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'So this is Kush,' said Dawtrina, hands on hips and blonde hair flapping in a strong mountain breeze. 'It doesn't look like a throbbing metropolis to me. I have a feeling that Gibbon hasn't mastered his newfound spells as much as he thinks he has. What do you think, Petal?'
The small dragon moved to shelter her mistress from the wind and drooped her eyes, a habit that Daw recognised well as a dragon shrug. Petal was never much worried about where she happened to be, as long as the pair of them were close together. She nuzzled her jaw against Daw's shoulder to emphasize this and received a firm rub in return.
A large and dangerous looking cat stalked directly between them, rubbing deliberately up against Daw's legs, and then proceeded onward without looking back. A few yards later she curled up in a hollow on top of a sprawling wind worn boulder and fell quickly asleep.
Daw laughed and walked over to gently scratch the top of the cat's head. 'You know full well, Kitten, that any love around here always includes you too.' Kitten didn't open her eyes but responded with an almost imperceptible increase in the size of her grin. Daw noticed and matched it.
'So, I think we're safe in saying that while we have no clue where we are right now, we can be pretty sure that this isn't Kush. We're in some sort of mountain range and there is nobody around. What do you want to do first: eat, sleep or explore?'
Dragons are physically incapable of grinning but that doesn't mean that they can't display emotion. Petal's eyes gleamed and she extended her head out firmly. Daw didn't need telling twice that she was required to follow her dragon on an exploration venture so she dropped her bags next to Kitten's boulder.
'Not too far, Petal. We'll explore a little while Kitten sleeps and then head back here to eat. OK?'
She looked up and saw that her dragon was already moving.
'What's up? You seem anxious? Can you smell someone around here after all?'
Petal was following a vague path, fast disappearing around blind curves. Daw was forced to jog to keep up with her and it was a full five minutes before she caught up. She was thankful that they seemed to be well within the mountain range, far from any dangerous precipices. She found her dragon's eyes focused on the mountainside itself, unblinking.
'What is it, Petal? You ran off like something possessed! What have you found?'
Her dragon looked at her in puzzlement then began to scratched at the side of the mountain. Daw sighed and joined the attack, pulling away loose stones and mountain weeds with her hands. Petal's claws were the big guns that could make a difference against some of the rock and together they soon exposed a small hole in the side of the mountain.
Daw looked through the hole and gasped when she realised that she was looking at a cavern. She looked long and hard, a puzzled expression gradually appearing on her face, then she gasped again.
'Petal! This isn't just any old cavern. This is artificially lit! Somebody's been in there!'
They were almost back to their base when a loud yowl pierced the mountain calm.
'Kitten!' Daw cried and sprinted round the final corner.
She stopped dead at the sight before her, hardly believing her eyes. Kitten was in an attack stance, ready to pounce. Six opponents stood in front of her in an arc and a seventh on its back underneath her paw. These opponents were about eight inches tall, small but powerfully built, and armed with heavy shovels. Daw sized up the situation and realised that the one on the ground must have smashed Kitten's tail with his shovel and woken the cat up quickly in the process. What they hadn't counted on was that Kitten had plenty of fight experience and a well placed paw must have swatted both shovel and attacker right off the boulder.
When Daw found her feet and ran to aid her cat, she was immediately noticed by the attackers, and with a horrified cry they disappeared into the mountain. Only the one that Kitten had downed remained, unconscious or dead between the cat's front paws. Kitten herself was glaring at Daw, suggesting that she resented her new playthings being taken away from her.
Daw ignored the look and bent down to check first her cat's tail and then the dwarf who was now stirring. A steady flow of blood ran down the side of his face. He shook his head gently as if to clear his thoughts and then turned to run. Daw planted her hand firmly in his way and he stopped, realising both that he had no easy escape and that she offered him no harm at the present. He looked up at her, a hateful look reaching her through the blood.
'Where do you come from, giant? Why do you make war on us with your monster?'
'My monster? What monster?'
'That monster!' he shouted, pointing directly at the scowling Kitten.
'Let me see to that wound first and then you can explain just what you're talking about.'
When the wound was staunched and bandaged, using a strip of material torn from Daw's own clothing, the dwarf sat on his haunches and looked up at Daw, puzzlement replacing the earlier hate.
'I don't understand, giant,' he said. 'Why would you attack us and then help me? It doesn't make any sense.'
Daw was laid down so that the dwarf didn't have to strain his neck too much with Kitten peering up from between her arms.
'OK, let's get one thing clear,' said Daw. 'I have never attacked you and neither has Kitten or Petal.'
The dwarf looked even more fearful. 'I heard you call this monster Kitten. Who is Petal?'
'Don't panic, dwarf, because you're perfectly safe, but take a quick look behind you.'
The dwarf's jaw dropped immediately, then slowly he turned around. Petal was a short distance away, scratching her neck with her front claws; and she blinked at the dwarf, who instantly found that his jaw could drop further than he could ever have imagined, followed quickly by the rest of him. Daw neatly caught him before his head hit the ground and let him down gently.
'Don't tell anyone that I did that,' the dwarf said, when he finally sat back up again.
'No problem,' Daw replied, stifling her laughter. 'That's Petal. She's my dragon.'
'And I thought that was a monster,' the dwarf cried. 'She's nothing compared to your... your dragon.'
Kitten snarled as if she took that as a personal insult, which she probably did. She took a step towards the dwarf and snarled again, then stalked off to lie down next to Petal.
Even though he was obviously scared stiff at this, Daw was impressed that the dwarf's courage kept him from stepping backwards or running anyway.
'OK, let's get introduced properly. You've met Kitten and Petal already. I'm Dawtrina. Call me Daw.'
'I'm Bob,' said the dwarf.
'Bob the dwarf? Aren't you all supposed to have tough miner names?' laughed Daw.
'What's wrong with Bob?' said Bob. 'You just chased off Flower and Marigold. Bob is pretty tough where I come from.'
'OK, I believe you, er, Bob!' cried Daw. 'So what's going on? Why do you think we've been attacking you when we haven't?'
Bob shrugged. 'Well if you haven't been doing it, someone else has. There's a monster around here that looks like your Kitten and it's been stealing our people away and eating them and, well, if it isn't you, then who is it?'
It was Daw's turn to shrug. 'I haven't a clue, but maybe we can find out. That's if your people will accept our help, seeing as there's so much size difference between us, what with all of you being dwarves.'
Bob stamped his foot. 'We're not dwarves, we're men! You're just a giant. That's why you're so big.'
'We'll get nowhere quickly on that sort of discussion. To me, you're a dwarf. To you, I'm a giant. I guess it's all just a matter of perspective. It doesn't make any difference though. I'm a friend, that's what matters. If I promise not to stomp any of you by accident and vouch for Kitten and Petal, will you let us help?'
'That I can find out.'
A day later, Bob reappeared from inside the mountain with both good and bad news.
'We'll accept your help, Daw. It took a lot of persuasion but I managed to get them on my side in the end. Nobody wanted to go for it, but then the news came in that the monster had taken three more of us. It all simply has to stop and if it means that we have to get you to do it then that's the price we have to pay.'
'Erm, you don't have to sound too grateful, Bob. We don't have to help, you know. We just offered in sort of reparation for your head.'
'I know that, Daw. You helped me already. They don't though, because they don't know you. You're just a giant to them and a giant is pretty scary, you know.'
'A giant would be pretty scary to me too. Dwarves are freaky enough as it is.'
'Point taken.' The dwarf took a deep breath. 'On behalf of all our people, I have been formally authorised to ask for your help in ridding our kingdom of the monster that has been causing so much chaos and destruction.'
Daw smiled. 'And we would be formally happy to do what we can. What do you need?'
'Kitten, Bob says that the monster looks like you, which means that's it's likely to be another cat. I'm sure you can find a cat. Do you want to mosey on inside that mountain and see what you can find? Oh, and don't have at a go at Bob and his friends!'
Kitten looked a little disgusted but followed Bob inside the mountain anyway. There was no chance that Petal could get through the tiny opening and Daw could only get partway through. That left Kitten on her own inside the dwarf kingdom, and Daw really hoped she would behave. She worried that the dwarves would look less and less like friends and more and more like food or toys. Of course there was now nothing that she could do about it, so she sat back down with Petal and waited.
'How long are we going to have to wait?' Daw asked.
She was slouched down on the ground, leaning against a boulder, and Petal rolled around leisurely in front of her. It had been two days and there was still no sign of Kitten.
Petal looked at her mistress with a worried look in her eyes, but Daw sent those worries packing.
'Oh no, you don't, Petal! I've never seen a cat that could beat Kitten in a fight, fair or otherwise, and it sounds like there's only one of them in there to find. In fact, you should remember the time when those two toms decided to fight over her and she ended up beating both of them instead.'
Petal lounged back with a smile in her eyes in agreement.
When Kitten reappeared, a further day later, Daw and Petal were both amazed to see that she wasn't alone. Following her out of the mountainside in a long line was a litter of kittens, of all colours and sizes, followed in turn by the cutest tabby cat that Daw had ever seen. The difference between her and Kitten couldn't have been more pronounced. Finally, Bob and a couple of other dwarves lined up outside the opening into the mountain.
Daw's surprise only disappeared when she saw Kitten's expression. The dwarves were cheering but Kitten looked thoroughly disgusted. It was obviously a toss up between who was going to be happier with the cat and her litter gone: the dwarves or Kitten.
Bob looked especially happy. The dwarves walked up to Daw, with Bob leading the way, and he thanked her as formally as he had asked for her help.
'We all owe our lives to you, Daw. Our thanks are multiplied because while there is only one monster now, there would soon have been eighteen of them. What devastation they would have wrought is beyond comprehension. Our kingdom would have been destroyed utterly. You have saved us all. How can we ever repay you?'
Daw blushed. After all this time round she hadn't even done anything herself to help. It was Kitten's show throughout and Daw herself felt ashamed to accept any thanks on her own behalf.
'It's Kitten who you should be thanking, not me. She's the one who found these, erm, monsters.'
The dwarves promptly ran back into the mountainside opening without even a backward glance. Only Bob stayed with Daw. He looked at her, gulped, then marched over to Kitten and asked her personally what he could do for her.
He got nothing but an evil grin. Kitten slowly moved her nose close to Bob's face and the dwarf's legs began to shake.
Then she rolled over and proffered her belly to him. Bob forced himself to rub her tummy and only turned to run when Petal laughed so hard that she snorted.
Daw laughed too and sighed. 'One monster at a time, Petal, one monster at a time.'
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