The night remained clear and neither of them wanted to say goodbye. They were both dry now and their bodies were suited to this cold climate where they lived. After they finished their meal, Zodic dug a pit in the snow beneath the tree and settled down in it for the night. He would get an early start in the morning. He was determined to get a stag. He had had enough of ice fishing for the time being.
When Austere did not appear to be interested in leaving for her own den, which she said was not far, he raised a wing and invited her to share the warmth of his fur and his makeshift den. She curled up with her back to him and her head lay on his paw. They were both exhausted from the dunking Zodic took and the clean-up afterward. They fell fast asleep before either of them could even bid each other goodnight.
When Zodic woke the next morning she was gone. There was a light snow overnight and when he rose and shook the fur from his coat he saw no sign of her trail. She must have left in the dead of night. The snow had covered her tracks. He couldn’t help himself and put his nose to the new layer of snow in hopes of finding her trail, but it was not to be. There was no lingering scent of her only the smell of fresh snow and the forest at his back.
He moved out from beneath the tree, and under the watchful eyes and scolding cry of the jay, he launched himself into the air to hunt down the stag. He would return to the clan with his kill, and for certain ears, a rather interesting story.
Zodic landed on the ledge outside the entrance to the lair. The clan’s home was often above the cloud line high in the mountains to the east. Trenric was there on watch and greeted him with a roar. The young male was about Zodic’s age and his very best friend. Zodic dropped his kill and took his friend in a wing embrace as they came together.
“We were a bit worried about you last night,” Trenic exclaimed, as he bumped his wide wedged head into Zodic’s shoulder. “I was going to go out and look for you, but your father said to wait. If you weren’t home by mid-day we could go search for you.”
We, would have been Trenic and Zodic’s other friends. Zodic knew his father would never come looking for him. He was expected to fend for himself. He was a grown dragon and needed to act like one. At least that was the lecture he got each time he did something remotely juvenile around his father.
“Now I can see why you are late.” Trenic circled the large stag, admiring it. “He’s a big one. That will feed the pups for a couple of meals at least.”
“Can you see it gets in to the females?” Zodic asked. “I better check in with father.”
“Sure,” Trenic answered. “Keep your head down. He might not act like it, but he was worried about you last night when you didn’t show.”
Zodic gave his friend an amiable cuff on the side with one paw and headed in to get his lecture. His actions were never right in his father’s eyes, no matter which direction he chose.
He walked in the entrance and followed the ice and packed snow tunnel as it wrapped its way deeper around the side of the mountain. The tunnel eventually spilled out into a huge domed cavern glittering with icy stalactites and stalagmites. The walls were covered with nesting ledges. Each family had a ledge with the pelts from their kills to soften and warm them as they slept.
Nilick glided down and skidded across the ice of the floor in front of Zodic. She slid on her puppy round bottom in a swirling motion until she came to rest a few feet in front of him.
“Your landings are getting much better, Nilick,” he said, as he scooped her up off the cold floor and into his big black paws.
He thought she was the cutest pup from this year’s litters. She had a mask of black across her eyes and rings on her tail that would have made any raccoon jealous. The rest of her was a pale gray with a white tip on her left front paw. She put that paw out against Zodic’s chest and giggled.
“I just need to grow some claws so I can stop,” she said and kneaded his chest with her small white tipped paw.
The pups didn’t grow claws until about a year of age. She was only about eight month old, so it would be a while before she could grip the ice floor like the adults did.
“Mama,” she cried, as her mother glided down from the upper nest, “did you see me fly?”
“Yes, Dear, but you need to come eat now,” Dolco said, as she took her from Zodic’s paws. “Zodic brought home a nice stag for you all.”
Zodic patted the pup’s tiny head. Dolco smiled at him and then took flight with her pup back up to the nesting ledge. It was one of the highest. Nilick was a brave little pup, willing to jump from such a height without coaxing or having someone below ready to catch her. She was fearless.
Zodic found his father in one of the antechambers to the larger domed cavern. He was in deep conversation with two other elder dragons. He thought about going back out to Trenic and visiting with him. Maybe even telling him about his adventures with Austere, though he had not decided for sure he would tell anyone about that, just yet. But, Zodic knew his father would be upset if he did not report in, so he found a place on one of the laying shelves and curled up on the pile of skins and furs to wait. With his father being clan leader, Zodic was used to having to share him with everyone else. His father was constantly in demand.
He laid there only half listening to the conversation between the older dragons. Instead his mind drifted to his mother. She had been so different from his father - so gentle and understanding. She always made excuses for his father. When his father was not around to help him learn to fly and catch him, his mother was. When the other fathers were play fighting with their sons or teaching them to hunt, his father was off doing something with the council of elders. Were it not for Trenic’s father Zodic might not have learned to hunt near as well.
Zodic could still remember his mother’s touch. She was pale, like Austere, but not white - more of a golden color, like a leaf just turning in the fall. One ear was a bit darker and he remembered she always flicked the ear his direction when she listened to his childish stories or complaints.
“I am told you brought back a large stag,” his father’s voice rumbled.
He must have dropped off to sleep because the other two dragons were gone and his father was standing over him with a look on his face that Zodic couldn’t quite read.
Zodic came to his feet and hopped down from the ledge, taking a seat in from of his father. He pawed at his eyes to bring his sleepy gaze back into focus.
“I did, Sir,” he answered.
“I didn’t worry about you since the night was clear, but you should not make a habit of staying out all night,” his father chastised. “You are still a young dragon and we are not without our enemies even among our own kind.”
This was the reason Zodic didn’t think he would tell anyone about Austere. His father kept the clan safe, by not intermixing with other clans. He had lived through the Dragonic Wars of Elster. With that experience in his formative years he chose a certain level of isolationism for his clan. He made no alliances or promises to any other clans. He would not be happy to hear his son had taken up with a Frostie, even if she did save his life. His life wouldn’t have needed to be saved if she hadn’t pulled him in the river to drown. That was how his father always saw things. The action was always against the clan, hence it was better to stay separate from the others.
“Yes, father,” he said. “I was just caught off guard by the earlier sunset and I did not wish to leave my kill.”
“Of course not,” his father agreed.
His father limped over to the closest resting ledge and crawled up on the furs to lie down. He shifted uncomfortably for a few moments until he found a position that did not make the old injury from the wars any more uncomfortable then it had to be.
“I think now that winter is upon us we shall start hunting in pairs. Perhaps Trenic would like to go with you next time.”
His father was always pushing him off on Trenic and his father. He would never think to go out with his own son to hunt.
“I think I will find my soft things,” Zodic said. “It was a long flight with a heavy stag,” he made the excuse. He would rather lie in his pelts and day dream then try to make conversation with his father.
“Of course,” his father said and huffed softly with disapproval. It was his thought that Zodic should be learning the ways of the clan so he might be a viable choice for leader, but his son had proven over and over again that he was not leader material. “Go.” He waved Zodic away with a paw.
Zodic extended a paw, backed his wings and bowed to his father. Then he practically ran from the antechamber.