avrik looked at the grey cube in an alcove of his new lair. "So that's a dwarvish stove?"
Pen nodded as he pushed some short logs through the door. "You can have a fire burning all night on a little wood, and you don't have to keep waking to tend to it." He straightened and patted the top surface. "That means you can keep poultices and infusions cooking up here for long hours. They always become more potent when they are allowed to simmer." Mavrik bent and puffed a flame through the opening. The wood burst into flames and Pen shut the door. "This lever controls the amount of air let in," he said, indicating the lever.
They joined Mach, Paveway and Amraan outside. The three furry dragons were staring at something above the lair. Pen and Mavrik turned and saw the metal tube poking through the green grass of the hillside. A wisp of thin white smoke issued from it.
"I think I'll build a cairn around that," said Mavrik, pointing at the open chimney. "It'll keep the rain out."
"I have a sort of cap over mine," said Pen.
A pair of dragons flew overhead, circled and approached the clearing. They recognised Prahan and Stargazer, Mavrik's brother and sister.
"I think they're going to land in front of your lair!" exclaimed Paveway.
Mavrik grunted. "It must be important," he muttered. Usually only the owner of the lair landed immediately before the opening. All others were supposed to land at the far side of the clearing and wait for an invitation. Prahan and Stargazer landed beside the group. They looked worried. Mavrik noticed Prahan holding something in his hands.
"You'll never guess what we saw!" said Stargazer breathlessly. "A thylaceleo!" Prahan nodded.
Paveway and Mach exchanged a worried look. Mavrik gaped at them. "Where?" he wondered.
"A league South of here!" She pointed in the direction.
"Oh dear," muttered Pen. "What was it doing this far West?"
"Hunting," said Prahan. He lifted his left hand to reveal a tiny bat shivering in the cup of his palm. It squeaked miserably.
Pen stepped forward and lifted the little animal. "It's a baby fruitbat." The animal scolded Pen then settled down. He tucked it under his cloak where it went to sleep. Amraan came to Pen's side and lifted the edge of the cloak a little so he could see the animal.
"His mum was killed," said Stargazer sadly. "Why is he afraid of us? We tried to help."
"It's a small mammal thing," said the wizard. He looked above their heads and frowned. "Who is that?" he wondered, pointing.
They turned and saw another dragon approaching from the East. He was heading straight for them, descending in a long glide. The dragons looked at each other and shrugged.
"I have no idea," said Mavrik eventually. "But he's looking for me."
"How do you know?" asked Stargazer.
"He's going to land here," said Mavrik.
Sure enough, the stranger landed in the clearing and walked over to them. He was larger than any of the group, and coloured grey like Striker. "Mavrik?" he asked abruptly. Mavrik nodded to him. The stranger's eyes narrowed when he saw the wizard. "Good. I need your help." He spoke in the dragon tongue.
Mavrik frowned. "Why should I help you?" he said in the human tongue. He moved to stand before Pen.
"I would tell you," replied the other, again in their native tongue. "But not while that," he spat the word at Pen, "-is here."
"We in the West value our friends, no matter what their race," said Paveway quietly. Mavrik could feel a great anger radiating from her. "You Easterners seem to have lost that."
"It's okay-" began Pen.
"Silence!" demanded the stranger.
Amraan ran forward. "You're very rude!"
"Go and play," growled the other. "Leave this to adults." Amraan gaped at him, then ran off into the forest.
Pen stepped forward. "Now steady on!" Abruptly the grey dragon flamed at him. Mavrik flicked out a wing and blocked the flame before it could reach the human. Stargazer and Prahan leapt at the attacker, their talons extended. Paveway simply growled and the stranger found himself on his back with a great weight pressing on his throat. Stargazer and Prahan halted their attack and sheathed their talons, but they continued to growl angrily.
Mach sat near the stranger's head. "You've upset my mate, my son, and my friends," he said softly. "You've tried to kill a friend of mine, and almost made enemies of your sister and brothers. Don't look surprised. I know you, Woodgrove. You always were an impulsive one." He motioned to Mavrik, Stargazer and Prahan to come forward. "Come and meet your brother from an earlier clutch."
Pen patted Mavrik on the wing. "I'd better go," he whispered. "You have a lot to talk about." Mavrik nodded to him, and he disappeared into the trees. Soon the faint noise of a horse moving away drifted from the woods.
"Mach!" gasped Woodgrove as the weight lifted from him. "I thought you were dead!"
"Not yet." He helped Woodgrove stand. "This is my mate, Paveway." He put an arm around her shoulders.
Woodgrove rubbed his throat and stared wide-eyed at Paveway, reputed to be the most powerful magic-user of all the dragons. "I-I'm sorry! I didn't know."
Paveway was not listening. "Where's Amraan?" she muttered.
"What brings you from the safety of the Dragon Lands?" asked Mach.
Woodgrove sighed. "You would not say that if you still lived there," he said. "You're much safer here in The Wilds. I think that's why Mum and Dad came here to raise their new family."
"Why are you here?" asked Mavrik, suddenly.
Woodgrove turned to him. "I need your help."
Stargazer and Prahan frowned. "Why should he help?" growled Stargazer.
Woodgrove looked at the ground. "My mate is dying," he said quietly. When the other dragons said nothing, he looked at Mavrik. "I was told you're a healer and can use magic."
"Don't you have healers?" wondered Mach.
"Boral is there," said Woodgrove. "He can keep her alive with his magic, but he can't heal her."
"Ah," said Mach with a nod.
Mavrik let out his breath explosively. "Okay. I'll go."
"So will I," said Stargazer. Prahan nodded silently.
"I will not," said Paveway. She glared at Woodgrove who looked away. "I need to find Amraan. Besides, Freo is very near to clutching. I think she'll need help," she added.
"I understand," said Woodgrove. "You healers need to be protected."
Mach winced. Paveway stalked over to the larger dragon. Anger radiated from her. "Firstly," she growled, poking Woodgrove in the chest. "I'm not a healer. Secondly, I don't need protection. Why don't you get a local healer? Why take Mav?"
Prahan whispered something to Stargazer who gave him a worried look. "Hang on," she said to Woodgrove. "What do you mean by 'protected?'"
"Almost all our healers are dead," he said. "They've been meeting with accidents, but I don't think they're accidents. And neither does Harrie. My mate," he explained. "I think that's why she was… hurt," he added quietly.
Paveway stared at him silently, then sighed and turned to Mavrik. "Freo will be all right," she said at last. "You'd better go."
"When?" asked Stargazer.
"I don't want to hurry you, but we must hurry," said Woodgrove. "It's a five day flight. I wish I had time to see Mum and Dad, but Harrie was bad when I left."
"You can see them when we get back," said Mavrik.
Woodgrove looked at him and smiled. "Thanks, Brother." He frowned and said "I didn't know we had stripes in our family."
"It's a long story," said Mavrik.
Mach and Paveway embraced the three and told them to be careful. With that, Woodgrove launched into flight, followed by Mavrik, Stargazer and Prahan. The two furred dragons watched their young friends fly east until they were out of sight.
For three days they flew between the high peaks, silent except when the three younger dragons slowed, then Woodgrove would urge them to pick up the pace again. Nights were sombre affairs. Woodgrove's answers to their questions were short and gruff. He sat facing east, a worried look on his face. They ate what could be caught but the game was small. On the fourth day they passed into the East Range. Woodgrove landed on a bare hilltop. The others landed beside him and gazed out over the unfamiliar territory below them.
"Welcome to the Dragon Lands," said Woodgrove. There was a bitter edge to his voice. "We should be at my lair tomorrow morning."
"If we don't stop, how long after sunset will arrive?" asked Mavrik.
"Five hours, as humans measure time," said Woodgrove. "Why?"
"I don't think we should stop tonight," said Mavrik distantly.
"Why? What have you heard?" asked Woodgrove, but Mavrik didn't answer.
Stargazer looked at her brother. "I think the life of your mate depends on us getting Mav to your lair right now," she said to Woodgrove.
The four launched without a word and flew down the long slopes to the land below. Woodgrove sometimes took them on a winding course to avoid inhabited areas and lairs, but generally they flew in a straight line for his home. As the sun set Woodgrove killed a wild cow for them.
"I'm sorry. It's not enough," he said. "I'll get another soon."
"No," said Mavrik immediately. "If we eat too much we'll be too sleepy to fly. We should have just this for now. We can eat when we're there."
"But I'm starved!" complained Prahan.
"Mavrik is right," said Woodgrove. "I'll get you some more when we're home." He blinked at Prahan. "You can talk!"
"Yes," said Prahan, then munched into his share of the animal.
"I wondered about that."
The rest of the journey was flown in silence, the only noise the rush of air over their wings. The moon had not yet risen and the faint starlight was not enough to cast shadows. They flew without being seen.
"There it is," murmured Woodgrove at last, and turned in a wide spiral. They followed him to the ground and landed in a clearing before a cave. Woodgrove gasped and immediately went into an attack posture. Mavrik looked to where he stared and saw a human sitting beside the entrance. The figure stood and Mavrik could see it was a woman. Woodgrove relaxed and walked to her. "Gwyn? Why are you here?"
"I've been keeping Boral awake," said Gwyn. "And I brought another patient."
"Who? Your mate?"
"My husband, yes." She looked at the three dragons standing away from them. "Are these the ones you went looking for?"
"Yes." Woodgrove motioned the others to join them, and introduced everyone. "How is Boral?"
Gwyn sighed and shook her head. "He is done in. He's been awake for ten days but he says if he sleeps his magic will be undone, and that's all that's keeping Harrie and Dai alive."
"I'd better get in there," said Mavrik and trotted to the cave with the others following. The light of a welcoming fire flickered from inside.
They were met at the entrance by a furred dragon. He stared wide-eyed at the group. Mavrik noticed his grey fur stood out in tangled mats. "They came for me, and I told them I already had some," he said hoarsely.
"He has been hallucinating," said Gwyn. "Ten days without sleep can do that."
"It was blue and squishy," said the dragon.
"The amazing thing is that he can still control his magic," she went on.
Woodgrove stood beside Mavrik and gave the furry dragon a worried look. "Boral? Are you all right?"
"Yes thank you," said Boral. "I have a thing that does stuff and… like that. You know?"
Stargazer pushed passed the males and put her arm around Boral. "Help is here. I'll get you to bed." She started to lead him away.
They followed her into the cave. The first thing Mavrik saw was a dragon lying on her side. She had eight huge gashes in her body, but the open wounds did not bleed. "Now you know why I came for you," said Woodgrove.
"He has kept her alive like this for ten days?" wondered Mavrik.
"Good grief! Any one of those would be fatal!" He closed his eyes and concentrated on the magic in the room, studying it carefully before letting his own flow until it mirrored Boral's. He felt it pour into the two unconscious ones and touch their minds.
Gwyn knelt beside a smaller body on the skins. "And Dai, too," she muttered. Mavrik looked at the knight and thought his injuries weren't serious, then he remembered how frail the humans were. Gwyn looked at the dragon above her. "Can you help?"
"Yes," said Mavrik. He placed a hand on the stricken man's torso. "His ribs have been crushed and a lung has been punctured. It could be worse."
"How?" wondered Gwyn.
"He could be dead," said Mavrik. "What happened?"
"A dragon attacked from behind."
"How do you know it was a dragon?" asked Woodgrove.
"It ate his horse."
There was a shout from the rear of the lair, and Boral ran in followed closely by Stargazer. "No! I must not sleep! They'll die!"
Woodgrove caught him and held him tight. "It's all right! Help is here."
Boral looked at him. "Who?"
"Me. Mavrik," said Mavrik.
Boral looked at him in surprise then gave him a faint smile. "You've grown a bit since last I saw you."
"We'll talk later," said Woodgrove. "Get some sleep."
Boral closed his eyes for a second, then looked at Mavrik with wonder. He smiled and nodded, then yawned. Stargazer led the smaller dragon to the bed at the rear. Soon his snores rumbled through the cave.
Mavrik rubbed his hands together. "Right! Let's see to these wounds." He placed his hands either side of the worst gash, and carefully squeezed the edges closed. The flesh sealed as the two sides came together until there was just a faint scar and a line of split scales, but Mavrik continued pressing.
"You've done it!" exclaimed Woodgrove.
"Not yet," said Mavrik. "A wound like this will take some time before it holds closed," he explained. "This will take until dawn to do all of these and then the knight." He sighed and muttered, "It is going to be a long night."
avrik stood at the mouth of the lair and yawned. He watched as the rim of the sun peeked above the horizon. The noise of movement caught his attention, and he recognised the smell of his sister. "Where did Prahan go?" he said quietly.
"The huntress took him out," said Stargazer.
"Hunting of course. You should sleep."
"I can't. If I sleep they'll die." He turned to face Stargazer. "Their wounds are healed but they are too weak. I think I'll be here all day." He sighed and shook his head. "Boral did this for ten days, and they reckon Paveway is even stronger than him. My magic will never match the furries."
"Silly Mav. You're a healer with magic. Do you know how rare that is?" She looked over his shoulder. "Here comes breakfast."
Mavrik turned and saw Prahan walking toward them with a silly grin on his face. Between his wings rode Gwyn. She sat atop a number of woolly carcasses. When they drew near Mavrik realised what the animals were. "Jeez, Prahan! I can't believe you killed sheep! Their owners will be here by mid-day looking for blood!"
"These are wild," said Gwyn. "No farmers live in these parts."
"What about your people?"
"Hunters." She climbed down then Prahan twisted his body to dump the carcasses on the ground. "How are they?" she asked with a nod at the cave.
"Sleeping," said Mavrik distantly. "But they're not out of danger." He excused himself and hurried back inside. Gwyn turned to the dragons with a worried expression on her face.
"He knows what he's doing," said Stargazer.
"It'll be magic stuff," said Prahan.
Gwyn reached up and rubbed the base of Prahan's neck until he purred. "I didn't know you scaled dragons could do magic," she said over the noise.
"We can't," said Stargazer, smiling as she watched her brother sink to the ground and expose his neck for more rubs.
"Can," finished Stargazer. "No one can explain it, not even Mav. He says we all have the power but we've lost touch, whatever that means." She poked Prahan in the ribs. "Wake up! We have to dress these carcasses."
The day passed slowly. Boral did not stir as he slept the sleep of exhaustion. Mavrik fretted over the injured while the other three dragons and Gwyn stayed outside and talked, occasionally going in to look at their mates. In the late afternoon Mavrik called to Gwyn. She hurried inside fearing the worst.
Mavrik calmed her and said, "He's over the worst, and is sleeping." Gwyn stared at him. "He'll be all right," Mavrik explained. Gwyn went to him and kissed him on the nose, then knelt beside her husband and cried. Mavrik joined the others outside.
"Is everything all right?" asked Woodgrove.
"Hm? Oh! Yes, no problems. He'll live."
Prahan and Stargazer looked at him. "You seem flustered about something," said Stargazer.
"Flustered? What? Of course not!" said Mavrik. He rubbed the end of his nose. "Me, flustered? Ha ha!" He turned to Woodgrove and added, "Harrie will be out of danger tonight." Woodgrove thanked him and went inside. Mavrik yawned suddenly. "Ten days! How did he do that?" he muttered.
A shadow passed over them. As the dragon flew overhead and banked in a steep turn, they saw she carried the carcass of a kangaroo. Prahan called Woodgrove to join them. She landed before the group and looked at Woodgrove in surprise. Mavrik felt tingles run the length of his spine. Suddenly he was very awake.
"Woody!" she called happily. "I didn't know you were back!" She held the dead animal out to him. "I hunted up this for Boral and the humans."
"Thanks Stormfront," said Woodgrove. "But Prahan and Gwyn have been catching food for us all day. Join us!" Woodgrove then introduced her to them.
"Hello," said Mavrik calmly, but the tip of his tail bounced up and down.
"So you're the famous Mavrik?" she said. Her voice was like honey, and the late sun glittered on her sand-coloured scales giving them a bronze sheen.
"You've heard about me, then." He casually pinned down the betraying limb with a hand. "I suppose I have more adventures than most."
"I'd like to hear them," said Stormfront.
"Really? Gosh. I mean, um…" He looked at his brother and sister. "What are you two smiling at?"
"You are not usually at a loss for words," said Stargazer.
"What? I'm not- What do you- Words! Don't be silly," he snorted. "I'm not!" he added as he turned and hurried inside.
"Don't upset the healer, Fronnie," said Woodgrove with a smile.
"I wouldn't dream of that," she muttered, staring after Mavrik.
Woodgrove gave Stargazer a big grin and pointed at Stormfront as she followed Mavrik into the lair. Stargazer nodded and smiled.
"I wish Bindi was here to see this," said Prahan quietly as he stood.
They entered the lair and stopped at the sight before them. Mavrik and Stormfront were sitting side by side at Harrier's sickbed, their tails entwined. Mavrik did not seem to notice as he concentrated on the two patients. Gwyn was asleep beside her Dai.
"How is she?" asked Woodgrove. The two tails flicked apart at his voice. Gwyn opened her eyes and yawned.
"She is almost out of danger," said Mavrik. "But it will be many weeks before she is fully recovered." He motioned for Woodgrove to join them. "Talk to her," he said as he moved aside.
Woodgrove looked at his stricken mate. "Will she hear?" he whispered to Gwyn. The hunter smiled and nodded to him. "Harrie?" he whispered uncertainly as he touched her with a shaking hand.
"Are they going to be all right?" asked Stargazer as Mavrik and Stormfront joined them at the entrance.
"Yes," said Mavrik. He turned to Stormfront. "Does anyone know what happened?"
"Harrie does," said Stormfront. "I hope she'll tell us when she wakes." She reached up and ran her hand down his cheek. "And she will wake, thanks to you."
Mavrik held her hand in his and smiled. "They would have been dead twelve days if not for Boral."
"How do you feel about living in the West lands, Fronnie?" asked Prahan suddenly.
"Prahan!" exclaimed Mavrik.
"I wouldn't mind if my mate was there with me."
Mavrik felt his heart sink. "You have a mate?"
"Not yet." She smiled up at him and he felt like singing.
The four sat outside and watched the last light fade. Mavrik found it hard to join in the conversation. To the others he seemed vague and distant, but attention was divided between the conversation, keeping Harrier alive, and the nearness of Stormfront. The stars blazed briefly in the black sky then faded as the moon rose above the mountain behind. Mavrik felt the touch of Boral's mind, and sighed.
"She's over it," he said.
"How do you know?" asked Stargazer.
"I told him." They turned and saw Boral in the cave mouth, his grey fur shining silver in the bright moonlight. He walked over and sat with them. "I don't know how you did it, Mavrik, but you saved their lives," he said. "I could keep them alive, but I couldn't heal them," he added with a shake of his head. "I knew I was right to not kill you."
Mavrik frowned, then realised what Boral was saying. "You were the one who stood up to the council when I hatched!"
Boral stood and bowed. "The very same."
Stormfront frowned at the two dragons. "Mav?"
Mavrik turned to her. "When I hatched the council voted to have me killed in case I turned out like my father."
"What are you talking about?" wondered Stormfront, shaking her head. "I've heard Striker is nice!"
Woodgrove appeared in the mouth of the cave. "He is nice," he said. "I'd like to know what you're talking about, too."
"My real parents are Aurani and Myall," said Mavrik quietly. "When they were killed Striker and Fae adopted me. I was still in the egg."
Woodgrove nodded. "That explains your odd colours."
"The council thought Mav would be mad and start killing humans, like his father did," said Boral. "I went with them to Striker's lair as the Furrie's representative. Striker stood up to Hero and his dogs, and I refused to kill by Magic. And so began my downfall from the council," he finished dramatically.
"But my father wasn't mad," said Mavrik.
And as the moon rose into the night, he told the story of Aurani and Myall. As the tale finished Stormfront was sobbing and clinging to his neck. The males sat with heads bowed, and Stargazer sniffed quietly even though she had heard the story before.
"Oh Mav! That's so sad!" sniffed Stormfront. "Poor Mav! My poor Mav." Mavrik said nothing, but he hugged her and wrapped his wings around her.
"That story was not told here," said Boral. "I think we should go to the council tomorrow and tell everyone. Myall's name must be cleared."
"And your name," said Woodgrove. "You could be reinstated-"
Boral shook his head. "I don't want it. The council can get stuffed for all I care, but there are a lot of dragons who should know this." He sighed and looked at the moon above. "I think we should get some sleep."
The rim of the sun rose above the horizon and shone on the five dragons as they winged their way to the Council Place. Woodgrove said he would remain with his mate in case she woke and would wait for them to return. An hour after sunrise they came to the end of the tablelands around the base of the mountains. Boral called for them to land. He settled into a clearing and waited for the younger dragons. They asked him if anything was wrong. He pointed to the plain below. The plateaux and cliffs of the tablelands ended before them. The land became a series of ever shrinking foothills, descending to the plains below. In the far distance they could see a dark ring on the ground. Mavrik judged it to be at least twenty miles away.
"Many years ago a stone fell from the sky," said Boral. "It struck the plain there, creating the Ring. The flat land inside has never been visited by the two-footed unless one of us brings them there. The council meets in there, and that is our destination."
They stared in silence at their destination. Prahan was the first to speak.
"Yes, my young friend. Wow."
"I've never been closer than this," said Stormfront.
"We won't get closer if we stay here," said Stargazer but no one moved.
Mavrik looked at Boral. "Are you nervous?"
Boral jumped. "What? Of course not!"
"We should go, then."
"Yes, I suppose we should," said Boral with a sigh. With that he launched. The younger dragons followed closely, and together they soared down to the Council Ring on the weak morning thermals.
It took them less than half an hour to cover the distance and pass over the rim. Mavrik looked down into the ancient crater. Around the inner cliff was a thick forest of tall timbers that surrounded an open area in the centre. The land was green and watered by underground springs. As they passed overhead he could see a large gathering of dragons. Every face was turned toward them. Boral took them down and landed on the green grass. A murmur passed around the gathering as the younger dragons settled. Mavrik heard many voices saying "Boral!" and felt many eyes looking at him.
Before the disturbance had settled another dragon landed beside them. Mavrik gaped at him. "Woodgrove! What-?"
"Harrie woke," whispered Woodgrove. "She named the dragon who attacked her, and I flew on your tails to be here with you." He saw the concerned look on the faces of his friends. "She's going to be all right, thanks to you two."
An old brown dragon stood in the centre of the clearing, barring their way. "You have no right to be here!" he snarled at Boral.
"Hello Hero. Still upset that I wouldn't do your bidding?"
"You were thrown from the Council," said Hero. He saw Woodgrove and bowed his head. "Woodgrove! I am sorry to hear of your loss."
"I bet you are," muttered Woodgrove. "I thank you," he said loudly. "But I haven't had a loss. Harrier was gravely wounded, but she lives."
Mavrik saw a tiny snarl on the lips of Hero, and guessed the name of Harrie's attacker. "You are indeed lucky," said Hero.
"There was no luck. She had the help of these healers and magic users." Woodgrove pointed to Mavrik and Boral. A deathly silence fell on the ring as all eyes watched the drama.
Hero snarled openly. "A scaled dragon who uses magic?" he growled. "That is against our laws! Leave or the Council will judge you."
"Judge?" said Prahan. He trotted into the centre of the clearing and faced Hero. "The Council has no right to judge anyone! That's not why it was formed."
"Be quiet, hatchling, or I'll-" Hero lifted his hand, then a surprised look crossed his face and he froze on the spot.
Boral looked at Mavrik who shrugged. "Prahan has something he needs to say," he explained to the furry dragon. "I think we should let him speak."
Prahan turned to stare at the surrounding dragons. "Our council was formed to arbitrate disputes and to receive deputations from the other races." He circled around Hero and stared the others in the eye. "Nothing more. You cannot make laws to rule us. You cannot make laws and then punish us for not following them. Our laws are in our hearts!" He pounded on his chest. "How dare you presume to rule over the rest of us," he shouted. The dragons of the council looked at each other in embarrassment as the young dragon reminded them of something they should have known. Prahan took a deep breath. "How dare you!" he shouted again.
Hero roared and struck. Prahan fell to the ground and lay like a dead thing. Stargazer and Mavrik were with their stricken brother in a second; Stormfront was close behind. Stargazer wept as she cradled Prahan's head. Mavrik breathed in great gulps of air as he examined the body. He gasped in relief and hugged Stargazer.
"He's all right!" he sobbed. "He's unconscious, but he'll wake." He kept repeating that until Stargazer calmed down. Stormfront hugged him and wrapped her wings around her three friends. Around them rose an angry murmur as other dragons protested.
"I should have killed you all when I had the chance," growled Hero. Only the three friends heard this over the noise of the gathering. "Who will stop me this time?" Stargazer extended her talons but Mavrik put a restraining hand on her arm.
"I will," said Woodgrove from behind Hero. The old dragon spun.
"You?" he shouted. Silence fell on the Ring again until only Stargazer's sobs could be heard. "You couldn't even protect your mate!" Hero laughed at him.
"She named her attacker," said Woodgrove. "She named you. If it wasn't for Mavrik and Boral, you would have murdered her! Was it because she is a healer? Did you murder all our healers?"
"You had better defend yourself," said Hero. "I'm going to kill you for a slander like that."
Boral hurried forward and helped Mavrik drag Prahan's unconscious form away. "How did Hero break my spell?" whispered Mavrik.
"He had help," said Boral.
"Help?" wondered Mavrik, but Boral did not answer.
Woodgrove and Hero circled each other, their talons extended. Hero made a feint but Woodgrove ducked out of the way. They faced each other in silence. Woodgrove felt his hatred rise. The killing of his people, the attack on his mate. It all gathered into a knot in his chest. Hero shifted slightly, possibly to deal a killing strike, but Woodgrove hit first. All his anger and hatred gathered into the one blow and he used it all. When he opened his eyes he saw his talons buried in the other dragon's neck.
Hero staggered back with a hand on his throat. He blinked at the blood on his fingers, then looked silently at Woodgrove before sinking to the ground. Woodgrove stared numbly at the body before him. When he lifted his eyes again he saw the Ring had been deserted by all but his five friends. He walked slowly to the group. Boral nodded to him. "Now do you believe?" asked Woodgrove.
"Yes," said Boral. "Hero was backed by a wizard. I can see that now." He placed a hand on Prahan's head.
Mavrik shook his head. "Which wizard?"
"I don't know," said Boral. "I didn't want to believe Woody's story, but I know now he was right. I was too slow and it nearly cost us another life."
"Not quite," muttered Prahan. Everyone looked down and gaped at him in surprise.
"Prahan!" shouted Stargazer. "You're awake!" She lifted his head and hugged him with delight.
Prahan put his hands over his ears. "Shhh! My head hurts." He opened his eyes slightly and blinked at the group standing above him. "Are we going home now?"
"Not too soon, I hope," said a deep voice from behind. They turned to face the dragon. Mavrik had noticed him in the Council gathering, his sand coloured scales stood out against the dark trees. "I wish to speak with you all." He leaned sideways to see Stormfront as she hid behind Mavrik. "Hello Fronny."
"Hi, Dad." Mavrik turned and stared at her until she looked at her hands. "Um. Mav? This is Thunder, my dad," she said softly.
Mavrik looked up at Thunder. The older dragon was twice Mavrik's size. I hope I don't upset him, he thought. "My name is Mavrik," he said. "I was sort of hoping you'd-"
"Mavrik? Mavrik from the West?" Thunder rumbled. "I'm glad I finally met you!" Mavrik gulped and prepared to flee. "Forty years ago the council voted to have you killed! I was the second to vote against that evil resolution. Boral was the first." He looked over to where Boral stood at the back of the group. "It's been too long since you were here," he said to the furry dragon.
"Hello, old friend," said Boral with a smile. "I was busy elsewhere."
"Listening to Woody's theory about a human wizard killing our healers, I expect." Thunder sighed and muttered "I should have listened, too."
"It's not your fault mum died," said Stormfront.
Thunder looked at her standing beside Mavrik. "Have you two mated yet?"
"DAD!" shouted Stormfront. Mavrik opened and closed his mouth but no sounds came.
"Soon, I think," said Stargazer.
"GAZ!" shouted Mavrik. "Jeez!"
"I think our business here is done," said Woodgrove. He hated being away from Harrier and wished to return. "What will we do with the body?" he asked with a nod at the still form in the centre of the Ring.
"Leave him for the crows and foxes to chew on," said Thunder.
"Raise a mound over him," said Prahan. He struggled to his feet. "It will remind us of what happened here today." He rubbed the back of his head and added "But I have my own reminder. I think I can fly now."
"Everyone is welcome at my lair," said Woodgrove. There was a great noise of wings as the dragons launched and flew off.
Boral sat in the late morning sun and watched his friends depart. A great weight had been lifted from his heart. His Magic had told him long ago that a dragon would die today. He thought he would be that one, but when Prahan was felled he was horrified. It took all his strength to keep from killing Hero on the spot. Words echoed from the past, words he'd spoken as he stood before a furious father defending the lair. "Killing by magic is evil." The presence of a dragon behind him lifted him back to the present. "I suppose you saw everything."
"Of course," said Watcher. The ancient dragon sat beside Boral and stared at the distant specks. "Our young friends really shook the council to its core."
"About time, too."
"I'm glad our magic wasn't tainted by murder, today." Boral shot him a look of surprised. "Oh, I knew what you were thinking. I could see it on your face." Watcher looked Boral in the eyes. "But you didn't do it."
"Would you have stopped me if I tried?"
"No," said Watcher softly. "I'm not permitted to interfere."
"Oh." Boral sat silently for a minute. "But you set Mav on his path to Magic!"
"I was on holidays," said Watcher with the faintest of smiles. "The young ones will be wondering where you are." He nodded at the distant figures.
Boral turned to look in the direction of Woodgrove's lair, and when he turned his attention back to the dragon beside him, he found he was alone in the clearing. Watcher had departed as silently as he arrived. Boral sighed, then launched and flew after his friends.
That night Woodgrove sat silently and watched the others and the two humans laugh and swap stories as they ate, but he didn't feel like celebrating. Harrier reached out and touched his arm. He looked down and saw her look of concern.
"Are you okay, Woody?" she asked quietly.
"I killed someone today, Harrie," he said. "I thought I wanted to, but after it happened I hated myself."
She squeezed his arm. "Good," she said, and reached up to stroke his face. "I would be upset if you actually enjoyed it."
Woodgrove sighed and carefully hugged her.
tormfront shivered slightly as she lay curled on the bed. The warmth of the dwarf stove in the main chamber of the lair was not as comforting as the intimate warmth of her mate. She yawned and looked around the room, but Mavrik was out.
Good! He's hunting, she thought as she picked the fragments of eggshells from around the three tiny hatchlings. They wriggled slightly at her touch but did not wake. It took her some time to leave the bed without disturbing the young ones in their nest of woolly sheepskins. She looked at them sleeping; the blue-green light of the Nomad glow bulbs hid the true colour of their skin. Soon she would take them into the light of day, but she let them sleep for now.
Stormfront left the sleeping chamber and disposed of the shells in the stove, then pulled down the curtain of skins that kept the cold autumn air outside. Daylight blinded her and she covered her eyes. She waited for the dazzle to leave and looked at the clearing.
It was full of dragons. All of Mavrik's family was there, as well as Paveway, Mach and Amraan. Cyclone and Fremantle had brought their three young ones along, too. The yearlings were pestering "Uncle Ammi," much to his annoyance.
The adults looked at her silently.
"Good morning," Stormfront said quietly.
Fae stepped forward. "How are they?"
"They are sleeping." She noticed Fae's look and added "All three of them."
Fae beamed and hugged her. Losing a baby at the moment of hatching can be devastating. The others ran forward. Mavrik landed unseen and looked at the mass of friends in a big happy huddle. Amraan and the babies ran to him, calling his name. He reached down and carefully scooped all of them up in his arms. "I'm glad someone remembers me," he laughed.
Cyclone broke from the group and came to him. "You didn't have to hunt!" he said, looking at the two kangaroo carcasses. "We brought enough for everyone." He pointed to the edge of the clearing and Mavrik saw a pile of carcasses in the shade. Cyclone relieved his brother of the three hatchlings.
Amraan scrambled onto Mavrik's back. "Can we see the babies now?" he asked as he settled into a comfortable position.
The group gathered in the main room of the lair and watched as Mavrik spread a sheepskin on the floor, and Stormfront carefully placed the tree tiny dragons on it. They wobbled around as they settled, then went to sleep. Stormfront pointed to them one at a time as she named them.
"Ilyrin," she said, indicating one with pale brown skin.
"He'll have scales like you," said Fae.
Stormfront smiled and nodded. "Kehvarl," she said pointing at the second. "He'll have scales like me and dark grey stripes like Mav."
"Wow!" breathed Bindi. "Elvish names!"
"Names of legends," said Prahan.
"Yes, and yes," said Mavrik.
The fell silent and looked at the third hatchling. The sun shone on her pale yellow skin. Fae reached out and touched her lightly. "She will have gold scales," she whispered.
"Yes." Mavrik looked at Stormfront uncertainly. She nodded and smiled at him. "And her name is Aurani," he said.