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That would be more than enough, but Meeryle is also unknowingly hiding a huge secret from everyone, including Leena, that will put their friendship in peril. Can they overcome their own differences and save their dragon friend – without losing everything?
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Chest heaving, legs burning, Meeryle had to stop running. She was feeling her weight acutely. The race back to the village against Leena was a rather stupid challenge on Meeryle’s part, given her lack of condition.
Leena ran past her. When she realized her friend was no longer moving, the tall girl stopped and backtracked.
"C’mon! Pick up your feet!"
Meeryle shook her head, panting. "I... can’t... run... any... farther." She leaned forward, her hands on her knees, and tried to catch her breath. Her eyes closed, she took in deep breaths, willing her heart not to burst out of her chest. Her thick dark hair was in her face and would stay there, at least for the time being. Nothing ever seemed to hold it and today was no exception.
"By the way, you were going the wrong way. The village is over there."
Meeryle shook her head. When would she get a sense of direction?
Still trying to catch her breath, she leaned against a tree, thinking that as much as she hated it, doing more tromping around was necessary. And putting a stop to sweetcakes. At least the ones in the morning.
Suddenly, the trunk moved against Meeryle’s back. It didn’t sway like a normal tree would, a slow movement back and forth, but expanded and deflated as if it had taken in a deep breath. Startled, she stood straighter and took a step forward, wanting to tell Leena about the strange feeling. But her friend wasn’t paying her any attention; she was a few steps away, staring at the tree, gaping. When Meeryle turned to look at the tree, her eyes couldn’t focus properly. For some reason, the tree seemed fuzzy. Meeryle blinked twice. The tree moved again, but not like before. It rippled, from the bottom up, and suddenly became bigger and taller. The top swung toward her, the branches shifting and changing shape. They fused together to become a bird-like head, while the trunk and the bottom branches melded and transformed into a lithe body.
Meeryle froze in place. Time had stopped. A strange detachment allowed her to examine the creature with interest. Covered with green scales, it reminded her of a lizard and a cat at the same time, possessing an alien grace and beauty. The head was shorter and wider than she would have expected given the length of the neck. But when Meeryle looked into its eyes, she unfroze. The eyes were a deep ruby red.
She was looking into the eyes of a dragon.
Meeryle surrendered to terror. Without any thought of what she was doing or where she was going, the girl ran for her life-faster than she ever had, faster than she thought possible. Her fear blocked every sound except for her heartbeat. The forest was reduced to the ground beneath her feet and the tree closest to her. Once she passed it, only the next one mattered. She didn’t know how she managed to avoid running into them, but her feet had a life of their own. As long as she didn’t think, her body was in control and it was moving along as fast as it could.
At one point, Leena had passed her, but Meeryle didn’t know when. She blinked, and her friend was in front of her. Absurdly, she observed that Leena’s tunic had a grass stain on the bottom left and that her usually shiny and neat light brown hair was now loose and decorated with twigs and leaves. She noticed with shock that Leena’s precious green scarf-the one marking her status as an apprentice-Healer-was gone.
Meeryle’s brain took control over her body. She was suddenly conscious that her breath had long ago run out, that she had already exerted herself with the race, and that the ground was uneven. She tripped and slid on her stomach for what felt like furlongs. The ground was not only uneven, but also riddled with rocks and roots.
She didn’t remember yelling, but must have said something since Leena stopped in her tracks, turned, ran back to her, and dropped on her knees by her side. "Meeryle, are you badly hurt?" Her words came out as fast as her breath allowed her. Her face was blotchy red, sweat ran down her forehead, and a branch must have been responsible for the tear in her right sleeve. She was in no better shape than Meeryle.
"I don’t know yet, but you look like you’re at the end of your roll too."
"Tell me about it. I never thought I could run so fast. And I have no clue how I managed to avoid all these darn roots! It looks like one got the better of you. Your foot’s still stuck in it."
"Really?" Meeryle was surprised. Only then did she notice that she couldn’t feel her foot, or any part of her body, accurately. Everything was suddenly blurred in pain. Her chest was burning, her hands felt raw from her slide, and the only thing she could really hear was the thumping of her heart.
"Here, it’s out. Does it hurt when I do this?" Leena was doing something with her leg and foot. Meeryle looked back and saw Leena holding her foot, twisting it gently left and right.
"Ouch! And my hands hurt too."
Meeryle gathered herself up on all fours and winced when her hands touched the ground. She sat back on her heels to look at her hands. They were brown, just like her forearms. Below the remnants of earth, her skin was red in some places and deeply scraped in others. Never before had she found herself in such a state.
"They’re going to feel worse tomorrow, you know." Leena was shaking her head at the condition of Meeryle’s arms. "We need to clean these as quickly as possible. You don’t want them to get infected." Leena grabbed her friend by the elbow to help her up. Meeryle stood, feeling a bit shaky. Breathing wasn’t so hard anymore, but her legs felt stiff.
"Leena, I don’t know if I can walk. My legs feel strange and my ankle hurts."
"Don’t stop moving. Otherwise your muscles are going to cramp. Come on, let’s go home."
"But... what about the dragon?"
"The dragon. We saw a dragon." Now that the fear had run its course, the reality of the encounter hit Meeryle like a blow and took her back years, to when she had so firmly believed in dragons. Everyone had told her over and over again that these creatures didn’t exist, that they were nothing more than stories for children.
Everyone was wrong. The dragon Meeryle had seen today certainly had not been a figment of her imagination and she had the most down-to-earth witness with her.
"I don’t know what that was," said Leena, staring at her while chewing her bottom lip.
Meeryle blinked. "It was a dragon. What else could it be?" The elation of the moment was such that Meeryle heard her heartbeat better than the birds singing. "Why didn’t you ever tell me there were dragons in the forest?" she asked dreamily.
"I didn’t know. I’m not even sure it was a dragon!"
Meeryle shook herself, concentrating on her friend’s words. Leena doubted her. The old feelings of frustration and shame at being mocked surged with such intensity, she gasped. "But it was a dragon." She tried to cross her arms to emphasize her point, but her scraped skin betrayed her. Instead, she put her knuckles on her hips, careful not to close her hands in a fist. "What else could it be, anyway? And how come no one ever told me there were dragons here?"
"Meeryle, no one’s ever seen one before. Don’t get mad at me because we were attacked by a stupid dragon. I’ve never been in this part of the forest before, and it’s been a while since the Healer came here too. Calm down. It’s gone, anyway. We should be safe."
Anger surfaced. "You don’t get it, do you? A dragon! We’re the first ones in the village to ever see a dragon! If I’d known there were dragons in our area, I would have gone looking for them a long time ago."
"You what?" Leena gaped, eyes wide in surprise.
"You heard me! Dragons are... they’re all I ever wanted to learn about. But I... I had to give up on them."
"Meaning you stopped believing in them, right?"
"I’ve always believed they existed. But everyone laughed so hard when I decided to make it my life’s work that I decided never to mention it again." She looked at her friend earnestly. "Don’t you laugh at me now. You know they’re real. We just saw one." She murmured to herself, "I was right all along."
Leena sighed. She looked at her friend and shook her head. "I’m not laughing. But, Meeryle, you sound like a child. We can’t stay here. I’m not going to argue with you about whether or not we saw a dragon."
"We did," interrupted Meeryle. "Don’t even try to deny it."
Leena clenched her jaw and her fists. "Just... just listen, will you? Dragon or not, we were attacked by something that could very well be on our track right now. You’re hurt; I’m not in much better shape, so we need to get out of here!"
"We were not attacked."
Leena threw her hands up. "How can you say that? If we weren’t attacked, then why did you run?"
"When a tree becomes a huge dragon, I get scared. So I run. I wasn’t expecting anything like that. My reaction was normal." She sounded childish and she didn’t care. For the first time in her life, Meeryle had seen a dragon. She wasn’t going to let Leena diminish the experience in any way. "You ran too. Right past me, as a matter of fact."
"I didn’t want to get eaten by that thing! Of course I ran."
"I’ll have you know that dragons don’t eat people. Or even meat, I think."
Leena sat down on the ground with a loud thump. She covered her face with her hands and shook her head. "You’re getting on my nerves, Meeryle."
"Oh, I’m so sorry." She sighed as she took her time sitting beside the apprentice-Healer, mindful of her sore ankle. "Look, forget I just said that. But really think about it. The dragon did not try to hurt us at all. From what I learned, they never do. It just looked at us. I’m actually wondering if we didn’t surprise it as much as it surprised us." She put her hand on Leena’s shoulder. "Don’t you think this encounter is special?"
Leena looked up, her expression unreadable. Meeryle wanted her friend to understand and feel her passion about the creatures. She didn’t want to be scorned once again, after so long, especially not by her best friend.
The tall girl looked into Meeryle’s eyes, then up at the sky, looking for words. "It was special." Meeryle closed her eyes and sighed with relief. "But Meeryle, what exactly do you know about dragons and how much of the information you’ve gathered can you really trust?"
"I... Well, it’s only written records and reports of people who have seen them. Most is actually speculation, but it makes sense when you look at the dragons’ behavior. Like the fact that they never attack. So far, no one has ever been attacked by a dragon. They just leave when they see a human. And the people who have been able to watch them for a while without being seen say they’ve never seen them eat animals, even though they sometimes are very near them. The only conclusion I’ve ever drawn from all this was that dragons are afraid of people."
"Where did you get all this information?"
Meeryle looked down, embarrassed. "In the books we have here, at the school. But mostly travelers who came through here."
"Oh, Meeryle, this is so naive."
The chubby girl knew her sources weren’t the greatest, but what could she do? The village’s little library didn’t get updated very often; she had only the words of rare passersby who had been patient enough to answer a dreamy girl’s questions. Leena, ever the disciplined researcher, needed tangible documentation, not hearsay.
Meeryle waited as her friend stared out, not looking at anything in particular. Leena suddenly turned and gazed into her friend’s eyes with an ardor that surprised Meeryle. "But in everything you’ve heard and read, did you ever see something about dragons talking?"
"What? It talked to you?"
"Just answer the question, will you?"
Meeryle chewed her lip, trying to remember everything she knew about dragons. It had been years since the last time she’d thought about them. "Well, I don’t think so. But I never read anything about a green dragon either, so it doesn’t mean anything."
"So what color are they, then?"
"Purple and brown. Why do you ask about talking?"
"Because I think it talked to me." Leena’s eyes were shut tight. "I definitely heard something say, ’Don’t be afraid.’ Only it wasn’t as if you or anyone else had said it. It was inside my head." She opened her eyes and looked at Meeryle. "That thing talked to me in my head. That’s what made me run. It got inside my head."
Meeryle’s mind was in upheaval. It talked. So dragons might even be more than the books said they were; dragons could be creatures with intellect.
"Leena, we have to go back. We have to talk to it."
"Are you crazy?" Meeryle’s face must have shown her elation, because Leena stared at her with disbelief. "You’re serious, aren’t you? You want to go back to that creature. And what if the books were wrong? What if they do attack and eat people? What then? You’ll just let yourself be eaten alive and sing praises? Meeryle, snap out of it!"
"Don’t be stupid! It told you not to be afraid, so we’ll be safe."
"Oh, Meeryle, by all the powers that be, how can you be so naive! Why is it, do you think, that our hunters imitate the love cries of animals? So they’ll come close enough to be caught and killed. That dragon of yours is probably licking and smacking its lips right now, thinking its plan will bring a fine meal."
As Meeryle’s anger rose with Leena’s unwillingness to believe her, her sight blurred with an orange tinge. Her friend was just like everyone else: she feared the unknown. Leena had to see how important this was. "Leena, you can’t just go," she said through clenched teeth. "I need you to find the dragon." As she spoke, the orange tinge filtering her sight intensified briefly before dispersing and surrounding Leena in the form of a diffuse and distorting light. Meeryle blinked and the light was gone, her sight once more normal.
Leena stared, a dreamy look on her face. "All right," she whispered. "Let’s find that dragon of yours."
Meeryle wasn’t sure if she had heard right. "What?"
Leena took in a deep breath, the dreamy look gone. "I don’t believe I’m saying this. I’ll take you to...."
"Don’t interrupt! I don’t want to do this because it’s really a stupid idea, all right? But," she sighed and shook her head. "I’ve never seen you like this, Meeryle. You usually just let things go and move on. This is the first time I’ve seen you get so upset since... well, since Tarkin stole your sweetcake all those years ago!" Both girls smiled.
"Well, it was the last one. He had no right."
"But this is more than that dumb sweetcake. It’s obviously something you’ve yearned after for a long, long time. What baffles me is that you’ve never mentioned it to me!"
"Do you really tell me or anyone else everything? Really everything?"
Leena blinked and paused. "No, you’re right. Some things are always best never said." As the tall girl stared ahead for a few moments, it dawned on Meeryle that Leena might be thinking of some secret of her own. But before she could find the words to ask her best friend what she’d been hiding, Leena shook her head as if clearing her thoughts. "Now, come on, let’s find your dragon."
Meeryle flinched as she got up and once again straightened her skirt. The poor thing was in a very sad state. Her blouse was worse, though. The sleeves were ripped, and the left one looked to be beyond repair. Her mother would not be pleased. Meeryle would have to make amends by preparing her best dishes yet.
She stretched very slowly, mindful of every scrape and bruise. In the meantime, Leena had taken out all the burrs from her hair.
"You should wear breeches and a tunic like I do, you know. They’re much more practical for walking." Leena frowned. "Your blouse is gone. It looks awful."
"Never mind. And I don’t fit in breeches, all right? Forget about my clothes and let’s go."
Leena shrugged as she pointed and started walking. "This way. Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the place. All we have to do is follow our trail; we left plenty of broken shrubs and twigs."
Meeryle followed without saying a word, still stunned by Leena’s agreement. Did she truly believe her or was she simply humoring her? Meeryle decided she didn’t care. Now that she knew they existed for sure, the dragon was much more important. She smiled tightly to herself and remembered the last thought she’d had about dragons years ago. If dragons weren’t real, then why waste time writing books on their habits? She had been a ten-year-old whose dream had been shattered.
Luckily, that was the time when Leena’s parents had just arrived at the village, giving Meeryle a new friend. Meeryle had immediately felt a kinship with her when Leena expressed an interest in books. And since they became friends, Teerane, the village bully, instantly disliked the tall, thin, serious girl.
For some reason, Teerane had hated Meeryle with a passion since childhood. Once, when Meeryle was just six years old, Teerane had managed to corner her briefly, out of anyone else’s sight, and grab a handful of her hair. Twisting and pulling it viciously until Meeryle cried in pain, the older girl continued her torment as long as she dared. Only when someone called for Meeryle did she let go, whispering harshly: "My mother died because of you, I just know it! No one believes me, they all tell me to leave you alone, but I know you’re responsible. I’ll find out how one day, I swear."
The words had triggered a deep fear in Meeryle, a terror she couldn’t comprehend, a dread that stopped her from trying to think about the other girl’s accusation, let alone ask anyone about it. Not only did she not understand what Teerane meant, but somehow, she just knew that something bad would happen to her if she brought it up. Of course, she had no idea at all what that might be, and as the years went by, she dismissed the feeling as some silly and childish fear induced by the older girl’s threats or her constantly menacing attitude, which became more and more discreet as Teerane was scolded for it over the years. Yet Meeryle never dwelt on the thought or even dared to question anyone about this. She simply accepted that Teerane blamed her and borne the girl’s barbs without any comment.
Anyone who befriended her got the same treatment, so Meeryle didn’t have many friends. Leena was no exception, but the serious girl’s attitude had a way to cool tempers. Teerane’s sneers were also cut short when Leena’s father, Parin, very quickly became the village’s leader. His worldly experience, his standing as a hunter, and his big stature and booming voice were exactly what the small and isolated village needed. Teerane was intimidated by the big man and quit her remarks, limiting herself to dirty looks.
Meeryle and Leena became inseparable. Leena was already very interested in the Healing arts and had later been tested for the Healing gift. She was as passionate about Healing as Meeryle had been about dragons. Meeryle followed Leena in her studies when she could, trying to forget dragons and to learn about something new. Healing wasn’t for her, though. So when Leena took on her official apprenticeship and had less and less time for her friend, Meeryle had to find another activity. She developed a taste for cooking.
Her mother had been quite surprised to discover that her daughter was better than she was around the stove. Surprised, but pleased. She was a seamstress and her daughter’s trials in that field were disasters. If cooking was her gift, it would simply add to the family’s welfare.
Therefore, Meeryle was given the responsibility of preparing everything that came out of the oven. The breads and pastries were always baked to perfection; Meeryle just knew when to take them out. As a result, her family’s breads were the most sought after in the village. Meeryle had become a respected cook, albeit too young for her opinion to really matter with some of the older women. The dragons had faded away and Meeryle no longer saw them in the clouds or the flames.
Meeryle was so far lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realize Leena had stopped, and bumped into her. Her arms burning from the pain of that brief contact, she jumped back and yelped. "Warn me when you stop, will you?"
"Sorry. I think this is it." Leena looked back at her friend. "This is the clearing. What do you want to do now?"
Meeryle peered around, but all the trees looked the same. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I’m sure. I know how to find my way around the forest." Leena was glaring at her.
"That’s not what I meant. I just don’t recognize any of this."
"I’m sure. We have to find the exact place where that dragon of yours was standing, then we’ll know for sure what it was."
"What do you mean?"
"The tracks will tell us."
Meeryle blinked a few times. It had never occurred to her that a dragon would leave tracks. Or any animal, for that matter. "Village girl, that’s me," she muttered.
Meeryle looked again at the clearing. One spot seemed stranger than the rest. She stared at it for a while and realized that it was empty compared to the rest of the clearing. "I think this is where the dragon had been standing. This spot should have a tree on it," she said, pointing.
Leena squinted. "It did have a tree on it. It just became a dragon. Now it’s gone. No tree, no dragon. At least this shows we didn’t dream it."
Meeryle rubbed her arms lightly and winced. A dream didn’t make one panic and hurt like this.
She joined Leena, who was squatting by the spot in question. Meeryle didn’t even attempt to squat; she bent down. She sucked in her breath sharply at the sight of a footprint. A very, very large footprint.
"Leena, what’s this?"
"I don’t know, Meeryle, I just don’t know. This doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen."
The print was three times the size of Meeryle’s hand. It was elongated and ended with three toes. "What are these strange holes in front of the toe mark?"
"Leena, they’re almost two inches away from the toe mark."
"I know." Leena looked at her and licked her lips. "This thing is huge, Meeryle."
"I guess." She felt short of breath. "This can’t be a bear, can it?"
"No. We were shown bear tracks, remember? They have four toes and like a thumb. The tracks were also a lot rounder. And much, much smaller."
The girls were silent for a while. Meeryle’s heart calmed down a little. She looked at the tracks again and noticed a mark behind the footprints. "What is that?" She pointed at a sinuous dent in the ground that circled the footprints.
"Well, all I can do is guess. A tail track?"
"A tail? Did you see the track? It must be huge!"
"It’s probably proportionate to the feet and the rest of the body."
"Leena, that thing seems bigger than five horses put together."
The apprentice-Healer sighed. "I know. Are you sure you want to stay and see it again?"
Meeryle didn’t have to think about it. "Yes. I want to see the dragon."