The snowdrift twitched. Kiri kept perfectly still, from the tip of her mottled snout to the end of her barbed tail. She could tell the vole wasn’t large, but it was something. A snack to keep her stomach from rumbling and alerting the larger game.
Cautiously, she inched a forepaw ahead. Then another. She opened her jaws ever so slowly, ready to scoop up both the vole and the snow atop it. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled, and—
With a tiny squeak, the vole shot out from its chilly oasis and darted across the expanse of icy crust between Kiri and the edge of the clearing. She briefly considered giving chase, but rejected the idea with a dismissive flick of her wing. Not worth the energy for such a measly morsel. Snaking back up her favorite stakeout tree, her scales blending into the leafless bark, Kiri resolved to wait for something more worth her while. A pair of rabbits, perhaps. Or maybe even a wild goat!
That was quite the thought… Bored, she began to daydream about the look on her cave mate’s face should she manage to bring home such a large prize. She’d struggle to pull the animal over the pass, being about half as large, but if she could just get to the entrance of the System, the guards might be convinced to help her carry the goat to the second level. There, Nonna would be waiting with her floured apron on and gray hair all in a frizz. It would make her year. Kiri hated seeing Nonna so skinny.
The other dragons had thought her quite odd for pairing with Nonna. On Bonding Day, most fledgling dragons competed to pick the best young hunter, fighter, or blacksmith from among the unBonded humans in the System. Someone with whom they could build a life and make a living.
Never one for confrontation, and lacking an affinity for any particular skills, Kiri hadn’t exactly had first pick of the unBonded humans.
In fact, she’d been dead last.
Clambering up onto the dais, Kiri had gazed down into a sea of hopeful faces. Young men hoping to impress their amour by winning the attention of a dragon. Mothers with mouths to feed, desperate for a stroke of luck. Humans of every sort, wanting something from her. Some form of glory she wasn’t at all confident she’d be able to deliver.
And then there was Nonna, known as Cardea at the time. The spinster, odd strands of silver shooting through her tangled dark hair, was standing near the back appearing almost apologetic. While the System Leaders mandated that every human present themselves to the dragons each year for Bonding, it wasn’t a punishment; most would gladly chop off an arm for the opportunity. But the willowy Cardea had just offered Kiri a small smile of understanding.
It’s alright, she seemed to say, you needn’t consider me. I know I’m nobody’s first choice.
Spreading her wings and launching into the air, Kiri had circled over the crowd four times, only to drift down and land gently upon the spinster’s shoulder. She’d ridden back to Cardea’s cave with the outraged murmurs of the crowd behind her and the certainty she’d chosen her perfect match.
Kiri let out a huff of amusement, remembering the days when she could ride around on Nonna’s shoulder. If she tried that now, the aging woman would collapse, although Kiri was admittedly not very heavy by the standards of her kind.
In contrast, Kiri spotted Uto soaring above her, his bulky bronze form casting a direct shadow in the midday sun. The guard dragon was an unusually large specimen, one of the few just the right size to carry one small human. Luckily, Buxton wasn’t a large man. Kiri could make out Uto’s companion riding between his wings, dressed for battle.
From her vantage point high in the trees, Kiri could feel Uto emitting triumph and satisfaction. She guessed he was heading back from attacking the bandit wagon train a scout dragon had reported last night beyond the rise of the mountain east of her clearing. The noise from the skirmish had greatly disturbed her hunting this morning, but no matter. Better to take them out now than let them get close to the System.
Although she doubted Uto cared what she thought, she sent gratitude in his direction anyway. She knew it was integral to the safety of their home, but his was a tough job she wouldn’t care to perform herself.
She’d never formally picked up a trade or joined the workforce like so many of her brethren. She was content to hunt to feed herself and Nonna. They traded what they could for grapes and other fruits, Nonna turning a bit of a profit off of her knack for winemaking.
On the whole, Kiri felt too anomic to be of use to the society. She was never antagonized but never included. She couldn’t bring herself to hold the same values and ideals as the other dragons and their companions, those that praised the System and did everything in their power to contribute to the wealth. Kiri just did what was required to live a simple life. And if it made her and Nonna outcasts, so be it. She was happy just the way they were, thank you very much.
Despite all being Bonded had brought to Nonna’s life, Kiri could tell she harbored a secret yearning for the life of clamor a home full of children would bring. Nonna would never confess such a thing to Kiri, fearful of insulting her, but Kiri was nothing if not observant and often caught Nonna smiling softly at the women in the marketplace with babes at their hips or toddlers with sticky hands.
Kiri’s nose wrinkled in disgust as she scanned the edge of the forest, eyes squinting for any signs of movement. Nasty little creatures, children. Loud, obnoxious, and utterly self-centered, they required attention all day long. Kiri hadn’t spent much time around dragon hatchlings, as they were raised separately from the public until Bonding Day, but if they were anything like human children, Kiri couldn’t imagine ever wanting one of her own.
Lost in her thoughts, the day slipped by with little excitement. Kiri even caught herself dozing in her tree as the sun began to slip behind the snow-covered slope of the valley. Shaking herself, she stretched languidly on her branch, disturbing the winter finches in a neighboring tree. Better to head home early and avoid the sunless chill already creeping in the edges of the forest.
Lightly hopping to the frozen ground, Kiri tensed her hind legs, preparing to take off. She hesitated, catching a slight hissing noise coming from the East. She cocked her head, listening. It didn’t sound like any prey that should be out in the wintertime. If anything, she would have guessed it a snake slithering through the underbrush, but there was nothing to slither through other than piles of snow.
It was getting louder.
Cautious, Kiri backed herself away from the center of the clearing and wriggled under a frosted shrub, unsure whether to flee or simply hide. The hissing increased, accompanied by the crunch of twigs breaking, and… laughter?
Kiri tensed, unsure if this human would be a friend or a foe.
The snowbank where Kiri had lost the vole exploded in a shower of icy chunks. She briefly closed her eyes against the onslaught but hurriedly blinked away the moisture, eager to spot the source of the commotion.
In the center of the clearing sat a human child on a splintered board of oak. He was giggling, exhilarated from his slide down the hill, but abruptly stopped with a loud hiccup. He began to wail.
Kiri remained motionless beneath the shrub, staring at the interloper. She had no experience with the hatchlings of humans and did not particularly want to involve herself with this one. However, the child was obviously distressed, and Kiri didn’t feel right just slipping away without investigating further.
She poked her snout out from under the branches, scenting the air with her tongue for increased accuracy. The sting of smoke was unmistakable around the boy, clinging to his winter furs like a bothersome burr.
After a few more moments of deliberation, Kiri shouldered through the edge of the shrub and slowly approached the boy. She made it halfway toward him before his tears forced him to take a breath, eyes widening at the sight of her. She ceased her advance, close enough to notice the glow of his golden skin against the snow, but far enough back not to scare him too much, she hoped.
He gazed at her, mouth frozen in a surprised “O,” misery momentarily forgotten.
Though she knew it wouldn’t mean anything to him, she couldn’t stop herself from radiating concern.
He blinked, and sent confusion right back.
Kiri stared. In the stillness of the moment, the pounding of her heart seemed louder than festival drums.
Never in her three decades of life had a human sent her an emotion. She didn’t even think it was possible for them to do. Kiri understood humans had much the same emotional range as dragons, of course, but they had to use spoken language to communicate those feelings. Yet here was this lost little boy, emoting. Unmistakably communicating in her native language.
Kiri responded with shock before she even realized she was emoting. She quickly mastered herself and followed up with concern again, sending curiosity for good measure. She was hoping the child could give her some indication of how and why he had come to be in her clearing, alone, in the middle of winter.
He wrinkled his nose at her, appearing unsure of whether or not to offer his trust. Although no taller than the boy, it occurred to Kiri that her stance might indicate an attempt at dominance over him. She held his gaze and crouched flat in the snow, allowing him the higher ground.
This seemed to work; Kiri watched some of the tension in his slight shoulders melt away. He blinked a few more times, then indicated he was unharmed by holding up his arms and shaking his legs out in front of him. She already didn’t know what to do with a stranded toddler, much less an injured one, so she was pleased to confirm he hadn’t broken any bones.
In that strange, mature manner of his, he returned his gaze to hers and sent her surprise, anxiety, fear, and determination all in quick succession. He pointed up at the sky and then to her. Making an explosion gesture with his gloved hands, he added a “BOOOM!” sound effect, pushing air through his lips. He giggled. Then quietly began to cry again.
Kiri couldn’t believe she was communicating with a human as naturally as she would with a littermate. He understood just how to string together his emotions to tell his story. He even had the advantage of human gesture to aid his feelings!
Based on his energetic reenactment, she gathered that he must have been part of the wagon train Uto attacked this morning. It was surprising Uto had left any survivors at all, but perhaps the child (or his parents) had managed to smuggle him away in the confusion.
She wasn’t sure if he was old enough to use his words, she knew human children didn’t quite master that for some years. But once he did, he could play a key role in communication between dragons and humans.
Only humans Bonded with a dragon could interpret a dragon’s emotions. However, they couldn't emote in return. They were forced to use their own language to respond. While it was impossible for a dragon to send an emotion they weren’t feeling, humans could say one thing and mean another. This made them untrustworthy.
A human who could emote would not be able to lie to a dragon. This boy could be a true ambassador, able to judge fairly. He could be powerful enough to rule the System if he wished. Such a man would oust the Leaders in a vote, no matter how rigged; the dragons would stand for no one else to unify the two species once and for all.
Kiri was reluctant to take responsibility for the child, but she could see no other option unless she were to strand him in the forest. Had he been simply the child of an enemy, she might have considered it, but his abilities made him too significant to abandon.
Continuing her slow approach towards him, she radiated calm and comfort, doing what she could to ease his unrest. Somehow, Kiri had to convince him to trust her enough to climb on her back. She was much too small for an adult to mount, but she thought she could handle a human this light and didn’t see any other way to get him over the pass to the entrance of the System.
In her growing proximity, he appeared to forget his woes. He obviously hadn’t seen many dragons, perhaps none, before Uto this morning. He stretched out a mitt towards her.
Kiri allowed him to touch her brow.
His round face split into a cherubic grin as he giggled again. Relieved, Kiri aligned herself next to him, facing the same direction as his makeshift sled. She turned her neck and gestured with her snout, emitting anticipation.
Miraculously, he understood. Still giggling, he clambered off his sled and gripped one of the blunt spikes along her spine, pulling himself up over a wing. Kiri hoped he had the sense to hold on.
Using the sled as a launchpad, Kiri crouched and sprung upward, forcing her wings to push the air below her even with the added weight on her back. The child let out a yelp of alarm, but his grip was firm, and Kiri ceased worrying about his safety as she continued to climb. The flight was short, and if even he fell, she felt confident she could catch him in time.
As Kiri flew, the boy emoted constantly: elation, fear, and wonder being natural responses to a first flight. She let him, marveling at his ability all the while.
Circling the System’s Main Entrance from above, Kiri pondered how best to get him inside without making a fuss. If she could just deliver him to Nonna, they could figure out a plan to get him cared for until his abilities could be properly assessed. Kiri decided there was nothing for it but to attempt to enter as usual and hope the guard on duty wasn’t paying too much attention.
Swooping down, Kiri felt a sinking sensation that had little to do with their elevation change. Standing at attention in the mouth of the tunnel was Uto’s companion, Buxton, whom she had watched fly into battle that very morning.
Buxton was never not paying attention. In fact, he made a habit of questioning everyone attempting to enter the caves, even if he’d known them his whole life. He’d Bonded with Uto as a teenager, about a decade after Kiri’s own Bonding ceremony. Now in his prime, he was every bit as rigid and pompous as he’d been as a child.
Kiri tensed her jaw as she landed on the edge of the cliff, bracing herself for the incoming nuisance. Inconveniently, the boy on her back began to cry again, the adrenaline catching up to him.
Buxton immediately flagged her down, raising his bracer-clad arm. “Ho!” he called, “Who goes there?”
Kiri longed to respond something like, “Buxton, I remember you wet your swaddling,” but she supposed it was for the best she couldn't speak. Instead, she radiated the signature impression of her identity, the only non-emotion dragons were able to emit.
Kiri, the Skin of the Forest, she sent, along with impatience, hoping he would allow her to just get the wailing child inside, away from the biting wind.
“Not so fast, now!” Buxton approached, eyes on the boy. He seemed to be attempting a jovial attitude, but Kiri knew him better than that. He wasn’t going to let this one slide. “Who’s this little fellow?”
As Buxton came closer, the child gasped and immediately ceased his crying. Kiri realized he must remember the solider from the attack. The boy stayed very still, as if Buxton would forget about him if he didn’t make any sudden movements. Unfortunately, his fluffy winter garb did nothing to camouflage him against Kiri as her scales did to the trees.
Still, Buxton didn’t seem to recognize the boy. Changing tactics, he motioned for the pair to follow him. “Come along,” he said. “Uto’s just inside. I’d rather have this conversation with everyone present.”
Kiri's stomach sank further. She knew Uto would smell the smoke on him as easily as she had. He’d put the pieces together in no time. Kiri feared Uto, with his volatile temper, would want to exterminate the child as quickly as he had the parents. She carefully kept her emotions private, however, not wanting to spook the boy.
She knew his best chance of survival was to show Uto what he could do. She only hoped he’d have the chance to.
Buxton led them through the main entrance to a stuffy cave where guards came to warm themselves between shifts. Here, the cave walls were void of any moisture, thanks to the roaring fire in the center of the room.
Uto was dropping a log onto the flames as the trio approached, unhinging his powerful jaws. He batted the sparks away with a flick of his tail and nudged the ventilation hood closer with a forepaw the size of a dinner plate.
Kiri swallowed, mentally comparing her apple-sized mitts with his impressive battle-sharpened claws. There wasn’t much she could hope to do if things got violent.
“Uto, brother,” Buxton drawled, leading them inside. “What make you of this stray Kiri’s dragged in?”
Kiri felt the boy scramble off her back and attempt to duck behind her haunches. She glanced back at him before looking at Uto and sending compassion, trying to warn him off over-reacting.
Uto let out a sharp burst of air from his nostrils. Snaking his head past Buxton, he tasted the air next to the boy, who whimpered.
Rearing up, Uto snorted, feeling frustration, then recounting success and the satisfaction of a job well done. Or so he had thought.
“Leftovers from the battle this morning?” Buxton clarified.
Uto blinked his confirmation.
“Just as I suspected,” his companion boasted. Kiri again felt a surge of exasperation, knowing full well the soldier hadn’t put the story together until Uto arranged the pieces. “Dispose of him.”
Kiri growled at Buxton, placing herself between Uto and the boy. Turning to the child, she sent him encouragement, desperately hoping he’d understand what he needed to do.
“Why waste your emotions on him?” Buxton criticized.
Kiri could feel the child trembling.
“It is not as if he comprehends what only us Bonded can experience.”
At that, the boy’s resolve seemed to harden. He used a hand on her leg to pull himself up to his full, albeit minuscule, height beside her.
Staring up into the soldier’s eyes, he radiated defiance.
The room collectively inhaled. Time slowed to a stop, then sped up all at once.
Buxton shouted in alarm, calling for more guards and their soldiers. Uto roared, sweeping his tail across the room to trap them in the corner. Before Kiri could begin to even consider retaliating, the room was full of a half dozen dragons in full armor…
Which is how she ended up on a bed of damp hay in a cell of the prison sector.
Mulling it over, she wished she had thought to enter through a side tunnel as if she’d hunted in the East by the lake, or along the southern canyon. But no, she had to go flying in the Main Entrance, stocked with the ranks of guards and battle-hungry soldiers.
They’d put the boy in the cell next to hers.
Kiri sent him remorse.
He replied with forgiveness.
She hoped someone kind would tell Nonna where she was.
In the hours that followed, Kiri thought about what Nonna would do if she were here. Nonna would comfort the boy, so Kiri poked her snout through the bars to rest on his lap. Nonna would make him laugh, so Kiri made shapes with her tail to cast silly shadows from the light of the lone torch. Nonna would offer him her food, but the guards left them nothing but water, so the rumbles of their bellies sounded in harmony against the cave walls.
As the hours turned into days, she began to worry he would starve. He slept a lot and would barely drink when she nudged the water bucket toward him. They heard not even whispers from the world above, isolated down the deepest hallway.
Kiri assumed Buxton had alerted the System Leaders, who now must be debating whether or not to keep him alive or quietly kill him. He had every potential to influence the balance of power.
Humans were not known for willingly relinquishing power.
Late in the fourth night of their imprisonment, Kiri was keeping watch over the boy, as usual. She rested her snout on his chest, her tail wrapped around his sleeping form, the bars between their cells awkwardly keeping them apart. She was grateful he’d been so warmly dressed when she found him, as no one bothered to heat this sector just for the prisoners.
Kiri jerked her head up at the jangling sound of keys. She’d been ready to believe they’d decided to let them rot.
Footsteps echoed down the hall. Kiri blearily untangled herself from the bars and crouched before her gate, ready to bite off the head of whoever had deigned to come see them at last. Figuratively, of course. Maybe literally, if she got the chance. But as she caught sight of her visitor, all the fight left her body in one fell swoop.
Nonna crouched down, reaching her warm hands through the bars to cup Kiri’s face. “My dearest Kiri,” she whispered. “What have they done to you?”
Keening softly, Kiri nuzzled into Nonna’s grip, pouring all her love into Nonna's palms.
“Let’s get you out of there,” Nonna huffed, pulling back to sort through the keys on her belt.
Kiri blinked through her hunger and exhaustion, catching up to this turn of events. She sent astonishment and curiosity to Nonna as her cell gate clicked open.
Nonna quickly began work on the gate of the child’s cell. “It’s a long story,” she grunted, lifting the hinge. “I’ll tell it later.”
Kiri accepted this answer, trusting Nonna implicitly. She wriggled in and nudged the boy awake. He stirred slowly at first but rapidly focused on the halo of Nonna’s wiry curls.
“Hello,” Nonna murmured, taking a knee beside him. “I’m Nonna. We’re going to get you out of this place, okay?”
The boy nodded, emitting gratitude.
Nonna pulled in a breath. “There were rumors,” she whispered, seemingly to herself. “His ability… I didn’t believe…”
Eager to escape, Kiri crouched beside the child as she had once before. He gripped a spike and pulled himself up at once, understanding her urgency.
“The wine wagon is in the main prison passage,” Nonna explained, a comforting hand on Kiri’s neck. “Get yourself inside the barrels. They should be empty. I’m headed out the East Entrance to ‘make a delivery.’ Stay quiet. Got it?”
Both the boy and Kiri nodded. Nonna pressed a light kiss to Kiri’s brow and stood up. She pulled a dark hood over her hair, dampening the silver shimmering in the torchlight. Striding down the hall, Kiri scampered behind her.
Glancing both ways at the end of the hall, Nonna confidently approached her wagon, patting the mule on his flank. Mounting the oak buckboard, she gathered the reigns with a practiced hand.
Kiri stuck to the shadows, passing a soldier snoring loudly in a chair. The sweet stench of wine surrounded him. There was a suspicious lack of keys at his belt. Kiri looked to Nonna, who winked and motioned to the bed of the wagon.
The barrels were positioned perfectly to allow a small boy to crawl into one and a small dragon to squeeze into another. Not daring to emote in the passage, in case any Bonded soldiers lurked nearby, Kiri kept her unending gratitude to herself. She hoped Nonna knew how she felt anyway.
Kiri used her tail to flip the edge of the canvas cover over the barrels, throwing the two of them into darkness. Around them, she noticed several other barrels that, by the smell of them, were certainly not filled with wine. Grain in one, wool in another, some collection of metals in that last one… What did Nonna have planned?
As they trundled along in the dark, the sounds of the System grew louder with each corner they turned. They left the prison sector for System Official caves, then trundled through a residential sector. Kiri knew they were driving through the marketplace when the scent of cured meats made her mouth water. Not far now until the East Entrance.
They joined the queue to exit the System. Kiri could hear Nonna chatting with fellow tradespeople as they approached the guards, spinning her tale as well as she spun the wool for her blankets.
“Yes, Kiri’s still away on her hunting trip,” Nonna lied, commiserating with a blacksmith. “Got to do the deliveries all by my lonesome.”
An Official at the exit finally stopped her. “What’s all this, then?”
“A half dozen wine barrels for the Lake Dutchess,” Nonna simpered. “Such a loyal customer.”
The Official let her through with no further trouble.
Unable to believe their luck, Kiri fought to stay still and quiet until the clatter of the system and nearby wagons had completely faded away.
Nonna reached back and rapped her knuckles on a barrel. “Come on out, dears. We’re in the clear.”
Kiri slunk out of her barrel, muscles cramped. She fumbled with the canvas until it snapped back, blinking in the bright rays of the early morning.
The sky was a pale blue, crystalline in beauty after her days in prison. She hopped to the front to curl around Nonna’s frail frame, overwhelming her with a wave of emotions.
Nonna just wrapped her arm around Kiri and laughed. “You know I’d do absolutely anything for you, darling.” She dug around in her knapsack. “Here, give the boy some bread. There’s a waterskin in here as well. And, oops!” She fumbled the rations as the wagon hit a frost heave in the cobbled road. “There’s salted venison in a barrel out back.”
Kiri gently grasped the supplies between her teeth, careful not to puncture the waterskin. She reached her neck back to face the child. He was still curled in his barrel, reluctant to emerge.
As she had when they first met, she sent him calm and comfort, coaxing him out with the offering of food. He clambered to the front bench to sit between Nonna and Kiri, clutching the bread as if it were going to fly away.
“Go on,” encouraged Nonna. “Slowly now, or you’ll make yourself sick.”
Kiri curled her tail around his waist to keep him from jostling about too much with the motion of the wagon. As she watched him eat, a small blossom of warmth spread in her chest. It felt good to see him recovering, to be able to provide the care he’d been desperately lacking. Her time with him in the prison had made her oddly protective over him, she realized. He didn’t seem so repulsive, nothing like how she regarded the sticky-fingered children of the System.
Shaking herself from her revere, she looked to Nonna and emitted curiosity.
Nonna grinned. “What I told the Official wasn’t too far off. I do have a delivery for the estate of the Lake Dutchess. But what the Official doesn’t know, because I’m sure Buxton has covered his tracks thoroughly, is that the Lake Dutchess is recently deceased. She was inside a humble carriage in a wagon train Uto mistook for bandits. The Dutchess left her entire estate to her firstborn son, who sits between us now.”
The boy looked up from his bread. “Mama?” he asked, his voice reaching Kiri’s ears for the first time like the song of a finch.
Nonna placed her hand atop his knitted cap. “I’m so sorry, honey. But we’re going home now.”
The boy seemed to contemplate this news, then nodded, breaking off a piece of his bread and offering it to Nonna.
She accepted the morsel, giving him a soft smile. “You never told us your name. What are you called?”
He looked between the two of them, then grinned. Both with his voice and his heart, he told them his name, emitting his signature identity.
Kiri felt the truth of who he was vibrate through her bones as understanding cleared the wrinkles from Nonna’s brow.
“Doryu,” she repeated. “One Who Understands the Ways of Dragons.”
Kiri raised her head and trumpeted at the sky. She could think of no better companions to break away from the System with. They were heading somewhere not even Uto and Buxton could bury them under layers of bureaucracy, somewhere far away, somewhere safe.
As long as they were together, they were heading home.