6. A Wee Little Man

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Berla named her newest companion Goat-ee. It was a spirited animal with a penchant for mischievousness so unlike the gentle, big-eyed fawn with the broken leg that had wasted away before her eyes. Deep in mourning, she hadn't wanted to like the goat at first, but it had been so playful and frolicsome that she couldn't resist falling in love with it. She still thought about Doe-ee sometimes. She pictured the fawn bounding amongst the frothy white cloudbanks of paradise while her grammy looked on.

With Goatee for company, Berla didn't even notice the shortening days or falling temperature. Between the blazing bonfires and the goat's warm fleece, she was seldom cold. There was no time for boredom with Goatee around. Half her time was spent trying to keep him out of trouble and the other half cleaning up after him when she inevitably failed. The dragon, at least, was much better behaved, delivering up her favorite foods at her command. When it failed to obey, she treated it to a round scolding and a double dose of the silent treatment. She had even taught it to butcher her meat (as best it could with its enormous claws) and to change her water twice a day, heating it in the morning so she could attend to her personal hygiene in comfort.

Berla had everything she had ever dreamed of, most everything anyway. She had a quiet place she could call her own. She had a rare collection of treasures gathered from all corners of the Seven Kingdoms. She had a goat for a pet and a dragon for a guardian. And no one made fun of her. Ever.

Only occasionally, when Goatee was napping and she sat alone rubbing her fox medallion, did Berla's thoughts wander to the world outside the pit.

* * * * *

Moribus sang quietly under his breath. Even at half a mile's distance with the wind wheezing across the broken slopes, he was taking an unnecessary risk. It was said that dragons could hear a heartbeat in a hailstorm, and there was some truth to it. Still, he couldn't help himself. After eight days of huddling beneath the rocky outcrop, the sound of his own voice was the only thing that kept him within a stone's throw of sanity.

Oh, Meekleberry Sam was a wee little man

And a wee little man was he

So he climbed right up to the tippy-tuppy top

Of a bone-white sycamore tree

Yah, he climbed right up to the tippy-tuppy top

Of that big ol' sycamore tree

The better his love to see

Hey, the better his love to see

Now as the wind blows along came a crow

And perched next to Meekleberry...

As he sang, he ground up acorns and pine nuts into a tin cup, using the hilt of his knife as a pestle. The wild onions had run out the night before, and the squirrel meat had gone long before that. He would have to act soon before starvation sapped the last of his strength. If the cold didn't get to him first, that is. This high in the mountains, winter often arrived early and unannounced. Without fire or extra furs, the first hard freeze would be the end of him.

The acorn mash clumped into a gritty, clay-like mass in his mouth. It took several swigs of precious water to force it down. He might as well not have bothered for it did nothing to dull his appetite. He rubbed his arms and legs to try to keep the blood flowing. He was so cold and stiff, he wondered if rigor mortis might be setting in prematurely.

Oh, Meekleberry Sam was a meek little man

And a meek little man was he

So he climbed right in to the muddy-dubby den

Where the rats and scorpions teem

Yah, he climbed right in to the muddy-dubby den

Where the rats and scorpions teem

The better his love to ken

Hey, the better his love to ken

Now as the leaf drops, along came a fox

And crouched next to Meekleberry...

Outside, the dragon bestirred itself from the edge of the pit and languidly stretched out its wings. A minute later it was airborne, tracking east. Moribus crawled to the lip of the outcrop for a better view. In all likelihood, it was probably just heading out on another of its hunting and gathering forays. Such short, unpredictable jaunts did him little good. He calculated he would need at least two hours to reach and infiltrate its lair, throw in another hour or two for the rescue attempt. An entire afternoon, in other words. If the dragon caught him out in the open, he would be as exposed as a mouse on a tabletop.

The dragon was easyto spot in the cloudless sky. Rather than angling lower with the slope of theterrain, it put on altitude like a bird setting out on a long migration. As itdiminished to a winking ruby, not veering or doubling back, but rising everhigher into the depthless sky, Moribus's spirits began to lift with it. Hewatched it dwindle until it was only a red, flickering star. The time had comeat last.

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