by Nathan Miller
Another pair of crossed yew boughs parted. Past it, the forest opened out. Smaller trunks of more yew and other understory vegetation crowded together a few more paces past the remainder of the forest fence. Beyond that, oak and beech towered over us, massive trunks wider than my own armspan holding branches that scraped the sky.
Those branches held a leafy canopy dense enough to nearly blot out what sun managed to pierce the near-constant early fall cloud cover. Enough that I could remove my veil without the highly unfortunate and even more annoying risk of quick and severe sunburn.
“Your Highness? Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean to offense, of course, but there is a very good reason why no one ever comes here.”
I chuckled. “Clarys, there is very little that can intimidate one who has stared death in the face.”
“Of course. But from what I have heard, this is quite another way of staring death in the face.” She leaned closer and said quietly in my ear, “Most death does not have a mouth full of sharp teeth in jaws strong enough to bite a man in half.”
I cast her a sideways glance. “I will be sure to bear that in mind.”
She cleared her throat. “That is, I would really rather not be bitten in half.”
“Nor would I.”
“Yes, but it won't kill you.”
“True, but I am quite sure it would hurt a great deal. Until someone shoves my pieces back together.”
“Your Highness, you worry me.”
“You could have stayed behind, you know.”
“If you think I am going to just let you face it without me, you should think again. Your Highness.” She cast me a wry smile. I returned it.
“Clarys,” I said, “have I told you how glad I am to have someone like you watching my back?”
“Yes,” she said, “I believe you have.”
“I believe I have also told you to stop calling me 'Highness' in private?”
“Whatever you say, your Highness.”
I groaned. “Clarys, whatever will I do with you?”
A strange sound stopped us in our tracks within arm's reach of the wall of foliage. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. It reminded me of what I might have expected if one were to combine the calls of sea lion, sea gull, and cat.
We looked at each other wide-eyed.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” she said quietly.
“You are having far too much fun,” she said.
I chuckled. “What is the point of living if you cannot feel alive?”
We moved slowly between the smaller trees, some of them barely far enough apart for us to pass. The trunks grew gradually larger and further apart as we passed deeper into the forest, bark going from smooth to progressively rougher and more deeply furrowed.
The forest remained eerily quiet. No birds, no frogs, hardly even the rustle of leaves in the weak breeze. Except for the erratic cry of whatever strange animal made it, and the gentle rustling of our footfalls in the leaf litter, the place was utterly silent.
To the right, the forest floor sloped sharply away toward the river. It dropped into a deep depression where the river's course had once cut a bank and had since migrated away as rivers are wont to do, leaving a gravel bar peppered with alder, hawthorn, and ash.
Something else had also cut into the bank, dragging large piles of soil, sand, and peat out onto the gravel to make a large ring easily ten of my own arm spans across and as high as my waist.
The shattered remains of several large eggs, each at least the size of a human head lay near the center of the ring. Bones of all sizes and shapes, some whole and some broken or shattered, littered the floor. Flies buzzed about the few bits of flesh that still clung to a few of the bones. Small piles of dung lay outside the nest.
Atop the ring and outside of it, many large footprints had been pressed into the earth. Smaller versions of them ran all over the floor of the nest. Each print had three large toes, each as long as my forearm, like those of a wading bird without its rear toe. How a creature that size had managed to evade detection in Britain, let alone feed itself, to say nothing of maintaining a breeding population, was quite beyond me.
Clarys gasped. “Correction,” she whimpered, barely loud enough for me to hear, “I have a very bad feeling about this.”
“We came seeking dragons,” I said. “Did you not think we would find something like this?”
“I...I was...I did not...”
“You thought we were chasing rumors? Ghosts, perhaps? Something other than a flesh and blood creature?”
I grinned and gestured toward the nest. “Apparently, they do exist.”
“Another correction,” she whispered, “you are having for more fun than the laws of heaven or earth should ever allow.”
I chuckled, then moved on, staying well above the old river plain. I longed to go down there and examine the egg shells, the scat, everything. But I knew that some animals nested in the same places year after year and some of those were very particular about disturbances to their nesting sites.
Partway around the riverbank's rim, several small trees about the girth of my arm had been broken off about chest height. The pieces lay cantered off at various angles. A few of those had clearly been trampled, pressed into the earth and crushed.
The most recent set of tracks led northward and angled away from the river. I followed them a few paces aside. If what Mama had told me about dragons was true, then the beasts were sure to resent intrusion.
“Clarys,” I said over my shoulder, “you are breathing too hard.”
“That is easy for you to say,” she grunted, “O she who does not breathe at all.”
“Unless I am mistaken, I would say you are envious of me.”
“I have been watching you ever since you resurrected. Not having to breathe has...certain advantages.”
“Perhaps. Alright, certainly. But it is also very disturbing.” I stopped and listened. “The point, O sister I never had, is that your breathing makes it difficult for me to hear what might lay ahead.”
She gestured at the nearest footprint. “If it was what we heard earlier, I highly doubt my breathing will be able to drown it out.”
“Fair enough,” I said as I resumed my walk.
We followed the tracks ever deeper into the forest and ever further upriver. Almost without warning, the trail broke out of the woods and into a large clearing well over a hundred paces across. We both froze.
Within a ring of towering grey trunks lay a jumble of toppled trees, snapped and shattered branches larger than my own limbs, and trampled root-balls.
In the middle of the verdant clearing, a single animal lay on the ground among waist-high nettles and bracken. At first, I might have mistaken it for a great russet cow laying in a field, its head half-lowered to the earth.
This creature's head, mounted on a short, stout neck, was nearly as large as my entire body. Between its lips, I could see many sharp, dagger-like teeth. It slowly turned its head one way and then the other in the manner of a dog passively scanning its surroundings. Its eyes, from this distance, seemed more bird-like than reptilian.
“It does not look that dangerous,” Clarys whispered.
The animal turned its head abruptly toward us.
I cocked an eyebrow at Clarys. She cringed.
The animal flared its nostrils. I could hear its huffing breath across the space. Then it snorted and stood up. If it looked large laying on the ground, it looked even bigger standing up.
It was enormous, easily the mass of five good-sized draft horses. From the ground to the top of its head measured twice the height of a man. It stood on massive hind legs like a pair of palisade logs, mounted more or less in the middle of its body. It held an equally massive tail stiffly out behind it that counterbalanced the rest of its body. In front of a deep, barrel chest, it held two sturdy arms, each the size of my leg and tipped with three clawed fingers. Its head was easily the size of my entire body.
The creature held itself more or less level with the ground. Over rough skin the color of mottled brick lay a thin layer of what looked like a sort of mossy fluff.
It stood there almost motionless. In fact, if I had happened upon it in the middle of the forest, I might not have immediately known it to be alive, and not part of the general forest background. Perhaps that was how they had remained hidden for so long.
“Do not move,” I said slowly through clenched teeth.
“How do you...” Clarys started to ask.
“We cannot outrun that,” I said. “Besides, I have an idea.”
The dragon growled, a deep sound that I could feel vibrating clear to the base of my skull. It turned and took several large, ground-shaking steps toward us. It covered the space quickly and loomed over us. It bent its head down and let out an ear-splitting, eye-rattling roar.
A powerful gust of warm, damp air buffeted at my body. I immediately recognized the sickly-sweet odor of partially-digested meat. I had smelled it time and time again on the breath of cats. I blinked. Then I roared back, a pitiful sound in contrast.
The dragon shut its mouth, then turned its head to peer at me with one eye. It turned its head the other way and peered at me with the other eye. It growled. I growled back pitifully.
The dragon drew its head away and looked at me again along its snout. It tilted its head one way and then the other, blinking its large amber cat-eyes. Then it lowered its head again until its nostrils were less than arm's reach from my face. It snorted. I snorted back.
“What...are...you...doing?” Clarys squeaked from behind me.
The dragon turned its head toward Clarys and started to growl.
I reached up, grabbed it by one nostril and jerked its head back down. “Bad dragon,” I scolded.
It started to growl again and I thumped my fist on the tip of its snout. “Fflyffu, stop that!”
“You...named it?” Clarys protested.
“Why not?” I began stroking the dragon's snout. A low, rhythmic rumbling sound began deep in its chest. “You see? She's not so bad.”
“She? How do you know?”
“I, uh, looked. No pizzle.”
“No pizzle? Amabilia, I am more occupied by that mouth full of teeth that could bite us in half as soon as look at us!”
“Ah. Well.” I shrugged. “I'm not terribly concerned about that.”
“Of course you aren't,” she snorted. “Being bitten in half won't exactly kill you.”
“Perhaps not,” I said pensively. “Do you think I might manage to pull my own pieces back together?”
“I worry about you.”
Clarys groaned. “What are we going to do with you?”
I ran my fingers along the dragon's rough skin, and over the small horn above its eye. “The real question,” I said, “is what we're going to do with Fflyffu here.”
“Amabilia, you can't name a draon Fflyffu!”
“Why not?” I ran my fingers toward the back of Fflyffu's head and the fine downy fuzz that began a handspan past her jaw. “She is, in fact, covered with fluff.”
“Because that's a name for cats.”
“Well, I like it. It's ironic.”
“Because no one will expect it?”
“Exactly. Not even when she tears into the armies of Henry.”
“Wait, wait, wait. You are not thinking what I think you're thinking.”
I grinned at Clarys. “If you mean using Fflyffu to drive the Normans back into the sea? Now, why on earth would I be thinking that?”
Clarys half-glared at me. “And how do you intend to accomplish that?”
I returned my attention to Fflyffu and her soothing purring sound. “I'm working on that.”
“Well, you had better work faster, because sooner or later, someone is bound to come looking for us. And I daresay it will be sooner rather than later.”
I sighed. “You're probably right.” I hooked my fingers into the layer of fluff just about where Fflyffu's shoulder was and pulled. “Fflyffu,” I commanded, “down.”
The dragon turned her head, peered at me for a moment, and snorted. Before I could speak again, she lowered herself to the ground.
“How did you do that?” said Clarys.
“I think we're developing an understanding.”
“With the single most violent, aggressive, and feared creature on earth?”
I grinned my own best dragon grin.
“Very funny,” said Clarys.
“Like I said, she's not so bad.” I petted a swath of fluff just behind Fflyffu's shoulder. “Perhaps a little irritable. So are horses, if you haven't noticed.”
“But horses aren't...” Clarys made an encompassing gesture at the dragon.
“Very well, O She Who Apparently Must Be Obeyed, now what?”
I considered Flyffu's bulk and tapped my chin pensively.
“Oh, no, you are not...”
Before Clarys could finish, I hopped up, grabbed Flyffu's ridgeline with both hands, and came to rest astride her back. She immediately swung her heard around and let out a grunting snort.
“I did not just see you do that,” said Clarys. “Your father will pass a brick if he finds out!”
I shrugged. “Better out than in, then.”
“Your father is the most feared man in all of Cymru, and that's all you can say?”
Fflyffu growled softly. I thumped her between the shoulderblades. “Oh, stop it.” The growl subsided.
“You're impossible,” said Clarys.
“Improbable, perhaps,” I said. I patted Fflyffu's back behind me. “Care to join me?”
Clarys shook her head violently.
“Not on your life!”
“Considering that I might not, in fact, be alive, per se...” I let the long-debated issue dangle.
Clarys put her hands on her hips. “I am not getting on that thing and that's final.”
“She's not a thing,” I protested. “And I could make it a command, you know.”
Clarys' eyes went so wide, they might have fallen out of her head. “You...you wouldn't!”
“I could just leave you here.”
“What?!” she blurted.
I inclined my head expectantly. Even from where I sat, I could see Clarys start to quiver. I patted the space behind me again. After what might have been a couple dozen heartbeats, Clarys took a step forward, then another, and another, until she stood next to Fflyffu.
“Fine,” she said, “but if it...she...eats me, my ghost will haunt you forever.”
With considerable effort, and a little help from me, Clarys found herself perched behind me.
I grinned at her. “Not so bad, was it?”
“That remains to be seen,” she glowered.
I rolled my eyes. “Now who's being impossible?” I pulled on both sides of Flyffu's body with my hands and said, “Fflyffu, up!”
The dragon abruptly rose up in a single fluid motion.
“Right,” I said, “let's go see about those Normans.”