A Midwinter's Meal
By: Melissa Ridley Elmes

The sun that came up over the horizon was sickly, the pale white–yellow 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 orange–red heat of it. But that was who–knew 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 seventeen–year 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 half–day's journey away by now. This should work. She relaxed a bit, and settled on a large, flat rock criss–crossed with veins of green and purple minerals, a rock formation distinctive to this particular mountain chain.

The firedrake took two light, bounding steps into the clearing to join her.

The girl slung a lumpy sack from her back onto her lap and rummaged, pulling out a greasy packet, which the firedrake regarded with deep interest. She unfurled the folded–over edges of the paper container to reveal a brace of baby wyverns, killed the night before. The firedrake lunged, its stomach rumbling audibly in anticipation. Gimme!

She yanked the packet out of his reach, pulled a knot of twigs from the bag, and tossed it on the ground before them, where the ashes from one of the earlier fires still remained. The ashes scattered as the twigs hit them, sending soot scooting across the ground. She berated him firmly: "Hold on! Your end of the bargain."

The firedrake snorted. Oh, fine. Have it your way. He opened his mouth. His neck lit up as he drew molten heat from his belly and shot it out onto the pile of twigs, which instantly became a respectable fire. But they're much nicer raw.

He sat up expectantly, and she tossed him one of the wyverns, averting her eyes as he tore into its tender infant's flesh. She carefully stuck her dagger into the belly of the other carcass, removing the brimstone pouch, which she tossed to her companion. Then she slid the rest of the body onto the dagger and held it over the fire to roast.

The firedrake's jaws crunched against the full brimstone pouches as he finished his meal, then belched in satisfaction, sending little whiffs of fire flying across the clearing. He sighed. Ahh, that's good.

"Does it count as cannibalism, if you're a fire–breathing creature and you eat another fire–breathing creature?" The girl wanted to know.

I don't think so, the firedrake answered after a pause. Eating wyverns provides us with the brimstone that allows us to breathe fire; if we didn't eat them our fire would go out and we'd simply be …. Lizards. They're just our natural prey. And getting harder to find these days, so I thank you for doing the hard part!

He groomed himself as she ate her roasted wyvern, which tasted a bit like rabbit, but was less juicy and more tender. His eyes grew heavy with the repetitive motion of licking his skin, between his claws. His head nodded. She watched him as she chewed. Swallowing the last bite, she wiped her dagger against her pants and re–sheathed it. Then she whistled, a funny little five–note scale. The firedrake regarded her with drowsy interest. Pretty. What song is that?

She didn't answer right away, but looked very hard at the path they had entered the clearing on, then whistled again. On the second whistle, three hooded figures joined them. All three were larger than the girl. They worked quickly and in total anonymity, as the best outlaws do, surrounding the firedrake and caging him before he had a chance to fully rouse himself from his post–meal stupor. The tallest of the strangers handed a wad of money to the girl, who counted it and placed it in the sack, which she then slung back over her shoulder.

The firedrake glared at the girl.

Does it count as double–crossing if you're a deserter and you sic outlaws on another outlaw? He asked, his voice a furious parody of her earlier question.

"I don't think so," the girl answered with a smile. "Selling firedrakes provides us with the money we need to return home and avoid being executed for desertion. I suppose you could say — they're just our natural prey."

The firedrake loosed a roar of anger and a stream of consciousness barrage of insults that any soldier would blush to hear. She bolted as he sent a raging burst of fire into the clearing. The screams of the three hooded figures persuaded her that she did not want to stop and did not want to look back. She simply ran, back the way she'd come and then straight into the underbrush, determined to live to see the warm sun of home rise again.


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