Zodic stood stark still poised on the layer of ice covered snow, his head cocked to one side, his ears pricked forward intently listening. Trenic was a few yards away in exactly the same pose.
All at once Zodic rose up to his full height on his hind legs, he curled his head down and plunged forward with his front paws, crushing through the ice and burying the top half of his body, up to his waist below the snow. When he pulled himself back out he had a huge grin on his face. He could feel the mouse running around frantically on his tongue.
“Ieee Whinnn!” he hollered at Trenic without opening his mouth.
When his friend looked up. Zodic opened his mouth and the mouse shot out like a minnow trying to escape a larger fish. It slid and scurried across the ice until it found refuge under a snow covered bush.
They had played this game since they were pups. It was usually a pretty even contest. Either one of them could be quick enough to win a round. They often fell back into playing it these days when the game was scarce. They were stalling for time. The bigger game didn’t move around much in the middle of the day. They were not lucky this morning, so were waiting until dusk to try and take down something bigger in the cool of the evening. They took to playing the game on an ice field that was far enough away from the game trails to the river’s edge it would mask their scent. They would take to the air soon and hopefully bag a large stag, ox or boar.
Trenic ambled over to his friend. On occasion his large paws would break through the ice covered snow and plunge his leg up to the shoulder in snow. He would lift them out and shake them before proceeding. He was a head taller than Zodic and sported a dappled coat of whites, shades of gray, and black. One paw, the tip of one wing and the tip of his tail had a blotch of white on them as though snow were permanently stuck there.
When Trenic got close enough, Zodic purposely shook. The snow stuck to his fur was flung out in all directions, but most noticeably in Trenics.
“You…!” Trenic protested, wiping the snow from his face with one large paw.
His eyes turned to slits and he pinned his ears back tightly to his head. He leaped at Zodic. He caught him around the shoulders and pulled him to the ground. They rolled in the snow. It crushed below their bodies creating a kind of depressed arena in which they started to spar. With tails lashing and fearsome growls they lunged at each other careful not to use claw or teeth. Wings were kept folded or spread back out of the way in these wrestling matches. They didn’t want to take the chance of breaking a wing. That would make for a long walk home and a severe scolding from both parents.
Zodic was faster, but Trenic was bigger and stronger. They had done this for so many years that they could read each other’s next move. It was hard for one of them to get the better of the other. It was only the changing location of these play bouts that often determined the winner. Zodic didn’t see the rock his lashing tail had uncovered behind him, Trenic did. He advanced on his opponent with a fearsome roar and bared teeth. Zodic retreated from the faked attack and tripped over the small boulder sticking out from beneath the snow. Trenic lunged forward and was on top of Zodic penning him down. He lifted his head and roared his triumph.
One minute Trenic was on top of him, the next he was gone in a flurry of white.
Zodic rolled to his feet. Looking over the rim of the snow pit they had created with their play battle he could see Trenic lying on his back trying his best to defend himself from the white blur that was the fast moving Austere. She was all thrashing wings, claws and teeth.
“NO!” Zodic shouted, leaping out of the pit to come to his friend’s rescue. “No, Austere! Trenic! Stop!” he cried.
Austere had one paw firmly planted on Trenic’s outstretched wing. She had taken a swipe at his face and left a trail of bloody claw marks across his muzzle. One of his paws was fending off her claws while the other was at her chest about to flip her off. Zodic had seen Trenic execute this maneuver. He knew the killing blow came as soon as he flipped her over and got on top.
“Stop! We were only playing,” Zodic yelled. He leaped and hit Austere with all his weight, knocking her off Trenic and out of his reach.
Austere’s expression changed from anger to contrition is an instant. “Oh, shit!” She struggled to her feet panting. Her ears laid back against her head in shame. Her wings drooped.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I heard the growls from across the lake and by the time I got here he…” she pointed a wing toward Trenic, “was standing over you roaring as though he were proclaiming victory.”
“I was,” Trenic stated matter-of-factly as he licked at his scratched muzzle and felt it tentatively with his paw.
“Here, let me look at that,” Zodic said as he came to his friend’s side. He cocked his head and studied Trenic’s injury. “I’ve given you worse by accident in the past,” he proclaimed. He reached down, scooped up a paw full of snow, put it on Trenic’s muzzle, and held it there.
“I really am sorry,” Austere repeated. She approached slowly with her belly almost rubbing the ground and her ears still flat as though she expected one of them to strike her.
“I’ll live,” Trenic said in a muffled voice around Zodic’s paw full of snow. “I’m a big dragon.”
“You certainly are,” Austere said as she straightened up with a little more confidence. “When I knocked you off, it was like hitting a stone cliff. I thought I had broken my leg.”
Trenic smiled at the compliment, but Zodic immediately turned toward the Frost dragon, away from his friend, the snow compress dropped, forgotten.
“You didn’t, did you? You’re all right?” Zodic asked Austere with concern.
Austere rubbed her arm with her other paw. “I’m fine,” she assured him.
Zodic began to circle her looking for injuries. “You are sure you’re alright?” he asked attentively.
“Fine, really,” she said.
Trenic cleared his throat to get their attention. “Nose… not fine,” he said pointing at his muzzle and rolling, pleading sympathetic eyes.
“Oh,” Austere cooed and approached quickly. “Let me have a look.”
She took his muzzle in her paw. She parted the fur along the scratches to look, then tentatively leaned her head forward and ever so gently licked his snout. Trenic closed his eyes savoring the sensation. Zodic could remember the feel of that tongue, the warm air, the smell of her breathe, his own eyes narrowed and he moved forward gently nudging Austere away from his friend.
“He’ll be fine,” he blustered. “Let me introduce you properly.”
Trenic’s eyes snapped open and his ears flattened a bit at the interruption of the stimulating sensation of her tongue.
“Austere, this is my best friends, Trenic. Trenic, this is Austere, the Frostie I told you about.” Zodic was reminding Trenic, in a not so subtle way, that he had told him that he had feelings toward this Frostie. She wasn’t just any random dragon they had run into. She was his Frostie.
They hunted together that evening and brought down a huge stag and a second year doe. It was enough for them all to feed and still have some left over to stash for taking back to their clans.
Austere led them to her hunting den. They both passed on her offer to join her inside. Going in meant swimming, swimming meant wet fur, and although Zodic could envision another delightful and stimulating, cleaning by Austere, he didn’t want to leave his friend outside alone. Trenic was reluctant to take a dunking without the pleasure of Austere’s helpful drying. So, the Furries remained outside. They had no problem enduring the cold. They just curled up under the trees outside the den, fluffed up their fur, tucked their heads beneath their wings and let the snow pile over them creating an insulating dome. Austere found them there the next morning under a foot of snow, when she emerged from her den with her carrying baskets harnessed to her back.
“What the heck is that?” Trenic asked, as soon as his head poked up out of the snow.
“It’s my carrier,” Austere said.
Zodic circled her studying the odd contraption. “Where did you ever get such a thing?” he asked.
“The humans down below the tree line make them for us.” Austere answered.
“You have dealings with the humans?” Trenic looked at her in disbelief. “You think that wise?”
“All of our clan members are friends with the humans of that tribe,” Austere explained as she unbuckled the harness and slipped out. “They trade their services for tallo root.” She shook to remove the water from her fur and sat cleaning her face and whiskers with one paw.
“You trade with them?”
Trenic couldn’t believe what she was saying. Tallideer would have leaped off the highest peak with his wings tied before he dealt with humans on any level much less trade. They were cunning and not to be trusted if you believed what Tallideer taught.
“Indeed. We have for decades,” Austere assured him.
Zodic continued to study the basket carrier. “It really is ingenious,” he commented. “I bet it makes the load a lot easier to carry.”
“It does,” Austere said, as she turned toward him. “I can also carry four times as much as I can in my paws alone.” Austere started to dig up their cash from last night. She began to load her baskets with the parts of the doe she took down. “This was a very successful hunt. Winter came early this year. The meat will be greatly appreciated by the clan.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the stag too,” Zodic offered. “Trenic and I can get another.”
Trenic did a mental eye roll at the offer. The game was scarcer this year. He couldn’t imagine getting another one, certainly not another so large again, any time this season.
“I couldn’t,” Austere refused politely.
“No really… it’s okay,” Zodic pressed.
“I couldn’t possible carry it all,” Austere pointed out. “Unless…If you wanted to help me take it home.”
Trenic looked at her like she had lost her mind. When he looked to Zodic he was sure his friend had lost his. His friend’s duel colored eyes had gone all dewy and soft like he was in a trance.
“You’re not honestly thinking of going home with her?” Trenic said trying to be the voice of reason in what looked like the deafening thunder of an avalanche. He came up beside Zodic and nudged his friend to one side away from the Frostie. “Zodic…” He slapped him with his wing tip like he used to when they were pups to get his attention. “You can’t go home with her,” he hissed in a whisper. “Your father will disown you, or worse, kill you.” When Zodic didn’t answer, but continued to look the Frostie’s direction, he reached over and placed his paw on his friend’s. He gently, but forcefully extending his claws sinking them into Zodic’s paw.
“Hey!” Zodic yelped and withdrew his paw from under Trenic’s.
“Are you listening to me?” Trenic asked. “You can’t do this. I am not going to be the one to return home and tell your father that you went home with a Frostie. Do you want to start a war between her clan and ours?”
“Father wouldn’t…” Zodic started, as he rubbed his paw where his friend skewered him with his claws.
“Listen to yourself,” Trenic interrupted. “You know the law. You know your father. You can’t cross him on this matter.”
Zodic sighed deeply and looked up at his oldest and dearest friend. He was right. Of course, he was right, but Zodic couldn’t help it. His heart pulled at him with far more strength than his father’s rules and regulation could ever hope to exert.
He stated simply, “I love her.”
Trenic looked into those unusual two colored eyes he had looked into for as long as he could remember. He saw the love, the plea for understanding and the determination. He knew his friend and he knew there was no dissuading him.
“I’ll take one of the hindquarters and tell your father you are guarding the rest,” Trenic said, already formulating a plan in his mind. “I’ll come back in two days saying I have to help you carry the rest and you better be here. We will have to hunt and make another kill before we go back home.”
Zodic threw a wing over Trenic in a dragonic huggle of affection. “You’ll cover for me?”
“Just two days,” Trenic repeated. “If you are not here when I get back I will make a kill and go back without you and your cover will be blown.”
“I’ll be here.” He leaned into his friends shoulder and head bumped him. “You are the best!”
“Yeah…Right… You better pack up and get going. Two days, lover,” he teased. Trenic went over and grabbed one massive hindquarter of the stag. “Have him back here in two days or his father will disown him for sure,” he said to Austere.
Austere stretched out her neck and nuzzled Trenic behind the ear. “You are the Best!” she agreed with Zodic.
Trenic gave her a lopsided grin and sprang into the air flapping hard in order to get enough air under his wings to lift the huge hunk of meat clinched between his paws.
“Two days,” he repeated and angled his wings to the north and home.