Mavrik grabbed the fur on Mach's chest and dragged the smaller dragon closer. "What do you mean he just disappeared?" he hissed.
   "Just that," said Mach, wincing. "He was there, then he wasn't."
   "Tell me what happened."
   Mach pointed to Aurani and Kehvarl who were huddled together looking surprised. "We were doing the relaxation exercise," he said. "You know; close your eyes and imagine you're at your favourite place-"
   "Yes, go on!" said Mavrik impatiently.
   "Well, we'd just started and he vanished."
   "I can't believe you let Illy wander off like that!"
   "He didn't wander off. He was there," Mach pointed at a spot near the entrance of his lair, "And then he wasn't. I don't understand what happened," he added with a shake of his head.
   "I think I do," whispered Paveway. They looked at her, but she hung her head and said no more.
   "Can you Find him?" asked Mavrik.
   Mach nodded. "Yes. If we work together we should be able pin-point him easily enough."
   Ilyrin shivered as the sun disappeared. He opened his eyes and blinked at the darkness. At first he thought night had fallen suddenly, but this velvety blackness was more than mere night. He closed his eyes, then opened them again to make sure they really were open. At first he feared he'd gone blind, but when he waved his hand before his face he could make out a faint shadow.
   "Uncle Mach?" His voiced echoed alarmingly. Somehow he had found a way into a cave, possibly below Mach's lair, but he didn't remember falling in. As his eyes adjusted he began to pick out some details in the faint light coming from above. He was in a small alcove behind a large white rock. On the other side of the boulder was a black emptiness. He looked up and saw a tiny blue square far in the distance. The alcove was at the base of a long chimney.
   "Dad!" The echoes of his shout terrified him so he crouched behind the boulder. The noise vanished into the depths while he lay there silently, waiting for the hidden dangers to come.
   After many minutes the cave crickets came out of hiding and began their soft calls once more. Another noise sent them scurrying for cover: a soft sniff, and a tiny whisper.
   "I want my mum."
I think I can find him," said Mavrik. "Can you guide me?"
   "Yes," said Mach with a nod. "If he concentrates on you or me, we should have no problems."
   "Good." Mavrik closed his eyes and relaxed. In seconds he began to get impressions. "I feel a dark, enclosed space."
   "So do I," whispered Mach. "I can't get any more definition. Can you?"
   "Um... South? Yes! But he's a long way away!"
   "I don't understand," said Mach. "How-"
   "He's fading!"
The noise echoed loudly in the cavern. Ilyrin crouched behind the boulder and listened fearfully. His concentration had been shattered the instant the rhythmic 'clop-clop' reached him, and as the noise came nearer another could be heard: a constant grind, with tiny squeaks.
   His fear mounted, and when a yellow light full of dancing shadows played on the wall outside the alcove he shut his eyes and curled into a ball on the floor. The noise grew louder until the thing was just outside his shelter, then it stopped. He held his breath, fearful that whatever it was would hear him.
   There was a faint tinkle, a snort and "Whoa boy!" A woman's voice.
   Ilyrin lifted his head slowly until he could see over the boulder. Standing in the cavern was a pony harnessed to a cart piled high with round, brown things, and a Dwarf woman. Yellow light cast by a pair of lamps mounted on the cart fell around them, and Ilyrin could see now that what he had thought was an empty cavern was in fact a tunnel, the far wall being little more than twenty feet away. The pony tossed his head making the bridle jingle.
   "What's wrong with you?" muttered the woman. She patted the pony's neck. "We'll see the sun on the fire-stone, then we'll be off. Okay?" She tuned and looked straight at Ilyrin.
   He saw her look of surprise the instant before he ducked his head. A noise just above his head made him look up. The woman was leaning over the boulder, cradling her chin in her hands and smiling.
   "Hello, little one."
    "I'm sorry," he whispered.
   "Whatever for?" she said.
   "For being here."
   "You've obviously fallen down the well," she pointed up to the blue square far above, "so it isn't your fault. Are you hurt?
   "I don't think so."
   "Come out here so I can check you," she ordered. Ilyrin joined her on the other side of the boulder where she quickly felt over his body. "I can't feel anything broken," she said. "In fact, I can't find any scrapes or bruises. Did you float down?"
   "I don't know."
   "How did you get here?"
   "I don't know." He hung his head. "I want my mum," he said softly.
   The woman smiled and rubbed the top of the little dragon's head. "Let's see if we can get you there," she said kindly.
   Ilyrin snapped his head up, a look of hope in his eyes. "Do you know where she is?"
   "No, but I know someone who might. He lives in the next town, but he's a barge master so he gets around. Some say," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "he has met dragons before!"
   Ilyrin smiled. "My name is Ilyrin, but everyone calls me Illy."
   "I am Penni." As she spoke, a shaft of sunlight stabbed down the light well. "Look at the stone," she whispered.
   Ilyrin did as she said, and gasped aloud. In the diffuse light coming down the well the stone was a pale milky white, but now, in direct sunlight, the stone glowed with iridescent gashes of deep red, with little sparks of green and blue dancing between the flame. As he moved the patterns flashed and changed. "It's beautiful!" he whispered.
   "We call this the Firestone," murmured Penni. "It is a single piece of opal my people found many years ago. It is too big to move easily, and no one wanted to cut it for gems. So we left it where it was found." As she spoke Ilyrin crept forward until he was an arm's length of the stone. He reached out to touch it, but where his shadow fell the colours vanished. He withdrew his arm. Penni stood beside him and held his hands. "I always want to hold the fire too. But it is locked in the stone and not for us. I have to settle for a pause here to see it before moving on."
   They stared in silence until the sun moved away from the well and the stone changed back to a bland white. The pair sighed as the colours faded.
   "We'd best be on our way," said Penni. "Up you get."
   The pony nickered and stamped nervously as Ilyrin approached but a word from Penni settled him. She helped the little dragon onto the cart before climbing up and taking the reigns. A slight shake was all the pony needed, and they moved away from the light. The darkness closed around them until the weak light of the lamps was the only thing keeping them from total blackness. Ilyrin turned to look at the bright alcove behind them but the load blocked his view.
   He sniffed at the strange odour drifting from the mound, and carefully picked up one of the round objects. It weighed little and was covered with a crumbly brown surface. He sniffed it and wrinkled his nose. "What's this stuff?"
   "Bread buns," said Penni.
   "It smells weird," said Ilyrin as he replaced the bun. "It sort of smells like plants. Where do you grow them?"
   Penni laughed. "I'm a baker," she said. Ilyrin gave her a look of incomprehension. "I cook them in an oven at home," she explained.
   With that, the Dwarf launched into a long discussion on the baking of bread, much of which baffled the dragon. Many of the things she mentioned, such as salt, yeast and butter, were so unfamiliar to Ilyrin that he could not even begin to imagine sort of plants they grew on. But he did not want to interrupt her. This sudden exposure to an alien culture was fascinating and he wanted to know more. She spoke for a long time.
   Without warning, the tunnel wall to their right vanished. Penni stopped the cart. "We're there."
   Ilyrin peered beyond the pool of yellow light. "Where?"
   "It's a town called High Docks," Penni said as she climbed from the cart. She took another lamp from under her seat, lit it from the cart light, and walked into the darkness. Ilyrin watched as she came to the wall and lifted the lamp. He saw the far wall was not stone but wood and Penni was standing before a pair of gates. She clasped a dangling rope and pulled. On the other side of the wall a bell rang. The sound of a door opening came from the blackness above, and a voice called a query in the Dwavish tongue. Penni answered and the door shut. Seconds later the gates opened.
   Ilyrin blinked in the sudden dazzling light. At first he thought it was broad daylight, but as his eyes adjusted he saw they were in a vast cavern. It was easily a fifty yards wide, and two hundred long. Down the centre ran a row of columns left as roof supports when the cavern was carved. On each side of the colonnade ran a pair of light wells, five wells to each line. The diffuse light from the wells was blinding after the velvety blackness of the tunnels. Ilyrin rubbed his eyes.
   When he could stop squinting he looked around. Embedded in the walls were round wooden structures. They reminded him of the beer barrels he saw at Dragon Keep, but these were much larger and sawn in half. In the flat face of each was a door and a pair of windows.
   "Are those houses?" he wondered.
   "Yes," said Penni. "You didn't think we lived on stone, did you?" She stopped the cart looked at the crowd beginning to surround them. "Stay calm," she told Ilyrin.
   The little dragon looked at the people around the cart. Many were muttering and pointing at him. Someone from behind tugged his tail and he spun in alarm. The crowd fell back and murmured angrily. He looked around for his friend but she had left the cart and vanished into the crowd. He edged toward the middle of the seat to be as far as possible from everyone.
   Penni returned to find him squatting on the seat, clutching his tail against his chest and looking very frightened. A dwarf pushed through the crowd behind her and climbed onto the cart.
   "All right everyone!" he called to the crowd. "It's only a little dragon so naff off!" He looked at Penni and nodded at the cartload of bread. She nodded once and vanished behind the cart. The people followed her. "My name is Barra," said the dwarf over the noise of the crowd as they called out how many loaves they wanted. "I am the barge-master in charge of the upper reaches."
   "I am Ilyrin. I'm lost."
   Barra smiled. "I know, Penni told me."
   "She said you might know where I live."
   "I might. Who are your parents?"
   "My dad is Mavrik." He stopped when he saw the look on Barra's face. "What's wrong?"
   Barra blinked and closed his mouth. "You'd better come with me," he said quietly. He climbed from the cart and walked quickly through the town.
   Ilyrin had to run to keep up. "Slow down!" he panted.
   When they reached an area free of people Barra stopped abruptly, causing the dragon to skid to a halt on the smooth stones. He squatted down and stared intently into Ilyrin's face until the young one looked away. "How did you get here?"
   Ilyrin stared at a semi-circular cave that had been turned into a blacksmith's workshop. The smith looked up, winked at him then went back to beating the red-hot iron. "I don't know," he whispered eventually.
   Barra sighed and stood. "I know someone who can get word to your father, but it's a fair walk," he said softly. "You can stay with me until we set out tomorrow. Are you hungry?" A slight smile crossed his mouth.
   The dwarf smiled fully and nodded. "You young dragons always seem to be hungry. Come." He turned on his heel and strode off, aiming for the far-left corner of the cavern.
   Ilyrin looked at the houses as they passed. They were all built of unpainted wood, but most had a brass plaque showing the occupation of the owner. Many had no front at all and Ilyrin could see the wares hanging inside. Some had pots and pans, woven blankets or things he couldn't identify. One had large slabs of meat hanging very close to the ground. He mouth watered but he dare not ask for anything. Finally they halted outside a door. The sign had a brass horse pulling a small brass boat.
   Barra pointed at the sign. "The barge is for me," he said. "And the pony is my wife's. She is second in charge of all animals in the town." He glanced at Ilyrin. "So don't tell her if you've eaten horses or she'll get upset."
   "I don't think I have." He suspected his father had caught a wild horse once, but he couldn't be sure.
   "Good." With that the dwarf opened the door and ushered the little dragon inside. The air inside was a riot of scents. Ilyrin's sensitive nose twitched as he smelled people, wood, smoke, animals, and most importantly, meat. "We're home!" called Barra.
   "Good!" came a voice from behind a curtain at the rear of the dwelling. "Is that Penni with you?"
   Barra hesitated before saying "No."
   There was a pause, then the curtain was pushed back. A dwarvish woman stood glaring at them, the wooden spoon in her right hand dripped onto the mat. "What do you mean 'we'?"
   "We have a- uh- a visitor," said Barra hesitantly.
   "Hello," said Ilyrin.
   The woman walked to them and looked at the young one. "Another dragon, Baz?" she said with a smirk. "So what's your name?"
   "I am Morrow," she said, "and you are welcome to our house." She gestured to the table. "You're both just in time. The food is cooked. Will Penni be long?"
   "I don't think so," said Barra as he took a seat. "She's probably arguing with the Mayor over how many loaves she delivered." He indicated a seat and told Ilyrin to make himself comfortable. "And while we eat we can discuss the best way to get you home."
   Ilyrin scrambled onto a padded bench and tried to get comfortable. He remembered what Amraan had said about Dwarves and their eating habits, but the thought of food drove away all his reservations.
The late afternoon sun shone on the dragons sitting silently around the mouth of Mavrik's lair, but did little to warm them. When word of Ilyrin's disappearance went out all Mavrik's family flew in to help in any way they could. A depression had settled on the group, and Paveway seemed to be on the verge of tears. The only members of the family not upset were Kehvarl and Aurani. They were more concerned about their mother's feelings than they were about the disappearance of their brother.
   Striker watched Paveway closely. "What do you know about this magic, Paveway?" he asked softly.
   "There is a Talent called Jumping," said Paveway softly. "Those with it can go from place to place in an instant. The only restriction is that you must be able to see your destination before you can Jump there. It's very rare." The furred dragon sighed deeply. "When I was very young I had some scaled friends, a pair of sisters, who had another, rarer talent. We called it Leaping. It was like Jumping, only it had no restrictions. They could go anywhere they wished in an instant." Paveway closed her eyes and hung her head. "We thought they were lucky, but one day-" She choked, then continued in a whisper, "one day they leapt from the Homelands, and did not return. They haven't been seen since."
   The dragons closed their eyes. Stormfront gathered her remaining children and hugged them.
   "Don't be sad, Mum," said Kehvarl. "You're hurting me," he added with a gasp.
   Mavrik scowled and flicked out his tongue. "Ugh." They looked at him as he grimaced. "I feel like I've been chewing on wood." His forked tongue flicked out again in disgust.
   Mach burst out laughing. The others stared at him in astonishment. Paveway lifted her head, a look of hope in her eyes. "Illy is with Dwarves," said Mach.
   "How do you know?" wondered Stormfront.
   Amraan jumped to his feet. "Is it a sort of hot wet meat taste with squishy wood?" he asked. When Mavrik nodded he turned to his father. "That's what I ate on the barge."
   "He's with the Dwarves," repeated Mach.
   "We must get him!" said Fae. The loss of her grandson had rekindled the black memories of the death of a friend many years ago, but Mach's laughter had given her hope again.
   Striker held his mate gently. "Not now," he murmured. "It will be dark soon. We'll set out tomorrow." As he spoke the sun dipped below the horizon.
   "We have an hour of hunting before it's too dark," said Mavrik. "Can I take one of the cows near your lair, Dad?"
   "Well, I'm not- ow!" Striker rubbed his arm. "Of course you can! But how will you- ow! I'll help bring it back." He turned to Fae and whispered, "Stop hitting me."
Ilyrin woke in near darkness and looked around in confusion. Nothing was familiar, even the smells were wrong. He glanced up at the moon but it was the wrong shape. He blinked. That was a window, not the moon! Memories flooded back as confusion left and he remembered the day before.
   The rumbling of his stomach was loud, and he wondered if the Dwarves up-stairs could hear it. He jumped from the couch and went to the door. Maybe he could catch a small kangaroo, like a pademelon or wallaby, for breakfast. His heart fell when he opened the door and looked at the empty square. Oh yeah, he was underground. His stomach growled again.
   The light wells above cast fuzzy patches around the square. His stomach growled once more, but a more urgent feeling came from the base of his tail. One of the arches near him seemed to glow with a brighter light. He wondered if that was a door to the outside world.
The smith concentrated on applying the clay to the side of the new sword. Gradually he became aware that he was not alone. He looked up and saw the small brown dragon. "Hello."
   "Hullo." They stared at each other in silence, then Ilyrin whispered, "I have to go to the toilet."
   The smith pointed at a stand of trees to his right, downwind of the clearing. The little one ran off and disappeared into the undergrowth. He smiled to himself as he dipped the stylus in the pot of thin clay, then began applying the grey slurry to the sword once more. He'd intended visiting the Barge-master last night to find out more about this unusual visitor, but he'd been working on this blade and forgot the time. He heard the little dragon settle on the grass beside him.
   "So what brings you to our city?" asked the smith without looking up.
   "Penni did, in her cart."
   The smith laughed. "And how did you get in Penni's cart?"
   "She found me at the Firestone," said Ilyrin. "How long is a league?"
   "Three miles," said the smith. The sudden change in conversation broke his concentration.
    "Is a thousand leagues a long way?"
   "It certainly is! Why do you ask?"
   "Barra said it was that far to my home," said Ilyrin quietly. He stared into the distance. "How long would it take to travel that far?"
   The dwarf sat silently for a few seconds before replying. "If you took a barge, about eighty five days."
   "Oh," murmured Ilyrin and hung his head. The smith reached out and rubbed the dragon's neck. "Barra said he'll take me to The Guardians, but I don't know who they are," he added with a sigh.
   "The Guardians can take you to the wizards," said the dwarf. "You'll get home much faster than on the canal." Ilyrin's head snapped up, a look of hope in his eyes. The smith smiled. "Now be quiet so I can finish this." With that he turned once more to the blade in his lap.
   Ilyrin sat silently as ordered and gazed at the world spread far below this high meadow. "I think I'm a long way from home," he said quietly.
   The dwarf grunted then was silent for a long while. Finally he straightened and held the blade aloft, turning it in the light. "Finished!" he side with a sigh. The line of black clay along the edge was stark against the glinting silver of the steel. "Now we heat it one last time, quench it, and it's done." He stood and walked stiffly to the steps.
   "Why do you put the clay on?" asked Ilyrin as he trotted beside the dwarf.
   "That's part of the secret process of making a High Dock sword."
   "What does it do?"
   "I can't tell you."
   The smith stopped and looked down at the dragon. "Because it's a secret," he said firmly. The young one looked so dejected the smith regretted being rude. "You can help me with the quenching. My lazy apprentice is still in bed. But," he held a finger in the air, "you must be silent and do as you are told. Do you understand?"
   Ilyrin opened his mouth, shut it, and nodded. The pair walked silently down the stairway to the towpath beside the canal then entered the docks. In minutes they were striding through the Town Square. The few people out laughed and called to the smith. Ilyrin glanced up to see if his new friend would answer them but the smith looked neither right nor left. Ilyrin ignored the comments. Finally they were at the smithy.
   The fire on the forge had burned down to a pile of glowing coals. The smith shovelled on more coke then untied a rope. A tarpaulin dropped over the mouth of the cave, cutting them off from the main square. The forge burned bright in the sudden dark. "What is your name?" he asked suddenly.
   "Ilyrin, but my friends call me Illy."
   "Well, Illy. I am called The Smith, but when we are on our own you may call me Rusty. It's not my real name but it will do. Grab this rope and pump the bellows like this." He pulled on the rope and a blast of air made the fire glow. "I'll be back in a minute." He thrust the blade into the glowing coals and left the smithy.
   Ilyrin pulled the rope as he had been told. The bellows roared and the fire flared. When he let go the rope lifted into the air with an accompanying soft wheeze from the bellows. He dragged it down again and again, pumping air until the fire glowed brilliantly. After a few minutes the smith returned with a wicker basket. The smell of meat filled the smithy and Ilyrin realised he was very hungry. He stopped pumping and stared at the basket.
   The smith set the basket down, removed the lid then pulled out a ceramic plate and placed it on the ground before his guest. Ilyrin frowned at the plate until a large slab of red meat was put on top. "I don't know if you like lamb," said the smith as he lifted a package of sandwiches from the basket, "but I could hear your stomach. I think you would prefer that over a cooked stew." The dragon mumbled something around a huge mouthful of meat and the smith nodded. "I thought so."
   The pair ate in a silence broken only by the soft wheeze of the bellows as the smith pulled on the rope. Finally he licked his fingers and stood. He peered into the fire. "It is ready."
   Ilyrin stopped licking the leg bone and looked up. "What is?"
   "The blade is ready. Stand back."
   The dragon picked up his bone and retreated to the far side of the forge. He stared in wonder as the dwarf drew the red-hot blade from the fire and dropped it into a long wooden tub of water. The blade made a brief high-pitched sizzle as it entered the water, then lay at the bottom growling as it rapidly cooled. Finally it was silent.
   At that moment the tarpaulin over the entrance flicked aside and Barra rushed in. "Rusty!" he panted. "Have you seen the dragon?" The Smith pointed to the shadows behind the forge. Barra sighed in relief and motioned for Ilyrin to stay. "The Mayor is on his way here," he explained. "I saw him across the square."
   "Don't panic, Barra. He'll want to see his new sword, not the dragon," said the Smith as he reached into the water and retrieved the blade. He began rubbing it down with a cloth and asked Barra to raise the covering.
   The tarpaulin rose to reveal a Dwarf in gold-edged clothes striding toward them. A pair of aides walked beside him. "Canal Master!" he hailed. "I didn't know you worked for the Smith."
   "We were discussing sending better quality horse shoes to the Men in the north, Mayor," lied Barra.
   "Why would we do that?" wondered the Mayor with a frown.
   "We could charge them more," said the Smith, "and it's no extra work for me." He gave the blade a final rub and held it in the light.
   The Mayor nodded. "Yes! Yes, good idea," he absently as he watched the glittering sword. "Is that mine?"
   "It will be when I put the hilt on." The Smith handed the blade over. "Be careful. It's very sharp."
   "Very nice," said the Mayor as he examined the steel. "Well done, Master Smith. That would take a dragon's head off!" He handed over the blade and left them.
   Barra and the Smith were acutely aware of a pair of eyes boring holes in their backs. They turned and saw Ilyrin staring at them with wide, wet eyes.
   "Oh boy," muttered the Smith.
   "Illy, it's not-" began Barra.
   "Why does he want to kill dragons?" asked Ilyrin in a broken whisper.
   "It's just a silly saying," said Barra. He squatted beside the dragon and scratched the little head. "The mayor meant it is a good blade." The dwarf sighed. "A long time ago Dragons and Dwarves had a war. A lot of us were killed and so were a lot of dragons. A sword that could kill a dragon was a 'good blade.'" Barra shook his head. "No one really knows how it started, but I think some of the older Dragons might remember."
   "I'm glad we stopped fighting," said Ilyrin with a sniff.
   "The elves stopped the war," said the Smith.
   "Yes." Barra looked into Ilyrin's eyes. "Now Dwarves and Dragons are friends, and we both hate the elves."
   Ilyrin hugged his friend. "I don't hate elves."
   "Neither do I," whispered Barra as he tried to disentangle himself, "but don't tell anyone." He stood suddenly. "Right! Let's get you to the Guardians, and they can take you home."
Once again Ilyrin found himself riding a small pony-drawn cart travelling through the black tunnels. The Dwarves had mentioned the Guardians a number of times, but none had said what kind of person or creature they might be. He felt nervous but not afraid since Barra showed no fear. After an hour the tunnel ended at a stairway leading down into a black void. Embedded in the wall on their left was a wooden door.
   "End of the road," said Barra. "We'll have to walk from here." The dwarf dismounted and banged on the door. "Oi Gatekeeper! Open up!"
   The door opened and a dwarf with a pike advanced. "Wassup?" Light from the brightly lit room spilled into the tunnel. When he saw Barra he lifted the pike. "Oh."
   "The gates are shut?"
   "Yes," said the gatekeeper. He squinted at Ilyrin on the cart. "The Guardians stopped everyone from entering the Vale, so I shut the gates to stop them sheltering in here. Who is that?"
   "He is a guest I am trying to take to the Wizards," said Barra. "Can we get out?"
   "Yes," said the gatekeeper. "I only wanted to keep them out there away. Come!" He took a lamp from beside the door and started down the stairway. Barra and Ilyrin followed him down the short flight and across an echoing chamber. They came to a pair of vast doors made of iron. Set in the left-hand door was a complex lock of cogs and rods. The gatekeeper turned a wheel that moved the locking mechanism, and a door the size of a large man opened. "I'll wait here until you return," said the keeper. "You won't get in otherwise. Good luck!"
   Barra thanked him and stepped through with Ilyrin close behind. They were in the outer tunnels. Enough light filtered from an opening ahead for Ilyrin to see this cavern was totally different from the ones he had been in. The passage they now walked through was natural in formation. The only evidence of the work of hands was the broad path they followed as it twisted around large rocks and rubble.
   The light grew as they advanced until the lamp in Barra's hand became pointless. He set it on a rock shelf by the path and continued on. Ilyrin glanced fearfully into the shadows, black as pitch now that the comforting circle of yellow light no longer accompanied them. They rounded the last corner and the dwarf stopped suddenly. Ilyrin bumped into his legs.
   They were at one end of a huge cavern. Some time in the distant past the roof had collapsed to leave a tall conical mound of rubble and a wide hole exposing the sky. The mound was covered in broad-leafed plants that were flowering, adding a bright yellow splash to a world of greys and browns and darkness. A broad shaft of sunlight streamed in through the hole. In the far wall they could see another patch of light. It was their way out.
   Curled up in the warm circle were two dragons, each a hundred feet long. Their scales were grey, but in the sunlight Ilyrin could see one had a faint reddish sheen to her scales while the other had a pale purple hue. "They're very old," he said softly.
   The dragons' heads lifted suddenly at the sound of his voice. They stared at the intruders for a moment before jumping to their feet and running forward, roaring and flaming. Ilyrin hid behind Barra's legs but the dwarf stood his ground. The dragons stopped before the narrow way, blocking it. They roared and flamed the walls of the cavern. Ilyrin cowered in fright, but after a moment he realised the noise and flame were just that: noise and flame. The dragons didn't advance, and Barra simply crossed his arms and waited.
   After another minute the noise subsided and the dragons blinked at them.
   "Have you finished?" said Barra.
   The pair looked embarrassed. "Sorry about that, Barra," said one with the purple scales.
   Ilyrin peeked between Barra's legs.
   "Them out there," said the other with a nod to the distant exit across the cave, " told us to stop... er... everyone."
   Barra frowned at them. "What exactly did the wizards say, Angel?"
   "Um. Well..."
   "Oh my goodness! You have a baby dragon behind you!" exclaimed the purple dragon.
   The pair pushed forward and fussed over Ilyrin. "Isn't he cute!" said the red one.
   "I'm not cute!" he protested.
   The purple dragon lifted him from the ground and looked at him. "You're so young to be travelling with a dwarf!"
   "Am not!"
   "ANGEL!" shouted Barra. The red dragon looked at him. "What did the wizards say?"
   The red dragon sighed. "They told us to keep you Dwarves out. I don't know why." She took Ilyrin from her sister and hugged him until he gasped for air. "You are so cute!"
   Ilyrin gasped "Not!" then grimaced as she pinched his cheeks before setting him down. "You're bigger than Grandad," he said as they walked to the circle of light, "and almost as big as Grandad."
   "I don't understand," said the purple dragon as they settled down in the warm beams.
   "Everyone has two grandfathers, Amethyst," said Angel.
   Ilyrin hung his head. "I don't," he said softly.
   Barra placed a hand on the little one's neck. "His grandfather was Thunder."
   The two old dragons sighed loudly. "I'm sorry, Illy," said Angel. "The wizard named Gilnar told us. Poor Thunder, always standing between fighting groups."
   Amethyst stared at Ilyrin with frown. "Your parents are Mavrik and Stormfront? How did you get..." Her eyes widened. "Oh, Anj!" Her sister looked at her in puzzlement. "How did you get here, Illy?"
   "Uncle Mach was making us do relaxing exercises," said Ilyrin.
   "What are they?" asked Barra.
   "He says they help us focus," said Ilyrin slowly as he tried to remember the lesson. "We close our eyes and think about something we like. I thought about finding a big opal."
   "And then what happened?" asked Angel.
   "I opened my eyes, and I was at the Firestone."
   Angel and Amethyst reared back, a look of fear on their faces. Amethyst covered her mouth.
   "What?" said Barra as he leapt to his feet in alarm. "What? What is it?" Ilyrin grasped at Barra's trouser legs and looked at the faces around him.
   "Oh my goodness!" whispered Angel. "He can leap, Thys! He can leap."
   Amethyst beamed suddenly. "Yes! And he'll need a mentor or two."
   Ilyrin tugged at Barra's leg. "What's a ment?" he whispered.
   "It's like a teacher," said the dwarf.
   "Like Aunty Paveway?"
   The dragons stared at him. "He knows Paveway," said Angel. "Do you think she ever forgave us?"
   "It has been a long time," said Amethyst. "I'd like to see her again." She bent down to Ilyrin. "Do you remember the exercises your uncle taught you?" Ilyrin nodded. She took his hands and held them gently. "Close your eyes, and think about your mum."
   Ilyrin closed his eyes, and they were gone. Barra gaped at the empty space then looked at Amethyst.
   "Wh-What-? Where are they?"
   "I expect they are with his mum by now," said the dragon. She bent down to the dwarf and ran a finger lightly down his chest. "Thank you Barra. You have made a pair of old dragons very happy," she said softly.
   "What? How?" stammered Barra. "I don't understand." But she was gone. He looked around at the empty cavern. Marks in the dust were the only indication that anyone else had ever been there. "Bloody hell."
"I'll come with you," said Cyclone. "I can find camp sites and catch food for you slow-pokes."
   "Ha-ha, Cy," said Mavrik. The dragons had gathered outside Mavrik's lair once again. Cyclone, Fremantle and their three young ones arrived at first light with Mach and Paveway hot on their tails. Fae and Striker had slept there, unwilling to leave while Stormfront was so distressed. "We can both look after Dad."
   "I can look after myself, thank you very much," rumbled Striker.
   "Do we know exactly where Illy is?"
   Mavrik pointed at a curious design on the rock wall. To Cyclone it looked like a series of spikes with white tips circling a thin white spike. "Kevie and Aurani drew it this morning. They say Illy is there."
   "I used charcoal and clay," said Kehvarl proudly. "Rani helped. Those are mountains," he added, pointing to the black marks.
   "A ring of mountains surrounding a white spike?" wondered Cyclone.
   "The Wizard's Vale," said Paveway.
   Cyclone's mouth fell open. "But that's- that's- !"
   "Impossible?" suggested Striker. "A long journey? A thousand leagues away?"
   "Yes. All of them," said Cyclone with a nod. "We'd better get started."
   Mavrik nodded. "Yes, it's-" A shout interrupted him.
   "Mum! Dad!" Everyone turned to see Ilyrin running toward them across the open glade. They stared in astonished silence for a few seconds, the broke into laughter and tears of relief as the lost dragon leapt into his mother's arms.
   Mavrik struggled from the group and went to the two strangers. "Thank you for bringing Illy home," he said.
   "He brought himself. We simply followed," said Angel.
   "He possesses a rare talent called-" began Amethyst, but she glanced over Mavrik's shoulder and choked to a stop.
   "Leaping," finished Paveway. Mavrik turned to face her. "These are the two I told you about," she whispered.
   Mavrik looked from Paveway to the strangers and back. "You said they were dead!"
   Conflicting emotions within had brought Paveway to the verge of tears. "I thought they were." She wanted to laugh and cry and shout with anger, all at once.
   "Could both of you train Illy to control his Leaping thingy?" asked Mavrik.
   "Of course! We'd love to," said Angel. Amethyst nodded. "I'm sorry, Pav," said Angel suddenly. "But no one would believe we had gone, if you didn't."
   "But why?"
   "We grew very tired of fetching and carrying for everyone," growled Angel. "Very tired indeed." She pointed suddenly at Mavrik who jerked his head in surprise. "You must promise to never use Illy as your pack-animal."
   Amethyst gently pushed her sister's hand down. "This family cares too much to do that," she said. Then, with a big sigh, she turned to Paveway. "We missed you, Pav." Paveway hung her head and sobbed. Amethyst wrapped her arms and wings around the smaller dragon, and Angel joined them in the huddle.
   Mavrik blinked at the little group. "Er... I'll just..." He pointed to his family, said, "over there," and left the three friends. He returned to his family and sat silently, listening to everyone chatter excitedly. Aurani and Kehvarl scrambled up his back and sat on his shoulders. "Illy? Who are your friends?" Everyone fell quiet.
   "They're the Guardians," said Ilyrin.
   Everyone stared at him, then looked over to where the strangers sat with Paveway. The silence was not broken until Kehvarl and Aurani both said "Oooh!" then everyone asked questions at once.
Stormfront sighed as she sat at the edge of the clearing and gazed at her family gathered around the lair. Mavrik had stretched himself out on the grass and the three little ones were curled up around his hands. They had their eyes closed and were as still as statues. A casual observer would think they were sleeping, but Stormfront knew they were away on some other plain of magic. She felt a great pride that her family was the greatest Magic users in the world. That pride was edged with a little sadness, for she could never go with them on these journeys of learning. Her mother, Holbrook, had been a great healer but those abilities had not passed on to her. The realm of magic remained a mystery.
   Ilyrin's newfound ability filled her with fear. She worried that he too would Leap from their lives and never be seen again. Her hope was that Angel and Amethyst could train him in the use of his talent. She sighed again.
   "Mum's sad," said Aurani. In the physical world they were still and silent, but on this plain of magic the three young dragons darted about like dragonflies. Now they gathered around Stormfront, three tiny bodies of brilliant silver moving around a much larger body of golden light. "Why is she sad, dad?"
   Mavrik joined them as they followed Stormfront around the clearing. "Fronnie is sad because she can't be with us, here." Mavrik's heart ached as a feeling of loneliness radiated from his mate. "Tell her you love her."
   "We love you mum!" chorused the three young dragons.
   Mavrik smiled. "You do it like this," he said, and rested his hand against Stormfront's chest over her heart. Three small hands joined his.
   In the physical world, Stormfont's idle wanderings had brought her back to the lair. She blinked and smiled, not knowing why she suddenly felt like hugging them all.
   "She's happy now!" said Ilyrin as he zipped around his mother.
   Aurani joined him. "I wish she could be here with us."
   "So do I," whispered Mavrik.
   Kehvarl leaned forward and pointed. "She can. Look!"
   Mavrik frowned as he looked where he son indicated, then gasped. Deep within the life-glow of his mate was a faint lattice of silver veins. "Her magic is asleep," he said.
   "I could wake it up."
   "We can't," said Mavrik.
   "I can," insisted Kehvarl.
   "I don't think we're supposed to."
   "If mum could do Magic she wouldn't be sad," said Aurani.
   "It's not as simple as that," sighed Mavrik. Kehvarl reached forward to touch one of the lines. "Kevie! No!"
   Stormfront gasped as a shiver ran up her spine. The world seemed different. She shook her head and looked again. No, it was the same but it felt different. Her family woke and there was instant turmoil. Kehvarl sprang to his feet and ran but Mavrik was faster. He caught the youngster and smacked him hard on the base of the tail.
   "I said no!"
   Kehvarl wailed and ran back to Stormfront. Mavrik's hand had left a stinging imprint on the youngster's rump. She frowned and looked again. How did she know that stung? The world started to spin and Mavrik caught her in his arms.
   "Are you all right?" he asked as he held her chin and stared into her eyes.
   "What happened?"
   "Kehvarl used his magic to wake yours." He glared at the little dragon who stared back with large wet eyes and a trembling lip.
   "Is it permanent?" whispered Stormfront.
   "No, it's fading." Mavrik wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved. "Paveway always wondered why your mum didn't pass on her Healer blood. Maybe she did but never had the chance to train you."
   Stormfront hung her head as she felt again the loss of her parents, but something touched her heart and the pain faded to be replaced by the feeling that her parents weren't so far away.
   "I only wanted mum to not be sad," muttered Kehvarl.
   "Go inside, Kev," growled Mavrik.
   "But-" Kehvarl swallowed his protest when he saw his father's look, and scampered into the lair. Aurani and Ilyrin sat away from their parents. They had seen Mavrik angry before, but to see him angry with them was frightening.
   "I think he meant well," whispered Stormfront.
   "Don't say that or I'll stop being angry with him," said Mavrik.
   Someone flew overhead and they looked up. Cyclone, Fremantle and their three young ones circled the clearing then landed near-by.
   "Oh dear," muttered Stormfront. "Wrack has broken something." Mavrik stared at her. "He's crying," she explained. "Wrack never cries unless he's broken something."
   Cyclone lifted the young dragon and carried him to his uncle. Fremantle sat before them and wrung her hands in distress. "Oh Mav! He's hurt and I can't-" She sobbed loudly.
   "It's all right Freo," said Mavrik. "I find it hard to heal my own, too."
   "Where's Kevie," asked Midnight.
   "Kehvarl has been sent-" Mavrik drew a deep breath and roared, "INSIDE!" Everyone looked to see Kehvarl slink back into the lair. "You and Peri play with the two who aren't in trouble, and I'll tell you later what happened." Midnight and Peregrin ran off to play with their cousins, and Mavrik examined his nephew's arm. A thought came to him. "Can you see where it's broken, Fronnie?"
   Stormfront glanced at the arm. "Between the wrist and elbow, just there," she said, pointing. Her hand snatched back as though she had touched something hot..
    "You can see that?" said Fremantle with a look of surprise. She regarded Stormfront for a moment then looked at the lair. "Oh dear. What has Kevie done?"
   "Mav?" whispered Stormfront, but Mavrik was examining the broken arm and did not answer.
   Cyclone sat beside her. "Don't worry! There must be a Healer in you," he said as he held Stormfront's hands to stop them trembling. He laughed suddenly and shook his head. "What a family I have."
   "I'll swap you kids," muttered Mavrik.

copyright Den Whitton 1997
Back to the Index for more Dragon Stories.