The Dragonmistress of Thuvas Valley
Ress was almost certain that the hatchling was following her. Between that and her ankle (she did not think it was broken but she had still wrenched it quite painfully when she tumbled into that ditch), things were shaping up into one hell of a day. She wanted to stop, and desperately so, but she knew that to do so would be catastrophic. She had only been trying to help the hatchling, but in doing so had called its attention upon herself, and now it gave chase. So she ran, well, limped, on, praying to any god that might be listening to allow her to win this race.
She barely averted plowing through a patch of thorny bramble. Relieved she had seen it in time, Ress continued on and a few moments later a loud yelp told her the hatchling had not been so fortunate. The yelp was followed by a whimper that stopped Ress short. To her ears it sounded as if the hatchling was stuck in the bramble. Those thorns were insidious--long barbed things that could sink in and grab hold if one did not take care where to step. A hatchling would have been running on four legs, not two, which meant that if the creature was stuck, it had no real way of unsnaring itself. She should keep going, run all the way to the village and bolt herself inside her parents' home. This was her chance. If the hatchling was truly caught, then it could no longer hunt her.
Yet still she stood there, listening to the whimpers of the creature she had been trying to evade, caught up in indecision. It was entirely the wrong season for dragons in the valley. They usually appeared in the late spring and stayed through autumn, meaning they were not due to return for another two moons at least. Surely someone in the valley would have noticed if a breeding dragon had arrived early. She had never seen one so closely, let alone one so young as the hatchling, but she had studied the creatures. When one lived in a valley that played home to the beasts it was, in her opinion, quite foolish not to. Her studies led her to believe that the hatchling was only a few days old, which meant its mother should still be around. But there had been no signs of such...its presence was a mystery. The evidence suggested that the hatchling had no one to take care of it. If she left it where it was, tangled in the bramble, some larger creature would surely come along and kill it before long. Her blood sang with generations of villagers who had been plagued by the dragons and cried out that this was a perfect solution to her problem. And yet...
Her indecisiveness gone, Ress whirled on the spot, and almost fell flat on her face as her injured ankle gave out in protest. She managed to catch herself and fought down a blush, glad that no one had been around to see that moment of glory. Straightening up, steeling her spine, she marched (gingerly) back to the bramble patch. The hatchling tensed when it heard her approach, but as Ress came into its sight, she saw it relax a bit. The look it gave her was almost painful to see, the poor thing seemed relieved and ashamed, and yes, hurt. She took a cautious step closer and it whined, trying to pull its front foot out of the patch and failing, yelping once more in pain.
"Oh, what have you gotten yourself into, you poor wretch?" Ress said quietly. She continued to approach the creature and saw that it was quite tangled within the bramble. Sighing almost inaudibly, she pulled her belt knife slowly from its sheath. Sure she was making the biggest mistake of her life, she reached for the young dragon's foot to hold it in place and carefully began cutting away the thorns. The hatchling surprised her by holding very still as she cut away the bramble from each of its feet. She had always known dragons were intelligent creatures, but she was impressed at how quickly it seemed to have grasped the situation. Ress had quite a job keeping herself from getting caught as she worked, but she managed it with only a few pricks from the tips of the thorns. She could feel its eyes on her as she finished freeing the last foot. She stood up and backed away slowly, the hatchling remaining where it was, eying her with a questioning gaze. She surveyed the young dragon with no little bit of awe, and it stayed where it was, watching her. She realized it was afraid to move, lest it step in more of the brambles and get caught once more. "So, now you know how dangerous that bramble is," she said, at a loss for how else to respond. She shook her head and walked forward again, one hand extended, palm straight up, indicating it should stay for another moment. "Maybe now you will see that you avoid it in the future, eh?"
When she reached its side once more, the hatchling surprised her again by bumping its scaly nose up against her hand, just like a cat trying to get petted. She stroked its nose gently for a moment, amazed at the turn her day had taken. She then rested her hand on its neck, just behind a bumpy ridge she knew would grow into a crest before too many moons had passed, and moved so that she and the hatchling were eye to eye. "Now," she stated, as calmly and as firmly as she was able, "we are going to move very carefully to get you out of this patch. Just remember, if you eat me once you are free, there will be no one to pull out those thorns that are lodged in you, alright?" The hatchling blinked once but made no other movement or response. She sighed in exasperation, unable to believe this was really happening, and slowly led the hatchling out of the brambles and into a space between trees that held enough light for her to examine her new charge.
Once free of the patch, the hatchling stopped where she indicated and very gingerly sat on its haunches, wrapping its tail around its forelegs, again very much like a cat. Ress knelt beside it and began pulling out thorns, trying to cause the creature as little pain as possible. She could only hope that if she did not anger it, it would refrain from attacking. It gave the occasional whine when she found one lodged particularly deeply, but otherwise remained still. Eventually, she was finished. "Done!" she declared, standing back and looking over the hatchling once more.
The hatchling definitely looked the worse for the wear, in her opinion. There were several scratches along its scaly hide and dark blood was beginning to flow freely from the places where the thorns had been lodged. Beneath the blood she could see that its scales were a deep green. In the low light they looked almost black. She was surprised to realize that the hatchling had no wings, until a closer look revealed two bumps along either side of its ridged spine, covered by a thin membrane the same color as its scales but smooth, like her own skin. The bumps were in the locations where she would have expected the wings to be, and she suspected that perhaps those membranes were in fact covering up the young dragon's still-growing wings. The dragons that arrived in the valley late each spring all flew, even the hatchlings, so she surmised that it would not be long until those membranes fell off, allowing the creature to take to the skies like the rest of its kind. How curious. No one in the valley had ever seen such a young dragon before, which she supposed explained why none of the scrolls she had studied or stories she had heard had mentioned this aspect of hatchling development.
Ress had moved in closer as she examined the dragon again, and so intent was she on her study that she was caught completely off guard when it butted its head up against her stomach, nuzzling her, she realized after a moment. It dawned on her then that she was standing alone in the woods with a dragon, young as it might be, still a dragon. The very same dragon, in fact, from which she had spent a good part of the afternoon running away. Once more her instincts were screaming at her, and one more she decided to ignore them. The hatchling had made no move to hurt her, in fact, it seemed quite grateful for her help. When she had first come across the poor thing earlier that day, it had been tangled up in the ivy that grew upon many of the trees this close to the foothills. It had clearly been hopelessly stuck (she briefly wondered if all hatchlings were so clumsy or if this one was an exception) and had, apparently, exhausted itself struggling for freedom, because it had been fast asleep. The beast's awkward position alone had been enough to make her wish to help it. She had approached as silently as she could manage and carefully cut it free, trying her best to lower it gently enough to let it continue sleeping. But the hatchling had been far too heavy for her to hold up on her own, it was already the size of a full-grown pony, and once she had cut enough vines, gravity had simply taken over and it had fallen to the ground in a very quick, very loud crash. The hatchling had woken with a loud cry and Ress had not waited around to see how it would react to being free, she had simply run away as fast as her feet would carry. The beast began to pursue her as soon as it had freed itself from the remaining ivy and she had simply assumed that it was hunting her down to eat her. But...what if...what if she had been wrong?
Deciding to test a theory, she abruptly stepped back and walked several paces away from the nuzzling hatchling. It looked up and whined, and when she stopped it shambled over to her quickly, giving her a look that she could only describe as pleading.
"You were not chasing me to eat me at all, were you?" She could have sworn that the hatchling's eyes widened in surprise at this--just how well did it understand her, she wondered. "You were following me because you are lonely. You do not have anyone else." At this the hatchling nudged her hand with its head once more and she sighed in resignation before scratching its nose again.
It seemed Ress had made herself a new friend.
"Oh dear." She said aloud to no one in particular.
Clearly she could not walk back into the village in broad daylight with a dragon in her wake. The other villagers would not care that it was a baby, or stop to ask questions of Ress. They would almost certainly attack first. It was going to take some doing warming them up to the idea of letting a dragon stay in their village, at least until the other dragons returned in a few moons' time. Surely it would want to rejoin its own kind when they arrived. When she paused to think back on that day later, Ress was highly surprised at how quickly she had accepted the care of the hatchling. She decided to hold on returning to the village until night had fallen.
To pass the remaining hours of the day, she led the dragon to the river upon which her village sat. There was a place nearby where the woods ran to the bank, and it was out of sight of any habitation. She had spent many of the summer days in her youth watching dragons swim in the lake from which the river sprang. She thought it might be a good idea to clean up her hatchling a bit before taking it home with her. When they got to the river she had little trouble coaxing the creature into the water, though it would not venture far from her, and she had to remove her books and stockings, sitting with her feet in the water, before it would fully immerse itself.
The river, as it turned out, had been a very good idea, because just as she was wondering how in the world she was going to feed a dragon, she realized that it had been taking care of that very need while swimming. The hatchling emerged from the river looking rather pleased with itself, and with several fish dangling from its not inconsiderable jaws. It dropped a few at her side and then made itself comfortable not far off, eating the remainder of its catch. Ress, however, was distracted from this development by something she had noticed on the hatchling's hide. Or rather, something she had noticed was missing. Every scratch and laceration from the bramble seemed to be completely gone. She could see one or two thin lines of white where the deeper scratches had been, but other than that the glistening scales were unmarred. It seemed that dragons healed at a remarkable rate.
As expected, once the village found out about the hatchling, whom Ress had christened "Pony" for no real reason but a need to call it something other than "Dragon," there was an absolute uproar. She had managed to keep Pony hidden for only a day or two, but it really did not like being separated from her for any length of time, and it also did not care much for the unused storage shed in which she tried to hide it. Later, she could not have answered anyone who asked how she convinced the village council to let Pony stay under her care until the rest of the flight returned to the valley. But somehow, she had.
At first the other villagers watched their children and livestock vigilantly, waiting for Pony to slip up and make any move of aggression toward either. But in the latter it showed absolutely no interest, preferring to swim in the river and eat the fish it could catch there. With the former, it showed great caution and respect, and it was not long before the village children could frequently be seen riding on the back of the beast throughout the village square (under the watchful eyes, of course, of both Ress and the parents). The villagers were quite impressed to find that the vicinity's wolf packs now stayed well away from the village, and foxes no longer raided the coops.
As expected by Ress, about a fortnight before the rest of the flight returned, Pony's wings broke through the membranes, and it was not long before the hatchling could be seen soaring overhead. Each day after, she expected to wake up to simply find the young dragon gone, but each day Pony greeted her enthusiastically before taking off for its morning swim. It began to venture often into the woods surrounding the foothills, and Ress waited sadly for the day Pony did not return. But that day did not come.
When the flight of dragons arrived that spring she thought for sure that her constant companion would make its leave. Indeed, Pony seemed quite eager to investigate the new arrivals to the valley when they appeared. But contrary to her fears, it did not remain with the other dragons, returning once more to the village, clearly intent on staying. The villagers found themselves surprisingly relieved that their guardian had chosen to remain. And Ress? Well, she found she did not mind it so much herself. Not at all.
And so was the legend of the Dragonmistress of Thuvas Valley born.