The dragonet prophecy, p.21
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.21

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

  Sunny’s back spines flared up. “Do we?” she said in a voice as close to a growl as Clay had ever heard from her.

  Tsunami had already turned back to Clay. “Glory’s probably on her way to the rain forest right now. I bet she figures we’re better off without her.”

  “But that’s not true,” Clay protested. “She’s one of us. The prophecy doesn’t say we can’t care about anyone else. She’s the reason we did all this, why we escaped in the first place — doesn’t she know that?”

  “Good grief,” Tsunami said. “Is that supposed to make her feel better? All of this is her fault?”

  “No, not like that,” Clay said. “I mean, I’d do it again. I’d do all of it again, and more, and anything, to make sure she was all right. I’d do the same for any of you.” He looked down at the mud squishing through his talons. “We have to follow her. Forget the delta and my family and all that. We’ll go to the rain forest and find her, right now.”

  Frogs chirruped in the darkness around them. Sunny looked from Tsunami to Clay and back.

  “Told you so,” said Tsunami.

  “Yeah, OK,” said Glory’s voice. “You were right. For once.” Clay felt her wing tips brush against his, and her scales slowly shimmered back into sight in the moonlight. “Thanks, Clay. That was sweet.”

  “You were there the whole time?” he said, jumping back.

  “I was trying to decide if I should leave,” Glory said. “I thought you wanted me to, but Tsunami said you didn’t. I’m sorry, I was just — really mad.”

  “Well, now I’m really mad,” Clay huffed. “That was a mean trick.”

  “It was Tsunami’s idea!” Glory said. “Be mad at her.”

  “Oh, thanks,” Tsunami said.

  “I’m mad at both of you!” Clay stomped over to the river. “Come on, Sunny, let’s go plan a clever, rotten trick of our own.”

  “Clay,” Glory called after him, but she didn’t sound terribly worried. She knows I’ll always forgive her, Clay grumbled to himself. They know I can’t help it.

  “We should keep swimming anyway,” he heard Tsunami say to her.

  Sunny caught up to him at the edge of the river.

  “That was mean,” she said. “I don’t think we should trick each other like that.”

  “Next time we stop, we should shake mud all over her,” Clay suggested.

  Sunny wrinkled her snout at him. “I’m serious! You’ve always said we have to stick together. You always stop the others from fighting. You should tell them that means we have to trust each other, too. And you should tell them to be better listeners. You know, to everyone.”

  “I think they know that,” Clay said, adding another layer of mud to her scales. He was also pretty sure Glory and Tsunami would laugh at him if he started lecturing them on how to be better friends.

  Sunny sighed and climbed onto his back. They slipped into the water again, and he felt the ripples of Glory and Tsunami doing the same close behind them.

  The river seemed to get warmer as they swam south and east, toward the sea. After a while, the sun peeked over the horizon ahead of them, and they saw the glitter of vast ocean in the distance. The land rolled down like unfurling dragon wings, through scrub-covered hills of pale brown and dark green.

  Clay forgot to worry about hostile dragons in the sky; he forgot to worry about where Starflight was; he forgot to be angry at Glory. His wings beat to the rhythm of his heart, faster and faster, pushing him through the water. The Mud Kingdom was so close. His own dragons, the world he’d always imagined.

  The sound of a waterfall up ahead didn’t worry him either. He dodged the rocks jutting out of the river and called to Sunny to hang on. As the speeding current swept them over the ridge, he spread his wings and vaulted into the air.

  For a moment he was all joy, riding the wind. Ahead of him he could see the river branching into a hundred small streams as it wandered through marshes into the sea. And he could see the homes of MudWings — tall mounds made of mud, several dragons high and several more wide, jutting out of the marshes like fat brown teeth.

  Then Sunny clutched his neck with a gasp of horror, and Clay looked down.

  Right below them, between the ridge and the marshes, was a battlefield littered with dead dragons.

  Clay stayed in the air, circling the battlefield slowly. The river below the waterfall was muddy and dark with spilled blood, and it didn’t run clear again as far as his eye could see. He wasn’t getting back into that water.

  The ground was churned up into mud, but not welcoming mud — here it had blood and bones ground into it, with broken wings sticking out from large sodden lumps, like tree branches smashed by a storm. The dragon bodies were so covered in mud that they all looked like MudWings, but here and there Clay saw the bright shimmer of icy blue and the near white of desert-sand scales. One IceWing had been dropped at the base of the cliff not far from the waterfall, and the spray cast a small rainbow over his shredded silver wings and bloody scales.

  “This battle must have just happened,” Sunny said. “In the last few days, I mean. Look, some of the fires are still burning.” She leaned over his shoulder and pointed to the orange flames that dotted the muddy ground, belching ugly, foul-smelling black smoke into the sky.

  Clay swooped lower over one of the fires and saw brown-scaled limbs sticking out of the burning wreckage. He spiraled back into the sky, trying not to throw up. Those were the corpses of MudWings burning.

  Glory and Tsunami caught up to him, flying separately. Glory had abandoned the color of the river for a muted green, like grass dotted with morning dew. Tsunami’s gills flared, and her gaze darted around the battlefield. They both looked as sick as Clay felt.

  “Who do you think won?” Tsunami asked.

  “Who won?” Sunny cried. “Nobody. No one could look at this place and think, ‘hooray, we won.’ They just couldn’t.” Her voice was subdued and sad and furious all at once.

  “Blaze’s army must have attacked the MudWings,” Glory said. “See, there are IceWings and SandWings — that’s Blaze’s alliance.”

  “I bet the MudWings sent a message to Queen Scarlet asking for help,” Tsunami growled. “And I bet she decided to let them fight alone rather than interrupt her hatching-day festivities.”

  Clay could see evidence of the IceWings’ freezing breath, even now, when most of the ice would have melted. Some of the bodies below were intact, but twisted into horrific positions of agony, their mouths agape as if they’d been frozen mid-scream. Several patches of dirt glittered with tiny ice crystals, where blasts of cold air had missed and frozen the ground instead. And on some of the corpses, body parts had been sheared off in sharp, clean lines, where half a leg had been frozen and then fallen away.

  “We’re not going to find help here,” Clay realized.

  Sunny pushed herself off his back and wheeled around in front of him. “Why not?”

  “The MudWings won’t trust the four of us, all together like this,” he said. The others gathered around him, beating their wings to stay in place.

  “That’s true,” Glory said slowly. “Especially you, Tsunami. The SeaWings are on Blister’s side.”

  “I should go in alone,” Clay said. “If my parents are still alive —” He stopped, distracted by a flash of white below. His stomach heaved as he realized it was a bone with the flesh scorched off, sticking out of an unrecognizable pile of mud.

  “— you’ll have a better chance of finding them without a couple of MudWing enemies tagging along,” Tsunami finished. “But we don’t know what’s waiting for you in there. They might take you prisoner, too, like Queen Scarlet did.”

  “This isn’t where the MudWing queen lives,” Glory said. “She’s farther south, in the swamps. We’re on the outskirts of the Mud Kingdom here. Not that that mak
es it safer, I guess.”

  Clay remembered Kestrel saying something about “lowest-born” MudWings living around the delta. But he didn’t care if his parents were peasants or clodhoppers or any of those words. He didn’t need a royal family; he just wanted his family.

  “If I don’t come back by sunrise tomorrow,” he said, “come looking for me.”

  “What if you need us before then?” Sunny worried.

  “I can go with you,” Glory said suddenly. “If they figure out I’m a RainWing, nobody will care — we’re not in the war anyway. But I can also do this.” She hovered for a moment, fluttering her wings, and then brown spilled across her scales. Amber and gold glinted in the cracks and along her underbelly, and the rising sun seemed to melt her to the warmest color of earth.

  “I think you’re still too pretty to be a MudWing,” Clay said doubtfully. She was too long and graceful, and the ruff around her ears wasn’t very MudWing either, although she could fold it back until it was hard to spot. And if she kept her tail straight instead of curling it like a RainWing’s . . .

  “Nonsense,” Tsunami said. “You’re just as pretty as Glory, Clay.” Sunny nodded vigorously.

  Clay wrinkled his snout at them. “I’m not sure how to take that.”

  “Me neither,” Glory said. “Let’s just go, before the MudWings spot us all hovering suspiciously over this battlefield.”

  “We’ll wait by the waterfall. Be safe.” Tsunami wheeled up and around. Clay watched her sleek blue form fly away with Sunny hurrying after.

  “Thanks for coming with me,” he said to Glory. She shrugged, and he remembered he was supposed to be mad at her. Why couldn’t he keep things like that in his head?

  As they flew down into the marshes, Clay wondered why no one had come to bury or burn the dead on the battlefield. He couldn’t imagine leaving any dragon lying out there like that, not even enemies.

  “There,” Glory said quietly, tilting her wings. Clay saw a small circle of seven MudWings on the ground near one of the mud towers. They seemed to be practicing a formation — turning and lashing out and defending their flanks without losing their positions.

  He took a deep breath. This was it. Time to meet dragons of his own tribe.

  Wind that smelled of the sea whistled around his ears as they swooped down. Reeds bent and ducked away from the breeze of their landing. Clay felt his claws sink into wet, marshy dirt, and a shiver of joy ran along his spine.

  The MudWings heard them land and whirled around, teeth bared. Clay threw open his wings and held up his front talons, trying to look harmless.

  All seven brown dragons stared at him and Glory for a moment as if confused. Then the biggest one shifted her wings and made a dismissive noise deep in her throat. At once they all turned their backs and returned to their formation practice.

  Clay blinked at them as the dragons shifted left and darted forward one at a time, clawing at an imaginary assailant. The biggest dragon grunted orders now and then, although they sounded more like suggestions than commands. “Watch your tail on the outside — save some energy for the next thrust — don’t forget the signals from the inner wings,” she called.

  It was as if they’d forgotten Clay and Glory were there. He gave Glory a helpless look.

  “Maybe we should find someone else to ask,” he whispered.

  “AHEM.” Glory cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me.”

  The biggest dragon glanced at them, arching her brows. “Carry on,” she said to the rest of the soldiers, then slithered over to face Glory. Her thick bulk slid easily over the mud, giving her a sinuous grace even though she was as solidly built as Clay. She had patches of mud and grass plastered over several recent wounds on her sides and neck, and one of her horn tips was broken off.

  “Look, I’m sorry there’s only two of you left,” the MudWing said bluntly, “but we’re not looking to add anyone. We’ve only lost one in three years, and that’s because we’re focused, we practice every sunrise, and we don’t bring in unsibs.”

  “Unsibs?” Clay echoed. The MudWing gave him a puzzled look. Glory trod on his foot. Act like you know what they’re talking about, Clay reminded himself.

  “We’re just looking for someone,” Glory said. “A MudWing couple who lost an egg six years ago.”

  “A MudWing couple?” said the other dragon, sounding confused. Clay felt drops of morning dew dripping on him from the leaves overhead. He stirred the mud with his tail and tried to look like he stood in swamps every day. He wanted to fling himself to the ground and roll around like a new-hatched dragonet, but he had a feeling that might seem odd and undignified.

  “There was a red egg,” Glory tried. “It was stolen from around here somewhere.”

  “Stolen!” hissed the MudWing. “I’d like to see any dragon try that!” Her talons flexed open and shut ominously, squelching in the mud. Glory took a step back.

  “Or taken, anyway,” she said. “Maybe by a dragon named Asha?”

  The MudWing’s back ridges relaxed. “Oh, Asha,” she said. “That’s right. Her sister Cattail had a blood egg about six years back. But I can tell you there wasn’t any stealing involved. Indeed.” She snorted.

  Clay’s chest felt ready to burst. Cattail! His mother had a name! “Is she all right?” he asked. “Cattail? Is she still alive?”

  “Somehow,” the other dragon snorted. “That troop has no discipline. And their bigwings hasn’t been the same since Asha left. They’re down to four now.”

  It was like a different language. Clay desperately wanted to ask what a bigwings was, but he didn’t dare.

  “Where can we find her?” Glory asked.

  The MudWing raised a claw and pointed at a gap between the mounds. “They’ll still be asleep, but that troop usually bunks in the sleephouse with the hole in the side, at the end of the dry path.”

  “Thanks,” Clay said as she turned back to her formation. She didn’t answer, her focus already back on the other soldiers.

  There was a raised dirt path winding between the tall dragon mounds and swamp grasses. Clumps of reeds shushed and swished in the breeze and gnarled trees dotted the marsh. Most of the trees were covered in hanging vines, although when Clay looked closer, he could see that some of the vines were actually thick coils of crimson and olive-green snakes. The deep croak of bullfrogs warbled through the air.

  As they followed the path, Clay peered into one of the giant mud puddles, trying to spot a particularly loud bullfrog. Suddenly a pair of eyes blinked open in the middle of the mud. Clay jumped back, nearly knocking Glory into the marsh on the other side of the path.

  “Watch it!” she hissed.

  “There’s a dragon in there,” he whispered. Now he could see two ears like his sticking up behind the eyes, and two nostrils poking out of the mud in front. The eyes regarded him narrowly for a moment, then closed. The dragon sank below the mud again.

  “There’s one over here, too,” Glory whispered back. Clay turned and saw that what looked like a submerged log was actually the long, ridged back of a dragon, lying just below the surface of the mud. His nose rested on a rock, his eyes were closed, and he was snoring softly.

  “Gosh, they look comfortable,” Clay said.

  Glory shuddered. “I could never sleep in mud. My dreams would be full of quicksand and mosquitoes and goopy muck that would never wash off.”

  Now that they were looking, they saw more submerged dragons in every mud pool. The sun was climbing the sky. As the rays spread across the swamp, some of the dragons began to rise up from the mud, opening their wings and basking in the warmth. Others emerged from the mounds through low doorways hacked out of the muddy bases.

  None of them took any notice of Clay or Glory, which struck him as odd. The dragons seemed uninterested in strangers in their midst. He noticed that they
stayed in their troops, each somewhere between five and nine dragons, talking only to the other MudWings in their own group. One group of six all came out of the same mound and then formed a circle around it, stretching their wings and necks and tails in unison.

  Another group of eight dragons bubbled up from the shallows of a muddy lake and took to the sky, one at a time, following the biggest in a large swoop around the swamp. After a few moments of circling, the leader dove into the reeds and rose up again with a crocodile thrashing in his talons. He landed on an island of dry ground, and all eight dragons began to rip up and eat the crocodile together.

  “The scrolls never said anything about this. We didn’t have any really good scrolls about MudWing life. But maybe they’re like army troops,” Glory guessed. “You stick with your own soldiers. Maybe that’s what makes them such strong fighters, because they have these little loyal units within the army.”

  “Maybe,” Clay said. He liked how close the dragons within each group were. But it made him nervous that no one had greeted him and Glory or asked who they were or anything. Still, once his mother knew who he was, surely he’d be welcomed with open wings.

  He twisted to look around the village and finally met a pair of eyes — the only ones looking his way. They were a shade of pale amber, and they belonged to a small MudWing with a healing mud patch stuck across his nose. His horns were not yet full grown, but he wasn’t a very young dragonet either. He was staring at Clay curiously, boldly. Clay smiled and waved a wing at him.

  The little MudWing blinked and darted back into his mound.

  The path led under one of the trees heavy with snakes and away from the center of the village, toward an area of the swamp where there were fewer, more isolated mounds. After a short walk, the path ended at a lake filled with swaying reeds. Next to the lake was a lopsided mound with a crumbling hole toward the top, as if a dragon had punched through the mud in a rage at some point.

  Clay found himself holding his breath as they got closer. Was this where he should have hatched? It was much warmer and wetter than the cold, bare cave under the mountain. But there was a heavy smell of rotting vegetation and no sign of life from the last mound. They paused outside of it, glancing at the stagnant reed-choked water in the lake.

 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll