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There wasn't much wind that night.
It looked like the wood was keeping a vigil; the trees were bowed, still, limbs outstretched and touching, huddled like cowled monks mid-prayer. Even the usual flurry of birds had retreated to a safe distance, their abstract symphony of chirps vanished as if in reverence.
And in the unique silence of a held breath, the young girl listened to the flapping of her dragon's wings.
And they flapped. And they flapped... and the leaves rustled and the branches swayed and it suddenly seemed like there was a wind after all. For even small dragons are powerful creatures. And Dawtrina's dragon was small as dragons come.
Faster and faster they flapped, and the dragon hopped and skipped and...
And nothing. Collapsing back onto her haunches and panting from exertion, she looked at Daw with the saddest eyes.
'Why can't you fly, Petal?' exclaimed Dawtrina, in a rush of breath of her own. She had been too wrapped up in anticipation to remember to breathe and, red-faced, now she had to catch up. 'Why can't you fly? You're a dragon! You're meant to fly! All dragons fly!'
Petal's head dipped, embarrassed, and Daw rushed forward to throw her delicate arms round her dragon's muscled neck. 'Oh I'm sorry, love! I didn't mean to yell. It's just that... well, you know! You should be able to fly. You're a dragon! There's nothing wrong with you. Look at you - you're perfect! So why can't you fly?'
And she squeezed her dragon's neck tight once more and plumped herself down on the ground in desperation.
Petal looked up with damp eyes and nuzzled at Daw's hair as if to comfort her. Her eyes looked into Daw's and the look she gave was one of gentle caring and support. The dragon was just as upset that she couldn't fly, but somehow she felt there was a reason for it. And she curled her translucent wings round Daw's delicate hand and the pair held together as the chirping began again around them and the wood came back to life.
'So, young lady,' said the old man in a voice curiously devoid of emotion. 'I hear you've been trying to fly your dragon.'
Daw looked up sharply and, while she tried to look calm and collected, there was fire in her gaze and a tension in her muscles that was hard to hide. Especially with the dangerous bundle of guardian fur that she called Kitten clawing the floor as if in support. But she didn't answer. After all, he had been very careful that his words were not going to be interpreted as a question...
'She's called Petal,' she reacted, as if daring the old man to avoid using her dragon's name again. She was actually named something a lot longer than 'Petal', but that's all she was ever called, unless Daw called her 'love'...
For a moment she thought he was going to say something back. But he just smiled and turned his eyes back to the unicorn whose hooves he was tending. 'Calm,' he said as the beast picked up on Daw's nervousness; and instantly she was stroking the unicorn's neck and rubbing the tender ridge of flesh around its horn, all worries forgotten.
After a while, she looked up again. 'Why is he skittish?' she asked, with a genuine concern in her voice.
As if he'd been awaiting that very question, the unicorn's master patted her on the head and leant back against the wall with a curious smile on his face. Kitten looked up briefly and, with a look of total disinterest, went back to washing her paws.
'I knew you were the one,' he said. 'I knew it from the start. And certainly nobody else would have noticed...'
'The one? The one what?' said Daw, puzzled at his tone of voice.
For a short time he thought and smiled and thought. And then he said, 'Unicorns are strange creatures, young lady. Have you ever seen a unicorn? Other than this one of course...'
Daw's reply was instant. 'No, of course not! There aren't many unicorns - everyone knows that.'
'Ever wonder why?' he said quietly.
Daw looked at him, her attention caught. 'Why aren't there?'
'Because unicorns are unique. They're more than most animals - more than most dragons even. No - don't interrupt. And sit down - it's about time you knew some of this.'
Daw sat back down, in rapt attention.
And he continued. 'Animals are animals. They have little brain, little emotion. Just instinct. Except for a few species... Cats have their own minds - they run their own lives and they know more than most of us give them credit for.'
Kitten gave a snarl that almost sounded like a snicker and Daw nodded, but made a conscious effort not to interrupt.
'Dragons are a breed above too. They hold a unique connection between men and beasts - one that you know very well, young lady. It isn't telepathy, it's more of an empathy. You feel what the dragon feels and the dragon feels what you feel. It's something that the dragonmen have talked about a lot - but they still don't know why it happens or how it happens. They mostly just accept it as the way things are. But there are a lot of dragonmen and there are a lot of dragons. There's only one unicorn.'
Daw was on her feet, sending Kitten tumbling away with a grumble. 'One? Just one? There can't be!'
'Well, not strictly true, I grant you. But for all intents and purposes, there's only one. Because we only get to see one and this is it.'
'But why? Why only one? Where are the others? Why don't we get to see them? Why...'
The old man held a finger up as if in warning, but his eyes showed no anger. Daw took the hint and sat back down again.
'Just as dragons hold a unique connection between men and beasts, unicorns hold a unique connection between our different worlds. There's a lot more to things than we see, young lady. The unicorn can sense things that we can't experience with our limited powers. Dragons we will understand. Well, one day. But unicorns are not something that we're ever meant to understand. They just are. And they hold the keys to a lot of the doors that we're not meant to unlock. There has to be a unicorn in the world of men or all the magic will flow out of our lives. Just one. And to all things balance - there has to be a man in the world of unicorns too.'
'But how do you know?' Daw couldn't keep quiet any longer.
'Because that man is my brother. And that unicorn is the one you're stroking right now.'
'And what if the unicorn dies? What if something happens? And your brother? What if...'
'Then another one is brought. And as quickly as possible, because the longer the gap, the longer we have to do without magic.'
Daw was back in full flow. 'What magic? Magic's just fairy stories. Nobody can do that stuff.'
'Fairy stories are fairy stories,' the old man replied, 'and reality is reality. Magic is often misunderstood - it isn't flying on broomsticks or turning people into rats. Magic is the beauty that sits behind life and we can see it every time we really look for it, not that we often do... It's what gives a child laughter and a lover bliss and a mother pride. But when there is no unicorn in the world of men, there is no magic.'
'So,' said Dawtrina. 'Why is he skittish?'
'And that is a very good question, young lady. Maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to tell me.'
And he wouldn't say any more. And after a while, Daw collected her dragon from the tree under which she'd been basking, and they went off to eat.
It was so early that the sun had yet to peek its way over the horizon. But the light was growing and what little there was shone weirdly through the delicate membranes of Petal's wings. And underneath was the determined figure of Dawtrina striding along, her short legs working hard to keep up with Petal's wide and loping gait. She'd have ridden, but the loping made her feel strange, and if only Petal could fly...
They were a strange couple, the girl and her dragon, but there was much that matched them together so well as to almost appear symbiotic. They were both small for their breed, but perfectly formed. Both seemed to be at once delicate as glass but hardy as steel, and their jade green eyes looked like they had been cut from the very same stone.
And right now they were marching along at quite a frantic pace with only the rising sun as company; Kitten had sped off ahead in search of her own breakfast.
'They won't find us this time, Petal. I knew we should have gone further before trying things before. I don't know why they won't let us try to fly but I'm not going to stand for it. You're a dragon! You're supposed to fly!' Daw was gesturing with her arms as if to convince her dragon, but Petal simply growled softly in agreement.
And the sun came up and the sun went down and the days passed. And way away from the town, where none could see, Petal tried to fly.
Daw's face was a picture of frustration. Her dragon was small but otherwise perfectly formed - every bone and muscle and membrane in total proportion. Her body and her wings worked like a dream; fluid and sinewy, with efficiency and effortless grace. If there was such a thing as a show of dragons, Petal would have a good chance at honour.
But she couldn't fly.
And whatever tricks Daw thought up and whatever moves Petal tried, nothing could change the fact that her perfect dragon couldn't even fly. Day after day after day. And all dragons flew!
Petal lay herself down and leant her head gently on Daw's tiny lap. The two rested a rest that comes only from exhaustion and when they woke, Daw's head was resting neatly in the hollow of her dragon's neck, Kitten licking her foot.
'One more try?' she said, without much conviction. 'Just one more and we'll head back.'
Petal puffed herself up, pulled her bodyweight backwards until she was balanced totally on powerfully coiled hind legs. Then she slowly raised her wings, oh so slowly, and started to beat. Daw shuffled back to avoid the rush of air that the movement was producing and Kitten scowled off under a tree. Soon Daw's hair was windswept as Petal flapped faster and faster and faster and...
Now! She leapt into the air, with blurring wings causing a gale underneath her supple limbs. And just for an instant, it looked like Petal was airborne.
But collapsing back down from the great effort, she pulled her head tight to her chest and gave out an exasperated sob. Another failure.
'What are we missing?' cried Dawtrina. 'Why can't you fly?' And she wrapped her arms around her dragon and they sobbed together.
It was the early hours of the morning when they passed through the town gates, when few were abroad to notice their return. And they slipped quietly through the empty streets towards the rougher part of town where the pickpockets and amateur thieves had found shelter before a new day's opportunities.
It's surprising how easily a dragon can pass unnoticed through the streets of a town, however asleep it may be - but while a dragon's fast pace is ungainly and loping, it can tiptoe like a ballerina. And Petal was no exception. Maybe she'd learned her movements from Kitten, who was almost invisible the way she darted nimbly from shadow to shadow to shadow...
None saw them wend their way slowly and subtly to the old man's house. None saw Petal ease into the background while Daw slid effortlessly into the stable where he knew he would be tending to his unicorn, whatever the hour.
But when Daw screamed and Petal roared and thrust her head in through the door, half the town woke up.
The doctor had done his work and left the old man looking in somewhat better shape. The small room that he had made available was plain and simple but it was much more homely than the stable in which the old man spent most of his waking hours. Yet his skin was white and his bandages many and his eyes were still closed in healing sleep. And he stirred often and Daw was right there to keep the blankets over him.
He slept well and hard - for long, long hours he slept. And the night had again closed its relentless talons on the day before his eyes finally opened to blink in agitation. And yet Daw was still there with Kitten keeping her usual watchful eye on proceedings.
'Find...' he said in a croak of a voice. Daw thrust a mug of water into his hand and helped him to drink. 'Find the unicorn,' he said. 'Find him and bring the magic back. Find him...'
And he sank back into sleep.
Dawtrina was sitting on a rock, elbows on knees, cradling her elfin face with her hands. And she looked up at her dragon and spoke in a tired voice. 'So where do we look? How do we know where the unicorn is? Someone must have taken him, that's for sure, but who? And if the unicorn provides the magic, how can just anyone have taken him? I just don't know. Why me?'
Petal nudged her under the chin, startling Kitten who was curled up between her elbows, and she glanced a knowing glance.
'OK, OK, so I'm supposed to be someone special. Well I don't feel special, other than having you.'
Petal preened and rubbed her scaly head tenderly against Daw's hair.
'I don't know what he was talking about. I know he's really old, maybe he's too old - you know, like he's losing track of things?'
Kitten coughed and shot a meaningful stare at her as if to point out that Daw really knew better than that.
'Yeah, I don't believe it either. Have you seen things today? It's like something's missing. Things look the same but they're not. Maybe this magic is really there after all but now it's gone with the unicorn. But what do we do about... Ow!'
She slapped at her neck as if she'd been bitten by a mosquito. 'What was that?' she cried, rubbing. 'Something bit me!'
While she rubbed, Petal slipped her head neatly over Daw's shoulders, seeking out the culprit. And a butterfly landed right on the tip of her nose.
Petal blinked. Hard. But the butterfly didn't move.
The dragon pulled her head back and looked at Daw, who smiled, and slipped an unobtrusive hand over Kitten who would quite happily have slapped at the tiny creature with a well-aimed paw. Petal blinked again and opened her jaws slowly. Almost cross-eyed from watching the butterfly so close, she snapped her jaws shut. Dragons have very powerful jaws, even small ones like Petal, and the shock sent the butterfly fluttering off. But it didn't flutter far, darting in to touch Daw's neck once more and then settling itself back on the dragon's nose.
Daw's smile grew wider until it was a fully fledged grin. 'Petal? Think we found our answer? Hee...' she said with her eyes sparkling. 'Let's go see!'
And the butterfly launched itself towards Dawtrina, flapped its tiny wings and set a reasonable pace for them to follow.
The building was a big one, spread out in haphazard fashion. Walkways criss-crossed here and there and back again, and there were great mounds of coal leaning precariously like they'd been dropped there by some giant and promptly forgotten about.
'It's a mine!' cried Daw. 'I've always wanted to see a mine!'
Kitten scowled over her shoulder as if to remind her that they were here for more than an exploration. Much more. They had a unicorn to rescue.
'So where now, little butterfly?' asked Daw, watching the creature flap this way and that as if to jog its memory. 'Make your mind up, little one!' she smiled.
As if coming to a decision, the butterfly headed left, round a huge stack of coal that rumbled and threatened to tip over them and end their quest then and there. And round the stack was another stack and a walkway overhead and there seemed to be a passageway between them. There were footprints embedded into the coal dust on the ground. And there were hoofmarks!
Daw straightened up and slowed her pace, holding her arms wide to slow the little group down.
'There's a door there,' she whispered, pointing at a huge entrance across the way. 'It's locked - look at the chain. And there's someone guarding it.' And she watched as the butterfly weft its fluttery way towards the guard, finally coming to rest on his shoulder.
But no bemused dragon he... He slapped at it hard, jumping and cursing. 'Damn things! What's got into them today?' he cried, whirling his arms like a dervish. 'We can't get rid of them!'
Another butterfly appeared, joining in the affray, neatly darting away from roughly aimed fists. And another and another until his head was almost lost behind a cloud of butterflies.
Daw looked at her dragon and Kitten looked at Daw and Petal looked at the cat. And as if by some mutual agreement, they took off as one toward the guard.
Kitten arrived first and launched herself at the man's legs, claws meeting cloth and skin and bowling the man down in a tangle of blood and cries. Petal dived low too, taking the great wooden door off its hinges and colliding with a man who was evidently heading out to see what the fuss was about. He flew into a wall and stopped moving instantly.
Daw rushed in, Kitten right behind her, her work outside finished with short shrift.
The room was empty and the cavernous area in front of them too, but they could hear startled voices heading quickly their way from a side corridor. Daw grabbed a plank of wood from the littered floor and ducked to one side of the passageway's entrance. Her first shot was well-timed and sent her assailant flying backwards with a hefty snap and a cry. And as more flew out of the corridor Daw flew at them.
Kitten was like a clawed ball, wreaking havoc wherever she touched down. And Petal's mere presence made a major difference. They kept away from the dragon. Or they tried to...
It was as if they were being herded together. Daw's plank of wood sent them one way, Petal's gaping jaws sent them another only for the frenzied Kitten to send them back again.
And then the roof came down.
One second, it was a one-sided fight, the three in total control and the enemy in bustling confusion; the next they were down on the ground, wrestling with some new foe and finding it a dangerous one.
'A net! Oh, they got us with a net!'
She could feel Kitten scrabbling to get out and Petal stretching herself to break the bond, but more men were rushing round tightening the net and throwing on another and they soon realised that it wasn't a bond they could break quite that easily. Especially with the rough kicks being aimed at their struggling bodies to contend with as well...
Petal roared, long and loud. And in the reverberating silence that followed they heard a single voice, deep and confident, laughing.
'And you doubted me?' it said with a mock hurt. 'You honestly thought I couldn't do this? Well take a good look!' it screamed. 'Now we have the lot!'
And the laughter took over and Daw shivered at how evil it sounded. An old voice, but a familiar one. Familiar... somehow.
'Right over there,' the man snapped and a group of the others strained to heave the uncooperative net over the rough floor. Kitten was still trying to squeeze her way out, but the bonds were too tight to allow much movement. She yowled in frustration.
Eventually they came to a halt, and from her uncomfortable position Daw could see the lost unicorn. He snorted in acknowledgement and made a token shake at his tethers. He snorted again.
'What do you think you're doing?' cried Daw with more confidence in her voice than she expected.
'And you honestly expect me to answer you?' came the reply. 'Why shouldn't I just throw you and your dragon and that moth-eaten cat of yours right down that mineshaft? You're not in a position to ask a thing! I'm the one in control here, young lady!'
And then it registered. And Daw realised who she was dealing with.
'You attacked your own brother? How could you? What sort of a man could do...'
'Shut up!' The man was obviously mad, and the pitch of his voice was rising. 'I don't have to explain myself to you!'
'But what had he ever done to you? He was a good man. I know, I've...'
The old man's brother's voice suddenly calmed to the calm monotone of the insane. But it was still piercing. 'Do you know what it's like to be without human company for an entire lifetime? Unicorns are great creatures. They can teach you so much, so so much! But no human contact? It's almost enough to send you mad!'
Daw nearly laughed in spite of herself.
'Why should I give myself to you? You and all your unworthy kind? My whole life! Where's the thanks I get for keeping my side of the gate open. I've given my life to you! You and all the others like you! You don't deserve a thing! I'm the one who's done all this! Me! Me! Where's my reward? Where's my magic?'
And then Daw understood. The years of seeing nothing but unicorns had sent him totally mad. And he wanted his share of the magic. But that magic only comes from human contact. It was the magic of human interaction, the bliss of seeing another's face light up with joy. The unicorn made it possible, and he had more unicorns than he could count. But no other people to share the magic with...
She almost felt sorry for him. No, she did feel sorry for him. He'd given the world so much, but the world didn't even know he existed. And he couldn't even share in the magic that he helped to keep alive.
And there, bound securely by a tightening net, struggling with her helpless dragon and her fiery cat, she felt sorry for the man.
And that single moment seemed to last a lifetime before the old man's brother's voice slit back into her consciousness. 'Throw them in! Nobody else can stop us - they're the only ones with the power. And they don't even know what it is!'
And the laughter pealed and Daw's bones shivered and the net started moving once more.
She could still see the unicorn, except when the movements rocked her over onto her face. He snorted and raged and tore at his tethers, but he couldn't break free.
And then the shaft was right there and the weight of her dragon being toppled over the edge snapped her down fast and all she could see was a blur.
And Petal roared. And Kitten shrieked. And all Daw could do was remember that her dragon couldn't fly...
And down they rushed. The shaft was deep and the air flooded past Daw's ears and soon she couldn't even hear her own screams, let alone the roar of her dragon.
And then she calmed. It wasn't a soft calm, but a hard, solid calm, one that took her by surprise.
She reached out her mind and grabbed hold of her dragon's thoughts. And she threw all of her being at her dragon and she felt Petal throw the same back. And she smiled. And the dragon smiled. And suddenly they both knew why Petal couldn't fly. And snap! They merged.
And all of a sudden the rush was gone. The air, the flooding of air, the whole rush downwards was gone. And Dawtrina and her dragon focused their will and they pushed.
And the air snapped in half with the effort. It was as if thunder clamoured an inch above them and that symbiotic half-dragon, half-girl broke through... through something.
And they were gone.
The net flopped in on itself and tumbled and hit the bottom of the mineshaft with a limp almost-silence. But its contents were gone.
And, above, the air was still reverberating.
The old man's brother had turned white.
He looked just like his brother, the man with the unicorn. They could almost have been twins. But the old man that Dawtrina knew was full of life, however old he may have been. His smile was rich and his eyes twinkled and he was alive. This man looked like a ghost.
And as his head lolled forward, the air tingled. And as he looked up, it glowed and intensified and then split open.
And there was the little girl and her dragon, with fire in their eyes. And a dissatisfied Kitten, who sniffed and shook herself and ambled off, thoroughly disgusted with the whole thing.
And all the men who had pulled the ropes and thrown the kicks and played their part in the proceedings turned as one and they ran.
It was as if time had frozen, with Daw looking at the old man and the old man trying not to look back. He stumbled. He almost fell. And then he opened his mouth.
As he ran towards the mineshaft, all Daw could hear was 'The magic. Just for the magic.'
And as the shaft swallowed him whole, Dawtrina stepped forward to free the unicorn.
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