The sun that came up over the horizon was sickly, the pale whiteyellow of fresh squeezed lemon juice. It brought no warmth with it, and the girl huddled closer into her furred jacket, shivering as a chill passed through her slight form. She missed the sun of home, the bright orangered heat of it. But that was whoknew how many hundreds of miles from here.
She crept forward, head positioned to watch both where her feet fell and what was in front of her. The woodsy mountain path she was on was newly cleared; she could see the jagged edges of branches that had been broken in the otherwise impenetrable underbrush on either side, the flattened grass, the disturbed rocks that had been dislodged from their centuries long hold on the earth, the scuff marks of boots. A lot of boots. The army had come through here. Or, part of it had. She halted, considering the evidence, then determined the mystery battalion's passage along this route had been long enough ago that she was not in immediate danger. She continued walking towards the clearing she knew was just beyond a slight hill: twenty paces, fifteen, ten.
At five paces, with the clearing in sight, she paused again, hearing a great rustling in the dense foliage just off the path to her right. Her hand on the hilt of the dagger at her hip, she waited. A deserter? An animal? A vagrant? As she watched, the underbrush parted and a long, slender body undulated into view. The newcomer slowed, its head, slightly cocked, rising upon a sinewy neck as it noticed her. Two round, black eyes regarded her with an inscrutable expression. A forked tongue slid rapidly in and out of its mouth. Steam emanated from its body in the morning chill, and two puffs of smoke whirled from its nostrils, framing its head before dissipating into the air. A distinctive scent of brimstone and the slightest whiff of fewmets confirmed the creature's identity even before it spoke, the words appearing in the girl's head through the strange telepathic means of communication that was unique to firedrakes: Where have you been? It's cold.
The girl took her hand off of her dagger and straightened to her full height, bringing to bear as much imperiousness as she could muster in her seventeenyear old frame. "Don't make it out as though I'm late. I told you I'd be here just after dawn, and I am."
You said you'd meet me in the clearing just after dawn, the dragon countered imperiously.
The girl gave the firedrake a withering look and took the final five steps to where the path opened naturally into a wider space surrounded by larger rocks and a ring of trees, an ancient clearing that had been used for many generations both in good times, when it served as a court of law for the mountain people, and times of war, when it served the purposes of whomever occupied it at any given moment. Well into that space, the girl could clearly see the remnants of campfires, the holes where tents had been pitched; the evidence pointed to a smaller battalion, maybe fifteen, twenty women, total. Enough, she shivered again, and not just from the cold. Enough that if they caught her, deserter that she was, she was in for it. But the ashes were cold; the battalion must be at least a halfday's journey away by now. This should work.
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