The dragonet prophecy, p.22
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.22
 

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “This must be what that dragon called a sleephouse,” Glory said. “So I guess your mother’s in there?”

  “Cattail,” Clay said quietly, trying out the word.

  They sat on the path for a moment. “Aren’t you going to go in?” Glory asked.

  Clay didn’t really love the idea of sticking his head into a dark mud tower full of strange dragons. “I’m sure someone will come out soon —” he started, and just then a wide, flat snout poked out of the doorway. A pair of yellow eyes glared at him.

  “It’s a pair of dragonets,” growled the MudWing. “Chattering like crows while we’re trying to sleep.”

  “Well, get rid of them!” roared a voice from inside the mound.

  “I’m sorry,” Clay stammered. “We didn’t mean to be loud. We’re looking for Cattail.” He hoped fervently that this wasn’t his father.

  The dragon squinted at him, then withdrew into the mound. They heard grumbling and grunts and wings flapping, as if the MudWings inside were scrunching around to let one of them climb over the others.

  At last a thin brown dragon scrambled out into the open. She shook out her wings, which had dappled patterns of paler brown scales, and frowned down at Clay and Glory.

  “Yes?” she said. “What do you want?”

  Clay’s talons felt rooted to the ground. He couldn’t believe it. After all of his imagining and wondering and hoping, here he was — finally face-to-face with his own mother.

  Clay could only open and close his mouth silently. Glory rolled her eyes and jumped in.

  “Are you Cattail?” she asked. “Asha’s sister?”

  The dappled dragon gave a little hiss and ducked her head. “Yes,” she said. “Who are you?”

  Glory poked Clay hard with one of her talons. He blurted, “I’m Clay. I think I’m your son.”

  Cattail stared at him. Her eyes were brown like his, but with a ring of yellow around the black slit of a pupil. He waited, his heart pounding. He’d imagined this moment a thousand times. In The Missing Princess, this was when the joy and feasting began.

  “So?” Cattail said.

  Clay guessed she hadn’t heard him right. “I think you’re my mother,” he said.

  “Those would seem connected,” said Cattail. “And?”

  “You don’t understand,” Glory said. “This is the dragonet you lost six years ago.”

  Cattail’s claws slowly stirred the mud underneath her. “I haven’t lost any dragonets.” She didn’t look confused or worried or pleased. Mostly she looked like she was putting up with this conversation until they let her go back to sleep.

  Clay had no idea what to say.

  “Listen,” Glory said. “Maybe we got this wrong. Clay hatched from a blood-red egg that was taken from somewhere around here six years ago by a dragon named Asha. He’s come back looking for —”

  “Oh, that egg,” Cattail said with a yawn. “Asha got all excited about that. Don’t know why; the village has a red egg every few years or so. But I didn’t lose it.”

  “What happened to it?” Clay managed to ask.

  “We sold it to the Talons of Peace,” Cattail said. She gave them a look that was suddenly sharp and furtive. “Does this mean they want the cows back? Because they can’t have them. I know we were supposed to breed them, but we ate them, so too bad.”

  “You sold me?” Clay cried. He felt like long claws were slashing through his chest.

  “Why not?” Cattail asked. “There were six other eggs in the hatching. They didn’t need you.” She pulled a stray duck feather out from between her talons. “Asha didn’t tell you any of this?”

  “Asha’s dead,” Glory said. “She died trying to keep Clay’s egg safe.”

  “Dead?” Now Cattail finally looked upset. “I told her not to leave us! Our bigwings will be furious.” She flicked her tongue out and in with a growl. “I guess it serves her right, choosing the Talons over us.”

  “She was trying to help fulfill the prophecy,” Glory snapped. “At least the Talons care about something besides themselves.” Clay would have laughed if he hadn’t felt so crushed. That was the nicest thing Glory had ever said about the Talons of Peace.

  “That’s Asha, all right,” Cattail said. “She was always softhearted and mushy about crazy things. She loved mooning around little dragonets, telling the story of that prophecy. She left a lot of blithering, obsessed dreamy-eyed dragons behind in this village, let me tell you; they still won’t shut up about destiny and peace and all that.”

  Dragons did not cry easily, and Clay had never shed tears in his whole life, no matter how much Kestrel had hurt him with words or claws. But now, suddenly, he had a glimpse of what their life could have been like if Asha had lived. She would have been one more dragon under the mountain to take care of them — but this one kind and affectionate, idealistic and hopeful. A guardian who would have given them faith in the prophecy and themselves. A counterbalance for Kestrel’s harshness.

  He had never spent much time thinking about Asha, the dragon who brought in his egg, but now his chest ached with sadness that she was dead and he had never known her. He realized that he was dangerously close to tears, and he could just imagine how his mother would react to that.

  “What about my father?” Clay asked, steeling his voice. “Didn’t he try to stop you from selling me?”

  Cattail threw her head back and laughed, a high croaking sound like a thousand bullfrogs yelling at once. “You really don’t know anything about MudWings, do you?” she said when she could catch her breath again. “I don’t even know who your father was. And he certainly doesn’t care. We have breeding night once a month and then everyone goes back to their own sleephouses. No, dear, there’s no father here for you.”

  “And no mother either, apparently,” Glory said coldly.

  But Cattail just nodded, untroubled. “That’s right,” she said. “I wish you luck, but there’s no room in our troop for clingy little dragonets.”

  Her voice was matter-of-fact. Clay could see that she wasn’t trying to be mean, but it still hurt worse than anything he’d ever felt — more than Kestrel’s taunts and attacks, more than the IceWing’s claws in his back, more than seeing Sunny in a cage or knowing Peril had betrayed them. He felt all his dreams thudding like stones inside his stomach.

  He’d always believed there was someone out in the world waiting for him. He’d imagined finding his mother and father and how it would be just like the story. None of the scrolls they’d studied had talked about MudWing families, but he knew NightWings and SeaWings had mothers and fathers, so he’d always assumed all the dragon tribes were the same way.

  It had never occurred to him that no one would even know who his father was. And he certainly hadn’t expected his own mother to care so little, or to send him away as soon as she met him.

  Another thing Asha could have warned me about, he thought bitterly. If she’d lived, she could have told him how things were in the Mud Kingdom and saved him a lot of useless dreaming.

  “Come on, Clay,” Glory said, tugging on his wing. She steered him back toward the mud village. Clay’s scales felt as heavy as boulders. His tail dragged slowly behind him.

  “You tell the Talons,” Cattail called after them, “that we made a deal! No matter what happened, they can’t have those cows back!”

  “Do you want to try talking to anyone else?” Glory asked as they reached the village. “Maybe she’s wrong, and your father would want to know you.”

  Clay shook his head. “There’s no point,” he said. “I don’t have a place here.”

  Suddenly Glory stopped with a hiss. She pointed to the clearing ahead and darted under the nearest low-hanging vines. Clay hurried after her.

  A burly SandWing was stamping his feet in the center of the mud village, trying to shake
off the wet mud that clung to his claws. He was missing an ear and a couple of teeth, and he grimaced at the two MudWings in front of him.

  “What?” he bellowed. “Speak up!”

  One of the MudWings raised his voice. “I said we haven’t seen anyone like that.”

  “You sure?” said the SandWing. “There’ll be four of them. A MudWing, a RainWing, a SeaWing, and a kind of SandWing-looking thing.”

  The MudWing wrinkled his snout. “No,” he said. “I assure you we would have noticed a SeaWing, a RainWing, or a … ‘SandWing-looking thing’ strolling through our sleephouses.”

  The SandWing snorted, as if he doubted that was true. “Well,” he said, “if you do spot them, let Queen Burn know right away.”

  Both of the MudWings bowed their heads politely. “Of course.”

  Glory and Clay ducked farther under the tree as the SandWing took to the sky. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Glory whispered.

  “I forgot the MudWings are on Burn’s side,” said Clay. “We’re lucky Cattail didn’t know Burn was looking for us. She would have turned me over in a heartbeat.” He didn’t feel lucky, though. He felt perfectly miserable.

  “Let’s go around the village,” Glory said, slithering back toward the waving reeds. Almost at once, she sank in a pool of mud up to her belly. “Oh, urrrrrgh,” she groaned.

  Clay saw a snout poke out of the swamp a short distance away. The dragon gave them a suspicious look.

  “Remember to act like a MudWing,” he whispered, sliding into the mud beside Glory. “Mmmmmm, mud!”

  “Yaaay,” Glory said unenthusiastically. She floundered a few more steps into the reeds, spattering mud all across her wings.

  This was going to be a long walk at that pace. Clay checked the sky. “All right, he’s out of sight. We can fly back to the others.”

  He wriggled out of the mud onto a dry island and hauled Glory up beside him. They both shook their wings to get the biggest clumps off, and then they leaped, quickly clearing the trees. Clay spotted the river winding toward the cliff to their left and banked in that direction. He was ready to leave the Mud Kingdom behind him forever.

  “Hey!” a voice shouted behind them. “You, dragonets! Stop!”

  Panic shot through Clay and he sped up, flapping his wings frantically. Glory soared up beside him.

  “Stop!” she whispered. “If we run, they’ll know there’s something wrong.”

  Clay knew she was right, but it was almost impossibly hard to swing around and fly back toward the MudWing village and the voice that had called after them.

  Five dragons were hovering in the sky, watching them intently. As they drew close to each other, Clay realized that they were dragonets, not yet full-grown. The biggest one was a bit smaller than Clay, with warm golden-amber eyes and a recent claw-mark wound on his tail. The smallest was the dragon with the patch on his nose who had stared at Clay in the village.

  “Hey,” Clay said to them. He hoped he sounded casual and nonthreatening. “We were just leaving.”

  The MudWing dragonets glanced at each other. The biggest one said, “We heard you were asking about a blood egg from one of Cattail’s hatchings.”

  “That’s right,” Glory said.

  “Do you know what happened to it?” the smallest MudWing blurted. “Did it hatch? Who came out? Where’s the dragonet?”

  Glory poked Clay with her tail before he could respond. “Who’s asking?” she said.

  “I’m Reed,” said the biggest dragonet. “This is Sora, Pheasant, Marsh, and Umber.” The smallest one, Umber, had his eyes fixed on Clay again. The other three kept checking the sky with nervous expressions.

  “I’m Clay, and this is Glory,” Clay answered. Pheasant tilted her head at Glory.

  “That’s not a normal MudWing name,” she said. Oops, Clay thought.

  “I didn’t choose it,” Glory said with a shrug that lifted her up and down in the air currents.

  “Did one of you hatch from the blood egg?” asked Reed. “Are you our missing sib?”

  “Sib!” Clay said suddenly. “Siblings! That’s what everyone keeps talking about!” He launched himself forward and gripped Reed’s front talons. “Is that what you mean? Were we in the same hatching?”

  “I knew it!” Umber yelped. “I knew he had a familiar feeling! I told you!” He bundled into Marsh and nearly knocked them both out of the air.

  “You’re our brother,” Reed said with a grin that warmed Clay to the tips of his claws. “You should have been with us all along.”

  “He’s not just our brother,” Pheasant pointed out. “Look at him. He should be our bigwings.”

  The grin faded from Reed’s face as he studied Clay from wing tips to talons. “That’s true,” he said.

  Clay wanted to bring that grin back. He didn’t understand what was wrong. He pointed to a clear island in the marshes below. “Let’s talk,” he said.

  His brothers and sisters couldn’t believe how little he knew about MudWing life, but they were happy to explain it all to him, their words tumbling over one another. The five of them coiled together naturally in the tall grass, tails and talons and wings entwined, with Umber climbing up their backs and standing on heads to make himself heard.

  They told him that MudWing dragons laid their eggs in warm mud nests protected by walls of hot rocks. They were so safe that the mother never needed to check on them, and the dragonets were usually born when she wasn’t even there. The firstborn was always the biggest, and his or her first task was to help the other dragonets out of their eggs by cracking their shells from the outside.

  As they came to this part of the explanation, Glory gasped. She turned to Clay. “That’s what it was!” she said. “When we hatched — the guardians didn’t know anything about MudWings, so they thought you were attacking us. But you were trying to help. Your instinct told you to get the rest of us out of our shells. Clay, you know what this means? You weren’t trying to kill us at all.”

  Clay felt like he was filling up with warm summer clouds. Kestrel was wrong, all wrong about him, and she always had been. His strength wasn’t for killing and violence; it was for protecting his brothers and sisters. He wasn’t destined to be a monster. He wasn’t a killer deep inside somewhere.

  He was a bigwings.

  He crossed his tail over Glory’s and smiled at her, too happy to speak.

  “So from then on, the bigwings takes care of all the others,” Pheasant said, nudging Reed with affection. “Some of them can be pretty bossy or too weak, but we got a good one.” She stopped, realizing what she’d said. “I mean … you would have been good, too, I’m sure. . . .”

  Reed tugged up a clump of marsh grass and started shredding it without looking at Clay. “And then we all stick together,” he said. “For always. We learn to hunt and survive together, we grow up together, and we live together for the rest of our lives. And when we’re at war, we all fight as a group. Every MudWing troop is a hatching of siblings. Except for the ones who’ve lost too many, and then they try to find unsibs to form a new troop with.”

  Pheasant glanced around at the others — wriggling Umber, silent Sora, nervous, twitching Marsh — as if she would rather die than replace them with unsibs who weren’t her own brothers and sisters.

  “How many have you — have we lost?” Clay asked.

  “Two,” said Reed. “You, and our sister Crane, two days ago in the battle by the cliff.” He nodded in the direction of the waterfall. Clay’s insides twisted as he realized one of the dead bodies he’d flown over had been his own sister.

  “That was our first battle,” Sora said softly.

  “It was awful,” Umber added.

  Reed sighed heavily. “I was not the bigwings I wanted to be.”

  “You were!” the others all proteste
d at once. “You were amazing, Reed,” Pheasant said firmly.

  “We’d all be dead if it weren’t for you,” Marsh agreed. They all had the same expression as they looked at Reed. Clay could see it was trust — faith that their bigwings would take care of them, no matter what happened.

  “But it’s all right now,” Reed said. “Because you’re back, and you should be our bigwings.” He glanced sidelong at Clay, and in his amber eyes Clay could see all the worries he’d ever felt himself … all the fears for his friends, all the things he’d done and would do to protect them, all the ferocity of how much he cared about them.

  Clay cared about his real brothers and sisters, too, although he’d only just met them. He felt instinctively like they were extensions of his own claws and wings. This was the family he’d always wanted.

  And if he stayed, it would tear them apart.

  He could see it in their eyes — they wanted him and were afraid of him at the same time. If he became their bigwings, what would happen to their loyalty to Reed? What would happen to Reed himself, forced to follow him but desperate to protect them his own way?

  Clay didn’t know anything about MudWing life, or troop formations, or even how to hunt in a swamp. How could he lead them into battle? It would never be like the closeness they had with Reed, no matter how hard they all tried.

  There was only one way to protect his siblings, he realized. If he was really their bigwings, he had to leave them — and leave Reed as their bigwings, the way he’d always been. He would keep them safe better than Clay ever could, and their sibs would not be forced to choose between them.

  Glory was looking at him, too.

  Clay shook his head. “No,” he said to his brothers and sisters. “Reed is your bigwings. You trust him and you need him. I couldn’t replace him, even if I tried.”

  His brother raised his head, pride warring with disbelief on his face. The other dragonets looked relieved and sad at the same time.

 
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