cyclone and Fremantle greeted the group.
"I've taken the liberty of collecting enough food for all of us," said Cyclone. "I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not!" exclaimed Mach as he lifted the sleeping Amraan from Paveway's back. "In fact, I was wondering how we would feed our guests. Many thanks."
"Guests?" wondered Cyclone. He followed Mach's nod. "The Men?"
"Yes, and the Dwarves."
Cyclone gaped at him. "We're having Dwarves for dinner?" he exclaimed. "I mean, they're eating with us?"
Mavrik smiled as he listened to his brother try to placate the Dwarves. The feeling someone was watching him ran up his back. He turned and saw an ancient dragon sitting hidden in the forest margins. Mavrik warily walked over to him then ran when he saw who it was.
"Watcher!" he cried happily.
"Hello kid," said the old one. "I see you've been setting things right."
"Yes! Come in and we'll tell you the story."
Watcher gave Mavrik a curious look. "I already know the story."
"Of course you do," sighed Mavrik. "Come in any way and meet my family. Cy got a lot of food in."
"I know," said Watcher. "I wouldn't mind having a bite. It's been many years since anyone invited me to a feed."
They walked back to the lair in silence. Suddenly Mavrik stopped and looked at Watcher. "Is Pen Mithdae the Watcher of Men?"
"Oh. Just wondering." They resumed their walk. "You see," continued Mavrik, "I met Pen in the future."
"Oh? How far in the future."
"Ten thousand years."
Watcher stopped and looked in surprise at the young dragon. He closed his eyes briefly, then nodded. "Ah! I see now." He resumed walking, forcing Mavrik to trot to catch up with him.
"What do you see?" asked Mavrik.
Watcher smiled but did not answer. "Introduce me to your family," he said as they entered the lair.