“You’re going to kill him?” Sirinita said, staring at her mother in disbelief.
Sensella of Seagate looked at her daughter with surprised annoyance.
“Well, of course we’re going to kill it,” she said. “What else could we do? In a few weeks it’ll be eating us out of house and home—and in a year or two it might very well eat us. Just look how big it’s getting!”
She had to admit, Tharn was getting large. When he had first hatched she could sit him on her shoulder, with his tail around her neck, and almost forget he was there; now she could barely pick him up with both hands, and he certainly didn’t fit on her shoulders.
And he did eat a lot.
“Really, Sirinita,” her mother said, “you didn’t think we could keep a full-grown dragon around the house, did you?”
“No,” Sirinita admitted, “but I thought you could just let him go, somewhere outside the walls—I didn’t know you were going to kill him!”
“Now, you ought to know better than that,” Sensella said. “If we turned it loose it would eat people’s livestock—and that’s assuming it didn’t eat people. Dragons are dangerous, honey.”
“But it will be.” Sensella hesitated, then added, “Besides, we can sell the blood and hide to wizards. I understand it’s quite valuable.”
“Sell pieces of him?” This was too much; Sirinita was utterly horrified.
Sensella sighed. “I should have known this would happen. I should never have let you hatch that egg in the first place. What was your father thinking of, bringing you a dragon’s egg?”
“I don’t know,” Sirinita said. “Maybe he wasn’t thinking anything.”
Sensella chuckled sourly. “You’re probably right, Siri. You’re probably just exactly right.” She glanced over at the dragon.
Tharn was trying to eat the curtains again.
Sirinita followed her mother’s gaze. “Tharn!” she shouted. “Stop that this instant!”
The dragon stopped, startled, and turned to look at his mistress with his golden slit-pupilled eyes. The curtain, caught on one of his fangs, turned with him, and tore slightly. The dragon looked up at the curtain with an offended expression, and used a foreclaw to pry the fabric off his teeth.
Sensella sighed. Sirinita almost giggled, Tharn’s expression was so funny, but then she remembered what was going to happen to her beloved dragon in a few days’ time, and the urge to giggle vanished completely.
“Come on, Tharn,” she said. “Let’s go outside.”
Sensella watched as her daughter and her pet ran out of the house onto the streets of Ethshar.
She hoped they wouldn’t get into any trouble. Both of them meant well enough, but the dragon did have all those claws and teeth, and while it couldn’t yet spit fire it was beginning to breathe hot vapor. And sometimes Sirinita just didn’t think about the consequences of her actions.
But then, that was hardly a unique fault, or even one limited to children. Sensella wondered again just what Gar had thought he was doing when he brought back a dragon’s egg from one of his trading expeditions.
One of the farmers had found it in the woods while berry-picking, Gar had said—had found a whole nest, in fact, though he wouldn’t say what had happened to the other eggs. Probably sold them to wizards.
And why in the World had she and Gar let Sirinita hatch the egg, and keep the baby dragon long enough to become so attached? That had been very foolish indeed. Baby dragons were very fashionable, of course—parading through the streets with a dragon on a leash was the height of social display, and a sure way to garner invitations to all the right parties.
But the dowagers and matrons who did that didn’t let their children make playmates of the little monsters! The sensible ones didn’t use real dragons at all, they bought magical imitations, like that beautiful wood-and-lacquer thing Lady Nuvielle carried about, with its red glass eyes and splendid black wings. It moved and hissed and flew with a perfect semblance of life, thanks to a wizard’s skill, and it didn’t eat a thing, and would never grow an inch.
Tharn ate everything, grew constantly, and couldn’t yet fly more than a few feet without tangling itself up in its own wings and falling out of the sky.
Sirinita adored it.
Sensella sighed again.
Outside, Sirinita and Tharn were racing side-by-side down Wargate High Street, toward the Arena—and Tharn was almost winning, to Sirinita’s surprise. He was getting bigger. He was at least as big as any dog Sirinita had ever seen—but then, she hadn’t seen very many, and she had heard that out in the country dogs sometimes grew much larger than the ones inside the city walls.
Much as Sirinita hated to admit it, her mother was right. Tharn was getting too big to keep at home. He had knocked over the washbasin in her bedroom that morning, and Sirinita suspected that he’d eaten the neighbors’ cat yesterday, though maybe the stuck-up thing was just hiding somewhere.
But did Tharn have to die, just because he was a dragon?
There had to be someplace a dragon could live.
She stopped, out of breath, at the corner of Center Street. Tharn tried to stop beside her, but tripped over his own foreclaws and fell in a tangle of wings and tail. Sirinita laughed, but a moment later Tharn was upright again, his head bumping scratchily against her hip. If she’d been wearing a lighter tunic, Sirinita thought, those sharp little scales would leave welts.
He really did have to go.
She peered down Center Street to the west; that led to the shipyards. Tharn would hardly be welcome there, especially if he started breathing fire around all that wood and pitch, but maybe somewhere out at sea? Was there some island where a dragon could live in safety, some other land where dragons were welcome?
There were stories about dragons that lived in the sea itself, but somehow she couldn’t imagine Tharn being that sort. His egg had been found in a forest, after all, up near the Tintallionese border, and he’d never shown any interest in learning to swim.
The shipyards weren’t any help.
In the other direction both Center Street and Wargate High Street led to the Arena—Wargate High Street led straight to the south side, four blocks away, while Center looped around and wound up on the north side after six blocks.
Could the Arena use a dragon?
That seemed promising. Dragons were impressive, and people liked to look at them.
At least, in pictures; in real life people tended to be too frightened of adult dragons to want to look at them.
But Tharn was a tame dragon, or at least Sirinita hoped he was tame. He wasn’t dangerous, not really. Wouldn’t he be a fine attraction in the Arena?
And she could come to visit him there, too!
That would be perfect.
“Come on, Tharn,” she said, and together the girl and her dragon trotted on down Wargate High Street.
There wasn’t a show today; the arena gates were closed, the tunnels and galleries deserted. Sirinita hadn’t thought about that; she pressed up against a gate and stared through the iron grillwork at the shadowy passages beyond.
No one was in there.
She sat down on the hard-packed dirt of the street to think. Tharn curled up beside her, his head in her lap, the scales of his chin once again scratching her legs right through her tunic.
People turned to stare as they passed, then quickly looked away so as not to be rude. Sirinita was accustomed to this; after all, one didn’t see a dragon on the streets of Ethshar every day, and certainly not one as big as Tharn was getting to be. She ignored them and sat thinking, trying to figure out who she should talk to about finding a place for Tharn at the Arena.
There was one fellow, however, who stopped a few feet away and asked, “Are you all right?”
Sirinita looked up, startled out of her reverie. “I’m fine, thank you,” she said automatically.
The man who had addressed her was young, thin, almost handsome, and dressed in soft leather breeches and a tunic of brown velvet—a clean one, in good repair, so Sirinita could be reasonably certain that he wasn’t poor, wasn’t a beggar or any of the more dangerous inhabitants of the fields out beyond Wall Street.
Of course, people who lived in the fields rarely got this far in toward the center of the city. And there were plenty of dangerous people who didn’t live in the fields.
She had Tharn to protect her, though, and she was only a few blocks from home.
“Is there anything I can help you with? You look worried,” the man said.
“I’m fine,” Sirinita repeated.
“Is it your dragon? Are you doing something magical?”
“He’s my dragon, yes, but I was just thinking, not doing magic. I’m not even an apprentice yet, see?” She pointed to her bare legs—if she was too young for a woman’s skirt, she was too young for an apprenticeship.
In fact, she was still a month short of her twelfth birthday and formal skirting, which was the very earliest she could possibly start an apprenticeship, and she hadn’t yet decided if she wanted to learn any trade. She didn’t think she wanted to learn magic, though; magic was dangerous.
“Oh,” the man said, a bit sheepishly. “I thought… well, one doesn’t see a lot of dragons, especially not that size. I thought maybe it was part of some spell.”
Sirinita shook her head. “No. We were just thinking.”
“About the Arena? There’s to be a performance the day after tomorrow, I believe, in honor of Lord Wulran’s birthday, but there’s nothing today.”
“I know,” Sirinita said. “I mean, I’d forgotten, but I know now.”
“Oh.” The man looked at them uncertainly.
“Do you work in the Arena?” Sirinita asked, suddenly realizing this might be the opportunity she had been looking for.
“No, I’m afraid not. Did you want….” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“We were wondering if Tharn could be in a show,” Sirinita explained.
“Ah.” The man scratched thoughtfully at his beard. “Perhaps if you spoke to the Lord of the Games….”
“Oh, he’s the man in charge of the Arena,” the man explained. “Among other things. His name is Lord Varrin.”
“Do you know him?” Sirinita looked up hopefully.
“Well, yes,” the young man admitted.
“Could you introduce me?”
The young man hesitated, sighed, then said, “Oh, all right. Come on, then.”
Sirinita pushed Tharn’s head off her lap and jumped up eagerly.
Lord Varrin, it developed, lived just three blocks away, in a mansion at the corner of Wargate High Street and, of course, Games Street. A servant answered the door and bowed at the sight of the young man in velvet, then ushered man, girl, and dragon into the parlor.
A moment later Lord Varrin, a large, handsome man of middle years wearing black silk and leather, emerged and bowed.
“Lord Doran,” he said. “What brings you here?”
Sirinita’s head whirled about to look at the man in velvet. “Lord Doran?” she asked.
“The overlord’s brother?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But I… um….”
“Never mind that,” Doran said gently. “Tell Lord Varrin why we’re here.”
“Oh.” Sirinita turned back to the Lord of the Games, grabbed Tharn by his head-crest to keep him from eating anything he shouldn’t, and explained.
When she had finished, Lords Varrin and Doran looked at one another.
“I’m afraid,” Lord Varrin said gently, “that your father is right; we don’t ever keep dragons inside the city walls. It simply isn’t safe. Even the most well-intentioned dragon can’t be trusted not to do some serious damage—quite by accident, usually. A full-grown dragon is big, young lady; just walking down a street its wings and tail could break windows and knock down signboards. And if it loses its temper—anyone can lose his temper sometimes.”
Sirinita looked at Lord Doran for confirmation.
“There’s nothing I can do,” that worthy said. “I’m not even sure my brother could manage it, and I certainly can’t. Our duty is to protect the city, and Lord Varrin is right—that means no large dragons. I’m very sorry.”
“Not even for the Arena?” Sirinita asked.
Lord Varrin shook his head. “If we ever really needed a dragon,” he said, “we could have one sent in from somewhere, just for the show. We wouldn’t keep one here. And we’d have a dozen magicians standing guard every second, just in case.”
“So Tharn has to die?”
Varrin and Doran looked at one another.
“Well,” Doran said, “that’s up to you and your father. We just know he can’t stay inside the city walls once he’s bigger than a grown man. That’s the law.”
“It’s a law?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her feet, dejected, then remembered her manners. “Thank you anyway,” she said.
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry we can’t do more.”
The servant escorted Sirinita and Tharn back out onto Wargate High Street, where she looked down at Tharn in despair and asked, “Now what?”
He snorted playfully, and the hot, fetid fumes made Sirinita cough. She also thought she might have seen an actual spark this time.
That would be the pebble that sank the barge, Sirinita thought—if her parents found out that Tharn was spitting sparks out his nose they wouldn’t allow him in the house, and that “few days” her mother had mentioned would disappear. He’d be chopped up and sold to the wizards today, she was sure.
Ordinarily, when confronted with an insoluble problem, she might have thought about consulting a wizard herself. She couldn’t afford their fees, but sometimes, if they weren’t busy, they would talk to her anyway, and offer advice. She had never needed any actual magic, so she didn’t know if they would have worked their wizardry for her.
This time, though, wizards were out of the question. They were the ones who wanted Tharn’s blood for their spells. Lord Varrin had said that magicians could control dragons in the Arena, but if they could control them well enough to keep them in the city, wouldn’t they have already done so?
Besides, there was that law—no grown dragons inside the city walls.
Well, then, Sirinita told herself, she would just have to get Tharn outside those walls!
She looked around.
Games Street led northeastward—didn’t it go right to Eastgate? And of course, Wargate High Street went to Wargate, but Wargate was down in the guard camp with the soldiers; Sirinita didn’t like to go there. She didn’t mind the city guards most of the time, but when there were that many all in one place they made her nervous.
Eastgate should be all right, though. She had never been there, let alone out of the city, but it should be all right.
Grandgate or Newgate might be closer than Eastgate, but she didn’t know the streets to find them. Eastgate was easy.
“Come on, Tharn,” she said, and together they set out along Games Street.
It took the better part of an hour to reach Eastgate Plaza. Sirinita didn’t think the distance was even a whole mile, but there were so many distractions!
Games Street, after all, was lined with gaming houses. There were cardrooms and dice halls and archery ranges and wrestling rings and any number of other entertainments, and there were people drifting in and out of them. One man who smelled of oushka offered to gamble with Sirinita, his gold against her dragon; she politely declined. And dragons weren’t often seen in Eastside, so several people stopped to stare and ask her questions.
At last, however, she reached Eastgate Plaza, where a few farmers and tradesmen were peddling their wares in a dusty square beside the twin towers of Eastgate. It wasn’t terribly busy; Sirinita supposed most of the business went on at the other squares and markets, such as Eastgate Circle, four blocks to the west, or Farmgate, or Market.
The gate towers were big forbidding structures of dark gray stone, either one of them several times the size of Sirinita’s house, which wasn’t small. The gates between them were bigger than any doors Sirinita had ever seen—and they were all standing open.
All she had to do was take Tharn out there, outside the walls, and he wouldn’t have to be killed.
She marched forward resolutely, Tharn trotting at her heel.
Of course, it meant she would have to turn Tharn loose, and never see him again—she couldn’t live outside the walls. Her mother would never allow it. And besides, there were pirates and monsters and stuff out there.
But at least he’d still be alive.
That was what she was thinking when she walked into the spear-shaft.
She blinked, startled, then started to duck under it, assuming that it was in her way by accident.
“Ho, there!” the guard who held the spear called, and he bent down and grabbed her arm with his other hand. “What’s your hurry?”
“I need to get my dragon out of the city,” Sirinita explained.
The guard looked at Tharn, then back at Sirinita. “Your dragon?”
“Yes. His name’s Tharn. Let go of my arm.” She tugged, but the guard’s fingers didn’t budge.
“Can’t do that,” he said. “Not yet, anyway. Part of my job is to keep track of any kids who enter or leave the city without their parents along. If, for example, you were to be running away from home, and your folks wanted to find you but couldn’t afford to hire a magician to do it, it’d make things much easier on them if they could ask the guards at the gate, ‘Did my girl come through here? A pretty thing in a blue tunic, about so tall?’ And I’d be able to tell them, so they’d know whether you’re inside or outside the city walls.”
Sirinita blinked up at the man. He was a big, heavy fellow, with deep brown eyes and a somewhat ragged beard.
“What if I went out a different gate?” she asked.
“Oh, we report everything to the captain, and he tallies up the reports every day, so your folks could check the captain’s list. Then they’d even know which gate you went out, which might give them an idea where you’re going.”
Sirinita said, “My name’s Sirinita, and I’m just going out to find a place for my dragon. I’ll be back by nightfall.”
“Sirinita of Ethshar. Except the neighbors call me Sirinita of the Dragon.”
“I can understand that.” The guard released her arm. “Go on, then.”
Sirinita had gone no more than three steps when the man called after her, “Wait a minute.”
“Now what is it?” she asked impatiently, turning back.
“What do you mean, ‘find a place for your dragon’?”
“I mean find somewhere he can live. He can’t stay in the city any more.”
“You don’t have any supplies.”
Sirinita blinked up at him in surprise. “Supplies?”
“Right, supplies. It’s a long way to anywhere it would be safe to turn a dragon loose.”
“It is?” Sirinita was puzzled. “I was just going to take him outside the walls.”
“What, on someone’s farm, or in the middle of a village?”
“No, of course not,” Sirinita said, but the guard’s words were making her rethink the situation. She probably would have just turned Tharn loose on someone’s farm.
But that wouldn’t be a good idea, would it?
“Um,” she said. “I’m going to take him to my grandfather, I’m not going to turn him loose.”
Her grandfathers both lived in the city—one was a Seagate merchant, the other owned a large and successful carpentry business in Crafton—but she didn’t see any reason to tell the guard that.
“Your grandfather’s got a farm near here?”
The guard considered her for a moment, then turned up an empty palm. “All right,” he said. “Go ahead, then.”
“Thank you.” She turned eastward once again, and marched out of the city.
She wondered what sort of supplies the guard had meant. Whatever they were, she would just have to do without them. It couldn’t be that far to somewhere she could turn Tharn loose.
She looked out across the countryside, expecting to see a few farms and villages—she had seen pictures, and had a good idea what they should look like, with their half-timbered houses and pretty green fields.
What she actually saw, however, was something else entirely.
The road out of the city was a broad expanse of bare, hard-packed dirt crossed here and there with deep, muddy ruts. A few crude houses built of scrap wood were scattered around, and people stood or crouched in doorways, hawking goods and services to passersby—goods and services that were not allowed in the city, and Ethshar was a fairly tolerant place.
A hundred yards from the city the farms began—not with quaint cottages and tidy little fields, but with endless rows of stubby green plants in black dirt, and rough wooden sheds set here and there. The only roads were paths just wide enough for a wagon.
Sirinita was surprised, but walked on, Tharn at her heels.
She was still walking, hours later, when the sun sank below the hills she had already crossed. She was dirty and exhausted and miserable.
She had finally reached farms that more or less resembled those in the pictures, at any rate—not so clean or so charming, but at least there were thatched farmhouses and barns, and the fields no longer stretched unbroken to the horizon.
But she hadn’t reached forests or mountains or even a fair-sized grove. The only trees were windbreaks or orchards or shade trees around houses. As far as she could see, from any hilltop she checked, there were only more farms—except to the west, of course, where she could sometimes, from the higher hills, still see the city walls, and where she thought she could occasionally catch the gleam of sunlight on the sea.
And everything smelled of the cow manure the farmers used as fertilizer.
The World, she thought bitterly, was obviously bigger than she had realized. No wonder her father’s trading expeditions lasted a month at a time!
Tharn had not enjoyed taking so long a walk, either; he was a healthy and active young dragon, but he was still accustomed to taking an afternoon nap, to resting when he felt like it. He had not appreciated it when his mistress had dragged him along, and had even kicked him when he tried to sleep.
And when the sun went down, he had had enough; he flopped onto a hillock, mashing some farmer’s pumpkin vines, and curled up to sleep.
Sirinita, too exhausted for anger or protest, looked down at him and started crying.
Tharn paid no attention. He slept.
And when she was done weeping, Sirinita sat down beside her dragon and looked about in the gathering gloom.
She couldn’t see anyone, anywhere. They weren’t on a road any more, just a path through somebody’s fields, and she couldn’t see anything but half-grown crops and the shadowy shapes of distant farmhouses. Some of the windows were lighted, others dark, but nowhere did she see a torch or signboard over a door—if any of these places were inns, or even just willing to admit weary travelers, she didn’t know how to tell.
She was out here in the middle of nowhere, miles from her soft clean bed, miles from her parents, her friends, everybody, with just her stupid dragon to keep her company, and it was all because he was growing too fast.
And Tharn wouldn’t even stay awake so she could talk to him. She kicked him, purely out of spite; he puffed in annoyance, emitting a few sparks, but didn’t wake.
That was new; he hadn’t managed actual sparks before, so far as she could remember.
It didn’t matter, though. She wasn’t going any further with him. In the morning she was going to turn him loose, just leave him here and go home, maybe even slip away while he was asleep. If the farmers didn’t like having him around, maybe they’d chase him off to the wilderness, wherever it was.
And maybe they’d kill him, but at least he’d have a chance, and she just couldn’t go any farther.
Tharn breathed out another tiny shower of sparks, and a stench of something foul reached Sirinita’s nostrils; Tharn’s breath, never pleasant to begin with, was getting really disgusting—even worse than the cow manure, which she had mostly gotten used to.
Sirinita decided there wasn’t any need to sleep right next to the dragon; she wandered a few paces away, to where a field of waist-high cornstalks provided some shelter, and settled down for the night.
The next thing she knew was that an unfamiliar voice was saying, “I don’t see a lantern.”
She opened a sleepy eye, and saw nothing at all.
“So maybe she just burned a cornstalk or something,” a second voice said.
“I don’t even see a tinderbox,” the first replied.
“I don’t either, but what do I know? I saw sparks here, and here she is—it must’ve been her. Maybe she had some little magic spell or something—she looks like a city girl.”
“Maybe there was someone with her.”
“No, she wouldn’t be lying here all alone, then. No one would be stupid enough to leave a girl unprotected.”
The first voice giggled unpleasantly. “Not if they knew we were around, certainly.”
“She’s pretty young,” the second said dubiously.
Sirinita was completely awake now; she realized she was looking at the rich black earth of the farm. She turned her head, very carefully, to see who was speaking.
“She’s awake!” the first voice said. “Quick!”
Then rough hands grabbed her, and her tunic was yanked up, trapping her arms, covering her face so that she couldn’t see, and pulling her halfway to her feet. Unseen hands clamped around her wrists, holding the tunic up.
“Not all that young,” someone said, but Sirinita couldn’t hear well enough through the tunic to be sure which voice it was. Another hand touched her now-bare hip.
Someone hit her on the back of the head hard enough to daze her.
And then she heard Tharn growl.
It wasn’t a sound she had heard often; it took a lot to provoke the dragon, as a rule.
“What was that?” one of her attackers asked.
“It’s a baby dragon,” the other replied. The grip on her left wrist fell away, and she was able to pull her tunic partway down, below her eyes.
She was in the cornfield, and it was still full night, but the greater moon shone orange overhead, giving enough light to make out shapes, but not colors.
There were two men, big men, and they both had swords, and Tharn was facing them, growling, his tail lashing snakelike behind him. One of the men was holding her right wrist with his left hand, drawing his sword with his right.
The other man, sword already drawn, was approaching Tharn cautiously.
“Dragon’s blood,” he said. “The wizards pay good money for dragon’s blood.”
He stepped closer, closer—and Tharn’s curved neck suddenly straightened, thrusting his scaly snout to a foot or so from the man’s face, and Tharn spat flame, lighting up the night, momentarily blinding the three humans, whose eyes had all been adjusted to the darkness.
The man who had approached the dragon screamed horribly, and the other dropped Sirinita’s wrist; thus abruptly released, she stumbled and almost fell.
When she was upright and able to see again, she saw one man kneeling, both hands covering his face as he continued to scream; his sword was nowhere in sight. The other man was circling, trying to get behind Tharn, or at least out of the line of fire.
And Tharn was growling differently now, a sound like nothing Sirinita had ever heard before. His jaws and nostrils were glowing dull red, black smoke curled up from them, and his eyes caught the moonlight and gleamed golden. He didn’t look like her familiar, bumbling pet; he looked terrifying.
The uninjured man dove for Tharn’s neck, and the dragon turned with incredible speed, belching flame.
The man’s hair caught fire, but he dived under the gout of flame and stabbed at Tharn.
Tharn dodged, or tried to, but Sirinita heard the metal blade scrape sickeningly across those armored scales she had so often scratched herself on.
Then Tharn, neck fully extended and bent almost into a circle, took his attacker from behind and closed his jaws on the man’s neck.
Sirinita screamed—she didn’t know why, she just did.
The first man was still whimpering into his hands.
The second man didn’t scream, though; he just made a soft grunting noise, then sagged lifelessly across Tharn’s back. His hair was smoldering; a shower of red sparks danced down Tharn’s flank.
Sirinita turned and ran.
At first she wasn’t running anywhere in particular; then she spotted a farmhouse with a light in the window. Someone had probably been awakened by the screaming. She turned her steps toward it.
A moment later she was hammering her fists on the door.
“Who is it?” someone called. “I’ve got a sword and a spear here.”
“Help!” Sirinita shrieked.
For a moment no one answered, but she heard muffled voices debating; then the door burst open and she fell inside.
“They attacked me,” she said. “And Tharn killed one of them, and… and… ”
“Who attacked you?” a woman asked.
“Two men. Big men.”
“Who’s Tharn? Your father?” a man asked.
“My pet dragon.”
The man and the woman looked at one another.
“She’s crazy,” the man said.
“Close the door,” the woman answered.
“You don’t think I should try to help?”
“Do you hear anyone else screaming?”
The man listened; so did Sirinita.
“No,” the man said. “But I hear noises.”
“Let them take care of it themselves, then.”
“But….” The man hesitated, then asked, “Was anyone hurt?”
“The men who attacked me. Tharn hurt them both. I think he killed one.”
“But this Tharn was all right when you left?” the woman asked.
“Then leave well enough alone for now. We’ll go out in the morning and see what’s what. Or if this Tharn comes to the door and speaks fair—we’ve the girl to tell us if it’s the right one.”
The man took one reluctant final look out the door, then closed and barred it, while the woman soothed Sirinita and led her to a corner by the fire where she could lie down. The man found two blankets and a feather pillow, and Sirinita curled up, shivering, certain she would never sleep again.
She was startled to wake up to broad daylight.
“You told us the truth last night,” her hostess remarked.
Sirinita blinked sleep from her eyes.
“About your dragon, I mean. He’s curled up out front. At first my man was afraid to step past him, after what you’d said about his fighting those two men, but he looks harmless enough, so at last he ventured it.”
“I’m sorry he troubled you,” Sirinita said.
“No trouble,” she said.
“I have to get home,” Sirinita said, as she sat up.
“No hurry, is there?”
Sirinita hesitated. “It’s a long walk back to the city.”
“It is,” the woman admitted. “But isn’t that all the more reason to have breakfast first?”
Sirinita, who had had no supper the night before, did not argue with that; she ate a hearty meal of hot buttered cornbread, apples, and cider.
When she was done she tried to feed Tharn, but the dragon wasn’t hungry.
When the farmer showed her what he had found in the cornfield she saw why. Both her attackers were sprawled there—or at any rate, what was left of them. Tharn was still a very small dragon; he had left quite a bit.
She looked down at the dragon at her side; Tharn looked up at her and blinked. He stretched his wings and belched a small puff of flame.
“Come on,” Sirinita said. She waved a farewell to her hosts—she never had learned their names, though she thought they’d been mentioned—then started walking up her own shadow, heading westward toward Ethshar.
It was late afternoon when, footsore and frazzled, she reached Eastgate with Tharn still at her heel. She made her way down East Road to the city’s heart, then turned south into the residential district that had always been her home.
Her parents were waiting.
“When you weren’t home by midnight we were worried, so this morning we hired a witch,” her mother explained, after embraces and greetings had been exchanged. “She said you’d be home safe some time today, and here you are.” She looked past her daughter at the dragon. “And Tharn, too, I see.” She hesitated, then continued, “The witch said that Tharn saved your life last night. We really can’t keep him here, Siri, but we can find a home for him somewhere….”
“No,” Sirinita interrupted, hugging her mother close. “No, don’t do that.” She closed her eyes, and images of the man with the burned face screaming, the other man with his hair on fire and his neck broken, the two of them lying half-eaten between the rows of corn, appeared.
Tharn had been protecting her, and those men had meant to rape her and maybe kill her, but she knew those images would always be there.
Tharn was a dragon, and that was what dragons did.
“No, Mother,” she said, shuddering, tears leaking from the corners of her tightly-shut eyes. “Get a wizard and have him killed.”