ae lay before the strange metal cube and basked in its heat. She wondered what the Dwarves would ask in exchange for installing one in her own lair. The stove drove the cold and damp from Mavrik and Stormfront's den and kept Mav's healing potions cooking slowly. The pot on the stove also had a faint scent of Fremantle. Fae smiled to herself. Freo obviously used Mav's stove for her own healing potions.
She sighed and wondered about the changing times. Once, a Dragon helping Dwarves was unheard of, but now her son was accepting gifts of appreciation from them. Mavrik seemed to help everyone. Right now he was flying Pen the wizard back home. The human was still far too weak to make the trip by horse but his health now was vastly improved from a few weeks ago.
She sighed again. Where was he? She listened to her three grandchildren playing outside in the rain. With Mavrik away, Stormfront asked her to mind the little ones while she hunted. Fae had no doubts they could tell her Mav's exact location. They were all magic users but still too young to even wonder why scaled dragons did not use that power.
Fae thought about Mavrik's dead siblings, his real family, killed while he was still in the egg. Would they have hatched with the same Talents as his? No one will know. She wept for her dead friend Aurani who would never see her grandchildren. When Fae saw the little yellow hatchling and heard Mavrik name her after his dead mother, she thought her heart would burst with joy and grief.
"Grandma? I'm cold."
Fae opened her eyes and saw Ilyrin standing in the door, hunched over and shivering. "Silly Illy!" she said gently. "You shouldn't be playing in the cold." She gathered the little dragon into her arms and placed him near the stove, then wrapped him in a warm sheepskin. He shuffled around under the skin until he made a conical tent. The only exposed part of his body was his head.
"When is Mum coming back?"
"I don't know. When she has some food," she added on seeing Ilyrin's puzzled frown.
At that moment she heard little Aurani shout "Ew! Yuck!" and waited to hear what new, disgusting act had been performed by Kehvarl.
Aurani ran into the lair, a look of horror on her face. "Kev went in the creek!"
Fae felt relieved. Is that all? "Is he all right?" she asked aloud.
"Yes," said Aurani slowly. "But he went in the creek!"
"I thought he'd be wet enough playing in the rain-" She stopped when she realized what her granddaughter was saying. "Kehvarl!"
A tiny brown head poked around the entrance of the lair. "Yes?" said Kehvarl quietly.
"Did you go in the creek?" asked Fae angrily. He looked at the ground and nodded slightly. "Why didn't you go to the toilet glade?"
His head snapped up and he looked at her with wide eyes. "There's a thing with teeth there! I was busting so I...." His voice trailed off and he looked at the ground between his hands. "Sorry."
Fae frowned. "What thing with teeth?"
Kehvarl glanced over his shoulder then ran into the lair to shelter under Fae. "It's big and brown with fur!" he said quickly. "And it has talons like this!" He extended his own talons, not much bigger than thick needles. "-But bigger! And teeth! I don't like it," he finished.
Fae frowned at the description of a 'leo. She knew the young ones had never seen one of these vicious hunters, and the toilet glade was a good half-mile away yet Kev knew the animal was there, waiting. Magic again. She went to the entrance and stared into the surrounding forest but there was no scent of the animal. She turned and saw Illy's tent now had three tiny heads poking from the top. They were arguing again.
"You have to get scales first," said Aurani.
"Uncle Ammi killed one and he doesn't have scales," said Ilyrin.
"He's furry and doesn't have them."
"Grandma? How do I get scales?"
Fae smiled at them. "You have to shed your skin." She looked at Kehvarl. "What are you doing Kev?"
He let out his breath with a gasp. "Shedding." He took another deep breath and concentrated.
Fae laughed. "You can't force the shedding," she said gently. "It comes when you're the right age."
"How old is that?" asked Aurani. Kehvarl looked disappointed.
"When you're about thirty years old," said Fae.
"Thirty?" wondered Ilyrin. "That's ages away!"
"I'll be old!" exclaimed Kehvarl.
"What's it like?" asked Aurani.
ae sat on the threshold of her lair and listened to her mate shouting at the four young ones. He eventually joined her outside.
"Can you believe those silly buggers have staked out little territories in the lair? They're biting at anyone who gets too close!" Striker sighed and rubbed the tip of his tail. "And they're not play-bites, either," he added.
"It will end soon."
"It will indeed, or I'll throw them out to fend for themselves."
Fae gently took his injured tail and kissed it. "You forget what time it is," she said softly.
Striker frowned at her. "Afternoon?"
A shadow passed over them. They looked up and saw a familiar grey shape circling above. The young male dropped lower and landed close by.
"Mavrik!" they shouted happily, but Mavrik looked distracted.
"Hi Mum, Dad," he said quietly. Fae went to hug him but he flinched and backed away. "Don't touch me!" He sighed and added, "I don't feel very well."
"Hot?" asked Fae. Mavrik nodded. "Almost itching?" Mavrik nodded to her again. "Your brothers and sisters are inside." Fae indicated the lair. They watched him go inside, then Striker gave her a puzzled look. "It's Itching Time," she told him.
Striker stared off into the distance. "Ah. Of course. I suppose we should find some shelter out here until it's over."
The next week was difficult. Arguments were common and fights broke out, but neither were serious because the combatants were too ill. Prahan remained silent as usual, but his growls of threat were menacing and echoed through the lair. Fae and Striker only entered to bring them food and take the bones away.
Mavrik became increasingly irritable with his family and their fights. On the tenth day he could take no more. "Shut up!" he roared at Cyclone. "I did NOT cross into your bit! Look." He pointed at the line drawn in the dust on the floor. "Look! My footprints are here, and the line is there. See? They are this far from the line."
"Hey! Get off my bit," growled Cyclone.
Mavrik faced his brother. They stood silently, glaring. Mavrik lifted his right hand and deliberately placed it on the other side of the line. Cyclone lashed out instantly. Mavrik yelped and jumped back. He held his hands over the gashes in his chest.
Cyclone stared wide-eyed at Mavrik, then looked at the shreds of skin handing from the talons of his right hand. He was appalled at what he had done. "Oh, jeez! Mav! I'm sorry."
Mavrik gaped at him then looked at his own chest. He frowned and lifted a hand away from the wound. "What...? Hey! Look!" He stood back on his haunches so they could all see. Across his chest were three gashes, but instead of blood they saw rows of black scales just under the grey skin. He picked at the loose skin until he exposed a roughly circular patch.
Cyclone, Prahan, Bindi and Stargazer stared in silence at the scales. "Wow!" breathed Bindi.
Cyclone shook the skin from his talons then poked at his own chest. The talons pierced his skin without pain and pushed against something hard. "I have them too," he whispered.
Prahan scratched at his left arm and was amazed when a large piece of skin came away to expose his grey scales. "Scales!" he shouted. "We're shedding!"
"Yes, you are," said Fae from the entrance. She walked in and held Prahan's hand. "But don't force it or the new scales will be deformed." They gathered around her, asking questions until she held up a hand and silenced them. "If you can go the next five days without scratching off any more skin, your scales will be healthy." She looked at their puzzled faces and beamed. "You're all mature now. Soon you will shed this skin and have proper scales. Then you will take mates and have families of your own."
"I don't think I'll find a mate in five days," said Mavrik.
Fae laughed. "I didn't mean instantly! It has happened to us all, and your turn will come."
Striker came into the lair with a kangaroo in each hand. "Who's hungry?" he asked, then stopped when he saw the black circle on Mavrik's chest. "You've started! Who else has some?" Prahan held out his arm and Striker examined the exposed scales. "Nice colour," he commented, holding his own arm next to Prahan's to compare colours. The scales were almost identical in hue.
Fae went outside and Striker followed. She sat on the grass and bowed her head. "Did you see the colour of Mav's scales?" she said quietly.
"Just like Myall," she sniffed.
"Yes," whispered Striker. He hugged her tightly. "The truth will come out one day," he said. "But not yet."
Mavrik woke early on the morning of the fifth day. He itched horribly but resisted the temptation to scratch, frightened by the thought of deformed scales. He yawned and stretched, and felt a curious pulling sensation along his spine. He turned and looked at his back. A long tear ran the length of his body, black and dark grey scales showed against his light grey skin. "ARGH!" His family jumped to their feet, wondering what was wrong. "My scales! They'll go wrong!" he wailed.
Striker examined the ragged tear for a few moments, then nodded. "They won't go wrong." He waited until Mavrik grew quite and added, "They're ready."
"What?" wondered Mavrik.
"They're ready," repeated Striker. He looked at the five young dragons watching them. "Stretch like this," he said, and demonstrated the action. He smiled at the others as they copied him and felt the skin open along their backs. He nodded and started to leave the cave.
"What do we do now?" asked Stargazer.
"Scratch!" he called over his shoulder.
They looked at each other then Bindi giggled and pounced on Mavrik's back. Soon they were all laughing and scratching in a heap on the floor. Fae and Striker listed to the laughter, and thought back to their own Itching Day.
ae woke at dawn, and glanced at the lair. Five scaly heads could be seen in the entrance. She nudged Striker to wake him then called to the young ones. "Come out, then! Let me see you." They trooped into the landing clearing and sat before their parents. Prahan's scales were a smoky grey like Striker's, while Bindi, Stargazer and Cyclone were all grey-green like hers. Mavrik was deep black like shadows at night, and across his back were thick dark grey stripes. She nodded at them and beamed.
"Don't we look nice and shiny," said Striker with a smile.
"Stay here in the sun for a while," said Fae. "Then you can clean up." She saw their puzzled looks and added, "You don't think we're sleeping with five shed skins in the home, do you?"
he looked down at the three little dragons before her. At some point they had spread the skin out and curled up on the wool. They looked at her intently. "And that's what Itching Day is like," she finished.
Ilyrin and Aurani shuddered, but Kehvarl stared at her. "What colours will we be?" he asked.
"You have to wait and see," said Fae. "Your true colours won't show until you shed." She looked at her grandchildren. "Take a breath Kev, or you'll faint."
Kehvarl let out his breath with a gasp. "Rats."