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'Do you wonder too, Petal?' asked Dawtrina. 'Do you ever wonder if we're even on the same world we started out on?'
The dragon lowered her head towards Daw's, as she often did when they talked. The two were bonded together by a strong empathic connection that over time had grown more akin to direct telepathy, negating any need for speech. However they had not seen another human being in three months and so Daw had begun to regard her own voice as companionship in itself.
'It's plain that Gibbon the wizard failed to send us to Kush, but the only people we've met since he cast his spell were only eight inches high. The sun stays much longer in the sky than it I've ever seen before and even the hottest day back home didn't even approach this hot! Maybe we're just a long way further south but maybe we're on another world altogether.'
The large and powerful cat that loped easily beside Daw and her dragon sneezed loudly, as if contributing her own scorn to the conversation.
'Don't mock me, Kitten!' cried Daw. 'You don't know where we are any more than I do. Have you ever seen trees like these? Even the birds are much more colourful and I can't find anything familiar in the sky at night. Can you?'
Kitten looked at her with disdain, snarled and wandered off ahead of them. Her message was plain: who cares?
Petal nuzzled at Daw's cheek and her huge eyes sparkled. Daw looked directly into them and smiled. No onlooker happening upon the small dragon and the tiny girl could have failed to notice the emotion dancing between them.
'OK, OK, I don't care either,' she finally said. 'I don't care if we're on our world or not. I don't care if it's covered in ice or sweltering under a sun like this. I don't even care if the people we meet are eight inches tall or eight feet!' She kissed her dragon's scaly jaw. 'Just so long as we're in the same world, you and me.'
'And Kitten!' she laughed, as the cat ahead of them sneezed once more.
Daw's words didn't come back to haunt her for a further two days, which they spent just like any other two days over the last few months.
It had only taken them a week or so to find their way down from the mountains where Kitten had saved a colony of dwarves. After that they had been consistently under the ample canopy of a huge forest that had begun on the lower slopes of the mountains and showed little signs of ending. Daw had even climbed a tree now and again to get a better view but so far had seen nothing except a wide sea of green shimmering under a blazing sun.
There was plenty to see under the canopy though. Monkeys chattered away to themselves as they swung through the branches, blissfully ignoring the heights that Daw had forced herself to endure. Birds of a thousand different colours swept past them and these would often flutter around them as Daw picked fruit to eat, seemingly too lazy to find their own.
There were more powerful creatures too but these tended to remain in the shadows. However deadly they were, evidently none of them was confident enough to challenge Petal, even while they slept. On occasion though, Daw would glimpse their lithe bodies passing them at a distance and was ever thankful for the company of her dragon. There was nothing bigger or more powerful than a dragon in her world, but here? Daw didn't know and didn't want to imagine.
And then after two days, they came upon a clearing in the forest and couldn't help but see what lay directly ahead of them.
'I don't believe it,' said Dawtrina, her wide open eyes and mouth backing her claim. 'It was just a turn of phrase!'
In front of them, tied securely to a pair of sturdy treetrunks was a woman. She was facing mostly away from them and had not yet seen them approach, but Daw could see her. She was red, deep red, and naked but for a copious animal skin wrapped around her body. And she was eight feet tall if she was an inch.
If Daw was amazed to see an eight foot woman, she was still more amazed to find that this particular eight foot woman didn't want to be cut down.
'But you're tied to a tree! To two trees! There are dangerous animals roaming this forest and you're an easy target who can't defend herself. Let me cut you down!'
'Don't you dare!' cried the captive woman. 'I don't fear animals. They kill us and we kill them. I wear their skins on my body and their tusks in my ears. I have no fear of them. But when the monster comes, I must be ready to give myself to him and I must not run. If I were not tied, even a brave warrior such as I would run.'
Daw couldn't help but remember the monster that had ravaged the dwarves in the mountains. She had learned then that perspective was everything and to people only eight inches high, a tabby cat could be more than a dangerous predator. It could be a monster.
Now the people being threatened were not eight inches but eight feet high, three more than Daw who wasn't much over five feet herself. She wondered what sort of monster could threaten people as large as this. But as Petal walked round the girl and Daw saw her reaction, she and Petal both came to a simultaneous realisation: a dragon.
'Take me!' the girl cried in a strong but hollow voice. 'Take me and leave my clan alone!'
The red girl slumped in her bonds and glared at Daw, who sat with Petal and watched her back. For hours she had stubbornly stuck to her belief that she must stay tied and be sacrificed to save those whom she cared about.
'Why are you not food for the monster?' she finally asked again. 'Why does he not eat you?'
Daw stood and moved close to her dragon. 'Petal is my friend. She would never hurt me. In fact she is my protector against animals who would.'
'But how can you make friends with a monster?' retorted the woman. One day he will eat you and you will see what sort of friend he really is.' It was plain that she was expecting that day to be right now.
Daw could both see and hear the confusion that the girl radiated. She obviously recognised Petal as a dragon like the one that threatened her people, but whatever characteristics she expected to see in her 'monster' were not reflected in Petal. Every minute that passed without this dragon either attacking her or even seeming to want to do so such a thing confused her more. Before long her own life, something that she had prepared herself to lose for so long, suddenly seemed to be within possibility of saving.
'How can you make friends with a monster?' she asked again.
Daw sighed. 'Petal is no monster,' she said emphatically. 'She has been with me since she hatched, and we have rarely been apart. I couldn't think of life without her. Let me ask you a question in return. Why are you so scared of her?'
The red girl thought for a little while, as if telling her story could be dangerous in itself, but finally decided that whatever this strange white girl was, she might also be salvation.
'My name is Half Moon,' she said. 'I am from the Irachi tribe. There were many of us and we were the most powerful tribe in the forest. Then a wicked medicine man from a weaker tribe conjured up a monster to prey upon us. Our bravest braves went to fight it but none returned. Soon we were no longer powerful, and to save the rest of our people we must sacrifice one of our strongest fighters four times a year. If we fail to do this the monster will come upon us and ravage our homes and kill without mercy.'
Daw sat down, shocked. She had grown up idolising the dragons and their riders, who represented all that was most noble and honourable in her society. It was unthinkable to her that a dragon could act in any other way at all, let alone murder innocent women and children. Who could have driven such a fundamentally good creature to such evil and how could they have done so? She was puzzled.
'At least, let me untie you, Half Moon,' she said. 'Let me prove to you that my dragon is no threat to you and we can work out what else to do from there.'
The red woman set her jaw. 'You can prove that right now. I am not afraid. Make your monster touch my neck with its talons yet not spill one drop of blood.'
Daw felt like exploding at Half Moon's stubbornness but she could appreciate her bravery in asking such a thing. 'Petal is my friend, not my servant to do what I wish, but I will ask her.'
She looked at her dragon and thoughts passed between them. Petal turned and slowly walked up to the red woman, still tied between two trees. She moved her face slowly in front of Half Moon's and looked deep into her blue eyes. Holding the captive's gaze, she lifted one paw, large and powerful for all she was a small dragon, unsheathed her claws to their full eight inch length and held them unmoving in front of Half Moon's eyes.
For a very long second the two looked at each other, the large blue eyes of the red woman widening at what they could see in the dragon's larger green ones. Then Petal touched a talon to Half Moon's neck and slowly, but very gently, dragged it round her throat. Finally she moved it back in front of her blue eyes, sheathed her claws, threw back her head and roared as only a dragon can roar.
Head still held high, Petal cut with her teeth the ropes holding Half Moon's arms and legs, and after helping her safely to the ground, turned and walked back to sit by Dawtrina, her job well and truly done.
'Here, try this fruit,' offered Half Moon.'It's good to eat raw, but it always tastes better roasted.'
Though Daw was still annoyed by Half Moon's stubbornness, she had also found a growing respect for the red woman. Though she admitted that she would have run from a dragon, were she not tied, she had stood up to this one and avoiding fainting even when confronted with Petal's roar at point blank range. In fact it was that admission that Daw found that she respected most, as Half Moon was certainly no coward. And for a warrior brave, she could still cook up wonders in the pot.
After eating, Daw felt satisfied for the first time in three months. Not knowing the country, she had never been sure what she could eat and what she couldn't, and consequently restricted her diet to what she knew was safe. Now she could see that, through all that time, there had been delicacies all around them that she had left untouched.
A twinge of regret at this notwithstanding, she felt so satisfied and at peace with the world that it was hard to bring up what was sure to be a sore subject. 'Half Moon, when did you expect the dragon?' she asked, looking her squarely in the face.
'The monster comes on the quarter days, early in the morning,' Half Moon replied. 'That would be tomorrow. Do you have a plan?'
Daw nodded. 'After Petal hatched, I spent a little time with the dragonmen in my country. They looked down on Petal because she was so small, yet they respected her for something they never explained. I think they must have known that she was something special, even if they didn't know why. Anyway, of all the dragons I met, not one would have harmed a human being. Not one.'
'But this, er dragon as you call it, has attacked us for over five years. It killed most of our great warriors and has taken sacrifices from us. It does the bidding of the medicine man who called it into being.'
'Well, that I can't explain, but I don't believe it,' said Daw firmly. 'Dragons are not dogs who can be trained to do what men will them to do. They have their own wills and do what they choose. Something is very wrong here, but I can't yet place what it is. Let's get some sleep and be up early to meet it. Maybe then we'll find some answers.'
'It is nearly time,' whispered Half Moon, as she shook Daw awake. 'The sun is nearly up and the monster will be here soon after it.'
Daw scrambled out from under Petal's wing, impressed that the red woman had sorted things out in her mind so quickly as to dare coming that close to the dragon. She grabbed a fruit to moisten her throat as she woke up both Petal and Kitten, who had uncharacteristically kept quiet through the entire proceedings of the previous day.
Both Daw and Petal sensed the other dragon just before it burst into the clearing. It was clear that it was about to roar to announce its presence, before moving in for the kill, but it caught itself short, momentarily confused by the whole situation.
The sacrifice wasn't where it should be, for one thing, and there were others here who shouldn't be. It swung its head quickly around and locked eyes with Petal. It took one angry step forward then paused. Then it let out its roar, long and sustained, and sat back on its haunches, thoroughly confused. Its tilted head suggested that it was now more intrigued than angry, however it may have entered the clearing.
Daw was about to open her mouth to speak but Petal had already taken charge. Moving forward, slowly but surely, towards the newcomer who was at least half as big again as she was, she radiated peace and inquisitiveness. She wanted to know what was going on but she wasn't getting upset about it.
And then she reached her target, paused, and touched her nose to that of the other dragon. Sensing that in those few moments everything she knew had changed, Half Moon ran up to them, planted her feet firmly apart and demanded, 'Why do you hate us so much? What hold has that medicine man over you that you do his bidding and kill my people?'
In reply, the dragon merely tilted its head further to one side so that it could see Half Moon clearly, blinked a couple of times, and snorted.
'I think I can help,' laughed Daw, moving up to join her new friend. 'I can't talk to Banth but she can talk to Petal and Petal can let me in on what is being said. She says that she doesn't know the medicine man you talk of.'
'But he conjured her into being!' cried Half Moon.
'No,' said Daw, firmly but kindly. 'Banth says that she attacks you because you attacked her. She hatched near here and your people, when they first saw her, destroyed her wing. Because of this she couldn't fly away and she was angry for the hurt. Your people did this so she took her anger out on them.'
Banth lifted her left wing to show Half Moon, and it was a tattered thing, with broken and torn membranes.
'She asks who this medicine man is that you speak of, that supposedly controls her,' Daw passed on. 'Her anger is long past and she only keeps this up out of habit. She knows it is wrong but she fears that if she stops, your people will attack her again.'
Half Moon had sat down in shock and was gaping at the new dragon. 'This is all just a mistake? Five years of misery, all because of a mistake? This cannot be.'
'It is,' said Daw. 'Do you know anything about the medicine man? Where can he be found?'
'He comes from a neighbouring tribe,' whispered Half Moon. 'They have warred with us more than once, though until he conjured up this monster, they were no real threat. Now they rule the forest and we are weak.'
Banth roared again and her anger was clear now, not at the hurt done to herself but at the further hurt she had done in return. She roared once more and glared at Petal. In turn Petal turned towards Daw and almost smiled.
'Where can he be found,' asked Daw, firmly. 'Where, exactly?'
Petal leaned her head gently on Dawtrina's shoulder and gave out what for a dragon is equivalent to a sigh. They were in the village of Half Moon's tribe, watching a celebration dance. Eight foot tall men and women danced round a huge fire, chanting and singing. A sizeable feast had been prepared and Banth was the guest of honour.
Daw looked up at her dragon and sighed in return. 'Well love, we've fixed something that should never have needed fixing, and to do it we did nothing but talk. What happened to the daredevil stunts we had to pull to rescue people from fires and drownings and buildings? Last time out we stopped a war. Now we can just talk and that's all that is needed?'
She smiled. 'I'm sure that Half Moon's people will thrive once more though, with Banth to protect them. They owe each other so much that it will take many years for their guilts to wear down. By then they'll be so close friends that guilt won't matter any more.'
Dawtrina stood up and hugged her dragon. 'And all over a mistake, one that was used and manipulated by that medicine man. At least he'll cause no more trouble for anyone - Banth saw to that.' She looked over at the broken heap by the fire that used to be a man and sighed.
'Petal,' she said. 'Do you ever wonder if we're on our own world? There were no eight inch dwarves or eight foot red men back home, after all.'
In response, Petal looked at her mistress and butted her softly with her snout.
Daw wrinkled up her face in a grin and laughed. 'OK, who cares if it's the one we started out on. This one has dragons too.'
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