1. Fozzy

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The days that passed in the wake of her capture were some of the most miserable of Berla's generally miserable life. It wasn't the loneliness that bothered her. Loneliness was an old, if tiresome, companion. Nor was it the fear of death. To the contrary, meeting a violent end at the claws of the dragon held a certain tragic allure. It wasn't even the hunger, though it devoured her day by day. But there were other times when the hunger receded to a dull throb and her thoughts came wandering back like orphaned children with no place to go. What will you do now? they chorused mockingly. Slow Berla. Fat Berla. Useless Berla. Hurry up and die. Who's going to miss you?

At the bakery there had always been some task waiting for her able hands to perform. Even now, a week after her capture, a mental hourglass turned over in her head, telling her when it was time to put a batch of bread in the oven or take one out. Sometimes she would reflexively swaddle her hands in her dress to form makeshift oven mitts. Without anything to grip, they gawped open like the mouths of baby birds longing to be fed. At night, she was visited by nightmares of unborn loaves blackening in the oven. Every morning, she woke up anxious, feeling that some disaster was upon her.

As one day blended into the next, a dull lethargy began to set in. The only thing she had ever been good at was baking, and if she couldn't do that any longer, what was left for her to do? Even Berla knew the answer to that question. Nothing. And that was exactly what she did.

Berla wished her grammy was there. If there were two things her grammy couldn't tolerate, it was glumness and moping. Each day, she told Berla when she could play and when she must cook, sweep, gather wood and go to town. As Berla grew older, her grammy directed her less and less, but her voice was ever in her head, instructing her. Time to go to town. Today is Tuesday, beef stew day. I need to buy carrots, onions, potatoes and peas—and half a pound of beef trimmings please. And if farmer Blackstone tried to charge her three coppies instead of two for a pair of fist-sized potatoes, Berla would tell him, My grammy says I pay two coppies for potatoes. And if they were all out of peas that day or the carrots were twisted and runty, she would go back home and her grammy would sort things out. Her grammy had an answer for everything.

Berla tried praying to her grammy though she doubted she could hear her all the way up there in Rho; sometimes she hadn't even been able to hear from across a room. She prayed to Rhojë too. After all, if anyone could get a message to her grammy, she figured it was the All-Maker. That evening, when a storm rolled in and thunder pealed across the mountains, Berla imagined that Rhojë was talking out loud just like the holy man said he could. The mountains tremble at the sound of the All-Maker's voice, she recalled from one of his sermons. Little of what he said made sense, but that line had been so oddly grandiose it lodged in her memory. But just when Berla's spirits were starting to lift, a cold drizzle fell, chilling her to the bone. And still her grammy gave no reply.

Little did she know that a heavenly sign was being borne to her from on high.

* * * * *

Having dropped the carrier beast into the smoke-hole of the largest nest, Morg flew a wide loop and took up position on a hilltop some distance away. Though the line of trees provided imperfect cover (magnificence and subterfuge not being complementary traits), the manlings failed to spot him. If there was one thing he could count on, it was their lack of perspicacity.

First in a trickle and then in a flood, manlings poured from the smaller nests to swarm in front of the larger one. Like termites, their humble nests concealed deceptively large numbers. There were various kinds in evidence: workers, breeders and larvae in various stages of development. Disappointingly, he spied no soldiers among them.

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