The Shadeback

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Chapter 2: The Hatchling

After Zenatheus coaxed the baby dragon out of the hearth with a chunk of meat, it curled up beside the fire (after eating the bit of venison).

Thomas studied it from a safe distance. “I think it’s asleep, Master.” He was grinning ear to ear, his excitement uncontainable.

“Mm-hmm,” murmured Zenatheus. He, too, looked at the creature closely (but not too closely) and summoned a journal from thin air. He flipped it open at a ribbon-marked page and held it before his face, almost as if comparing something written or drawn on it to the dragon.

The dragonet’s nostrils flared as it breathed and its side rose and fell quickly. Its scales – the color of a stormcloud and detailed with darker, triangular stripes down its back, tail, and neck – were a fine grain. They almost looked like leather. Its snout and belly were pinkish, rather like a young horse’s, and it was hardly bigger than a cat and slept somewhat like one.

“What shall we name it?” Thomas whispered.

Zenatheus glanced at him and set his book down on his lap, not bothering to place the ribbon again. The sorcerer was sitting in one of the chairs by the table while Thomas sat on the maroon carpet with his legs tucked underneath him and his hands splayed firmly on the floor. His apprentice looked as if he was yearning to pet the dragon but didn’t dare (though he leaned in close and stared at it adoringly).

Ragwort meowed plaintively and jumped up without warning onto Zenatheus, who started. She curled up on his knees. He rescued his journal just in time and set it on the arm of his chair. “Whatever you like,” the old man said kindly, and began to stroke Ragwort, who started to purr.

“Thanks!” hissed Thomas, looking like he’d won the lottery, then hesitated. “Do you think it’s a girl or a boy?”

“No ears,” said Zenatheus flatly. “Boy.”

“Okay,” Thomas accepted, and fell silent, furrowing his silver eyebrows in concentration. Several minutes passed, during which the only sounds were the baby dragon’s rapid breathing, the crackling of the fire and Ragwort’s haphazard droning.

Finally Thomas mumbled, “What about Shadeback?”

Zenatheus stiffened. Ragwort hissed. “What made you come up with that?” he demanded, the beginnings of a snarl embedded somewhere in his voice.

“His stripes look like the shade cast by tree branches,” Thomas explained, unaware of his master’s (or his master’s cat’s) reaction.

Zenatheus detected honesty in his apprentice’s words. Nevertheless one of his bushy white eyebrows arched.

The sorcerer felt more concern than suspicion. He quickly lost himself to his mind.

He named the hatchling Shadeback… he can't possibly know... but how? How is this possible? What terrible forces are at work here -- and what horrid fate awaits this dragon?

Oblivious to his master’s dark thoughts, Thomas leaned even closer to Shadeback, who squirmed nearer to the flickering hearth in his sleep.

When the hatchling woke he noticed at first that something curious and pale was inching towards him. This was Thomas’s trembling hand, which stopped moving when Shadeback lifted his head with misgiving.

Zenatheus perceived this and, without looking away from his cat, grumbled, “Petting him is unwise. You will be bitten by strong gums.”

Thomas swallowed but did not move his hand away.

Shadeback whimpered when the thing did not withdraw. He did not understand how it had gotten there, why it had stopped moving when it had moved before, or even how it had done it.

Thomas sympathized but, not knowing what troubled the dragon, gingerly moved his hand closer until it was about an inch from the hatchling’s nose.

Shadeback ceased whimpering and became curious. Warmth radiated from the mysterious object. It also smelled of food – sort of like the venison Zenatheus had fed him.

It was, however, a much drier and unappetizing scent – but having hatched about only a half hour ago, Shadeback, of course, was hungry. Perhaps the hand was food. He stretched out his pudgy neck to sniff it.

Thomas flinched but resisted the urge to jerk away.

Without warning, Shadeback pitched forward with a little raspy squeal (forerunner of the roar) and bit down with toothless jaws on the hand. His gums had grips like vises and induced much pain even without fangs.

Thomas screamed and fell backward. Shadeback released his grip with a terrified yowl and stumbled as fast as his stubby legs could carry him back to the hearth. When he reached the fireside, he splayed out in front of it, exhausted. Instead of sleeping like his tiny body demanded, he kept his large silver eyes wide open (their black pupils narrowed to terrified slits) to watch Thomas with fright. A quiet, tremulous whimper sounded from his throat that would someday become a growl.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Zenatheus teased. He picked up Ragwort (who had been batting maliciously at the red ribbon dangling from his journal, which had obviously been clawed before) and set her on the floor, then left the room briefly, leaving Ragwort to stand there looking a little confused and Thomas and the dragon to stare distrustingly at each other.

Then Zenatheus returned with a bowlful of diced venison, which they had cooked earlier that day to make a stew for dinner. The sorcerer sat cross-legged in front of Shadeback.

Meow,” went Ragwort, and jumped up into Zenatheus’s lap again. She sniffed at the clay bowl he was holding.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Zenatheus said sharply, shoving her off with his free hand.

Ragwort hissed at him and ran off to hide on the other side of the staircase, where she could sulk in private.

“I th-thought we w-were g-going to have that t-tonight,” Thomas stuttered, sitting up again and edging away from the hearth slightly. He was still shaky from being bitten and began to cradle his hand.

“I’d say this fellow needs it more than we do,” Zenatheus replied. He took his apprentice’s bruised hand gently by the wrist and placed most of the venison into it.

“You…you don’t want me to FEED him, d-do you?” Thomas asked incredulously.

“I do,” said Zenatheus sternly. “…unless, of course, you want to live in fear of each other for the rest of your lives or, perhaps, be mortal enemies.”

“But—okay...I guess…” Thomas mumbled, knowing that there was no escape. If Zenatheus wanted you to do something, you pretty much did it. And that was that.

“Here, I’ll show you how to do it right and gain his trust. Hold out one chunk at a time.” Zenatheus took a bit of venison in his left hand (after switching the bowl from that hand to his right) and carefully offered it to Shadeback, whose nostrils flared. “Move slowly. Sudden movements will frighten him. If he doesn’t eat the meat at first, hold it closer, but don’t tease him.” Slowly, he moved his hand closer to Shadeback.

Shadeback lifted his head, looking hopeful. He sniffed the venison and Zenatheus’s hand warily. The meat smelled better and, of course, he already knew what both tasted like. Deliberately, Shadeback leaned forward, clamped the food in his jaws and took it away, then swallowed it whole. Afterwards, he eagerly nosed Zenatheus’s hand, searching for more.

“Your turn, lad,” the sorcerer said, gradually withdrawing his hand. (Shadeback chirruped quietly, tipping his head, as though unsure why.)

Following his master’s instructions, Thomas presented the dark gray dragon with a bit of meat as slowly as he could.

Shadeback knew that this hand was different than the first or second one. It was like the one he had bitten. He now realized that hands were connected to large living things that were bigger than he – much bigger. They made loud sounds that scared him and were like walking food that tasted bad. They were also warm things that could give better-tasting food. Shadeback looked up at Thomas, the thing for sure that he had attacked, who offered good food to him now. How could Shadeback trust him, when Thomas had frightened him so severely? But in the end hunger helped Shadeback decide to forgive this strange creature and take the meat from him, and then eat it.

Shadeback sniffed the hand. It held no more good food and he did not want to taste the foul thing again. Thomas took his hand away deliberately, and then continued to feed him more meat until there was none left in either hand.

The apprentice shuddered and looked to his master for help as the hatchling crawled into his lap and mewled up at him.

“Pet him,” Zenatheus advised softly.

Shadeback stiffened as a warm hand tremblingly stroked his head, and then descended down his neck, which he straightened so as to give more space to be petted. As the hand was dragged down his back he arched it, and then stretched out his tail as well, like a cat. By the time Thomas had repeated the entire series of actions, the tail was wagging and the dragon was purring.

Ragwort finally came out to investigate and see if there was another cat intruding on her turf. Zenatheus seized her and held her so she couldn’t get too close to Shadeback. “You’re naughty,” he muttered.

Meow,” Ragwort objected indignantly.

Meanwhile, when Thomas ceased to pet Shadeback, the dragonet looked up at him, silver eyes round, and squeaked. After Thomas did not pet him still and rather stared back confusedly, Shadeback squeaked again, more insistently this time, and extended his neck to press his snout into Thomas’s uninjured palm. Thomas understood, smiled, and stroked him again.

Zenatheus also smiled as Shadeback curled into a ball on Thomas’s lap and stared at his apprentice hopefully. In response, Thomas petted the gray dragon’s back and scratched under Shadeback’s chin. Shadeback squeaked and rolled onto his back, showing a pinkish belly (which was now bulging quite noticeably after eating all that venison). Thomas rubbed it and Shadeback squealed in delight.

“Oh, do you like that, then?” Thomas mused, and then ticked him. Shadeback screeched and flopped over again, having had enough of the tickling. Thomas stroked him and scratched Shadeback’s jaw. Shadeback purred, snuggling up to him, and then licked his hand appreciatively. Within only a few more seconds, the little dragon was fast asleep, purring his head off. Shadeback’s nostrils flared and his side rose and fell quickly, in sync with his rapidly thumping heart.

Thomas gaped at Zenatheus. “How did you know?” he whispered, resting his bruised hand on the hatchling’s wing.

“I’ve done my fair share of research,” the sorcerer murmured cryptically, stroking his cat and raising his eyebrows vaguely as Ragwort suddenly woke and hopped down, then walked to the dining table. His eyes followed her as she sat next to her pale green food bowl and yowled stridently.

Zenatheus sighed and stood up, then walked over to her, all the while thinking about the baby dragon. Though the memories aroused by Shadeback’s name were grim, he couldn’t help but smile as he heard the hatchling emit a new wave of noisy purrs. Perhaps I’ve been judging the little guy wrong after all.

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