The wind was rushing passed at such a loud roar that it completely deafened the sound of the great beating wings keeping them aloft. The metal mesh pouch would have been vastly less hospitable without the thick red pad, as thread bare and worn as it was. However, it was very large and shielded her from most of the wind as well as the hard metal circlets of the metal mesh’s weave. The reaping chill of the cold night air she was shielded from as well not only by the sake of the pad, but also the enormous barrel chest of the ferocious dragon of whom she found herself victim. The metal mesh pouch and pad having been strapped quiet securely to the creatures breast by virtue of several stiff, strong, and well oiled leather straps. The hard cream colored scales radiated heat and had her current circumstances been different or even forgotten, she would have been perfectly comfortable. As it was, her circumstances remained just as dire and she just as terrified.
The beast had come in the night, under the cover of heavy rain clouds, just as the small caravan had settled in for a night’s rest under their colorful tents and wagons. Having spent the day transversing the rocky outcroppings of the Volum Stratus plateau, none of the travelers heard the low rushing sound until the light of the fires illuminated the great horned monster as it flew over their camp. In its wake, the gust of wind sent several tens flying and a shower of golden embers from the fires flying about. Her master’s wagon caught fire first and the dry straw packed in with the heavy silks and brocades and more expensive fabrics were aflame within mere moments. The gilded sign on the green wagon’s side reading ‘Thomas Towley Traveling Tailor’ was being chewed up by the smoldering heat from the burning wares. Her master was shrieking at her, his treasured and carefully powdered wig was askew and his face contorted into a facade that was almost comical in its panic.
“Water! Water, girl!” he shrieked, batting uselessly at the flames engulfing his name and painted likeness with a deep purple dinner jacket and cried out in dismay when it too caught the flames.
Yanna grabbed a water skin from one of the horses and dumped it onto the flames, but such a small amount of water did nothing against the roaring flames now. Towley waddled over to her as she watched the wagon burn and drew his short stubby hand across her face. She fell to the ground, shocked and in pain.
“Go to the water wagon and fill this bucket you simpleton!”
She scrambled away fervently from the enraged man, carrying the bucket he had thrown after her. He was a short stoutly fellow, but his temper made up for any other inadequacies he possessed, hidden behind fine clothes and wigs and a false air of superiority. To Yana, he was a tyrant and a scoundrel. And the only person who ever showed her a lick of kindness since her mother passed away. If you could call it that. He gave her a job as his servant and paid her with food and board. It kept her off the streets and warm enough to live through the brutal northern months when they were not traveling the trade routes.
But it was not an easy life. Made even more difficult by the sudden attack.
The water wagon was begin assaulted by several other members of the caravan, crying for the driver to fill their buckets first. Yana was dimly aware of other tents and wagons catching flame. And then that terrible roar.
It split the air and shook the ground. People were flying away from the wagon, even the driver had abandoned his seat and was running. Belatedly, Yana looked up and saw the dragon’s vestige descend from above, talons as white as porcelain outstretched and yearning…
The bucket left her hands and plunked to the ground. The same ground that was moving away from her feet at an expeditious pace. There was a firm pressure around her middle and arms, an exuberant wall of heat above her and an intake of breathe that held the same likeness of sound as that of a blazing furnace. At first, she was too confused, too shocked, to realize what had happened. A moment void of cognitive understanding until a frigid gust of wind blew right through her, whipping her skirts around her legs, and drawing her back into herself. The dithering void gave way to horrid realization and she screamed.
The sound was carried off by the wind, dropping away from her like a stone. She struggled between the dragon’s talons, pulling at the creature’s fingers in blind futility fueled by primal fear. As unpleasant a notion as falling to her death was, that of being devoured by a giant winged lizard was far more so.
There was a displeased rumble from above her that made her bones vibrate. Movement ahead of her drew her attention and abruptly, she found herself face to face, er – face to snout, with the dragon, features illuminated by moonlight. His reptilian eyes stared at her in a peculiar way. Almost...admonishing? The edges of it’s mouth pulled downward, almost like a frown.
“Stop squirming so much,” the creature said in a voice that was startlingly human in sound. Despite the deep rumblings from his chest, the dragon’s voice was not a deep baritone or gravel sounding, but a soft tenor. “Or I’m libel to drop you.”
Yana starred, mouth agape. He was speaking Yazki. Her language. Not the common tongue spoken by colonials, but pure unaccented Yazki. The beast’s reproachful frown turned upwards slightly, amused. “I also suggest you close your mouth. Else you might catch a bird in there.”
She closed her mouth obediently, but continued to stare. However, the dragon seemed satisfied enough and flew on, giving no more notice to his captive. The shock lingered for a good while, thoughts and miasmic fear churning her insides into liquid and making her feel wholly ill. Somehow, knowing she was dealing with a sapient creature with enough intelligence to know, let alone speak with fluency, such an obscure tongue, made Yana hope she might reason with the dragon. Perhaps she could convince him not to eat her. She was small, too skinny, and surely after spending two months sustaining on hard biscuits and pickled eggs, she would taste ghastly.
The dragon made for an innocuous ledge under a shallow sloped outcropping, made visible now that the rain clouds had dissipated, giving way to bright moonlight. The relatively small space was dominated by shrubs and brush, but the dragon did not seem to care and landed heavily into the thick of them. The talons released her and she tumbled back into a prickly bush. As she struggled to untangle herself and free her skirts from the groping ends of the shrub’s dry brittle foliage, the dragon rummaged around, poking and prodding and seeming to be searching for something.
“Ah-ha!” he said finally, pulling up from a collection of shrubbery a large sheet of metal mesh, the edges framed by strips of leather while still more leather, thicker and done up with buckles, looped around and connecting at each corner. Again, he delved back into the foliage before pulling up a thick pad, wide and flat, and covered in a well worn red fabric. The edges were worn down and the whites of its inside could be seen from a small tear on one end.
Taking advantage of the dragon’s momentary distraction, Yana removed herself from the bush and crept along the edge of the rocky ledge only to stagger back. They were incredibly high up, more so that she first wagered, and there was no easy slope down to the gully floor, but a sheer drop.
“Best keep back from the edge,” the dragon said in an easy tone. “Be a shame to lose you now after all that work.”
Yana yelped, and ducked for a cover of a large bush, peeking up at the large lizard. He had hopped up to the larger outcropping, a good ten feet above her head, and was struggling with the metal mesh sling. He had one leather strap settled on one shoulder while he fiddled with the buckle of the other one, the mesh square hanging across his chest. Now that she was some distance away from him, she could see his form proper and make out his coloring. From snout to tail, he must have reached an easy forty feet, with forearms close to ten from talon to shoulder. His neck another ten. Scales the color of ripened wheat ran the length of the beast while its chin, chest, and underbelly was a softer, lighter shade like fresh cream.
At her startled squawking, his attention left the task at hand to her as she fretted beneath the inadequate shelter of a bramble bush and he regarded her curiously. “You do understand what I am saying, do you not?”
She nodded slightly.
“Oh good,” he replied, returning to fixing the leather strap. “I would hate to think I was yammering away uselessly. Good to see you were taught proper language at least.”
Yana did not understand why it would matter to a dragon whether or not his dinner understood him. Perhaps he had a taste for Yazki? Perhaps he held a preference to the tanned flesh of the natives than that of paler pinker colonials.
“We’ll be off again soon,” he told her with a frustrated grunt, pulling on the bands. “Once I fix this damnable strap!”
After another moment of muttered cursing, he seemed satisfied with it and then tucked the old red pad into the sling, sandwiched between the mesh and his chest. The dragon swung his head towards her, looking pleased. “All ready.”
Yana felt her chance to negotiate slipping away and as the Dragon made a move for her, one clawed hand reaching out to her, and she stammered in a high pitched plea, “Y-you don’t have to do this!”
The dragon paused and put his hand down. He looked confused.
“Y-you don’t have to take me anywhere,” she continued, slowly getting to her feet and edging away, mindful of the drop.
“No?” the dragon asked, lips pulling up into a slight smile. “Well, what shall I do with you then?”
Yana felt a dangerous trembling to her limbs, fear and spent adrenaline having left her legs feeling gummy. “You could...let me go?”
“Let you go?” parroted the dragon as he settled himself down onto the ledge. He draped his forearms over the side, causing small bits of rock to chip off. “After all that work to get you? Would be an awful waste.”
She gulped. The flippant disregard he showed for her sank her meager hopes of escape. The playful glint in his eyes made him seem all the more predatorial. Like a great cat playing with a mouse.
“And what would you do if I did?” he continued. “Stay here on this ledge? Wait for the vultures and scavengers to pick at you once the elements have torn you down?”
He tutted at her. “Such a shameful waste.”
She had no answer. Somehow, in her mind, she had assumed she would be more sure worded in her arguments. Fight a little harder. In reality, she could not even muster the courage to speak the words ‘please do not eat me’ for she fear that if she did so and he answered her with a rebuttal, all she would have accomplished would be to affirm her fears. And as odd as it was, Yana did not want to be told that she was going to die. No matter how true or certain. So barring that, she could pretend a little. Linger on for whatever time she had left bathed in blissful ignorance.
The dragon was still watching her in gleaming amusement that turned her face red in anger and resentment. “Well?” he asked when she offered no protest. “Shall we be off?”
She did not answer. Instead she pulled into herself, looking away from the large imposing form of the beast, and tried to keep the tears back. The dragon seemed to mistake her silence for assertion and easily plucked her up from the clinging bramble before slipping her down into the metal mesh rigging he had affixed to his chest. The cushion under her was stiff and old, the passing within compressed from years of use, but it was not uncomfortable. The scales of of the dragon’s chest were smooth and hard and did not pinch her as she would have thought. Overall, it was more pleasant than dangling front his claws.
As they went aloft, she quietly sobbed into the folds of her skirt.
She was jostled awake as the Dragon landed. Her sleep had been deep, but unrefreshing and she felt exhausted and ill and dreadfully cold, despite the warmth from the dragon’s body. The flat stone expanses of the plateau was gone, replaced instead with mountains, shallow slopped and green with a light frost. A frigid mist settled over the valley below.
Yana rocked with the sway of the dragon’s gate, still strapped to his chest. She twisted within the sling, trying to get a better view of where they were just in time to see the mouth of a cave open before them. There was a soft amber glow from within the darkness and as the dragon entered, she could hear muffled voices that abruptly stopped as they approached. The cave was warm, heated by a lit brazier that sat within a large round hole in the ground, some thirty feet wide and eight feet deep. Gathered around brazier were several other people. No, not just people…
...children. Much like her. A few looked her age, a couple younger than her, and one a little older perhaps. But they were all decidedly young, no older than fourteen. There were three boys, all dark haired and tanned skinned. The tallest had a round baby face and was noticeably plumper than the rest. The next boy was rail thin, lanky with a mop of wild and unwielding curls of black hair, wearing a green tunic and brandishing a stick that he had been poking into fire, the ends burnt and smoking. The last was a boy of perhaps nine, small and meek, his face hidden behind tendrils of long black hair secured by a red leather head band. Of the girls, there were two. One looked a little older than Yana, wearing her hair tied back into a neat braid down her back and dressed in a maid’s uniform, the kind worn by those in service to the great houses of Port Yardley. Yana knew the place well, having visited many times as her Master had a sizable portion of his clientele there. The last girl and youngest of them all was a small girl, no older than six or so, dressed in brown rags and silently sobbing. She had the same rough textured black hair as they all did, but her eyes were a startlingly bright blue instead of the warm honey tones of native Yazki. She was mixed. Part Yazki, part colonial.
It made for a bewildering sight and Yana wondered why the dragon had gone to such trouble of collecting Yazki children. Perhaps he hoarded children instead of gold or jewels? Or perhaps he intended to gather enough of them to make a fitting meal. One of them would hardly satiate the appetite of a forty foot dragon, she was certain. They all regarded the approaching creature with open fear, the smallest girl making a strangled sounding wail as the older one tried to comfort her, holding her close and rocking slightly. The boy dressed in green held his smoldering stick like a sword while the two other boys huddled closer to the far wall, not looking at the dragon.
The dragon studied them all, seeming pleased. “Good, you’re all here, then. No more escape attempts?”
He seemed to be speaking to the boy in green, who just glared back and raised his stick. Ignoring the boy, the dragon began to undo the strap at his shoulder and once he had loosened it a bit, he reached into the sling and pulled Yana out. He sat her down at the bottom of the hole with the others, nudging her towards the brazier with one long clawed finger. “Go warm yourself. It won’t do to have you catch ill.”
Yana willingly went to the fire, holding her hands up to the blazing light and allowing the heat to thaw out her chilled fingers. The dragon was thoroughly perplexing and Yana was no longer certain that he intended to eat any of them. Aside from the original snatching, he had given her no true reason to fear him. He had spoken to her with gentle tones and the amusement she had interpreted as being patronizing, but she was no longer sure of her initial assessment. Before she would entertain the idea of asking outright, the dragon had turned away and was gone.
No one spoke to her as she warmed herself, but she did notice that the boy in green was watching her as well as the older girl. But their was no malice in their eyes, only reserved curiosity. The smaller girl had calmed down some now that the dragon was gone and after a little while was fast asleep in the elder girls arms. Sufficiently warmed, Yana chose a spot against the wall and sat down.
“What’s your name?” asked the older girl.
Yana blinked at her for a moment before replying. “Yana.”
“I’m Edee. And this is Olive.”
She nodded, looking down at the sleeping Olive. She did not look peaceful, appearing despaired even in her dreams. They all looked as downtrodden and morose.
“How long do you think he’ll keep us here?” Yana asked, keeping her voice low.
Edee shrugged, looking absently over at the fire, dancing embers reflected in her eyes. “I’ve been here two days.”
“Do you know what...that is, did he say why?” Yana asked, thinking that perhaps one of the other children had been brave enough to ask their captor his intentions.
Edee shook her head. “Not really. He doesn’t tell us much of anything. Just makes sure we’re all accounted for, that we’ve slept, that the fire’s still lit, and we eat whenever he brings food. He gets grouchy when he thinks we haven’t eaten enough.”
Yana frowned at that.
“Got to make sure your cattle are well fed,” muttered the boy in green, poking the ground with the end of his stick. “You want them nice and plump before the slaughter.”
A chill ran down her back. “Is that why we’re here do you think?”
“Of course it is!” he replied acidly, looking up at her. “What else would he need us for? No, he means to fatten us all up. Make better eating of us all. We may be here for a few days, maybe a month. We can’t move about much. All we can do it sit and get fat. Like Anki.”
The largest boy, doughy and round bodied, jerked to attention, glaring at the boy in green. “Stop it Faer.”
“He’ll probably eat him first,” Faer continued on, ignoring the other boy.
“Shut up, Faer,” growled Anki.
“Since he’s plump enough already,” Faer retorted, glancing sidelong at Anki with an expression that made it obvious that the smaller boy was intentionally trying to rouse the larger one. And it worked. With a roar of rage, Anki jumped up and ran at Faer. The two tumbled into the dirt and rolled, fists flying and fingers grabbing hair. Olive had woken up at the kerfuffle and was sobbing again.
“Stop it!” cried the third and smallest boy, rising from the floor and rushing over to his fighting fellows. He started pulling at Faer’s arm, trying to pull him off of Anki. “You’re not helping any. He’s gonna hear you!”
“STOP THAT AT ONCE!” The dragon’s voice was painfully loud and Yana flinched, curling into a ball and clamping her hands over he ears. He loomed over the hole, glaring at the two entangled boys who were now fervently pushing away from each other, sending nervous glances towards the clearly angry lizard. Faer got to his feet first and made to move back to his spot against the wall. However, the dragon reached down and swept the boy up in one large clawed hand, bringing the boy up close to his face, lips pulled back into a sneer and showing off rows of deadly sharp teeth. “What do you mean by this continuous anarchy?”
For a moment, Faer did not seem able to answer, unable to tear his horrified eyese away from the dragon’s mouth, so very close to him now. Yana had scooted closer to Edee, watching on in horror and fully expecting the dragon to kill the boy any moment.
Reptilian eyes narrowed. “I asked you a question.”
“N-nothing! I don’t mean anything!” Faer stammered. “He attacked me first!”
The dragon’s gaze flickered over to Anki for a brief moment, the other boy visibly flinching in resposense. With a humorless huff, the dragon turned back to Faer.
“Unprovoked as well, I assume?” he asked dryly, one eye ridge tilting upwards. “First that silly escaped attempt and now openly provoking fights? Must I keep you strapped in the harness for the rest of our time here?”
“N-no, sir,” Faer replied, looking pale. “I-I’ll behave.”
The dragon could not look less convinced.
“I promise!” Faer pleaded, squirming fervently. “P-please...”
“You’ve two strikes now, boy,” the dragon replied in clear displeasure. “Best make sure that it does not become three.”
The dragon lowered Faer back down, allowing the boy to scramble away, but followed him with slanted pupils. Faer found a spot well away from the others and sat down, thoroughly cowed and shaken. Looking over his captive audience and sensing the near palpable tension, the dragon sighed, all the ire draining away. “It won’t be long now, children. The others will be here soon and we will be done with this horrid business for good.”
Yana felt ill. His words were very non-reassuring. What horrid business could he mean? It certainly sounded foreboding.
“P-please, sir,” Anki pleaded in a quivering voice. “W-what’s gonna happen to us?”
For the first time, the dragon appeared quite apologetic in his mannerisms. He lowered his head closer to the lip of the hole and when he spoke, his words were soft. “Do not be afraid, children. All will be well. There is much you do not understand as of yet, but you are in no danger. Those demons cannot reach you here. They’ll never hurt you ever again.”
There was a confused murmuring from the children and they exchanged bewildered glances.
“Demons? W-what...what demons?” Yana asked.
“The invaders,” the dragon replied as though it was obvious. “Those...colonials.”
“So,” asked the smaller of the boys, the one with the red headband who had tried to break the fight up. He spoke with reserved expectation, just a spark of hope. “You’re... not gonna eat us?”
At this, the dragon’s head snapped up, neck pulling back as though struck, and his eyes widened into large orbs. Looking thoroughly scandalized, his head turned to each child in turn, lingering a tad longer on Olive as she quietly whimpered into Edee’s chest. His expression was wholly mortified as sudden understanding washed over him. “E-eat you…? Oh, Gods above, no! Is that what has...oh, dear. That’s why you’ve all been so terribly frightened! No. No, dear children, no. That is not why you are here. Not in the least!”
There was a moment of silence as the dragon’s words sunk in and there was a palpable release of tension from them all. Anki burst into relieved tears. The dragon regarded them all sadly, slit pupils widening. “What a fool I am for not seeing, for not thinking of it. I assumed you all would...ah damn it all. Of course you would think that. Of course you would. You do not know the Yazki ways. You see me as the invaders do. A man eating monster.”
Yana was somewhat startled to find herself giggling, running a hand through her hair, and feeling washed in comforting reassurance. Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes as her body and mind began to relax.
“T-then...why? Why did you steal us away? Did we do something wrong?” Edee asked, honey eyes pleading for further understanding.
“No, you’ve done nothing wrong at all,” assured the dragon hurriedly. “In all of creation I daresay there are no creatures as innocent as you lot. As for the rest, I protest your choice of words. If anything I have stolen you back. I have rescued you.”
Yana felt very confused. Rescued? From what?
“What have we been rescued from?” she dared to ask and could not help a small startle as the dragon’s attention turned to her. His eyes narrowed.
“From the invaders!” he replied with fiery ire. “Those kidnappers and murderous devils. They came to our lands years ago, attacked our people, and stole your parents away from us. Made slaves and beasts of burden of them. We have search and schemed and tracked them across the continent, but for many of them, we were too late. The six of you are all that is left of the original seventeen who were lost to us. We did not, could not, rest until every person with even a hint of Yazki blood was returned to us. We’ve waited many years for this moment, for you all to finally be delivered home to us, to our people.”
Relived that she was not destined to become the dragon’s dinner, Yana was no less confused. Rather, now she was very much bemused as to what the dragon was referring. She knew her mother and father had been captured by colonials and sold into service, but...what was all this talk of them being of the same people? As far as she knew her own heritage, dragons were not Yazki and Yazki were not dragons.
“...are dragons and Yazki...friends?” Yana ventured.
The dragon looked confused and perhaps a little insulted. “My dear, girl. I am Yazki. Just as you are.”
She turned this bit of information around in her head, repeating it and still she found it incomprehensible. “I...I do not understand.”
The dragon grumbled something under his breath, but she did pick out a few choice words. “You will in time. Perhaps when the others arrive, they can explain it in terms that I cannot. But yes. I am Yazki. Head of the Zolto family. Each of the five families have sent along a winged clansmen to bare you home to our valley. In fact, they should be arriving by midday.”