he three young dragons stared in silent awe at the glade. Short springy grass covered the ground between the trees. They lifted their eyes higher and gazed at the canopy of silver- grey leaves. Aurani walked slowly to the nearest tree and placed her hand against the smooth white bark.
"They're beautiful" she whispered.
Kehvarl sniffed the air. "I can't smell anyone. I think we're the first ever to see this place!"
Ilyrin nodded absently. "These are blue gums," he said suddenly. "Dad told me about them. He says they're rare." He picked a slender leaf from a young tree and crushed it in his palms. The air filled with a pungent odor and Ilyrin breathed deeply through his nose. "That's what the oils smell like. Dad says they're good if you have a cold and your nose is blocked."
Aurani and Kehvarl gathered around him and smelled the leaf. "I hate blocked noses," said Aurani.
Kehvarl looked into the treetops then brought his gaze lower. He pointed at something. "What's that?" He ran over to the object that had caught his eye. The others followed.
As they drew closer they could see a slender young tree had been bent almost double and fastened to the ground by a rope. Just under the crown was a stick standing upright. A lump of fresh meat had been impaled on the raised end.
Ilyrin and Aurani backed away nervously. "I don't like this," said Ilyrin. Kehvarl stared at the meat hungrily. "Be careful Kev."
Kehvarl stood beside the stick. He smiled suddenly. "Who's hungry?"
"Leave it, Kev," whispered Aurani. "It's dangerous!"
"It's only meat. It isn't poisoned. Look." Kehvarl stood on his hind legs and reached out. As his hand touched the meat they heard the sound of a stick breaking.
The sapling flicked up, dragging the concealed net around Kehvarl. As it flew sky-wards the rope edge caught Ilyrin and Aurani under their chins, throwing them on their backs amidst a shower of leaves. The trap had been set for a heavy animal, so the weight of a three-year old dragon offered no resistance. As the sapling reached the top of its arc, the net swung through the air and hard against a mature tree. Aurani and Ilyrin stared in horror as the wild motion slowed to a lazy bobbing. There was no movement from inside the net.
Ilyrin jumped to his feet and stared up. "Kev!" he shouted. He could just make out Kehvarl's light brown skin through the ropes of the net. "Kev! I'll get you out!" He extended his talons and climbed the sapling like a cat. When he drew level with the top of the net he jumped across. In seconds he had climbed to Kehvarl. He brother was lying on his back with his eyes closed. Ilyrin could hear his slow breathing. "He's alive!" he called to Aurani. "Kev? Wake up!" He poked Kehvarl a few times, then tried slashing at the ropes. The net was far too strong for his baby talons. Finally he dropped to the ground. "I can't get him out," he sobbed.
"We'll get Dad!" said Aurani. "He could!"
"Yeah," said Ilyrin. "Kev? We're getting Dad!"
The two young ones turned and ran for home, leaving their stricken brother in the slowly turning net.
Its motion slowed and finally stopped. The stillness returned to the glade, broken only by the sound of leaves in the breeze and the movement of the sun across the ground. After some time a man leading a horse slipped between the trunks. The horse wore on each hoof boots with padded soles while the man had wrapped his feet in sheepskins. He led the animal across the short grass in near silence.
They halted at the sprung trap. The man looked at the apparently empty net and swore softly. He grabbed a loose rope and pulled hard to release the slipknot. The net fell to the ground.
He spun and stared at the net. Something was moving in there. He slipped a crossbow off his back and advanced. When he was close enough he grabbed an edge and flicked several layers of netting from the pile, all the while keeping the crossbow trained on the creature. Through the square holes he saw a baby dragon's snout and a pair of eyes, wide and brimming with tears.
"That hurt," said Kehvarl.
"I'm sorry," said the man as he opened the net. "I thought it was empty." He squatted and examined a cut on the dragon's head. "Are you all right?"
"My head hurts," said Kehvarl, wincing as the man touched the cut.
"I'd better get you home. Where do you live?"
Kehvarl frowned. "I don't know."
"So who are your parents?" he asked. Kehvarl looked frightened and shook his head. He held the little dragon's chin and stared into the frightened eyes. "What is your name?"
"I-I don't know," whispered Kehvarl. He fell against the man's chest and held tight.
"Oh boy," said the man with a sigh.
"mmi's in a hurry," said Mach. Mavrik looked up to see the young furred dragon flying towards them at great speed. They didn't move as he flared his wings almost too late, and dropped to the ground.
"Something happened to Kev!" he said before anyone could speak.
"Kev?" wondered Mavrik. "What's happened?"
"I don't know. All Illy and Rani would say is that he's caught, but what he caught they won't say. Something has frightened them."
Take us there," ordered Mavrik, and the three launched immediately and flew South.
Amraan led the two adults to the clearing, and fifteen minutes later they were circling to kill their speed prior to landing. Mavrik could hear the frightened cries of his two children and feared for them. As he touched down they broke from cover and ran to him, shouting and interrupting each other.
"Dad! Dad!" shouted Aurani through her tears. "Kevie's caught!"
"There was meat onna stick," said Ilyrin.
"I told him not to touch."
"But he did."
And there was a thing-"
"In the grass-"
"And Kev was in it."
"I think he's hurt," said Ilyrin. "I tried to get him out but I couldn't," he finished quietly.
Mavrik blinked at the two young ones. "Where?"
"In the blue gum forest," said Ilyrin.
Mavrik turned to Amraan. "Take them back home as fast as you can. Tell Fronnie we'll get Kev back." Amraan nodded and herded the youngsters into the trees. Mavrik looked at Mach. "A hunter's net?"
Mach nodded. "That's what it sounds like. We'd better get there before the hunter does."
They launched together and were at the eucalypt glade in ten minutes. There was no trace of a net or Kehvarl to be seen. The only indication that anything had happened was a square patch of grass where the blades had been flattened and still carried faint scent of Kehvarl. They cast around but found no other indications of what happened or where he'd gone.
Mach sat back and frowned in thought, then he gasped. Mavrik looked at him. "Featherfoot!" said Mach.
"Kevie must be with a featherfoot! They're hunters who wear boots covered in feathers or wooly skins," he explained when he saw Mavrik's look of incomprehension. "It lets them walk around without leaving a track. See these marks?" He pointed at a patch of grass with a curious print pushed in the turf. "I bet he has a horse with soft boots as well. Which way did they go?"
Mavrik examined the trail. "I don't know! It could go in either direction." He looked at his friend. "Can you Find him?"
"I'll try." Mach sighed. "My magic is still limited, you know."
ehvarl sat on the pile of trapping gear tied to the packhorse, and rocked gently as the animal walked. "Steve?"
"Where are we going?"
"We're going to check on a few more traps then we'll settle down for the night."
"Oh." Kehvarl watched the forest pass silently. "Steve?"
"What?" The hunter sighed inwardly. With this noisy young dragon tagging along he could forget about catching anything worth a bounty. Other hunters would have left the dragon behind, but Steve was a father and the thought of leaving any young one alone in the forest was abhorrent to him.
"Why do you call me 'Stripes'?"
"Look at your back."
Kehvarl turned and examined his back. "Oh. Is that my name?"
"I don't know. I had to call you something besides 'Hey You'." He remembered hearing of a dragon living close by. Maybe he could drop the little one there and the parents will turn up to claim him. He steered a course to approach the lair from up-wind. "Does this area look familiar?"
Kehvarl looked around. "No," he said eventually.
They approached the clearing and Steve told Kehvarl to wait there, dismounted and walked to the edge of the woods. He saw the dragon, a pale grey mature male, was waiting. "Hello!" he called.
"Bugger off!" growled the dragon.
"I found a-" Steve stopped when he saw the unmistakable signs of an angry dragon.
"I said, bugger off!" The dragon lowered his head and advanced slowly.
Steve retreated into the trees. He mounted his horse and grabbed the lead rope of the pack animal. "I think we should leave," he said quickly.
"Why?" said Kehvarl.
"It would be bad if we didn't, that's why." He took them away as fast as the old packhorse would let them.
s soon as Mach opened his eyes Mavrik knew his friend couldn't find Kev. Mach sighed and hung his head. "I'm sorry."
A shadow passed overhead. Mavrik looked up and recognized the outline of one of his brothers. It was Cyclone. They watched as he stalled and dropped neatly between the trees.
"Paveway told me what happened," he said as soon as he saw them. "Wrack is off to tell Mum and Dad, and Freo and the girls are on their way to be with Fronnie."
"Thanks," said Mavrik. "I'm glad she's not alone."
"Any sign of him?"
"Only a few traces."
Cyclone looked at Mach who simply shook his head. "He is hidden from me."
"What could be hiding him?" wondered Cyclone
"If he was on water, or had forgotten who he is, or he's-"
"He must have forgotten who he is," said Mavrik quickly. "There's no large bodies of water up here, and if he was knocked out he could have amnesia."
"That sounds reasonable." Mach did not want to mention the third possibility. He concentrated for a moment longer then lifted his head with a jerk. "That way!" He pointed Eastward.
"How far?" Mavrik felt hope returning.
"I don't know," murmured Mach. "But he is along this line." He pointed to the East.
"I'll scout ahead," said Cyclone.
With that the three dragons launched and flew eastward. Cyclone easily out-paced the other two and quickly pulled ahead. Mach flew along the line while Mavrik followed and concentrated on the ground, all the while hoping for a sight, sound or scent of Kehvarl.
"his will do," said Steve.
Kehvarl looked around the clearing. "Do what?"
"Do for a camp."
"I'll set up the camp if you get some wood." Steve opened one of the bundles on the packhorse and let the bedding fall to the ground. He spread it out, then carefully piled the net into a soft heap beside his bed. He watched the little dragon running around the clearing, collecting the dead wood and piling it into a heap.
Kehvarl gathered all the sticks into his arms and stood upright like the human, using his tail to balance himself in that position. He walked forward slowly, concentrating on where to put his feet. The breeze shifted slightly, bringing an unpleasant scent to him. He stopped and frowned. Something was in the trees.
Steve saw his friend hesitate and instantly became aware that something was wrong. He crouched on the ground and reached for the crossbow. As his hand touched to stock something moved in the scrub behind him. Next instant he was pinned to the ground. The agonizing pain from his left arm dwarfed the pain in his back and ribs. He couldn't breath. Something heavy stood on him.
Kehvarl yelped in fright as the creature leapt from the bushes and pinned Steve to the ground. He dropped the wood and ran forward. "Hey! Hey!" he yelled, trying to drive it from his friend. It raised its head and looked at him. The creature was ten feet long from the possum-like snout to the tip of its thin tail and covered in a coarse light brown fur. It snarled at him to expose the mouthful of razor-sharp fangs. The dragon knew exactly what to do. He felt his fear drain away and he became motionless.
Something heavy slammed into the side of the creature, throwing it from the prone man. It leapt to its feet and shook its head. Another blow sent it reeling back. Once more it leapt to its feet and roared in rage. It slowly circled the two. Steve opened his eyes and saw the 'leo crouch as it prepared to pounce. The muscles bunched and it leapt. It had barely left the ground before something invisible slammed it out of the air. The little dragon advanced on the animal, and something else hit it backwards. Steve blinked but did not understand what was happening.
Yet another blow sent the animal back. Kehvarl did not know how he was doing this but it worked. He concentrated, and hit the creature again. This blow was not as heavy as the others. He was tiring. Another blow had little effect. The predator sensed a kill and roared in triumph. Kehvarl lowered himself to the ground and covered his head.
Something behind him went SPUNG! The creature reared up on its hind feet and fell, blood gushing from its mouth. It twitched once and was still. Steve dropped the crossbow, too tired to hold it any longer, and sank to the ground against the tree. Kehvarl ran to him, his eyes round like saucers.
"I was scared!"
Steve smiled. "So was I," he said quietly.
Kehvarl climbed onto Steve's lap and curled up. He was heavy but Steve didn't mind. "I'm still scared," he whispered.
Steve said nothing, but laid his right hand on his young friend's head.
yclone shot over the glade and picked up a familiar scent. He braked immediately but still over-shot by a good quarter of a mile. He turned and flew slowly back to the clearing, trying to recover the faint smell. He swooped into the glade and landed. On the ground before him was a dead thylaceleo. He lifted his gaze and saw a man and a baby dragon clinging to each other in the shelter of an old oak. "Kevie?" Mach and Mavrik landed behind him. Mavrik ran forward to the pair.
"Kev! Kev!" he shouted happily. He stopped before them when he saw Kehvarl's fear-filled eyes. He walked forward and frowned as a series of thumps hit his chest. They weren't heavy enough to hurt but they were annoying. He reached out to pick up his son. Kehvarl whimpered and clung to the human. "What have you done to my son?" he demanded angrily.
"Your son does not know his name," said Steve quietly. He turned to Kehvarl. "I think he's your dad."
The little dragon blinked at his friend then looked at the large black dragon towering over them. The face looked familiar. "Dad?" Memories flooded back as a large pair of hands lifted him from the ground. He cried and hugged his father.
Mavrik looked at the man on the ground. "Why didn't you try to contact someone?"
"I tried, but the dragon almost attacked."
Mavrik felt anger growing. "Who?" he growled.
Steve shrugged and winced. "I don't know. A pale grey one."
Mavrik didn't recognize the description. He turned to Cyclone and Mach but they shook their heads.
"An old male," said Steve. The dragons looked at him. "Cranky."
"Avalanche," said Cyclone and Mach together.
Mavrik nodded. "Ah." He frowned and lfted Kehvarl. The young one's chest was covered in blood. "Are you hurt, Kevie?"
"No," whispered Kehvarl. "But my head hurts."
Mavrik looked at the human before him. The man shrugged again, and winced. He put Kehvarl on the ground and bent to examine Steve. His left arm was broken and he had deep claw marks on his chest. "The 'leo?" asked Mavrik, and the man nodded. "We'll have to get you to my lair. I can look after the cuts better."
"What about my arm?" asked Steve. "If it isn't healed right I'll be no good as a hunter."
"Dad can fix that!" said Kehvarl.
"I'm sure he's healed a lot of dragons," said Steve kindly. "But humans are different."
"I know," said Mavrik. "I've healed some." He reached for the injured arm.
"Two. Stop moving away from me. I'll have to set that before we can move you."
"Next you'll tell me you're Mavrik," said Steve, swatting at Mavrik's hands to keep them away. He saw Cyclone and Mach doing something to the dead 'leo. "Hey! Don't damage that skin! I need it for the bounty."
Mach waved at the man. "Don't worry. We've done this before." At that moment Cyclone heaved on the skin and stripped it from the body in one piece. They stared at the carcass in surprise.
Cyclone looked at the group under the tree. "Mav? Have a look at this!"
"In a minute." He looked at the surprised man. "I'm Mavrik. Now hold still." He reached forward and grasped the shoulder.
Steve winced and braced himself, but his injured arm went dead at the dragon's touch. He felt a wrenching sensation followed by a dull ache. He opened his eyes and looked at his arm. A cold, white scar was the only evidence that the ends of his bones had pierced the skin. He rubbed the scar. "Wh-what...?"
"That will ache for a while," said Mavrik. "I can heal the wounds but I can't take the pain away for more than a few seconds. You've lost a lot of blood, so I'll keep you at home where I can watch." He went to see what interested Cyclone.
Steve blinked at Kehvarl. "How did he do that, Str- Kev?"
"Magic." said the little dragon. He pointed to the cut on his own head, now little more than a white scar. "Dad knows how to do it."
The three dragons stared at the carcass of the 'leo. Half a dozen bruises the size of a man's fist were plainly visible.
"Did Kev do that?" wondered Cyclone. "How?"
"Magic," said Mavrik.
Mach nodded. "I don't think he even realizes yet."
"re you all right, Kevie?" asked Stormfront again. Three days had passed and still he had said nothing. Her joy at having Kehvarl back turned to worry when he did not speak, preferring instead to curl up beside the sleeping human.
She sighed and stood at the entrance of the lair to watch Ilyrin and Aurani play around the horses. Her other two young ones had spent a day and night crying with worry over their lost brother, but since his return they had cheered up markedly. Amraan glided overhead and landed before her. "Hello Ammi."
"Can I go in?" asked Amraan. "I'd like to talk to him."
Stormfront nodded and moved aside to let in the little furry dragon. She listened to the discussion without turning.
Amraan stood beside the young dragon. "Hello Kev."
"Hello" said Kehvarl in a barely audible murmur. He did not look up.
"What did you think of the 'leo?"
"I was scared."
"That's all right! So was I."
Kehvarl lifted his head. "But you killed one!"
"Yes. It was going to kill my friend."
"But I couldn't kill it." Kehvarl sank to the floor again. "I put everyone in danger," he whispered.
Amraan heard Stormfront sniff, but he couldn't think of anything to say. "How about I take you to visit the dwarves, and we can tell them what happened," he finished lamely. Kehvarl nodded but said nothing. Amraan joined Stormfront at the entrance. She picked him up and hugged him. "He's really depressed," said Amraan.
"Thanks for trying."
She watched Amraan fly off then went inside. The noise of the other two playing drifted through the entrance. She heard splashing and laughing then they went silent. She looked up and saw the pair standing in the opening. Their brown and yellow skins were totally covered in a thick layer of black mud. She gaped at them.
"Kev! Look!" said one. It was Aurani.
"We shed our skins!" said Ilyrin.
Kehvarl jerked his head up and saw the mud dragons. He scrambled to his feet and ran to them. "How?"
"I'll show you!" said Ilyrin. The trio ran off, and soon Stormfront heard more splashing and laughing from the creek.
She was about to follow but a low chuckle from behind stopped her. She turned and saw Steve had wakened, and was laughing. "I don't know if I should be angry with them or laugh," she said.
"You should laugh," said Steve.