Its skin and meagre cloth coverings are tattered and grubby, although there's a clean salt trail on each cheek. It's given up crying now, though, and before long those marks will fill in with grime. The corners of its mouth are drawn down, and its eyes are frightened.
Look at it. Stumbling noisily from tree to bush to pond. Like a baby.
It is a baby, pretty much. Surely it's only just been walking on two legs long enough to not drop back down to all fours every other minute.
Is there anything more useless than a human infant? In a moment it will walk right into my jaws.
But in a moment, it will be close enough for me to Read, and we will see whether its grief and fright are enough to melt a cold reptilian heart.
I stay my flame for two reasons. First, because, as soon as it's close enough, the human cub lights up all on its own. The memory is bright and fresh, and sharp with trauma. I can see the flames the men touched to straw roofs. I can see its mother struggling. The smoke. The screams. The blood. I can feel its agony. It's a spark to the touchpaper in me, and I Read her again, more purposefully this time. Seeking out the faces behind the torches, memorising their sneers or their blank eyes. My Reading pulls the memory through her, forcing her to relive it in shocking detail.
The other reason is because I realise very quickly that we have a common enemy, she and I. I feel something, and that is alien enough for a creature like me. But to feel this... To feel kinship. With a warm, small creature, made of pink meat, no less.
I make short work of the tin men. They melt inside their iron clothes, their shrieks bubbling away to nothing in a mess of bone and hair and brains and hot blood.
It's easy to find the pup again when it's done. She hasn't left the clearing, and she doesn't have the wit to hide.
A gentler connection this time, carefully shielding her innocence from the sticky tang of boiling blood and the crunch of ribs and metal. Instead, I reverse the Reading and send her safety through the connection.
This is dangerous. The more I tread the path between our minds, the stronger the bond grows.
The she-cub is soggy and hungry. It needs a mother.
I feel inadequate.
My talons can't clean it, and I don't know what it should eat.
A mother's first duty is to protect her cub, and that... that I can do.
The night deepens and my scales ward off the chill. She curls close, her belly growling and her sleep fitful. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will find her a new flock and make them protect her and care for her.
In the morning, before the sun has warmed my blood, I hatch my plan.
First I'm going to have to join our minds even more closely. If I were wise I should dread it, but wisdom has deserted me.
She can't speak properly, but no matter - this closely tied, I can make her say the right words.
I scoop her in one paw and hold her close to my cavernous heart, wings beating the air.
I wouldn't need to Read her to know she is frightened. I reverse the bond again, and give her some of what I feel when my wings master the sky. This has the added effect of dashing her gnawing hunger, and making her oblivious to the cold.
I take her north, where she can forget about dragonfire. Of course, the two-legged ants come scurrying out of their nests with sharp things pointed at me, and terror painted on their faces. My talons gouge long, imperious tracks in the dirt. My eyes flash contempt. I don't need a Reading to know they are frightened for themselves, and for their precious burrows of wood and straw.
I set her down, the motion as delicate as if she were my own egg, and prod her forward with one claw. She hesitates. It will be alright little one.
Good. I have their attention, as dull-witted as it is. I open her mouth, and bully her vocal chords into obedience.
It's been years since we've had a problem with the dragons. They never fly this far north.
This one is enormous, and I know, when I see it circling lower and preparing to land right in the middle of the village, that every last one of us is going to die. Horribly.
Its landing is clumsy. Three of its feet splay out to meet the earth. It lurches and its talons rip the dirt, seeking balance. It has one foot curled up like a fist under it's scaly throat. Maybe it's hurt?
It doesn't flame. It has a child-thing in its paw. A baby, really. A demon, probably. It sets the thing down and nudges it forward, for all the world like a mother admonishing her tot, "don't be shy, now - say hello to these nice people". The thing has slack eyes, and when it opens its mouth, the voice is raspy and otherworldly.
Well! We've been chosen to do a spot of charity. If we harm the thing, or the dragon, the consequences are clear. It - she - is to be cared for immediately, and always. At the full moon, we're to leave her on the large rock in the middle of the lake. The dragon will examine the child to be sure of her fair treatment, and return her to us in the morning. As long as we keep our end of the "bargain" (and that is the wrong word, because no bargaining has taken place) then we are safe from dragonfire.
Someone (braver than me) called out, "What is the dragonchild's name?"
I have never seen a dragon look disconcerted before. It doesn't know!
It curls closer and the child sags. The pride and fire in her has gone out. She cries, just like any frightened, hungry child.
When I loosed my hold on her, and riffled through her memories, she mewed pitifully. The most recent memory of her own name, torn screaming from her mother's throat, was probably the cause of it. I stayed a moment, and nudged her thoughts back to softer times until she soothed enough to give them her name with her own voice. Brenna.
It pains me to leave, a physical hurt. The link between us is a vicious hook in my chest. Her cries are a clear sign that it hurts her, too, just as much. I steel my heart to its own natural coldness, and turn my snout south.
The moon is waxing fat, and tonight it will rise at its fullest. My wings are eager. I set off for the slate-grey lake amidst the chilly northern mountains, that ever-present pain withdrawing its teeth from me as the distance between Brenna and I diminished.
When I reach the village, I circle it twice for sheer euphoria.
She's waiting for me. I know it. I can feel her, as certain as a blaze. I could have found her anywhere. Her own joy roars across the link to me and reflects back to her.
Ahh, worth it, worth it, worth it!
A quick pull through her recent memories showed me the humans were keeping their word. But I already knew that. If something had happened, I would know. The barb stitched deep in my breast would tell me, like a spider knows the tweaking of its silk.
She doesn't have a mother, or a family. She belongs to them all, and they all belong to her. They take turns, drawing lots to decide who should have the honour of caring for her.
She sleeps better than she had done for weeks. So do I.
The cruel morning crept up on us both. I could have returned her to her new family, and made my agonising departure in front of them all. But I hadn't the heart to do it. Instead I left it - my heart - beating pinkly and wailing, on the cold hard rock in the middle of the lake.
She grows strong. A feral half-grown cub, with wild black hair like her mother. It's grown long and tangled. No one dares pull out the snarls, for fear of hurting her.
She has no strong attachments to any of them. No mother. Except for me.
The ants are all a little afraid of her. Brenna Firekin, they call her. The children defer to her, even the ones much older and stronger than she is. She takes this carelessly, haughtily - as if it is only to be expected. Of course she's right. She's my daughter, and this is only her due. They do well to show her respect.
They think she will open her mouth and flame them all into goo and ashes. She laughs when she tells me this, her eyes flashing, She knows I am laughing, too.
In the summer months, I stay for days at a time. We fascinate each other. But winter comes, and with it, one year, a duty. I tell her that I cannot return, not for a while. She is to have a sibling, imprisoned in gleaming shell and vulnerable.
I feel her excitement. She claps her hands. "You can nest here," she says. "I will help you."
It would be my whole heart to stay with you, little one. But it is too cold. He would not live. Maybe not even hatch.
"Then I want to come with you," she says, her voice firm. "I want to meet him."
No, little one. The others, they would eat you up, and toast you first.
She laughs and draws herself up tall. "They can try!"
Ah, my daughter! Her arrogance fits her better than scales.
Edited for some godawful typos.
Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment so I can reciprocate.
The story behind the story: I wrote this for a challenge ages ago, but never finished in time to submit it. Whoops.
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