unlight streamed into the lair as Mavrik rolled up the curtain. The three young ones gazed at the new day, the first this year with more light than the endless twilight of winter. The sun had risen above the horizon, and Spring came with it.
Deep drifts of snow still lay piled against the rocks and cliffs, but the clearing was free of the grip of winter. Here and there bluebells and snowdrops pushed through the remains of the white blanket. The new grass was soft and fresh, and the trees glowed the brilliant green of new growth, which contrasted sharply with the dark red winter foliage.
Kehvarl ran through the door and dived into the snow, vanishing completely. A few seconds later his head poked out high in the drift. "I'm a wild weasel!" he called and disappeared. Ilyrin and Aurani immediately followed their brother into the snow. Mavrik smiled as he listened to them digging rapidly and laughing as they found each other in the drift. He used to play this game with his family, many years ago.
Stormfront joined him at the entrance and looked out on the new year. He hugged her. "I suppose I should get some food for the wild weasels."
"Weasels?" asked Stormfront, blinking at her mate.
"How many hungry weasels are there?" said Mavrik, loudly. The snowdrift went silent for a second, followed by a brief noise of rapid digging. Three heads appeared in a flurry of snow, all shouting together.
Then they vanished, leaving Stormfront staring. Mavrik gestured to the bank. "There you are! The hungry wild weasels."
Stormfront smiled suddenly. "This comes from your side of the family," she said. Mavrik nodded. She rubbed her mate under the neck and whispered, "Do you think you could get a-" she mimed an animal with horns, "to surprise them?"
"I'll try," whispered Mavrik. "If I can get a small one." They hugged again, and he was off into the sky.
Aurani wrestled with Kehvarl for a moment then dug her way to freedom. She broke through into open air and bounded across the powdery snow towards the surrounding woods. The shouts of her brothers far behind spurred her on to greater efforts, and she reached the cover of the trees. She paused to look behind and saw Ilyrin and Kehvarl bounding after her with a great flurry of snow, so she turned and ran deeper into the forest as she looked for a hiding place.
All her usual hiding places seemed too small, but as she ran around the bole of one ancient gum tree she found what she was looking for: a thick copse of pine known as black cypress. The pines stood like a hedge of spearheads standing straight up, their lower branches and dark green needles brushing the bare ground.
Aurani climbed under the impenetrable mass of sticks and crawled across the thick mat of fallen needles. In the deep gloom the black trunks were almost invisible. The only light came from the occasional luminous fungus, glowing here and there with a soft blue light.
All at once she was through and in blinding sunlight. She blinked at the circular clearing. It was surrounded by a ring of the pine trees, and was full of a riot of colourful flowers. They gave off a sweet scent. Aurani rubbed her eyes but the plants did not go away. Their tubular flowers were every colour, from deep reds to a purple that was almost black. She bent to look in one but there was a bee in there. She snatched her hand back, but the bee remained undisturbed.
"Do you like my flowers?" said a voice.
Aurani jumped and looked at the speaker standing in the middle of the clearing. The man was six feet tall, thin, and dressed in black. He was holding a flower and chewing something.
"They smell nice," she said. The man smiled. Something about him made her uneasy. He could, apparently, pop in and out of places like Ilyrin and Watcher, but it wasn't that.
"They taste nice, too," said the man. He swallowed whatever he was chewing. "You should have a taste." When Aurani hesitated he smiled again. "My name is Kraka."
"I am Dre`ana." Aurani wondered if the man would know she lied, but she did not want to give him her real name. The scent of the flowers rose around her in a wave and she felt light-headed.
"Taste a flower," said Kraka again. "Try one."
Aurani reached down very slowly, as if in a dream, and picked one of the strange flowers. The next moment she had bitten the head. An unbelievable sweetness flooded her mouth. Kehvarl called her name, and she turned in his direction. "In here!" she shouted. Kehvarl and Ilyrin pushed through the hedge.
"Where did this come from?" wondered Ilyrin.
"They're Kraka's," said Aurani. She turned, but the man was gone.
Kehvarl pointed at the stem in his sister's hand. "Did you eat one?"
"They're very sweet." At that instant Aurani felt her mouth go numb, and a cold feeling grew in the pit of her stomach. She gagged, then vomited violently. "Oh Kevie! I- I-" Her voice failed her, and she vomited again.
"Get Dad, quick!" said Kehvarl. Ilyrin nodded once, and was gone.
Kehvarl felt Aurani all over. Her stomach was tight, and she was hot. He didn't know what to do. At that moment Ilyrin returned holding their father's hand.
Mavrik looked frightened as he felt Aurani all over. "What happened?"
Aurani tried to speak but no sounds came.
"I think she ate one of these flowers," said Kehvarl. He picked four and placed them in the little leather pouch he always carried.
"She said they belong to Kraka," added Ilyrin.
"Kraka?" muttered Mavrik. "That's just elvish for 'raven.' I wonder who it was." He held Aurani as she vomited again. "Take us home, Illy."
Ilyrin grabbed hold of Mavrik's hand and Kehvarl's tail, and in an instant they were standing before their lair. Stormfront ran out to meet them, her face full of concern.
"Rani has been poisoned," said Mavrik. "I want you to get…um." Usually he powers of healing told him exactly what to do, but they deserted him now. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the magic. Healing his own children was far harder because parental worries always rose to choke him. Mavrik thrust the worry aside and concentrated. No answers came to him. He examined Aurani again and felt a familiar feeling of wrongness. It was very faint, but it was there nonetheless. His breathing grew rapid as he realized he couldn't heal her. "No," he whispered. They stared at their stricken daughter as she lay on the ground, on the verge of losing consciousness.
Stormfront reached out and stroked Aurani's head. Her tears fell. "Oh Mav! My Healing says there's no one on this world who can help." She looked into his face. "Tell me that's not true," she whispered. The look on his face gave her the answer she did not want.
Kehvarl grabbed Mavrik's leg and shook hard. "Dad! Do something! You have to help!"
Mavrik held his head. "I can't! There's no one on this world who can help!" His family burst into tears and touched Aurani. Mavrik's head spun. From somewhere deep in his past, he heard someone else say those words. Mavrik felt his heart jump in hope. "At least, not yet." he said to himself.
en studied the young plant and imagined the potatoes nestled amongst the roots. A vision of a plate full of mash popped into his head, making his mouth water. Without warning he was in shadow. He looked up then sat heavily on his precious plants, staring at the dragons who surrounded him. "Uh. M-Mav! How…?"
"Aurani's been poisoned," said Mavrik. "You have to help!"
Pen blinked at him, and at the limp body of Aurani. "But- But you-" A hand on his shoulder stopped him. It was Stormfront.
"Please, Pen," she whispered.
The wizard jumped to his feet. "Bring her to the cabin." He ran before them and disappeared inside, then emerged with a thick blue blanket, which he spread on the ground, and a brass tube. Mavrik carefully laid Aurani on the blanket. Pen placed the tube against her side and put his ear to the other end. A few seconds later he sat back and frowned. "Her heart is racing like a galloping horse, but I can't hear her stomach noises," he muttered. "Did she vomit?" Kehvarl and Ilyrin nodded.
"She threw up almost as soon as she ate it," said Kehvarl.
"Ate what?" asked Pen. Kehvarl fished the flowers from his pouch and handed them to him. He frowned, pulled a knife from his pocket and cut one bloom open. "It's full of dead insects! What sort of flow-" He threw the flower and knife to the ground and ran to a bucket of water. The dragons watched as he scrubbed his hands with strong soap and rinsed them. "Those things are- They're foul!" he exclaimed. He dumped the soapy water into a drain, then threw the bucket into the fire. He shook his hands dry as he returned. "Those flowers are wrong," he said as he knelt beside Aurani. The wizard placed his hand on the little dragon's head, and sighed. "Mav, Why did you bring her here? You know there's nothing I can do that you can't."
"There is one thing," said Mavrik. Pen looked at him, and the dragon spread his right wing. Running the width of the wing, from the leading edge to the sail tendon, was a long white scar.
Pen nodded. "Will this healer in the future be able to help?"
"She has to!"
"Will you find that wizard again?"
"I won't need him," said Mavrik. "I will watch how you work the spell, and use it myself."
Pen nodded again, then placed Kehvarl's leather pouch beside Aurani and carefully wrapped her in the blanket. "It is her only hope," he muttered. "I hope it's right." Stormfront clasped his shoulder again. He patted her hand and said, "Right! Let's do this." With that he closed his eyes and became still.
Mavrik lifted the precious bundle from the ground and stepped away from the hut. "I'm ready." He looked at Stormfront, Kehvarl and Ilyrin. "I love you all," he whispered.
There was a blast of icy wind that faded away, but sounds of a rushing wind did not. Mavrik and Aurani flashed with a brilliant white light, followed immediately by a crashing peal of thunder.
Where they had stood was a circle of frost on the grass, but they were gone.
Pen watched the circle of frost steam as it melted. "They're with the healer now, Fronnie," he said as he walked back to them.
lex jerked awake from a deep sleep and listened to the thunder rumble off into the distance. "That hit close," she thought as she reached for the clock. The display showed 04.30, then disappeared as she pulled her hand under the covers.
Here comes the rain, she thought.
Little drops first, then big fat ones, then the downpour. She drifted off to sleep.
Tap-tap-tap. "Alex!" someone whispered.
Alex sat up suddenly, wide-awake now. She opened the window above her bed but the night was pitch black and she could see nothing. She went to the other window and looked out. Stars shone at her from a cloudless sky. She frowned and went back to the first window. Nothing but velvety blackness. The darkness moved and her eyes focused properly. She saw the body, long neck and head, all the colour of the night. "Oh jeez!"
"Healer! It's me! Mavrik!"
"M- Mav?" Alex "But you're-"
"I need your help."
"Again?" Alex shook her head to clear the sleep.
The dragon from the past held something wrapped in a thick blue blanket. "My daughter! Please!"
Alex blinked at the bundle. "I'll meet you in the stables!" She closed the window.
Mavrik saw a light come on in the house, and heard movement. He went to the stables and opened the door. The faint smell of animals and disinfectant stuck him, reminding him of the last time he was here. He lay his precious bundle in the clean straw and waited.
Alex ran through the door, her long coat billowing behind like a cape. She skidded to a stop and stared at the dragon. "Mavrik! I never thought I'd see you again," she panted as she threw a light switch. Mavrik squinted up at the tubes of blue-white light as they flooded the room with their glow. "But… you're black!"
"I shed," said Mavrik impatiently. "My daughter has been poisoned, Alex. She is dying." The big dragon seemed to shrink into himself. "I can't save her," he whispered.
Alex pulled on a pair of latex gloves and examined the young dragon. Mavrik watched as she shone a light into Aurani's eyes, felt under the chin, and finally listened to her heart with a stethoscope. Mavrik remembered the brass tube Pen had used, and wondered if this black tube was the same sort of device. Alex sat back on her heels.
"She has a high temperature, and her heart's racing," said Alex. "What poisoned her?"
"She ate one of these." Mavrik handed the vet the little leather pouch. Alex shook the flowers into her hand.
"Mountain foxgloves," she said with a groan. "These things are loaded with digitalis and ricin. They're lethal! Almost anti-life. Bring her over here." Alex stood and went to a device on the floor against the wall. She indicated for Mavrik to lay the little one on a blue bench. As he did so a panel on the wall lit up with lines and numbers, all in red. Alex examined the numbers and shook her head. "You got here just in time. How long ago did she eat it?"
"About an hour ago," said Mavrik.
"And she's still alive?"
"Why are you shaking your head?"
"She's still alive," said Alex. "She should be dead. This intensive care unit will keep her alive for now, but I don't know how long it can keep her going. A week at the most," she added with a sigh.
"She will live," said Mavrik with some feeling.
"Mav, I won't pretend to-"
"No! She will live. The spell brought us to this place."
"Where is Mitch?"
Alex blinked at the dragon. "Uh… He's not even on this world any more." She stared at him, then jumped to her feet and went to the desk in the corner.
Mavrik watched as the vet pressed a button on a cube there. The face of the cube lit up with tiny pictures. Alex stared at it. She moved a small object with her hand and a tiny arrow ran around the screen. He frowned at the device. "What is it?'
"Mitch isn't on this world," said Alex absently as she stared at the words that scrolled up the monitor, "and neither is the antidote."
itch had a sip of his coffee and grimaced. "They must have changed the standard issue of instant," he said. He let his eye wander around the office and absently observed the people from a dozen different worlds. There were furred, scaled and skinned, Human, Ursine, Herpatoid, and Felinid. One thing this group had in common was that they did not fit in with the regular police of Sector Law. They made a good team.
The Special Operations Group sat around the office, waiting for the next emergency. It had been a quiet week. Vehicles had been cleaned, paperwork had been finished, and now the "Soggies" played cards or dozed, and drank the coffee.
"What do we have?" asked Sooty, a human slightly shorter than Mitch. "Detergent? Rat poison?"
"Cooking oil," said Mitch. "It's the least unpleasant one we've had."
"Yummo!" Sooty stood, and poked the three metre tall, white-furred Ursine dozing in the next chair. "You want a coffee?"
Peib opened one eye. "No thanks. I prefer the one that tastes of coal."
"There's Mandoo," said Sooty. "What have you done now, Mitch?"
They watched their commanding officer make her way toward them. She was a felonid, lithe, two metres tall, and covered in chocolate-coloured fur.
"What makes you think she wants me?" asked Mitch.
"You're always upsetting someone."
"That's crap!" he muttered as the Detective Chief Inspector came close.
"D.S. Day. My Office. Now," said Mandoo as she passed.
"She didn't shout," said Peib.
"It's worse than ever," said Sooty with a nod.
"Shut up you bastards," hissed Mitch. He handed his coffee to Sooty and followed the DCI to her office.
Mandoo closed the door as Mitch entered. "I have received an unusual request," she said as she sat at her desk. "And they specifically asked for you."
"They?" asked Mitch with a frown. "Who?"
"Some xenophobic backwater of a planet."
"Sounds like my home."
"It's your home." The DCI picked up a sheet from the pile her desk. "You are to go there immediately, via Murratin to pick up an antidote called Aketane. This is time-critical, so I am lending you my personal transport because it's the fastest super-luminal thing we have." She looked up at Mitch. "I don't think I need to mention that my ship is in near-new, undented, unscratched condition."
"Erm… no." Mitch's frown deepened. "Please! Not Murratin. They see mammals as food. Why that planet?"
"I don't know," said Mandoo. "Maybe you can ask Dr Alexandra Whyland when you land."
Mitch blinked at his commander. "Alex?"
re you all right?" asked Alex. "You're not eating." She watched Mavrik poke listlessly at the sheep carcass, then went back to examining Aurani. The tiny dragon was alive only because all her vital functions had been taken over by the intensive care unit. Every read-out on the panel was red, and had been for three days. Alex stopped hoping one would go green and waited for Mitch, who was due soon. At first Mavrik had told her of his adventures since they last met, but as the days dragged on he fell silent.
"I'm okay. It's this meat. It's- The dragon fumbled for a word. "It's- Dead."
"Ye-es," said Alex slowly. "Of course it's dead."
"No, I mean it's- it's DEAD. It's cold."
Alex scratched her head. "It's cold because it's dead," she said. Suddenly she knew what the dragon meant. "AH! You mean it's not a fresh kill!" she exclaimed. Mavrik nodded. "No, it was most likely killed yesterday. I'm sorry, Mav. I can't get you fresh kills."
"I suppose I could-"
"No!" said Alex emphatically. "You'll be seen and they will hunt you down."
"Who will?" said someone behind them. They turned and saw Mitch standing in the door, a silver case in one hand. He stared at the dragon standing in the shadows.
"MITCH!" shouted Alex. She jumped to her feet. "You're just in time, I hope."
"Hi Alex. I came as fast as I could," he said absently as he handed the case over. "Mav? You're- you're black!"
"I shed my juvenile skin," said Mavrik, quickly. He watched Alex remove one of the glass bottles from the case and fill a syringe. "Is that the antidote?'
"You look all right to me," said Mitch.
"It's not for me," said Mavrik. He gestured to the little body on the bed. "It's for Aurani."
Mitch stood beside the IC unit, now at waist height, gazed at the little yellow dragon on the big blue bench. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
"She ate a mountain foxglove," said Alex as she injected the antidote into the saline drip line.
"Poor little kid," he said. "That explains why I had to pick up the non-mammal antidote. But why would she eat one of those?"
"I think she was tricked into it," said Mavrik.
"We'll know soon if this stuff works," said Alex as she removed the needle. "Mitch, were you escorted here?"
"Yes. There's a couple of officers waiting at your front gate."
"I'll get rid of them," said Alex. They watched as she put on a white dustcoat, facemask, safety glasses and latex gloves. "I won't be long but call me if anything changes."
"Shouldn't I be wearing that?" asked Mitch nervously.
"Good grief, no!" laughed Alex. "I'm just going to frighten your escort." She splashed some disinfectant onto the coat and walked outside.
"What do you know of these plants?" asked Mavrik.
Mitch thought for a moment. "They're a lethal mix of sweet nectar and neurotoxins," he said finally. "And they're a weird mix of genes that shouldn't exist in nature. It's like some maniac bred them, but for what purpose I don't know."
"Kraka," muttered Mavrik.
Mitch ran his hand along the motionless back. "She looks like you. In the face, I mean. Is she your daughter?"
Mavrik opened his mouth to say something, but the life support monitor beeped once. They both stared at the ever-changing red numbers. "What is it?" he whispered.
"I don't know," said Mitch.
"Do you think- There! Did you see?"
"Yes!" breathed Mitch. The panel beeped again and one of the numbers flicked from red to yellow. "There! That's the heart beat monitoring thing. And this other one is going up."
"You'd better call Alex."
"I'm here!" called the vet from the door. She ripped off the mask and gloves and ran to them. "What's wrong?"
"The heart beat thingy is going yellow, and the BP numbers are going up," said Mitch. "What's BP?"
"Blood pressure," said Alex. The heart monitor went yellow again and stayed that way. "Her heart is trying to beat on its own and the systolic pressure is rising. Neuro-transmitters are looking better." She sighed loudly.
"What's wrong?" whispered Mavrik.
Alex squatted beside the bench. "She is getting better, Mav."
Mitch patted the dragon on the shoulder. "Let's sit over there and give Alex some room."
They sat silently for the next three hours and watched Alex tend the patient. Mavrik wrung his hands or clutched the end of his tail, and twitched every time the panel beeped. The sun began to set before the last red display vanished. The panel was now yellow.
"Where's Pen?" asked Mitch suddenly. Mavrik jumped and flicked his tail. The tip caught Mitch on the side of his head, sending him sprawling into the hay.
"Sorry!" Mavrik helped his friend up and saw a red mark along the right cheek. "I'm sorry!"
Mitch sat with his head on his knees and pressed a hand on the bruise. "It's OK," he mumbled.
"I don't know where Pen is," said Alex. She walked over to Mitch and looked at the injury. "It's only a bruise. You'll live."
"What about Rani?" asked Mavrik.
"It's a bit early to tell for sure, but she is looking good." Alex took his hand and stared into his eyes. "Twenty kilometres due south is a national park. It has goats and kangaroos. Aurani will need fresh meat when she wakes, and you need to burn off some energy." She patted the big hand. "Wait for dark, then go." She returned to the bed. Mavrik nodded but said nothing.
"I think I'm getting a black eye," Mitch groaned. He felt around the bruise and winced.
"I can help," said Mavrik.
"I don't want two black eyes."
Mavrik gently pulled his friend's hand away and examined the injury. "I can fix that. Hold still."
Mitch gritted his teeth as Mavrik touched the bruise. The pain vanished instantly. Mitch rubbed his hand along his jaw but nothing hurt. "How did you do that?"
"I'm a healer."
Alex turned from the bed. "You are?" She walked over and examined Mitch's face. "The bruise is gone!" she exclaimed. "That's amazing! It's like magic."
"It is magic," said Mavrik. "But it has limitations."
"Is that why you came back?" Alex asked as she returned to Aurani's side.
"Yes." Mavrik sighed loudly. "This is the second time my healing has failed me. I couldn't help Thunder, and I can't help Aurani." He stood and walked to the double doors, and gazed into the gloom. Mitch and Alex watched him, then exchanged a look but said nothing.
The night drew on and Mitch dozed. Around midnight a loud beep woke him. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Alex. She pointed at the heart rate monitor. The numbers were a steady green.
Mitch stood and yawned. He looked around the empty stables. "Where's Mav?"
"He went out," muttered Alex.
ome on, Charlie! Get the system up!" said the pilot. "Why did you run a systems check now?"
"It's scanning wrong," said the observer. "It has to be," she added to herself. She watched the system run its checks and reinitialize. She blinked at the screens. If there was nothing wrong, then…
"Delta Golf November from Traffic Control," said a voice on their helmets. "Target is two hundred meters in front of and fifty below your position, flying on your heading. Do you have a visual?"
"No, ATC," said the pilot. "We will have one in a few seconds." He broke the connection and looked at his observer. "Is the system ok?" The observer nodded dumbly. "Are you ok?"
Charlie nodded again. "Jeff? Do you believe in dragons?" She flicked a switch.
"What? Those little lizards with a frill…" He stared at the screen on his console. The target was twenty metres long with a wingspan of at least forty metres. Thermal imaging made it glow a multitude of warm colours. At they watched, the creature looked over its shoulder at them. Jeff got a good look at the head. "It's- it's- it's a-it's a-" He swallowed. "It's a dragon!"
"Boy am I glad you said that," said Charlie. "I wasn't sure the scanners were working." The dragon dropped lower before landing in a lake. The thermal signature vanished but they could still see it in the low-light display. They stared at the screens for a long while. Charlie jumped as the comms came to life.
"PolAir Five from Traffic Control."
"PolAir Five receiving, A.C.T." said Charlie.
"What is the status of the contact?"
The two officers exchanged a look. "Ah… It appears to be a large flock of flying-foxes. They've roosted in the trees around Mote Lake."
There was a long pause. "Received. Proceed to SouthWest 5 and meet PolAir 2 for a pursue and capture. ACT out."
Mavrik floated in the lake and waited for the noisy thing to go away. The downdraft of the rapidly beating wings brought the smell of hot metal and oil. So, Men made this thing! He winced as a bright light stabbed down at him. In the reflections off the lake he saw some runes painted on the side, DGN-P5, but they meant nothing to him. Something else was painted on the side of the vessel, a fat little green and yellow dragon with one hand raised in a salute. Mavrik waved back. The vessel let out a loud "BWOOP" and the light vanished. He listened as the noise receded into the distance. Soon silence returned to the lake and he was alone.
A light breeze blew from the North. He swam ashore and opened his wings and let the air dry him as he tried to get his bearings. If Alex was over there… He turned his back on his friends and looked into the darkness ahead. There were none of the curious orange lamps found in these settlements, so this must be an area set aside for the game.
Once again the beating of wings disturbed the lake, but soon it fell silent as the noise receded.
The dragon glided through the black night, keeping as close to the treetops as he dared. He suspected the machine that followed him to the lake had seen him as he flew high, so he hoped this would hide him from its gaze. Ahead he sensed a clearing approaching. His sensitive nose picked up the smell of a large herd of goats. The tree canopy opened and he plunged into the mob. Almost instantly he had killed four of the animals. The others scattered into the night.
In minutes he had skinned the three largest bodies and wrapped the hides around the smallest, then tied the bundle with a rope he'd borrowed from Alex. He pulled a leg from a carcass and bit into it. A small moan came from deep in his throat, as he tasted his first real food in days.
hope he's on his way back," said Mitch. "It'll be light soon." He stood at the door and looked into the darkness. The mountains far to the east were outlined by the first light of dawn. Seconds after he spoke there was a noise of rushing wind from above. He looked up and saw the stars dimmed as a familiar shape passed overhead. "Ah! Here he is."
"I told you he'd be back," said Alex from the sickbed.
Mitch listened to the great wings beating as Mavrik slowed, then a black shaped dropped into the courtyard.
"How is Rani?"
"She's sleeping," said Mitch. Together they walked into the stable. "You found some goats, then?' he pointed at the bundle hanging from Mavrik's neck. The dragon nodded. "Did anyone see you?'
"I think so," said Mavrik as he threw the bloody carcass to the floor. "It was one of those long metal things with wings that blew air down and could hover like a bee."
"A helicopter? Do you think they saw you?"
"We-ll," said Mavrik slowly. "It followed me, and shone a bright light at me, and it went 'BWOOP!'"
Alex jumped in fright. "SHH! You'll wake her!" she hissed angrily.
Mitch rubbed his face. "Oh, terrific. A police helicopter. So what did you do?"
"And then what happened?"
"They went away." Mavrik peered at the panel on the wall. "All the runes are green!" he whispered.
Alex walked over with a smile. "Yes! The anti-toxin worked brilliantly. She's only sleeping now."
Mavrik scooped up the two humans and hugged them, then went to Aurani's side. She was curled up in a natural sleeping position, her body free of all the tubes and wires.
"Alex," gasped Mitch.
"Can you fix cracked ribs?'
I hope so," she said with a cough.
awn broke. Alex opened a shutter to let the pale light into the stable, then lowered the bench until Aurani was framed in the warm yellow square. The little dragon stirred and awoke.
"Mum?" she murmured.
Alex shaded Aurani's eyes. "Lie still. You've been sick."
"Who are you?" asked Aurani. She pushed the hand away and squinted up at the shadow above her.
"A friend. My name is Alex."
"You shouldn't give your name to people you don't know," said Aurani with a sigh as she lowered her head.
"So I've been told." As Alex spoke a much larger shadow blocked the light.
Aurani looked up again. "Dad?" she muttered.
"Are you hungry? You haven't eaten for days," said Mavrik as he reached down and rubbed his daughter's neck. "I have some meat here. It's a bit cold, but it's fresh."
Aurani sighed and went to sleep.
Alex poured a pale yellow liquid into a plastic beaker then knelt beside her patient's head. She placed a hand on Aurani's brow and felt the temperature. "Aurani? Can you hear me?" Aurani opened her eyes. Alex smiled. "Can you sit up?" The little dragon blinked at the vet but made no move.
Mavrik grasped his daughter's shoulders and gently lifted her into a sitting position. "Listen to the healer, Rani," he said softly. Aurani murmured something unintelligible. The monitor beside the bed flashed red alarms as the patient left the sensors. "Uh Alex?" said Mavrik nervously. "It's gone red again!"
"It's okay," said Alex. "The sensors have detected a disturbance because you lifted her, that's all." Alex held the beaker to Aurani's mouth. "Drink this. It'll make you feel better." The little dragon grasped the beaker and had a sip, then took a gulp. "Slower! Drink slower!" The beaker was almost emptied before Aurani pulled away. Alex handed the beaker to Mitch.
"Yummy," sighed Aurani. Her father lowered her to the bed and watched with relief as all the life support monitors went green.
Mitch sniffed at the beaker. "What is this stuff?'
"Honey and water," said Alex. "The simple sugars will kick her metabolism off, then she can eat something solid."
Mavrik took the beaker from Mitch and sniffed the contents. "Honey?"
"From bees," said Alex.
"They're so small! You must be very patient."
Alex and Mitch laughed. "A friend of mine has bee-hives," said Alex.
Mavrik drained the beaker with a gulp. The humans watched with alarm as the big dragon gagged and reached.
"Jeez Mav!" exclaimed Mitch. "You're not going to vomit?"
"Get outside if you are!" said Alex. "This stable is bad enough without dragon stomach contents sprayed around."
"I'll be all right," gasped Mavrik. "That stuff was too sweet." He sighed and shook his head. "When I was young I ate meat. Sheep, cattle, horses, kangaroos, fish… I've even eaten an emu but I was starving and wouldn't recommend it. Do you know what my children eat? Plants!" he exclaimed without waiting for an answer. "Plums, pears and peaches! And ones that grow in the ground. Erm… round white things and tapered orange things."
"Potatoes? Carrots?" suggested Mitch.
"Yes! And they eat cooked meat from the dwarves. Cooked!" He shook his head again. "Where did they get this? Last year the three of them ate mulberries." He grimaced and shuddered.
"Mubbries make your tongue go purple," muttered Aurani. She sat up and swayed a little. "I'm hungry." The three adults gaped at her then Mavrik picked her up.
Alex smiled when she saw the monitor stay green. She turned to Mitch. "Let's cut this goat into little bits," Mitch nodded.
"Can I have cow?" asked Aurani.
"When we get home," said Mavrik.
The little dragon clung to her father. "I want to go home," she whispered.
he day wore on and Aurani grew stronger with every passing hour. Mitch disappeared with Alex's truck in the early afternoon and returned a few hours later with a freshly slaughtered bullock in the tray, much to the delight of the two visitors.
"I told the abattoir I'll be taking it with me when I leave tomorrow," he said. "I've been recalled to duty," he added when he saw Alex's face. "Anyway, a local officer indicated I'm not welcome. I should go."
Alex merely nodded and turned away.
Day turned to dusk and Alex examined her patient one last time. Aurani squirmed and giggled as the vet's hands felt her belly.
"Keep still," said Alex. She paused, then quickly ran her hands along the soft skin. Aurani laughed aloud.
Mitch and Mavrik watched the pair at play and smiled. Mavrik placed a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Once again, I am in your debt," he said. "I fear I will never be able to clear it with the gulf of time standing between us."
Mitch looked up at the big dragon. "Friends don't have debts. They just do stuff for each other."
"My heart aches that I cannot do… stuff… for the both of you."
A shiver ran up Mitch's spine. "The time will come." He shook himself. "Sorry, just being melodramatic," he said lightly. Mavrik nodded but said nothing.
Alex and Aurani stopped playing and looked at the two males staring off into the middle distance. "Shh!" whispered Aurani. "The Magic is trying to do something."
Mitch stirred and looked at her. "What magic?"
"Oh pooh! You spoiled it."
Mavrik stood and stretched to shake off the strange feelings. "We'd better go," he said. "We've taken enough of your time."
"No you haven't," said Alex. "I'd do this again in a second." Talking became impossible as Aurani gave her a rib-cracking hug.
Mitch smiled his lop-sided smile. "Yeah! Except I have to organize the time a bit better." Aurani ran and leapt at him.
Mavrik dragged her off before Mitch suffocated in the hug. "Let's go home," he said as he lowered her to the floor.
"Won't you need the wizard?" asked Mitch.
"Not this time," said Mavrik. He looked at his two friends. "Thank you," he said softly.
Aurani waved. "Bye!" She reached out and held her father's hand.
Alex and Mitch raised their hands to wave at the two dragons, and then flinched as a crashing peal of thunder shook the stable walls. They stared at the ring of frost on the stone floor.
"So, we re-enter the ordinary world," said Mitch.
Alex sighed. "Do you think we'll see them again?"
Mitch bent and picked up a leather pouch. He opened the flap and tipped into his palm a small black opal. It flashed iridescent reds and blues under the lights. "Yes," he said softly.
en watched the circle of frost steam as it melted. "They're with the healer now, Fronnie," he said as he walked back to them. Stormfront bowed her head and wept. Kehvarl and Ilyrin stood proud and resolute, but Kehvarl's eyes were damp and Ilyrin's jaw trembled. He knelt beside the little dragons. "It's okay to cry," he whispered.
"I'm not crying," said Kehvarl. "And neither is Illy." Ilyrin shook his head but said nothing.
Pen nodded and stood. "I don't know how long they'll be away," he said to Stormfront. "Last time, he was away for over a week…" His voice trailed off as a familiar feeling washed over him. He spun to face the circle of frozen turf.
"What is it, Pen?" whispered Stormfront.
From nowhere came a blast of icy wind. "It's dad!" shouted Kehvarl over the noise.
"It can't be! They just left!" Pen blocked his ears a second before the clearing was rent by another crash of thunder.
In the freshly refrozen circle sat Mavrik. Holding his hand was Aurani. She laughed and bounced toward them. They simply stared at her, unable to believe the change from her unconscious, near-death state of a few seconds ago. She stared at her family. "What's wrong?"
Stormfront scooped her three children up in a huge hug, and cried.
"My goodness, Mav. That was quick!" said Pen as Mavrik left the frozen circle. "That healer must be good."
"Quick?" Mavrik frowned at the wizard. "We've been away for a week!"
"No! It's only been a few minutes."
"No it hasn't! Ah." Mavrik thought for a moment. "Yes it has, for you. I came back to this place and time."
Pen rubbed his face. "Don't explain it. I'll get a headache. Besides," he added, pointing at the others, "there's someone who needs you."
he wizard and Mavrik's family crowded into the clearing. Aurani's aunties, uncles and grandparents milled around, smelling and touching everything. Cyclone and Prahan circled overhead before dropping lightly into an open patch.
"There's nothing like you describe near here," said Cyclone.
"Are you sure this is the place?" asked Pen as he pushed between Stargazer and Fae.
"This isn't the place," said Aurani. "But it was here!"
"That's right," said Kehvarl. "We came through some cypress over there." He pointed.
Mavrik and Pen looked at each other. "I don't know," said the wizard at last. "There's nothing wrong here."
Mavrik shook his head. "It's like that clearing never existed." He looked at the group before him. "Well, there's not much we can do here. Let's talk about this at our lair."
Pen covered his face as a great rush of wings and air blew leaves and sticks around him. Silence returned to the wood and he stood alone, brooding. From behind came the soft whinny of a horse. "Coming, lad," he said as he turned and walked back to where his horse was tied. He stopped short when he saw Aurani sitting beside the animal. He untied the reigns and led it forward. Aurani fell into step beside him.
Not far from the lair the trees opened in a small clearing. An ancient carved stone stood in the middle. Aurani looked at it properly for the first time. It was eight feet high but some time in the ancient past the top had broken off so the original height could only be guessed. All four sides were carved with an intricate design of entwined lines. Men and animals were also there, but time had worn them into vague outlines.
"This marks the junction of an ancient road," said Pen. "It runs from east to west and crosses the creek near your home. There used to be a tower and stairs down the escarpment."
"Where?" wondered Aurani.
"You know the sheer cliff Amraan and your cousin Wrack like to glide from? There, but a landslide many years ago destroyed them." He turned to face north. "Another road runs due north from this stone, through the notch in the hills beside Paveway's lair, around Giant Hand Lake, and after two weeks you come to an inn call Stone Width Inn in a valley in the middle of the Yellow Downs. Turn west and after a week you come to my place. Turn east," he added softly, "and you come to the Elven lands."
Aurani thought about the road and had the curious feeling she was being pulled along at great speed across mountains, through woods, around the lake. A desire to see the Elven lands flared in her heart. The headlong rush halted abruptly when Pen touched her arm.
"Be careful," he whispered, "lest the road take you." He took the reigns of the horse and left the stone. Aurani once more fell into step at his side. "I suppose the Elves will know about those flowers," he said loudly. The noise destroyed the feeling of mystery at the crossroad. "I had better see them."
They walked in silence again.
"Pen?" said Aurani at last.
"Thanks for helping."
"It's what friends do," said Pen softly.