“Quit it!” Doret’s stomach hadn’t ceased gurgling all morning. Every time it did, Slevyn’s own stomach would join in, ruining the gentle, beautiful sounds of morning with a nasty symphony born of too much over-active stomach juice. It was beginning to drive her crazy.
“How d’ya mean? Ain’t ‘ad nuthin’ ta eat in ages. Tha stomach’s only doing what a very ‘ungry one’s supposed ta,” Doret countered. “Ya know, it’d be real nice if ya ’ad some vitals or sumthin’ tasty hidin’ in yer pack.” He looked over at her little bundle. Slevyn could have sworn she saw saliva glistening on his lips.
She shook her head in disbelief. What? Share with him? Even if she did have some crumbs laying at the bottom of her pack, she’d rather share them with anyone or anything else--even a cursed cave troll--than with Doret. It was because of his constant meddling and tattling that she’d suffered all those beatings at her father’s hands. He was the one who always made her feel stupid for wanting to get away from the tired, dreary life in the village to look for adventure and fun in the outer world by pointing out the flaws in each and every one of her elaborate escape plans. So what if she didn’t know how to hunt or make traps? So what if she didn’t have clothing warm enough to stave off the bitter cold of the Mountains of Perth. They were her plans! And she hated that he followed her wherever she went. Hated it more that he had followed her and Shasta the one time she had set out to leave the village for real. And for good.
How dare he ask her for anything? Except for a slap in the face?
Slevyn eased open her palm.
Then Shasta coughed, which sounded more like a muted rasp, and she remembered their little ‘talk’ the night before. Reluctantly, she closed her palm and shrugged. Doret was an idiot, and she had no doubt her anxious appendage would soon be satisfied, one way or another. Though Shasta was a brat, she would do anything for him. Even sort of admit that Doret had raised a good point.
Swallowing the ball in the throat, Slevyn gritted her teeth and almost hissed, “You’re right. We can only go no like this for so long. We need some real food.” She pointed at the rolled up bundle of woollen blanket and the tuft of dark, curly hair sprouting out the top. “He’s getting weaker and weaker. He needs some real food, and soon.”
“Why’nt yer uncle take ’im back wit’ ’im, then?”
Slevyn sighed while placing a gentle hand on Shasta’s arm. “The only way you could ask that is because you don’t know Shasta. He’s small and skinny, looks all frail and everything, but once he gets an idea in his head…you’re better off just letting him do it.”
Doret raised his eyebrows. “Yer poor parents. What’d they do tha gods at get stuck wit’ two of yous?”
Slevyn whipped around to glare at him but then saw his eyes were crinkled at the corners as well as the goofy smile bending his lips. How the boy played with fire and didn‘t even know it! He really was dumb! “Fine,” she said, thinking again of Shasta’s happy eyes last night when she’d agreed to give Doret a break, “I’ll give you that one. Only because you’re right.”
Shasta finally stirred. After stretching like a kitten and rubbing the sore spots on his body from sleeping on the ground all night, he glanced quickly between Slevyn and Doret, his mouth open in a questioning O.
“Everything’s alright,” Slevyn assured him. “Doret and I played nice. He’s still alive, isn’t he? See? Doesn’t have a scratch on him.”
“Why d’ya always assume tha’ if we got inta a fight, ya’d win?” Doret demanded.
“Because I always do, or have your arms and face forgotten their spankings?”
A rash of red splashed across the older boy’s face. Blushing was something Slevyn knew he hated, as being of lighter complexion than most of the villagers, everyone knew when he felt afraid, shy or embarrassed. Slevyn squealed in pain at a sharp pinch on her arm and looked down to see Shasta twisting the skin there. Having gained her attention, he frowned, the expression contrasting with his sympathetic blue eyes. He jabbed a thumb at Doret.
Ooooh, the little terror! How could such a meddling, mute little brother influence her like this! Just because last night had allowed her to see Doret in a slightly different light, that didn’t mean she wanted to go as far as to actually--she swallowed, hard--apologize to him. Shasta squeezed her skin harder. Slevyn remembered her conversation with Doret by the fire, when he spoke so openly of being a stranger to the village, of his loneliness and alienation, and of how he constantly felt different from everyone else. His farmland accent was something he hadn‘t yet learned to temper.
The things he complained of were all things she could relate to.
Pouting a little, Slevyn glanced over at Doret. The blush remained. He sat waiting for her to respond, looking at the ground instead of at her. She imagined herself in his place, thought of how he must be feeling at the moment, and was struck by something she had never before imaged she could feel for Doret: empathy.
A roar cut her off. The children immediately jumped to their feet, scrambling around in a panic, looking at the sky, the tress, the surrounding boulders, anywhere and everywhere for its source.
“What is that?”
“Look!” Doret pointed upwards.
At first, Slevyn couldn’t see anything amiss. Two large birds circled above, probably eagles or falcons. But then something familiar about them dawned on her, bringing her back to that day in the meadows when she thought she had seen---
These birds were big, too big to be eagles. They broke off their circular pattern and were now descending, again too quickly to be regular birds, towards the ground. Towards them. As she watched, the small dots grew increasingly in size until within seconds, she could make out the beginnings of ,assive, jointed wings, and long snouted head and horns.
These were definitely--
“Dragons!” The word expelled itself from her lips before she ever knew she had spoken.
“What? That’s impossible!” Doret cried, scared so deeply that for a split second his accent disappeared.
Before he’d finished speaking, Slevyn had broken into a run, heading for the denser trees to their right. She grabbed Shasta by the arm as she went. Doret was quick to follow, and she heard him tramping through the underbrush behind her. Twigs popped and splintered under his feet.
“We have to hide!“ Slevyn threw back at him over her shoulder. “Those things can see in the dark. It’ll be no trouble for them to spot us in such a sparse wood. We need to find a cave, or a burrow. Anything but this open space!”
“Yer tha one ’ho wanted ta sleep under tha stars, you know,” Doret reminded her between breaths.
“Like I knew we were going to be hunted down by dragons!” Shasta stripped over a tree root but she managed to right him quickly and get them moving again. The boy looked miserable. His nose was red and running, and his face looked all pinched up from congestion. Slevyn gripped his hand harder while focussing on finding anything that resembled a suitable shelter.
“What ‘appened ta all yer talk of friendly dragons, an’ of wanting ta go off wit one ta its home in tha mountains?”
Was he serious? They were about to become breakfast for a pair of dragons and he was making jokes at her expense?
She stopped cold. Shasta slammed into her but she ignored the hard jolt to her body. “Look. You said you wanted to come along to ‘keep us safe’ since you’re older than us and are more experienced in the woods. You call yourself a man since you came of age last month! Well prove it! We’re tired and hungry. We’ve got dragons flying around overhead! Do something!”
The teasing smile Doret had been wearing vanished, siphoned away by her outburst. The rash of red flared up again into his neck and face, making the dark brown freckles all but disappear. He looked from her to the sky, saw the beasts bearing down on them, heard their roars echoing through the woods, but his mouth could only open and close wordlessly.
Shasta coughed and pulled at his sister’s arm.
“I know,” she answered distractedly as she was still focused on putting Doret in his place. “I’ve been the one to look after Shasta all this time! You want to say that this is all my fault, but I can take care of my own business just fine. Without your help. So why don’t you--”
A giant black cloud suddenly fell over the area. Winds like a tornado batted the children about so viciously, they could not see. Desperate to latch onto something to avoid being swept away, they stumbled around blindly, resembling the drunken village men at the tavern.
Then suddenly, the wind began to slake and the swirling leaves and pebbles it had stirred up fell to the ground. The pebbles landed like drops of solid rain. Slevyn’s arm suffered a terrible jerk, forcing a startled cry of pain from her.
In disbelief, she opened her empty palm. Shasta was gone.
Eyes full of grit, Slevyn could only see the shadow of the great black beast as it flapped it’s horned, leather-like wings before launching itself in to the air. Shasta’s limp form lay in its closed, black talons.
Then giving one last wrenching flap of its wings, the dragon shot higher into the sky until it vanished into the gleaming blue expanse.