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There was fire in the little girl's jade green eyes as she ran.
The crowd in the square parted like a wave to let her through, her and her big stick and the cat that followed her everywhere. They didnt care for the look in her eyes, but mostly it was due to her cat: a wild, uncontrollable creature that nobody would ever go near except Dawtrina. Some of them had been on the receiving end of its powerful claws and they didn't relish being near the thing again. There was only this one who could make it purr like a pussycat. And she called it 'Kitten'.
'Get away from her,' screeched Dawtrina, as she hurtled towards the core of the group. She waved her stick in a circular motion as she ran, making her look somewhat like an approaching whirlwind. And whether it was her or the cat, hissing along behind, it certainly had the desired effect. Boys ran hither and thither, not always avoiding Daw's well-aimed staff, scowling at pleasure lost and scuttling out of reach of Kitten's claws.
With the boys gone, their stacks of stones left toppled in the melée, the crowd gradually dispersed. There just wasn't anything worth watching any more. What most of them missed was Dawtrina dropping her stick and moving in close to the chained bear, so close, too close...
But no clubbing paws this time; the angry bear raised her head and actually allowed her to stroke her fur, what little of it she could reach. And she stroked, rubbing the bruised skin where the stones had left their mark, all the while talking to the bear as if she'd known her longer than about ten seconds.
'What goes on here?'
The man in green had to repeat himself before Daw realised he was talking to her. Suddenly she looked sheepish, as if caught out doing something she shouldn't. She didn't trust strangers at the best of times, certainly not when they found her ministering to his bear...
He must have sensed she was about to run, for he moved in slowly and calmly with his hands well in view. 'It's OK. I caught the end of it; I should thank you for helping Jenny. You saved her from a lot, you know.'
Maybe his gratitude showed in his voice or his eyes or his movements, because Daw stayed where she was. 'Why were they throwing stones?' she said.
'Oh boys will be boys,' he answered. 'Evil little things some of them. They'd pull a butterfly's wings off just to see it struggle. Luckily, however, there are quick-thinking little girls around who can interrupt their twisted games with a well-aimed stick... What made you take them all on?'
Daw blushed and dropped her head, stroking Kitten as she always did when she wanted to avoid the eyes of others. 'I didn't think, I just heard the bear being hurt and knew I had to help.' She couldn't even remember all that had happened that well, it was mostly a blur in her memory; the bear's growls, the hastily grabbed stick from the banks of the busy dreamriver, and her mad rush to the rescue. It had all happened so quickly.
The man opened the pouch at his belt, retrieved a small jar of salve which he began to apply to the bear's wounds. He talked gently to the bear as he worked, the love for her obvious in his voice. Daw took a couple of steps back, as if to leave, but the man in green spoke again, without turning his head.
'How did you get so close? Jenny doesn't let anyone near her but me.'
'Oh animals like me. They always have. I wasn't scared!' she said, looking proudly up at him.
He turned round and looked at her. 'You should have been. You shouldn't ever go near a dangerous animal - especially one with as much power in her as Jenny. I've seen what she can do...'
Somehow Daw didn't doubt him. 'My kitten's dangerous too,' she volunteered.
'This big beast is a kitten?' asked the man in green, crouching and offering a hand.
'Well she's getting old now, but she's still a kitten to me,' said Daw, smiling.
'However did you find her? She doesn't seem like a pet to me...'
Daw looked proud again. 'Oh, I rescued her. They were going to kill her! I was only young then but I made them let me take her instead. She won't come to anyone else and she's useful too. Nobody ever comes near me because they're scared of her.'
The man in green smiled gently. 'Somehow I bet you could persuade anyone into doing anything...'
He made a soft sound in his throat and Daw's mouth opened and shut, her words lost as Kitten padded over to the bear man and rubbed her head against his fingers. She shifted her weight, her mouth still moving like a goldfish, not sure what to say.
But the man laughed. 'There are others who have talents with animals, you know...'
'I know!' said Daw, recovering herself and speaking emphatically, 'but you're not a dragon man!'
At that the man in green smiled again, to himself if at anyone and hurried her away so he could look after his bear.
The sun was rising when Daw found herself back at the square, the ever-present Kitten in tow. The man was already up, still in green and playing with Jenny, helping her exercising her large muscles before the people of the town surfaced. The last thing he needed was a bunch of locals talking to the authorities about a dangerous loose bear...
He looked over at her with a glint in his eye. 'So you came back?' he asked.
'Can I help?' said Daw, trying to hide the eagerness in her voice.
'And how could you help?' he replied, his voice still soft.
Daw stumbled. 'I dunno. I just wanted to help! There must be something I can do!'
The smile that the man had been suppressing so well suddenly broke out across his face. 'Well, Jenny needs some water. Can you fetch some from the well?'
Daw looked at the size of the bucket and gulped. The man laughed, but kindly. 'Here, there's a smaller bucket. Can you manage this one?'
Daw nodded and grabbed it from his hands, running over to the well, Kitten scampering along behind. Even with its reduced size, she still staggered on the way back, but poured the water into the larger bucket and ran back for a second trip. Jenny buried her face in the bucket and began to lap up the water.
After three bucketloads the man waved her to stop. She sat down and tried to recover her breath.
'Do your parents know you're up this early?' asked the man, but Daw just turned her eyes inwards again. 'Oh, I'm sorry,' he said, realising.
'I don't know who they are,' said Daw, running her words together, 'and they don't care at the orphanage.'
'I'm sure they care at least a little...' chanced the man, passing her some bread.
'They don't care at all!' she shouted. 'But they let me do what I want. They're scared of Kitten.'
The man laughed. 'Now that I can believe,' he said, smiling.
'They didn't like Kitten sleeping with me, so one night they tried to take her away.'
Daw's words were coming in a rush but the man asked, 'What happened?'
'Oh, Kitten slashed Matron's hand. There was blood everywhere!' she said in delight. 'They've left me alone since. As long as I don't cause any trouble...'
'And you don't?'
'I only sleep there now. I can't cause any trouble if I'm not there, can I?' she said defiantly, as if she had indeed got into trouble in the past, even though she hadn't necessarily been there...
The man in green smiled. 'And what do you do with yourself, when you're not at the orphanage?' he asked.
Daw grinned. 'I find things to do,' she said and the man didn't doubt her. 'People know me. If they have an animal that needs help, they let me know and I do what I can.'
The man didn't doubt that either and smiled his smile to himself.
For five days, Daw was up before the dawn, helping exercise Jenny and helping the man in green in any way she could. One day she even helped to cut Jenny's nails. In return he asked about her life, what she did with all these animals...
'Sometimes I can help to heal them,' she said. 'Other times they just need someone there. Someone to care for them, to talk to them, sometimes just to walk them.'
He asked her what she wanted to do with her life and she couldn't answer. 'As long as there's animals, I don't care,' she said. And she looked up at the sky where she sometimes saw them flying and added almost reverently, 'And I want to touch a dragon.'
The man asked her which animals she cared for. And the variety surprised even him. And he knew well the range of creatures that dreamland had to offer...
'Oh, most of them are just dogs or cats, but some people have other animals. I look after tortoises, horses, goats. One lady has a room full of butterflies. There's a few that have pigs and birds and there's even one man with a unicorn.' She said this last in a hush, as if she shouldn't have shared the information.
The man in green blinked. 'A unicorn?' he asked, but Daw clammed up and wouldn't say any more.
On the sixth day, she was at the square bright and early as usual, but the man in green was gone. Jenny was gone too and Daw spent fully half a day searching the town. She asked everyone she knew but nobody had any idea where the pair had gone.
She hung around the square for the rest of the day, but they didn't make an appearance and she began to despair. She'd found something of a kindred spirit in the man in green and his bear. Daw could stroke Jenny, something that the bear would let nobody else do but her keeper, and Kitten let down her guard for the bear man, again something that she wouldn't do for anyone except Daw. With the two of them gone, there seemed to be a gap in her life.
Life goes on though, as life must, and after a few days of fruitless waiting, Daw went back to her old routine. She cared for the cats and the dogs and the butterflies and the horses. And she never let the man with the unicorn know that she'd shared their secret. But somehow he treated her differently. He had always been kind, but now he had a sort of detached reverence for her. Nothing that Daw noticed of course, so life went on...
Autumn went by and winter was preparing to pounce. And winter in dreamland always carries a bite, so Daw was snuggled up under extra blankets. She'd gone to sleep with a tear, knowing how she would hate the following day.
She didn't know when her birthday was, but orphanage policy was to assign a new birthday to each new arrival, usually the day they arrived. There were no major celebrations, usually just a simple present on the pillow to wake up to. Daw's assigned date was 22nd October, but since the night when Kitten had left Matron with a large scar, she had received no present. She wasn't relishing the thought of another 22nd October, when she'd be the only child to be presentless on her birthday. She'd thought of spending the night away from the orphanage but the cold had driven her back to her blankets and she dreamed quietly, waiting for the new day.
Day arrived somewhat like usual. She awoke to Kitten's purring, but today there was a new sound. A humming. She didn't think much of it because Kitten was still there and Kitten wouldn't let anything dangerous come near, so she snuggled into her pillows to rest a little while longer.
But soon her drowsy ears picked up strange movement and her imagination took control. She opened her eyes and looked around. When she saw the man in green she sat bolt upright, Kitten yowling softly at the sudden movement. And who was that next to him? What were they doing here? And why was Matron standing behind them looking so subdued?
But her shock at the sight faded behind her curiosity and some instinct sent her ears in search of the humming. As she turned to the next bed and saw not a dorm-mate but a large, humming, golden egg, her jaw dropped and the reality suddenly kicked in.
She looked back at the man in green who smiled and nodded and she then leapt out of bed towards the egg. Carefully, oh so carefully, she touched the egg and the pitch of the humming increased audibly. She put her ear to the leathery membrane and listened.
And so lost was she in the presence of the egg that she didn't even hear the man in the dragonriding leathers turn to the man in green and say, 'I don't know how you do it, Finder, but this one is certainly special!'
And Daw forgot about her birthday and the presents she never got and the men and scowling Matron and she wrapped her arms around the egg and she listened to her dragon.
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