When you camp for the night, and get ready to have your evening meal, you really ought to make sure you know with whom you're about to share your fire.
"If I may be so bold," said Narsai, the bewitched baboon, "may I ask how long a shower like this lasts in this land?"
Cranky with the incessant pouring rain, Danner replied, "Until summer. That's why they call this 'the rainy season'."
Missing her sarcasm, the cheerful baboon continued conversationally, "In the place from which I was taken, we also had times of rain. But the clouds walked over the world politely, staying only long enough to fill the waterholes. This cloud does not wish to end its visit. Are there many days until summer?"
"Three moons," said Danner, watching her feet as we moved stone to stone, tree to tree, through the woods to higher ground away from the flooding valley creek. "Long enough to melt the hair off your butt."
"Don't mind Danner," I told the baboon after looking up at the sky. "She's exaggerating. The rain will stop in a couple days."
First Narsai, and then his shivering little brother shook themselves. "Narsai, my fur isn't fluffing anymore when I shake."
Marjorie the raccoon tugged at Danner's pants leg. "Can you carry our clothes in your pack? Guillaume is right, our fur needs to fluff out."
None of us would have been traveling in such slop if we weren't fleeing to Oceanwind Castle to see the wizard Cloudraft about reversing the spell that gifted both the raccoons and the baboons with human speech. However, uncomfortable as the weather was, the down-pour was our natural ally -- in case Rocklift the Mage and her dunderhead apprentice decided to hunt us down in return for our meddling. Which was likely, as Dan Ur-Jennan and I didn't meddle lightly: we shut Rocklift's talking animal factory down completely.
"Aser, this little guy is going to fall ill if we don't dry out," Danner said, wrapping her cloak around the younger baboon. "There's got to be some overhang or a hollow tree or something."
The raccoons and I climbed higher on the rocky hill. A little creek cascaded over rocks in our path, and Marjorie dipped her paws in it, rubbed them together, licked them and said, "Shaman, this comes out of a cave!"
"Marjorie, go tell Danner we're checking for shelter. Fisher," I said to her mate, "I may need you to translate if we find a cave with a bear in it." He saluted me (where did he pick that gesture up?) and bounded up the creek.
There was a cave, and it was fine and big and dry, except, of course for the little stream that issued from it. The shape looked like someone just took a big, deep scoop out of the hill, though the darkness at the back suggested caverns beyond. The floor of the cave was covered by fist-sized stones, crude but definitely purposeful cobbling -- a regular shelter for someone.
"I smell snakes," Marjorie said, smacking her lips and showing her teeth. "Don't worry, Fisher and I will find them. And we can share, too."
By the time Danner and the baboons were led to the cave, I had a small fire going. The baboons immediately drew close to the flames and began grooming, while the raccoons hunted through the environs of the cave, puzzled by the lack of snakes. Disappointed, they took a little burlap sack and set off into the trees to hunt.
The forest fell startlingly silent, except for the sound of the rain.
About three tons of orangey-green dragon landed right outside the cave. The monster shook himself and stepped inside the cave, the tail whipping in and pelting us with droplets. The dragon's head darted to within inches of our faces as we plastered our backs against the wall. "Well, well, well. Made yourselves quite at home, haven't you?" He leaned across the little fire I'd made, impervious to the heat, sniffing and examining us. "How is it that Ur-Jennan tattoos reek of wizardry as well as their shaman smell?"
"I'm apprenticed to Cloudraft the Great," whispered Danner, watching the dragon's talons testing the fabric of her tunic. She cleared her throat. "Uhh, he's a powerful wizard ... "
"And, and ...?" prompted the glittering creature. "I can tell he's not here or you wouldn't be so scared. So what is the apprentice doing wandering about without the master?"
Danner fell silent, so I spoke. "We're taking these baboons to Cloudraft -- they've been spelled by unscrupulous mages and I need his help to free them."
The dragon turned his blazing regard to the furry primates, nose brushing their pelts. He yawned in their faces, showing his forked tongue and rows of stony teeth.
"Owwwahh! Crocodilians!" howled Narsai, wrapping his arms around Guillaume. He pressed against the wall, shielding his brother's eyes and shutting his own.
The dragon sat back on his haunches. "This is your whole party for this campaign?" he asked skeptically. The tip of his tail flapped in annoyance on the cobblestones. "Do you at least have some lizardmen hunting for you? I enjoy the visits of lizardmen," the creature sighed wistfully. "Taste just like chicken."
"Have you just returned from hunting, then, and are packed full and satiated with humble villagers and livestock?" I asked. "Too stuffed to resist toying with your dessert?"
"Aren't you the smartass," the dragon remarked, curving his neck to peer at me the better.
The third favorite pastime of dragons (after eating and terrorizing) is chatting. Dragons are the longest-lived busybodies in existence, eager for the latest court gossip (any court, it doesn't matter which) and fascinated by current fashions in jewelry. Any decent book of lore will tell you that if you can keep a dragon interested in a conversation, you have a good chance of surviving the encounter.
"If we're going to be eaten," I said, "I'm going to go down talking. But it seems to me that if you were hungry, you'd have eaten us already."
"You're wrong, Bigmouth. I'm just reviewing my options. Let's see, I could eat you up, making a mess in my cave to attract buzzards and knights errant and get hunted down and killed over a meager lunch. Or I could carry you off as an appetizer and keep my cave clean and innocuous, but then your damned wizard would avenge his apprentice and I still would get killed over a lousy lunch. Or I could just kick you out and you could blab to all your friends about the kindly dragon in the cave in the mountains and they can grab their pitchforks and torches and hunt me down and kill me for not having shut you up by eating you for a light lunch. You see my dilemma."
"What if we promise not to betray your hiding place?" Danner asked. "We're better at keeping our mouths shut than we may seem."
"And I suppose you worthy little do-gooders and your magical monkeys were just out for a picnic in this monsoon? Draconian is not synonymous with stupid. You're on the run, and your pursuers will eventually find you, and find my hideout on their way." The dragon held out a taloned front leg. "Hand over the knives and your big sticks. I don't think I have to worry about you biting me to death."
The dragon placed the items against the far wall, then had a long look out the front of the cave. Seeing no one in the sheets of rain that still pounded the forest, he turned his attention back to us. "Sit down, warm up the skinny little one before he knocks the walls down with his shivering."
"Nice cobbling job on the floor," I ventured. "The stones keep you from leaving tracks, and don't hold a lot of scent, right?"
"Exactly," said the brassy-scaled behemoth. "You see, I only sleep here, and try not to let anyone spot me flying in. When I do go hunting, I make sure that my prey is devoured far from here -- nothing gives a hideout away like bones all over the place."
"That's rather inconvenient for you, isn't it?" Danner said while rubbing Guillaume's fur with the end of her blanket.
"People are inconvenient for me!" roared the dragon. "My lineage lived in these mountains since before your clans were founded. Once upon a time all we had to do was bask in the sun and swallow down a stag or bear now and then, maybe dig a little gold and silver straight from the lode. Or make the occasional raid to relieve some tyrant of his wealth just for a lark. I ought to have a regular villa of a cave with wall to wall gold and silver to wallow in, but instead I have to be content with rocks." He pried one up from the floor and pitched it out into the rain. "If I had so much as a string of pearls I'd have half the population of the continent tracking me down to take it away."
"Maybe the bad press dragons get for devouring whole villages has something to do with it," I said dryly. "In fact that's why the lands of Ur are mostly forest, to keep out of sight of giant flying reptilian marauders."
"Marauders? Why do you call us the marauders when you humans moved into our territory, and replaced the game with fat, juicy cattle and pigs? We were once willing to live and let live, but what do people think we eat? Persimmons?"
"So you're saying that the 'Dragon Ingests Municipality' stories are propaganda?" Danner questioned cynically. "Dragons don't eat people?"
"There are nice dragons and there are not-so-nice dragons," he told her. "Just as there are good people and bad people. And there's probably less crossover action among dragons than among you twitty little humans. As to eating people, I would have to gnash down at least four of you to get the same nutritive value as your basic steer would provide. I find people-eating not cost-effective."
Danner and I looked at the beast in wonder and confusion. The fear of being killed by a mythical monster had left us a little drained; and yet I was actually beginning to like this creature who had managed to sequester himself successfully for so long.
"Are you hypnotized by the rain?" the dragon demanded. "Say something! Talk is all you humans are good for! Read any good books lately?"
"You're lonely," I said, amazed.
"Don't start with the psychoanalysis, Shaman. Give me some information, some news -- even though I've probably heard it all before."
"I've learned enough about magic to cleanse a house of cockroaches," Danner offered.
"A marvelous subject! Dragons know a little of magic themselves, why don't you tell me about your studies," the beast said, relaxing. "What do they teach nowadays? How to make animals talk?" He looked at Narsai.
"No, but that's a story in itself. You want to hear it?" asked Danner.
"Of course, Idiot, that's why I want you to speak! Talk to me like you were Entertainment Tonight and Fox News all in one."
Danner frowned, then shook her head as if to clear it. She stood up, the better to wave her arms. "There's this mage named Rocklift, okay, who knows how to do glamour spells. She can make a person look like whoever they want to look like, or make them appear however they want -- like making a flat-chested dame appear a busty wench to all who see her. Kind of like a magical mask, if you know what I mean."
"I'm familiar with the concept," the dragon said. "Go on. And you went to her to have what done to you?"
"No, no! She could make every village-woman look like The Page Five Girl for all I care -- it was her apprentice that was causing the problem! He had a gift for making animals talk, and she was going to use him to sell pets and animal servants capable of speech. We went to tell her to stop it."
The dragon turned to Narsai, who was still trying to appear invisible while he groomed his brother's damp and matted hair. "Were you going to be a pet or a servant, Monkey?"
"I, Most Impressive of Flying Crocodilians, am not a monkey. We are baboons, the most forthright and organized of all primates. We alone have true fangs (though not as grand as yours, by any means) and when we wage war, we do it openly, not in stealth and cannibalism as do the tailless chimpanzee and gorilla." Narsai blinked slowly, to show his light eyelids in disgust. "I was to be a slave, Crocodile, and do laundry for my survival, as was my brother. Have we made our escape into the wild only to be eaten?"
"I like the way this guy talks," said the dragon to Danner and me. "You could be as courteous and eloquent."
What Danner said in reply made the dragon's eye-ridges rise in astonishment. "How vulgar. Does your master know you say things like that?"
"Yeah, he hears certain expressions every time he tells me I can't go adventuring or I can't wear pants instead of dresses in the castle or I can't tell Lady Seaguard to get off my case. I'm not a slave, a servant, or a pet, but an apprentice isn't much better off."
"I understand that to be true, apprentices to wizards are treated very unfairly. As though they were some kind of sub-species." The dragon nodded thoughtfully. "I can commiserate, as dragons are now also so limited in what they can do nowadays that they might as well be pet parrots, their lives like a prison sentences."
"Exactly," Danner agreed. "Like being a chicken in a coop."
"Like being a rat in a cage."
"A ferret with a hip-leash."
"A cormorant with a neck-collar." The dragon shook his bronzey head. "What a world."
"My name's Dan Ur-Jennan," she said, offering a hand.
"Dudalos," said the dragon, shaking her hand with his right front foot. "I can tell we're kindred spirits."
With Danner's impulsive handshake, we were off the hook, so to speak; the dragon wouldn't eat a comrade. Dragon and human, they had reached a point in their conversation at which they realized they were not that different after all. Both would just as soon go crashing about the countryside causing trouble, both would rather steal sparkly things than sit and churn butter, both would prefer lively conversation to silence or sententious lecture. True, the dragon could breathe fire, but then Danner could swear so volubly that her listeners could nearly have the hair singed off their heads in shock. They were both fearless and formidable, reckless and yet constrained to behave themselves. I hoped they didn't decide to team up, as it would mean the ruin of them both, if not of us all.
But it's a funny kind of magic that occurs when people discover that they have a common understanding of life. Sometimes it's a simple thing, as when two schoolchildren discover that they both enjoy reading the tales in the big leather book kept in the classroom, and after school they find a new level of friendship as they ask each other what was their favorite part of the story; sometimes the magic is as complex as the young men of the village looking around after a battle and finding themselves not only alive, but victorious. Before the attacker's cavalry charged, they were uneducated kerns told to hold wooden pikes at an angle to defend against horsed soldiers. No one thought they'd be successful or that they'd survive, but the new life, the success, and the common experience send them to gripping each others' arms and laughing at the mud spattered on their faces, calling each other "filthy pikers" and promising to always stand shoulder to shoulder.
"You know what I really miss?" asked the dragon of Danner. "Beach vacations. All the waterfront property is taken any more and a dragon can't lie out long enough to finish a margarita without some knight being sicked on him."
Danner sputtered. "Tell me about it! Lady Seaguard has her fashion police with their eyes on the shore every minute of the day or night. A lay-dee has to have herself covered from neck to ankles with enough cloth that you can't tell the lay-dee from an umbrella! Now how are you supposed to swim in that?"
Dudalos cackled, "Maybe she wants you to drown!"
"Dude," reposted Danner, "maybe they want you to put on a swimsuit!"
They laughed and elbowed each other, at ease. My only concern was what might happen when the rain stopped, and Danner had to take her leave. But then again, that's the test of friendship, isn't it?