Tokas had known that baby dragons were found along mountain fronts where they could learn to fly on the thermal air that formed and lifted there. But he didn’t know much more than that. The “other” side of the mountains didn’t seem so different from the side he had known all his life. Maybe it smelled different -- more aromatic somehow, saltier. It was drier on this side and the plants tended to be a little tougher, sort of medicinal and astringent. He inhaled deeply.
Raven flew along the cliffs, which were just as steep on this side, and Tokas walked below, his bow and arrow at the ready. When he came to an awful stench emitted by a low cave, he thought, “aha!”. When he investigated, the floor of the cave was piled with tiny bones of mammals: voles, mice, varieties of rats and squirrels. They were white splinters on the bottom, but the top layers still had flesh and fur clinging to them, green flies buzzing at them. He hated to stick his head in, but it had to be done.
He was looking up a chimney in the rock with daylight at the top. Just barely, by the filtered light, he could make out what seemed to be old red leather gloves attached to the walls, except that they moved and pulsed. Baby dragons.
Even if he had been able to force his way into the entrance at the bottom, maybe after raking out enough of the tiny interlaced bones to make space, he would not have been able to go up the chimney. He was thinking about ropes and ladders when the raven dove into the top and pulled out by the nape one of the squirming and squeaking little creatures. She flew it out the top and down to Tokas, who quickly cinched it into one of the pockets of his jerkin with only its head sticking out.
The raven repeated this until nearly all were pocketed but then the last one was resourceful enough to twist in her beak and use its little thorn to stab the big bird. Startled more than hurt (GROK!!) the raven dropped the last little beast from very high and it hit on a rock before it could spread its leather wings. It took a few minutes to die, its tiny glittering eyes flickering back and forth desperately and its small red claws clutching at the air like hands, while the thin membranes of the wings went stiff, shuddering, then iimp. For the first time Tokas thought of it as a living creature that wanted to live, just like any other creature. Until now it might as well have been a pair of pliers.
He had seven pockets filled -- had only prepared eight. He wondered how many baby dragons it would take to create a cure for the withering. Why hadn’t he asked? One of the seven seemed small and puny -- what if it died on the way? He had been off-balance enough not to negotiate the bounty before he left.
Absorbed in such thoughts, he failed to realize the wide kiting keening and flaming shape coming down out of the sky was the mother dragon. The raven dove down between Tokas feet -- as though he could protect either of them. He pulled one arrow after another from his quiver and sent them in quick succession at the hurricane dragon, glittering with fire, but he only punched holes in her wings. He could see sky through them, but it didn’t prevent them from keeping her airborne. Her claws were reaching for his face when he used the last arrow. He turned his head away to protect his eyes.
There was a great thumping and a sound like a tent collapsing, then sighing. He looked. There was the amber-eyed twin, staring at him, lowering her bow. From the side she had transfixed the dragon’s head. But she only stared for a moment. Then she whipped out a knife with an antler handle. “Help me turn her over,” she commanded.
“You heard me. If you don’t skin a dragon before it cools, it’s too hard to peel the skin back -- twice as much work.” He complied -- stepping over the raven -- though the body was almost too hot to touch. The animal’s scales steamed. The women sliced down the front, out to the paws, and down the underside of the tail. Together they clutched and tugged until they had dragged the skin off to the side. It was huge, but light as silk.
When he stood for a moment, he felt sharp stabs against his skin and a hullabaloo of desperate sounds from inside his jerkin. The raven hopped to his shoulder and tried to peer down his neck. The twin was staring again. Then she said, “Of course, they smell their dead mother. We’d better get away from the body before the scavengers come. There they are already!” She pointed. He expected birds, maybe vultures, but they were a cloud of iridescent butterflies with needle probosises.
“Hurry!” she commanded “They’ll settle on the flesh. They don’t care about the hide.” They rushed away over the long grass which -- when bent -- was slick so that it was fairly easy to drag the dragonskin. When he glanced back, he saw the brightly glorious wings had settled into a mass of moving pelage over the dragon’s meat, which was steadily diminishing and sinking under the injections of their acid-carrying needles.
In a minute, having used up the surge of adrenaline that powered them at first, they stopped to puff,. Tokas knew he sounded like a fool, but he couldn’t help it. “What will you DO with this dragonskin?”
“I need a new bedspread.”
He wondered what sort of bedroom would shelter a bed with a dragon bedspread and imagined a great stone castle. It was stone, right enough, but a small cottage. They dragged the skin across the front room and into the bedroom at the back where -- oh, that was better -- a great curled brass bedstead was waiting. The blood had evaporated off their hands and out of the skin. “Dragon blood has a lot of alcohol,” she explained. “Never drink it.”
He did not understand how she knew so many things. “Reading.” she said, though he hadn’t said anything out loud. She must be reading his mind. The raven stood on a cabinet and tapped on a black window that didn’t open to the outdoors. With every tap little marks appeared. Some kind of code, Tokas assumed. That must be reading. The raven was actually doing it.
He tried thinking a question: “Where are the burlies? “
“Later,” she said out loud. “You need to replace liquid so your babies won’t starve and you won’t become a husk.”