The winter rains are good only for keeping one's person clean. Day after day, shower after cold shower, the rain poured down until only the semi-somnolent salamanders were smiling with the moist air, the mud, and the lack of predators -- almost all of whom were staying close to their dens. My choice was to stay in my cave under the tree or go out to get wet sitting under the hedge along the road, the better to leap out to cry outrage at passers-by, should they voice injudicious opinions. In rainy weather I would rather be indoors.
I was standing in the doorway of my cave beneath the tree, listening to the ghost of Garfer Miller curse about how the rain was leaching the soil from the planter in which he was temporarily interred, when a great golden-bronze dragon landed in the clearing with a flurry of flung droplets of wet and a sloppy "whump!"
"Aaaiiieee!" wailed the ghost of Garfer Miller, and withdrew into the soil of the planter.
The dragon sniffed the planter. "I don't know what he's so worried about. There's not so much as a pork chop on his bones."
"I thought you were hibernating, or napping for a couple years, Dude," I said by way of greeting.
"The roof of my lair sprung a leak and flooded my sleeping chamber." Dudalos the Dragon of Gothwold Lake snapped his jaws together in a series of amazingly fast clicks for jaws the size of a butter-churn. "Oh, for the days when a dragon could just take over a castle and stretch luxuriously in about ten feet of gold in a spacious hall!"
"They must have been some days," I replied, looking at my fingernails. "That is, before the people that built the castles started getting pissed."
"Yeah, go figure," said the dragon. "You'd think they'd have capitalized on the sight-seeing draw."
"Maybe one or two of your dragon cousins could have refrained from capitalizing on the sight-seeing draw and not eaten so many sight-seers."
The dragon sat on his haunches and tapped a talon of his front right foot against a fang. "You've been reading biased histories again, haven't you?"
"Yes, I recently re-read the account of The Swallowed Swordsman: How My Father Was Et By a Dragon by Eemer Eodingswarg. Very enlightening."
"Oh, fiddle," the dragon sputtered, vaporizing little clumps of rain into steam with his escaping flame, "didn't that first appear in The National Conspirer? Total trash, not a jot of truth to it."
"Oh, fiddle, indeed," I countered. "The same author did an expanded story in The New Orc Times, and won an award for the reporting."
"And that means what, exactly?" asked the dragon, tapping his right hind foot in the goopy mud.
"It means that Eemer Eodingswarg was himself eaten by a dragon about three months after the article appeared."
"As were all his heirs and relatives."
"Well, don't eat this village. I have to live here, you know."
"Now, Aser, who said anything about eating people? Did I say anything about people eating?"
Just at that moment a crow flew into the top of the tree over my cave and screamed, "AW!" The dragon and I looked up at the cawing crow, both of us ducking automatically, because the crow had just given the crow-language call for "intruder!" In the distance another crow answered with the same inflection.
Within seconds, five crows began swooping at Dudalos' head, smacking him and pinching him with their hard beaks. He could have breathed fiery breath at them and toasted them all, but he wouldn't have been able to keep it up, given that crows were arriving by the dozens, and hundreds, taking up perches in the trees around my home, all calling "AW!" over and over again.
The dragon covered his head with his wings, only to have a crow dive and pluck a scale out of his arse and carry the shiny piece off to the canopy of the trees, cawing triumph. The rest sought to imitate the brave and annoying act, and the dragon was surrounded by a cloud of swooping, attacking crows.
Dudalos, Feared by All Who See Him, was forced to leap up into a thickly-branched tree where the crows could not bite or pinch him as easily. Dudalos cursed so eloquently and violently that I expected to be able to see runic-lettered words outlined in flame on the air.
Dragon and Potential Village-Eater he might be, but the woodland birds had his number, because they were willing to drop their own quarrels over whose dead squirrel or dropped hashbrowns belonged to whom and take up common cause.
I've seen the same sort of thing happen in the marketplace, when the butcher weighs a fatty leg of mutton and the goodwife objects to the amount of tallow clinging to the meat. "I don't want to pay for extra fat," she tells him.
"As is or ye can buy yerself a chicken," grumbles the butcher, irritably.
A second woman looks up, sees the blubbery roast, and adds her voice to the conversation. "What? Are ye now requiring yer clients to buy garbage?" She looks the first in the eye and nods. They're speaking the same language now, with the same point and the same object.
"GAR-bage," cries the goodwife, "I'm not paying good silver for fat I can't even use for soap!"
"You tell him, Sister," says the second, who then turns and shouts into the market throng, "This butcher's refusing to trim the tallow from the meat! He wants us to pay for what we can't eat!"
A third woman, broad and red-faced, with three children holding onto her skirts stops. "What? What? You're no longer trimming your wares for the customer? Why, I guess I know a farmer who does his own butchery and cuts the joints just as we needs them! Come on, ladies, let's pay him a visit and let this curmudgeon try to sell meat to the flies!" Off they all go, a sudden coalition of power. The grumpy butcher has mere days to count before the ladies have convinced each other that all the other women in the village ought to know about the underhanded tactics. Perhaps he will have to move on to a new shop, or change his ways and make amends.
The lords of the desmesnes, accustomed to bickering with each other over yardage of territory when the winter rains divert the streambeds which mark their boundaries, sit at a banquet table together in the silent hall. Someone from the north has been moving the standing stones south, encroaching on all their lands little by little. Not a one of them wants to admit that he's only just decided to take action, or that he's afraid that the superior force to the north will wipe out his army and people. One of the lords clears his throat, and says, "There's a threat to the north."
"Aye," another shouts, "and what do ye think is going to happen to those who oppose that threat?"
"What if we all oppose the Northerner together? He can't hit us all at once!"
An alliance is formed; where before they were just uneasy neighbors, now they are a force. Where one may have been vulnerable, two and more are strong. The mere neighbors send their people north and move the standing stones back where they belong, and become an alert and powerful line of defense making sure the stones don't dance in the night. The northern boundary stays where it has been for decades, and peace is ensured.
"Shaman, run! I'm going to torch the lot of them!" the dragon snarled in the extremes of vexation.
"Don't do that. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I told you, I got rained out! Last time I saw you I saved your sorry ass and you promised to help me find a new hideout, remember? Aghhh! Damned crows!"
I ducked back into my cave and grabbed my two blankets. "Here, Dudalos! Hop down here!"
"Are you crazy?"
"Look, you can either accept my help or you can just flap off on your own. I don't care. Hurry up, I'm getting soaked."
The dragon leaped back into my clearing, muttering, "You're just damned lucky that crows and scrawny shamans aren't worth eating. What in the seventh ring of hell are you doing?"
"Hold still, tuck your tail around your feet," I told him, flipping one blanket across his hindquarters and the other over his folded wings. "Once the crows can't see you, they'll leave. They're not fond of this rain, either." Shrugging off my cloak, I draped it over his glittering head. "Perfect!"
Within minutes, most of the cawing had changed from "AW!" to congratulatory calls, and the flock began to disperse. "This is the most humiliating experience in all the centuries of my life," said Dudalos. "What if someone sees me like this? I'd be ruined."
"Just be thankful I don't go in for ruffled quilts, Dude. If anyone sees you, I'll tell them you're a big, lumpy horse."
"So what did you have in mind in finding me a new hangout, Shaman?"
"Well, I thought we could find you a welcome in the mountains past the Jennan Lands where I grew up, but I didn't know about this thing you have with crows."
"That's why dragons have lairs, don't you ever read your lore books? he asked waspishly.
"All my lore books said about dragons was that they talk a lot and eat people. Look, let's head out for the coast and see if we can get Cloudraft the Great to help us."
"Wonderful," said the dragon. "My bed turns into a bathtub, I'm immobilized by a bunch of stupid birds, and the best plan we can come up with is to go off to see a wizard. All I need is for you to start skipping and singing. What a life."
Traveling with a dragon was not going to be very easy, but fortunately we had one more ally: the darkness of night. At least I wouldn't have to worry about how to keep a torch lit.