Setting and characters are (c) Kh'wyn and me
Thoughts and comments are welcome to Boys and a Dragon
by Lars Hellberg (Winter)

Alyx crouched low, his nose to the ground. Sniffing the still-moist soil of the crossroads, he sorted through scents until he found the one he was looking for. Conrad. His fox-friend had been there, not long ago. Still bent almost double, the young wolf set off into the undergrowth, following the scent-trail.

Here and there, broken twigs and crushed blades of grass told him where the elder boy had passed. Grinning, he sped up. Their game of hide-and-seek had been on for almost an hour, and Alyx was getting tired. Better find him, then, he thought. And we can both have a rest. He kept on running, still picking up Conrad's scent.

They were west of Thornwall now, almost where the forest met the village's crop fields. Hope he isn't running through the wheat fields again. The cap'n nearly had our hides last time. Thankfully, the scent-trail turned, following alongside the fields, then heading back into the forest again. Alyx knew he was getting closer, since the scent got stronger, but he was still a ways behind. He ran around a patch of thick shrubbery and into a small glade, and suddenly almost collided with his friend. Surprised, he let out a yelp.

"Conrad! What's the matter? Why aren't you hiding?"

"Ssch, don't speak. She's dying."

Following the fox's eyes, Alyx caught sight of something moving inside the glade. A green shape against a green background; with the less than keen colour vision of a canine, he could not really make out what it was. Then it opened its mouth; sharp white teeth and a bright red tongue clearly visible, and Alyx bit his lower lip, nearly screaming with fright. Pulling at Conrad's arm, he backed away towards the safety of the forest.

"Conrad, come on!" he hissed. "It's a dragon, it'll kill us!"

"Can't you see she's hurt?" Conrad turned around, catching Alyx's eyes. Tears were running down his cheeks. "She's in such pain."

Squinting, Alyx could see that his friend was right. Blue dragon blood was streaming down its side, gathering in small pools on the ground below. Beneath one of the huge, leathery wings, a broken spear stuck out, and all over its body arrows were embedded in flesh. Shuddering, the dragon tried to get up, but failed, falling back to the ground. Alyx was still frightened, having heard so many stories about attacking dragons, and the fates befalling anybody standing in their way. As if that wasn't enough, he knew of course how his parents had died. What pains the cap'n had gone through, braving the searing flames to save baby Alyx.

This was closer than he had ever been to a living dragon, and he couldn't help trembling. Sensing this, Conrad reached back with a hand and stroked his hair, trying to soothe him. Alyx took comfort in this, like he had done so many times before. Eleven years old, Conrad was four years Alyx's elder, and so much wiser in the ways of the world; always providing safety when Alyx was scared, comfort when he was crying, friendship when he was lonely and fun when he wanted to play. Yes, Conrad was his best friend, but he was also more than that. He was the closest thing Alyx would ever have to a real brother.

Moving closer, Alyx hid beneath Conrad's arm, peering out to watch the dragon's death throes. It stood up once more, roaring its defiance to the approaching Reaper, then it fell. This time, it did not rise again. Whimpering, it reared its head, looking at something that was obscured from view by a large tree. The sound was answered, and an awkward creature trotted up to it, rubbing its blue-green snout against the dragon's chest, making tiny meeping noises. It's a baby, Alyx thought. A dragon baby. Poor thing, that must be its mother.

"I think she was carrying him when she fell to the ground," Conrad whispered. "Look at his leg, it's twisted."

"Yes, I see." Alyx strained his eyes to look at the little dragon, watching how it limped as it walked, favouring its right hind leg. "Is she dead?"

"I don't know, but I'm not going over there to check."

The baby dragon cried out, and Alyx started moving towards it. Conrad held him back, then picked up a dead branch. He threw it at the mother dragon, and as it hit, she roared again, snapping her powerful jaws in the air where Alyx would have been if he had walked up to her. Then a glaze covered her eyes, and she lay down again. The large chest rose and fell once, twice, then it was still. Meeping again, the baby tossed about, not caring that it stood on its injured leg. The fractured joint bent more and more the wrong way, and now Alyx couldn't contain himself any longer. As fast as he could, he darted over to the baby, picked it up and then ran flat out away from the adult dragon. He hadn't needed to worry. The dragon was dead, as immovable as the Pole Star.

"By the Guides, Alyx, that was a stupid thing to do!" Conrad yelled. "She could have bitten you in half!"

"She is dead, Conrad. Someone has to look after the baby."

"You? What do you think the cap'n says if you walk into the village with that thing on a leash?"

"I think I can guess," Alyx said, smiling weakly. "He may be my father, but he's still the cap'n. I'll get flogged for sure."

"We should kill him, Alyx." Conrad pulled out his knife, pointing it at the dragon baby. "End his suffering and our troubles."

"No!"

"Look, he's a dragon! Even if you keep him hidden, what'll happen when he grows up?"

"It doesn't have to become a killer beast. I could train it..."

"That's not the issue." Sighing, Conrad put his knife away. "The villagers will kill him if we are discovered. Kill him, then beat us up so we'll never sit again. Alyx, the dragons are our enemies!"

"How do you know it's a he?"

"C'mon, Alyx!" Laughing, Conrad poked his ribs. "You're old enough to know the difference between boys and girls. Use your eyes!"

"Oh yeah," Alyx said, blushing. "I understand. But if we make sure he isn't found?"

"How?"

"Conrad, Conrad. Who knows every single hiding place in these woods?"

"The cap'n does, and he'll search them all, if he sniffs dragon on you."

"Then we make sure he doesn't!"

"We? Alyx, I don't want anything to do with this!"

"You're the one who found him."

"I will not have anything to do with this!"

"What do you think we should call him?" Alyx asked, tickling the baby's chin, causing a contented chirp. "He needs a name."

"How about Conrad's Death?" The fox whimpered slightly. "Wolfie, he'll cost us our butts."

"Look how cute he is, just like a little puppy."

"Careful, Alyx, or that one'll stick."

Alyx crouched low, his nose to the ground. Even though he was just outside the cave, the smell of dragon was almost non-existent. Almost isn't nearly good enough, he thought. Not when we're dealing with the cap'n.

"Try again, Conrad," he said. "Maybe with a little more fir twigs."

"Alyx, give up! We can't fool a wolf-nose."

"Can and will." Grunting, Alyx pulled more branches into the mouth of the cave. "Try now."

"I've been going in and out of that cave so many times," Conrad whined, "that I'll smell of dragon even if I bathe in ale."

"I'd use flowers, but that'd make the cap'n suspicious. With these, he'll think we're building a tree-house."

"Better build one, too. He's bound to check up on us."

"Good thinking!" Alyx pointed to the cave. "Get in there, now."

He watched his fox-friend enter the cave, and heard the tiny meeps that greeted him. Conrad would cuddle Puppy for a while, then rub himself against the fir twigs on the way out. This time, there wasn't a single trace of dragon scent on him. Nodding to himself, Alyx entered the cave, and was immediately pounced by the dragon baby.

"Hey. Did you miss me?" he cooed, tickling its tummy. "Bet you missed me. Conrad?"

"Hmm?"

"How can we leave him alone all night?"

"We have to. You know that."

"I guess so. But he'll be awfully lonely."

"We'll have to make a back-up plan, too, Alyx. Your father is the most clever man alive. What if we miss a spot, and smell of dragon? Or if a scale or something gets caught our fur?"

"We'd be dead. Conrad, we can't miss!"

"But if we do? I know!" The fox leaped to his feet. "The mother! If he should sniff us out, or if anybody else does, we show them the dragon's body. Tell'em we checked it out."

"Conrad, you realise that we'd be in big trouble just for getting near it?"

"Which is better than having him kill Puppy on sight, then beat us up for keeping him."

"Okay. And food isn't a problem. We either bring something along, or hunt, until he's big enough to hunt for himself."

"We really shouldn't do this, Alyx."

"Well," Alyx said, getting to his feet, "If we can't keep him, I'll take him home."

"To the cap'n?"

"No, to the dragons."

"You're going to walk to Stonetooth Isle, wolfie?"

"Ever heard of boats, foxie?"

"Alyx, the entire coast is guarded! You'll never get past the soldiers who watch for dragon attacks!"

"Then we keep him."

Realising that he had lost, Conrad sat down on the cave floor. Puppy bounced over to him and climbed up into his lap clumsily, stumbling on the cast they had made for his wounded leg. Absent-mindedly, Conrad stroked the dragon's head. What a trusting little fellow, he thought. It's quite impossible not to like you. Sighing, he turned his gaze back to Alyx, who had a smug grin to his face.

"All right, A," he said. "You win, for now."

"Yaay!" Clenching his fists in a show of victory, he ran over to hug his friend. Taking Puppy into his own lap, Alyx sat down in Conrad's. "Conrad, you're the best!"

"And don't forget it, pup." He scratched Alyx behind the ears, enjoying the way the wolf's tongue lolled out. "Right, then. Let's get practical. How do we keep him inside the cave?"

"We build a barrier of some sort. That's hardly a problem."

"His cast!" Conrad nodded to the makeshift splints around the baby's leg, which already showed marks of sharp baby dragon teeth. "He'll chew it all away during the night."

"Right. That is a problem." Alyx scratched his forehead in thought. "I know! Conrad, don't look, please."

"What are you...?"

Alyx picked up Puppy, and headed further into the cave. A splashing noise was heard, and when they returned the baby's bad leg had a strong, unpleasant odour to it. Wrinkling his nose, Conrad poked Alyx in the stomach.

"You are one insane pup! That just might work."

"C'mon, buddy!" Alyx blushed slightly. "It'll work. He won't chew on it now."

"All right. Then how do we keep him from meeping or crying out during the night? You could leave your shirt, so he can smell you."

"What do I tell the cap'n? About losing my shirt, I mean."

"Well," Conrad said, smiling wickedly, "we could get you sprayed by a stink-tail, then say you tossed it away. He won't argue with that."

"Aww, no! Please!" Alyx got up, nearly spooking the little dragon. "Anything but that..."

"No, that's the plan. What does he eat?"

"What do you mean?" Whiskers drooping, Alyx sat down in Conrad's lap once more, cradling Puppy again. "We'll bring him food from the village."

"Even if we can do that, how do we know what's good for him, or how often he has to eat? What if he needs dragon milk?"

"Ol' Firefur doesn't sell that in her grocery store, does she?"

"No," Conrad laughed. "And I think she'll throw you out on your butt if you asked."

"We'll just have to try. If we said we'd have a picnic..."

"That'll work once or twice, Alyx. We're going to have to hunt."

"Okay. At least you're good with a bow," Alyx said, his shoulders sagging. "Maybe I can bring him water."

"Don't degrade yourself, wolfie. You haven't trained for very long. The cap'n told me he thinks you show promise."

"Thanks for telling me." Again, he hugged Conrad tightly, snuggling up against the fox's chest. "Should we get started on that barrier?"

"Right. You bring more twigs and branches, while I hold the fort."

"Conrad! You're stronger than me, why don't you get the stuff?"

"It's your baby dragon, daddy Alyx." Slapping the wolf's rump, he earned a very satisfying yelp. "Now get to work!"

"All right, I'm going! I'm going! Can't you see?"

That evening it was almost completely dark when they stepped out of the forest, and onto the familiar main street of Thornwall. Conrad walked a couple of paces upwind from the half-naked Alyx, who was stinking so bad his eyes were watering. Leading him to the village's well, Conrad winched up a bucketful of water, then poured it over his wolf-friend. Whining at the cold, Alyx still accepted one more bucket. Anything's better than this stench, he thought. A third bucket of icy water had him shivering so badly he almost didn't notice the huge hand that landed on his shoulder.

"Any particular reason why you're trying to drown my boy, Conrad?" There was an amused tone to Kelfric's voice, but they couldn't miss the seriousness behind. "You two should have been back an hour ago, you know that."

"Yes, cap'n," Conrad said, avoiding the adult wolf's piercing eyes. "We were playing, and forgot about time. We're sorry."

"W-w-we wer-r-re playing-g hide-a-a-and-seek-k," Alyx clattered.

"Alyx hid in a shrubbery, with a stink-tail. Took me a while to lead him home."

"Where's your shirt, son?"

"I t-t-t-t..."

"He tore it to pieces on that shrubbery, cap'n. And since it stank so, we left it behind."

"All right." Kelfric removed his own shirt, hanging it over Alyx's shoulders. "Get inside, now, before he catches a cold. Conrad, you too. I want a word with you both."

Conrad sat as close to the fireplace as he dared to, with Alyx snuggled up in his lap. The wolf-boy had stopped shivering and was enjoying the warmth from both the fire and his friend. The two of them were sipping hot, strong tea, waiting for Kelfric to start talking. The cap'n is tense, Conrad thought. Wonder if something's wrong. Before he could ask, though, Kelfric pulled a chair over to the fireplace, sitting down. He was munching on a biscuit, and handed a bunch to Conrad, who in turn gave some to Alyx; both boys happily wagging their tails. While the young wolf started munching, spreading crumbs all over himself, Kelfric's deep voice filled the room.

"I won't keep you grounded, because that would be cruel. You need to be outside, to play, even play roughly. It won't do to keep your bows unstrung."

"Cap'n, has something happened?" Conrad asked, hesitantly.

"You mean you don't know? Were you out the whole day?" The two boys nodded. "Well, a small flight of dragons was sighted this morning. They were heading inland, and might have come this way. I just want you to be careful."

"We're always careful, cap'n," Alyx said, spitting more crumbs. "Always."

"Well, that may even be so." Kelfric smiled at his adopted son. "New orders, though. You are to stay away from open areas. Keep trees above you, all the time."

"Yes, cap'n!" both boys answered.

"If you hear or see a dragon, you quiet-hide until it's gone."

"Yes, cap'n!"

"Then come back and tell me as fast as you can run."

"Yes, cap'n!"

"Don't take any chances. Do not risk yourselves for anything."

"No, cap'n!"

"Good. Scoot on home now, Conrad. We'll see you again tomorrow."

"Yes, cap'n. Good night." Waving good bye, the fox-boy left. "See ya, A!"

"You too, foxie!"

"Well, Alyx. Are you hungry?" Nodding, the young wolf got to his feet, following Kelfric into the kitchen. "There's some roasted corn left."

"Yummy!"

The next day, Alyx woke up just as the sun parted with the horizon, beginning its slow journey across the sky. The crisp, dew-saturated morning air was already showing signs of the heat that would befall the world at midday. His father was long since gone; Kelfric enjoyed hunting in the soft pre-dawn light and would, Alyx knew, soon return with the meat that would feed them that night. Making himself breakfast, Alyx took the opportunity to snatch some left-overs for the baby dragon. What a stroke of luck, he thought, that he didn't stop us from going into the forest. Munching on the last corncob, he left the house to go and find Conrad.

All around him, the village of Thornwall was slowly waking up to its daily routine. Merchants were sweeping in front of their stores, cleaning their windows or arranging their displays. Farmers were setting up their booths at the market square, preparing for the day's business, and young children were darting hither and yon, playing or searching for someone to play with. There was a time when Alyx would have been jealous of them. When Kelfric had brought him to Thornwall, there hadn't been any childbirths for some years. The crops had been poor, and those who had young ones had left for Westtown or Cendaria, to seek help. A couple of years later, however, the rains had come back, and the village had flourished. The sounds of children were heard once more, but they were all too young to make playmates for Alyx. However, Conrad had been there.

Taking to baby Alyx, the fox lad had all but adopted him, and a strong bond of friendship formed. These days, it mattered little to Alyx that he had few real friends, and none his own age; as long as he had Conrad, everything was fine. As he approached the fox's house, he suddenly felt strong arms grab him around the waist, then swing him high. Gasping, he let out a yelp. For a brief second he was scared, but the fear washed as soon as Conrad's scent filled his nostrils, and he let himself enjoy the swinging, laughing as Conrad's claws tickled his stomach. All too soon, though, the fun ended, and he felt himself lowered to the ground. Meeting the large, green fox eyes, Alyx smiled warmly.

"Good morning, little wolf."

"Good morning, crazy fox. How could you sneak up on me like that?"

"The cap'n is teaching me stealth. Besides, you were lost in thought, Alyx. What was on that little mind of yours?"

"You."

"Really?" Conrad tilted his head, grinning. "Why's that, I wonder?"

"I was watching the little kids playing, and I thought about how glad I am that you're my friend." He hugged the fox. "Without you, I would have been very lonely."

"So would I," Conrad said, stroking Alyx's hair in that familiar way the young wolf could never get enough of. "I have no friends my age, either. So, have you finished being mushy? Can we start earning the beatings this will get us?"

Giggling, Alyx released his friend and nodded. Opening his trouser pockets, he showed Conrad that he was bringing food. The fox, he saw now, was carrying a bag, and Alyx closed his eyes and used his nose. There was some cooked meat. Bread. Roast chicken. A bottle of milk and some cheese. Some vegetables. Sweetberry pie! Alyx's mouth began watering, and he licked his muzzle. Playfully, Conrad tweaked his nose, and he couldn't help sneezing.

"Stop drooling, Alyx! This is for our baby."

"I know that! Aaa-chooo! Conrad, did you have to pinch me that hard?"

"Well, you looked ready to eat both me and my bag. Didn't you have breakfast?"

"Yes, I did. Feh!" Pouting, Alyx kicked at the fox, who nimbly leapt away. "I'm a growing boy, it's just healthy to have an appetite. Besides, that pie smelled so..."

"There's a chance Puppy won't like it." Hearing this, Alyx brightened, his ears perking. "In which case, I'll eat it myself."

Laughing, Conrad started running towards the forest, chased by the mock-angry Alyx. They kept up a high pace, deliberately going the wrong way for quite a while as they made sure no one had seen them. A couple of kilometres later they turned, heading straight for the cave. A ridge of low rocks, almost completely covered with moss and shrubbery, soon lay before them, and behind a small grove was the mouth of the cave. All was quiet; not a sound could be heard except for the ever-present birdsong, and suddenly Alyx was filled with dread.

"Conrad! What if some animal has eaten him?"

"They shouldn't be able to get past the barrier. But if someone has, there's nothing to do. That's the nature of things. He could just be a good, quiet boy, you know."

Not really listening, Alyx darted over to the cave, rushing past the fir twigs. Conrad was not very surprised when the cave mouth erupted with noise; lupine joy-whimpers mingling with happy dragon meeps. A few seconds later the little wolf emerged, happily cradling the equally elated dragon baby, receiving more than his share of licks and nips. Upon seeing Conrad, Puppy started squirming, eager to greet them both at once. Eventually, though, the cheerful reunion abated, and they settled down. It was a peaceful day; not a single cloud could be spotted through the tree-tops, and there was very little wind. While Alyx went to clean out the cave, Conrad opened his bag and brought out a couple of treats for Puppy, who gladly ate most of what was given to him. To Conrad's delight, the dragon baby seemed to be able to hold down just about anything. Quickly sated, he curled up next to the fox and went to sleep. Conrad leaned back, enjoying the thin beams of sun that found their way to the forest floor. The moss and grass here were so inviting that he lay down, yawning. As he was about to join the baby in dreams, Alyx came back out from the cave, muttering curses. His nose wrinkled, he carried something aside, and proceeded to bury it deeply. Wiping his hands against some shaded, still dew-wet blades of grass, he trotted over to Conrad and sat down.

"Did he eat something? He must have plenty of room, because..."

"Spare me the details, wolfie! Yes, he ate a lot, both cooked pork and carrots and bread. Drank some milk, too."

"And he's all right with it?"

"I'd say it agreed pretty well with him."

"Did he eat the pie?" Alyx had a hopeful look to his face.

"No, he shunned that. And the cookies I brought. Maybe dragons don't like sugar."

"Wolves do! Did you say cookies? What flavour?"

"Almond and nuts."

"Sweet! Can I have one?"

"Only if you beg real nice." Conrad laughed as the wolf-boy tilted his head and gave him his best puppy-dog eyes. "All right, you can have one."

"Yay!"

"Wanna split the pie?"

"Conrad! You spoil me!"

"Too late for that. The cap'n has been spoiling you for years."

"Don't you put down on my dad!" Alyx half-growled, watching eagerly as Conrad used his hunting knife to cut the slice of pie into half. "He's the best!"

"Alyx, yesterday you said I was the best."

"Well, obviously he's the best, too!" Alyx shook his head, tapping his temple. "Guides, you're dense!"

"And you're spoiled."

"Am not! I'm a good boy."

"Spoiled rotten."

"Conrad, if this pie wasn't so delicious, I'd stick it up your nose!"

As morning turned to noon, Conrad picked up his hunting bow and headed deeper into the forest. Alyx kept playing with the dragon baby while an hour passed. The three of them had mostly been sitting around, or playing lazily in the summer heat, but Alyx still felt thirsty. Drinking some milk from Conrad's bottle, he saw that Puppy was looking at him, expectantly tilting his head.

"You want some?"

Not really sure what to do, Alyx took a mouthful, then leaned down towards the baby. Understanding, Puppy lapped at the thin stream of milk Alyx let run from the corner of his mouth. The young wolf had to make an effort not to giggle as the tiny dragon tongue tickled his cheek, and more than once he nearly spat it all out in Puppy's face. Sated, the dragon curled up in Alyx's lap and went to sleep. Swallowing the rest of the milk, Alyx patted the tiny creature's head.

"You really do sleep a lot, don't you? Do all babies sleep like that?"

"Not you, you used to holler all day long, only pausing to snap at my fingers."

"Conrad!" Alyx jumped, startled by the fox's sudden appearance. "Stop practising your stealth on me!"

"I wasn't. Been here a while, already." He sat down, laying a couple of flayed, gutted rabbits in front of them. "I just enjoyed watching when you gave Puppy his milk."

"Did I do it wrong?" Alyx asked, looking at his feet. "I didn't know what to do... He seemed so thirsty."

"It's a good old way of sharing food and drink, Alyx. It's never been wrong." Ears perked, the young wolf looked up, grinning proudly. "Of course, I used the little bowl that's in the bag."

"Oh, you! Why didn't you tell me?" Sniffing in the air, Alyx's eyes turned to the rabbits. "Did you clean them out completely?"

"Of course not. I just took away the bits we don't eat. Want a heart?"

"Yeah!" Alyx accepted the treat, but then he hesitated. "Shouldn't we save the finest bits for Puppy? We're not sure he can chew the tougher meat."

"Then we'll cook it for him. No problem. Eat it, Alyx," Conrad urged, tousling the young wolf's hair in an affectionate way that made Alyx's tongue loll out. "It's sweet of you to think of others first, but it's not really necessary, this time."

Smiling back at the fox, Alyx slipped the rabbit heart into his mouth, and slowly began chewing. Closing his eyes, he savoured the taste, thoroughly enjoying this the most tender of meats. Judging from the smacking sound and the contented sigh he could hear, Conrad ate the other one. All too soon, though, the feast was over, and Alyx opened his eyes again, licking his lips. Usually, the heart was saved for the hunter, as a reward for the effort, so occasions like this were rare, indeed. Alyx could remember every single time he had been given such a treat, and now he added another memory to those happy ones. Thanking Conrad with a hug, Alyx borrowed his knife, proceeding to cut up the rabbits and remove the bones. Puppy woke up, smelling the meat, and sat up in Alyx's lap, curiously watching his doings. When he was done, Alyx cut a rabbit liver in half, tossing one bit to the side. The dragon baby pounced it, and started tearing at it with his tiny teeth and claws. The two boys looked on while they ate their own shares, laughing as Puppy worried the stubborn piece. In the end, Conrad got up, and took it away from the dragon, causing a stream of indignant meeps.

"It's too tough for him. Guess we'll have to build a cooking fire."

"Conrad, no! The smoke... It's guaranteed to bring people down on us."

"I know, but he can't eat raw meat."

"What if we chew it for him? Dragons are meat-eaters, aren't they?"

"The word is carnivores, Alyx." Thoughtfully, the fox stroked his chin. "Maybe you're right. It's worth a try."

Popping the slice of liver into his mouth, Conrad chewed it thoroughly, then beckoned the dragon. Hesitantly, Puppy trotted over, and the fox leaned down to present him some treats. This time, he ate them easily, nudging Conrad for more.

"Your turn, Alyx."

Nodding, Alyx chewed some rabbit meat, then fed it to the baby. They kept passing Puppy back and forth between themselves until at last the baby would take no more. Rejecting what Conrad offered, he went over to a patch of soft moss and curled up to sleep again. The fox kept on chewing, thinking to claim the meat as his own, but in the dragon's stead Alyx laid his head in Conrad's lap and looked up at him expectantly, his mouth open and his tongue sticking out. Taken aback, Conrad responded automatically and bent down to feed the young wolf mouth-to-mouth. Accepting the well-chewed rabbit meat, Alyx licked his lips, then sat up. With a smug grin, he bowed thankfully. All Conrad could do was laugh.

"You pup!"

"A good old way of sharing," Alyx said. "Thanks, Conrad. My jaws were sore from feeding Puppy."

"Oh, poor little Alyx. Want some more?"

"Yes, please!" The young wolf lay down again. "Feed me."

"Get up, you lazy thing!" With a snarl, Conrad tossed the giggling Alyx aside. "Pup!"

"Bore!"

"How about a cookie, instead?"

"Yah!"

After a brief nap they packed their things, and Conrad led the way to a small pond about half a kilometre away. The forest was dense around this tiny pool of water, and with little direct sunlight to warm it the water was quite cold. Still, it wasn't cold enough to deter a pair of playful children and their baby dragon. Soon there were two bundles of clothes lying on the rocks next to the pond and happy shouts and laughter to be heard. To their surprise, Puppy turned out to be an excellent swimmer, diving and leaping as if he had been born in water.

"Look at him go!" Alyx shouted as the little dragon raced around in the pond. "He must be half fish."

"I wonder if he'll look this graceful once he learns to fly," Conrad said. "He's so neat!"

The three of them frolicked in the shallow brink of the pond for the better part of the afternoon, occasionally diving down into the dark, cold centre, half expecting to come face-to-face with some fabled sea monster.

Taking a short break, they chewed more meat for the dragon, and Alyx managed to beg his way to another treat from Conrad. Puppy took a nap, while the two boys swam some more, racing each other across the pond, then wrestling in argument over who had won. Alyx was no match for the fox, and soon found himself flung into the water, head first.

Finally, as the sun was beginning to approach the horizon, they got tired and left the pond. Not bothering to get dressed, they gathered up their clothes and Conrad's bag, then headed back to the cave, Alyx carrying the still-sleeping dragon baby. They laid Puppy down on the wolf's shirt, and made sure that the barrier would hold. Leaving some bread and cooked vegetables, as well as a bowl of water, they returned to the pond to wash off the last remnants of dragon scent. Once out of the water, they rubbed their clothes against the soft forest grass, trying their best clean these, as well. As they lay down in a sunlit spot to dry off, Alyx's thoughts returned to the dragon.

"Conrad, what will happen when he learns to fly?"

"Maybe he'll return to his home. That would be for the best."

"I'd miss him." Lying on his back, stretched out to catch as much sunlight as possible, Alyx watched tufts of clouds drift lazily by above the treetops, in the rising evening breeze. "Do you think he'd come back to visit us?"

"Alyx, he might get killed if he did." Conrad leaned up on his elbows, catching the young wolf's gaze. "Remember his mother."

"Yeah, I know. But let's take care of him until then, okay?"

"Sure." Conrad laughed. "You're really fond of him, aren't you?"

"He's so cute! Don't say you don't like him, or I'll call you a liar!"

"You're right, he is cute. And charming. Alyx, it's a good thing we can chew meat for him. We can't keep stealing!"

"I know. I just picked some left-overs."

"Me too, but still... I'd much rather hunt."

"We should go home now. Especially if we're gonna come from another direction."

"Right." Standing up, Conrad pulled on his breeches and shirt. "Dry yet, Alyx?"

"Not really. My fur's thicker than yours. But it'll be dry before we're back in the village."

The sun was just about to set as they stopped, just a couple of minutes' walk from Thornwall. Alyx slipped into his clothes, and they once more sniffed each other over thoroughly, nodding as they found no trace of dragon in their scents. Outside the door to Conrad's house, they wished each other good night while the fox scratched behind Alyx's ears. Still grinning with pleasure the young wolf made his way back home, occasionally greeted by or greeting the people he met. Kelfric was the village's guard captain, the one who made sure the villagers could all sleep safely, and as the son of the cap'n, Alyx shared some of the loving respect people showed his father. Entering his house Alyx immediately caught the scent of roasting meat, and his mouth began to water. Kelfric peered out from the kitchen door, wearing an apron and holding a small kitchen knife. Seeing his son, a smile spread across the large wolf's muzzle.

"Hello, Alyx. You're just in time to help me cook dinner."

"Great! What are we having?"

"Veal."

"Cap'n! Have you been hunting in the cow pasture again?" Snorting, Kelfric slapped his rump, ushering him inside the kitchen. Yelping, Alyx hurried to obey. "Right! I'm going! Want me to peel potatoes?"

Kelfric nodded, returning to the vegetables he had been cutting. Alyx pulled up a stool, climbing onto it in order to reach the kitchen sink. Grabbing a knife, he got to work, taking care to leave as thin peels as he possibly could. Watching the young wolf working, tongue in cheek, focusing hard to do his best even with this simple task, Kelfric couldn't help smiling again, love and pride shining from his eyes. Once they were done, he put some more firewood in the stove, and soon a large pot was boiling nicely beside the roasting meat.

"I bought it at the square," Kelfric said. "Had no time to hunt today."

"Why not? You were gone when I woke up, so I thought..."

"I've been helping mayor Bak setting up lookouts. If there are any dragons coming here, we'll have plenty of time to hide."

"Oh. I didn't see any lookouts on our way back."

"You wouldn't. They're quite cleverly hidden, Alyx. When the watches change, I'll get a full report, telling me exactly who or what was on the move."

"So they'll rapport me and Conrad, as well?" Suddenly, Alyx seemed a bit concerned.

"That's report, Alyx. Yes, I suppose they would. Why do you ask?"

"Well, they'll report me as walking around butt naked. Might as well tell you, myself."

"Not another stink-tail?"

"No, cap'n." Alyx laughed. "I'll keep well away from those, I promise. But we went swimming, and my fur wasn't dry when it was time to go home."

"I see. I agree with you, Alyx, it was better to hear it from you, first. Spares me some wondering. You weren't swimming in Widow's Tear, I hope?"

"No, of course not. Conrad knew of a pond that's almost completely covered by trees."

"Where's that?"

"Oh, west of here. Don't really know how far..."

"Hmm. I think I know which one you mean. There's no way a dragon could've spotted you there. Were you quiet?"

"Erh, not really..." Alyx fidgeted. "We were playing as usual, and..."

"I see. Well, you just play, you hear. Unless you see a dragon, don't worry about them. Just keep below trees."

"Yes, cap'n!"

"And make sure to be back home before dark, no matter what."

"Yes, cap'n!"

"Good. Now set the table, Alyx. Food's just about ready."

Leaping to his feet, Alyx saluted. "Yes, cap'n!"

The next morning, Alyx woke up to the sound of claws tapping on his window. Grinning, he knew who was making the noise before he had even opened his eyes. Only Conrad would rather climb the tree outside to reach his friend's bedroom window, than knock the door like sane people would. Pausing to pull on his loincloth, the young wolf darted over to let his fox friend in. This day, too, Conrad was carrying a food-smelling bag.

"Are you sleeping in, lazy wolf?"

"Good morning to you, too, Conrad. Did you wake the sun up, today?"

"Not really." The fox giggled. "I'm straight out of bed, except for a detour through the kitchen. Alyx, I think we should move Puppy today."

"Move him? Where to?"

"Let's find a place. The longer we stay in one place, the closer we get to being found out."

"Still, carrying him around in the open could be dangerous, Conrad. Especially since dad's got people everywhere, looking for dragons."

"Looking up, not down."

"But they look down, too. Conrad, they saw us yesterday, when we were going home."

The fox grinned. "So they saw your...?"

"Yes! Give me a break! Did you have breakfast?"

"Yup. You?"

"You woke me up, dummy. Think I eat in my sleep?"

"I've seen you chew while you're dreaming 'bout sweets. You drool all over your pillow."

"Meanie!"

A quarter of an hour later, they made their way out of the village, following the road towards Westtown for a while, before slipping into the forest. Alyx was munching on a couple of hastily made sandwiches, and jumped as Conrad patted his shoulder.

"There's Roan, up in that tree."

"Where?"

"Right there." The fox pointed, and Alyx followed the direction with his eyes. "Can't you see her?"

"Oh yeah, I see her. But only because she moved."

"She's coming down."

True enough, the sturdy cougar, one of Kelfric's seconds-in-command, soon appeared at the base of the tall fir, grinning broadly as she swung the boys around. Pointing at Conrad's hunting bow, she frowned.

"Out for a hunt, Con?" Alyx giggled as the fox cringed at hearing the affectionate nickname.

"Yes. I'm teaching Alyx how to skin and gut an animal."

"It's gross," Alyx said, grimacing. "All gooey."

"Don't whine, boy. It's good knowledge."

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Have you seen any dragons?"

"No, which I guess is lucky. Guides know your old man wouldn't mind catching one, but the rest of us are happy the longer they stay away." Suddenly, she fidgeted. "Erh, you don't have to tell him I said that, do you?"

"Of course not," Alyx said, smiling. "Good morning, Roan."

The cougar bade them good bye, then returned to her watch. Finishing his sandwich and licking his fingers clean, Alyx couldn't help bouncing along the path, urging the fox on. Conrad laughed and shook his head, gesturing for him to calm down. Pouting, the young wolf snapped at a butterfly fluttering by, then returned to trot along at his friend's side. His question remained unasked, as another gesture told him to stay quiet. Puzzled, Alyx followed the fox the wrong way. The minutes passed by, until suddenly Conrad stopped.

"Why are we..."

"Schh!" Readying his bow, Conrad signalled to the young wolf to stay back. "There's a roe buck up ahead."

"Roe buck?" Alyx whispered. "Are you..."

"Stay here."

Without a sound, the fox disappeared into the shrubbery off the path, leaving a bewildered Alyx behind. Something was wrong, the young wolf deduced, and decided to play along. Before long, he could hear a bowstring sing, followed by a muttered curse. Conrad returned with a frown on his forehead.

"I missed."

"Missed? I thought your aim was impeccable," Alyx taunted. "You actually missed?"

"Right, just laugh." The fox hung his head low, clenching his fist. "But I think I can track him."

"What are you waiting for, then? Let's go!"

"Okay."

Heading into the forest, the two boys ran as fast as they could, without missing the signs that told of the buck's passing by. Even though he was still wondering what had got into Conrad, Alyx couldn't help feeling the elation of the hunt, the tingling excitement the predator feels while in pursuit of his prey. He could smell the buck now, its strong musk filling his nostrils as they got closer with every leaping bound they took. As if on a given cue, they slowed down, sneaking the rest of the way painstakingly slowly. The young wolf was almost shivering, now, and he kept glancing at his fox friend, wondering how Conrad could keep so calm. He's a better hunter than me, he decided. That's why. If it were just me, I'd have scared that buck away. They carefully crossed a glade, finally reaching a water hole where the exhausted animal had paused to drink. Ever so slowly, Conrad readied an arrow, and aimed. Before he could fire, though, the buck sprang up, turned to run, then fell down, dead. An arrowshaft was buried deep in its chest, its point having pierced the heart. Startled, Alyx tried to catch Conrad's gaze, but the fox just smiled, wryly, walking down to the water hole. The wolf got up from his crouching position, and followed.

"Excellent shot, cap'n," Conrad said, and only then did Alyx catch his adopted father's scent.

"Cap'n?"

"Hello, boys. Hadn't expected to see you here."

"Dad, that was Conrad's kill! We've been stalking him a long time."

"Sorry, Conrad," Kelfric said, patting the fox's shoulder. "I've been waiting for him, or one of his kin, since just after dawn."

"Well, there's your dinner, Alyx. Maybe we could snare us a couple of rabbits for lunch."

"Your snares always work better. Will you teach me your secret?"

"Heh. I will, Alyx."

"Well," Kelfric said, grunting with the effort as he lifted the dead buck onto his shoulder, "I'll be going back to the village. See you tonight, Alyx."

"See you, cap'n!"

"That's why you led us wrong?" Alyx asked once they were alone. "You spotted him?"

"No. I didn't hear him, didn't see him and didn't smell him. But I had a hunch he'd be after us."

"Why?"

"Alyx, I don't think there's ever been a smarter man than your dad. The cap'n knows we're up to something, and now he knows we know that he knows."

"My head spins. How could he know?"

"Like I said, he's smart. He won't be after us now, though, I think."

"Good. Let's get to the cave, then."

"Right."

They found the little dragon sleeping, curled up on Alyx's old shirt. The young wolf turned to look at Conrad, and the two of them smiled warmly at each other, moved by the peaceful sight. Gently, Alyx crouched down, lightly touching the dragon's muzzle. Immediately, Puppy's feet started kicking, and he let out little grunts and meeps, clearly caught in a dream. Alyx managed to pick the dragon baby up without waking him, and carried him out into the sunlight. It was another hot day, and the two boys pulled off their shirts to let the sun warm their bodies. In a matter of minutes, the three of them slept, cuddled up to each other.

Alyx was awakened by his own growling stomach. Blinking his eyes open, he could tell by the length of the shadows that noon had come and gone. Gently easing his way out of Conrad's arms, he reached for the bag of food only to stop, halted by memory. My arms weren't empty when I lay down. Where's Puppy? But he hadn't needed to worry. The baby dragon sat a couple of metres away, swatting at a butterfly. When he saw that Alyx was stirring, Puppy happily bounced over, covering his face with licks and occasionally nipping at him. Scratching the dragon's head, Alyx earned some contented meeps, and Puppy settled down in his lap, looking up at him expectantly.

"Hungry, little buddy? Me too! Wanna check out what ol' Conrad has brought?"

As if he understood, Puppy stood aside while Alyx opened the bag, his eyes shining hungrily as he awaited his treats. There was bread, and some boiled carrots, a large bottle of milk and some cookies. Alyx fed Puppy a couple of carrots, while he poured milk into the dragon's bowl. Watching the baby eat and drink, he leaned back, munching a cookie. A muffled noise made him turn around, and he smiled as Conrad started kicking in his sleep, his lips moving and his fingers flexing as he dreamed. My friend, Alyx thought, as he leaned over to stroke Conrad's cheek. The fox calmed down at the touch, and sighed as he returned to deep sleep. Grinning wickedly, Alyx beckoned the dragon baby, and Puppy trotted over to him.

"Let's have some fun with him. Conrad's dreams are always easy to manipulate."

Puppy meeped happily, and again, Alyx wondered how much he could understand. What if dragons really do understand what we say? That would really be something. He grabbed the sleeping fox's head and lifted his muzzle from the ground, then leaned down until their noses almost touched. Hoping he wouldn't make Conrad too angry, he blew softly into his nostrils, and immediately the fox opened his eyes.

"Alyx! Alyx, you mustn't..."

Still asleep, Conrad looked around, then closed his eyelids once more, settling down into a dream-filled slumber. Giggling, Alyx moved to tickle Conrad's feet, watching them kick their way into a dream-trot. Once the fox calmed down again, Alyx went on to tousle his chest fur, using his claws to give Conrad a good scratch A grin spread on the sleeping fox's muzzle, and his right foot started twitching. Then, the tail. It took only a minor push to persuade Conrad to roll over to lie on his stomach, and Alyx grabbed his long, bushy fox-tail. Starting at the base, right at the hole in the fox's trousers that let his tail hang free, Alyx began rubbing each vertebra in turn. He got about halfway, before the tip started swaying slightly, and now he knew exactly what to do. Running his hands along Conrad's waistband, Alyx scratched his rump and lower back, and before long, the fox's tail was wagging happily. Smiling, Alyx enjoyed the sight, but what he had failed to notice was that the wavering extremity had caught Puppy's attention, as well. Watching Alyx's doings, the baby dragon was now facing a temptation that quickly became too great to resist. Snarling, he pounced, sinking his teeth into Conrad's brightly white tail-tip. Yelling, the fox spun around, cradling his tail as he sat up, sending both dragon and wolf flying. Meeping furiously, Puppy tried to attack once more, but Alyx grabbed him, howling with laughter as he lay down, then rolled over and around, trying to catch his breath. Perplexed, Conrad tried to gather his thoughts. It didn't take long before he was awake enough to understand what had happened.

"Had some fun with sleeping foxes, eh?" His indignant tone only served to make Alyx laugh all the more. "Wolfie, I'm disappointed in you!"

"But you were so... it was so hilarious! Puppy had fun, too."

"I'm sure he did. Fun enough to bite my tail!"

"Don't be mad at him, please?"

"All right, I'll be mad at you instead." Conrad put on a stern face, and for a second, Alyx cringed. Then the young wolf tilted his head, doing his best to look innocent and sweet. Conrad's pout quickly turned into a grin. "Cut it out, you! Why can't I ever stay mad at you?"

"'Cause I'm so cute!"

"No, that's not it. Must be some character flaw of mine."

"It's not a flaw, crazy fox," Alyx said, hugging his friend. "You just love me too much."

After receiving the usual happy licks and nips from the baby dragon, Conrad sat down on a sunlit patch of grass beneath a tall oak, to play with Puppy while Alyx cleaned out the cave. All the while, there was a worried frown on his forehead. Barely two days had gone, and they already had Kelfric on their tails. How long did it take for a dragon to grow? He realised that he had absolutely no idea, but it would be at least several years. The choices they faced now weren't good ones; either wait a couple more days and have the cap'n find them out, or tell him right away. Either way, Puppy would be dead, sure as dawn follows night. Alyx knows this, as well, Conrad thought. He just can't bring himself to think the conscious thought. Pulling at his end of a stick, the young fox watched the dragon snarling happily as it tried to win the tug-of-war. You don't know, do you? You can't know. He felt his eyes brimming with tears, and as Alyx joined them, he was crying openly. The young wolf closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, knowing fully well what was wrong. Leaning against his friend's back, Alyx took him into a warm embrace, nuzzling his neck, trying his best to bring comfort. When he spoke, Alyx was surprised to find his voice quite steady.

"I know. It's so unfair, to punish the innocent."

"He hasn't done anything!" Conrad let the stick go, watching with a sad smile as Puppy mewled victoriously, tearing into his prey. The fox turned around, returning the hug. "Alyx, I'm going to fight the cap'n over this."

"Conrad, no! Let me..." Their eyes met, and Conrad could see that the young wolf was nearly crying now, as well. "He'll rip you apart, but I could maybe..."

"Alyx, we can't just let him die."

"No. No, we can't. We won't."

"The best way would be to bring him into the village, to let everybody..."

"No." The steely resolve in Alyx's voice made Conrad look up. Gone was the cub he knew, replaced by a stern-faced wolf, ready to truly defy his father for the first time. "They wouldn't hesitate to follow orders. If we get the cap'n out here, though. Make him see. Make him understand there's no danger."

"That won't be a problem. We'll just pretend we don't know he's there, tomorrow."

"Right. And if we fail, at least we won't be shamed in front of everybody."

"Unless he decides for us to be."

"No, he won't. My father's strict, but not unfair."

"Then it's settled? We lure the cap'n out here tomorrow?"

"Why wait, boy." The deep growl made Conrad's neck fur stand on edge, and he could hear a low yelp of surprise and fear from Alyx. "Why lure, when I'm already here?"

Leaping to his feet, Conrad scooped up the baby dragon, his tears still flowing as he cradled Puppy to his chest. Alyx took a couple of steps towards the huge wolf, but one single stare-down made him freeze on the spot. His voice little more than an angry rumble, Kelfric slowly stepped towards the two boys.

"I knew you were up to mischief, but this!? Alyx, are you out of your mind!?"

"No." His ears flattened with submission, every fibre in his body screaming for him to lie down and show throat, the young wolf still found, somewhere, the courage to meet his father's gaze. "No, I'm not. His mother was killed, he would've died!"

"Then all the better!" Snarling, Kelfric unsheathed his hunting knife. "And I wouldn't have to stain my blade with such filthy blood!"

"Cap'n, no!"

"Cap'n..." Conrad backed away a few paces, still holding the squirming Puppy. The dragon feared this new, unfamiliar voice, and wanted to run away. "Cap'n, please..."

"Have you found voice as well?" Piercing eyes burned at his own, and the fox was almost physically forced to look down. "Do you defy me, too, Conrad?"

"Yes..." It was little more than a whisper, but enough to merit a furious snort. "Yes, cap'n..."

"Alyx, of all the silly things all the silly pups have ever done..." Suddenly, Kelfric's voice was softer, but it kept its edge. "You cannot raise a dragon spawn!"

"We'll teach him not to hurt..."

"That can't be done!! It was the likes of him that KILLED YOUR PARENTS!!!"

"I know! But it wasn't him, he's just a baby!"

"They are monsters, Alyx! Murdering beasts, with less mind for the suffering of their victims than a crop plague!"

"No!" Alyx yelled, standing his ground. "They're not! His mother was dying, but she still cared for him. Still tried to save him."

"Alyx, as soon as he's big enough to gape around your neck, he'll tear you open."

"How can you say that? If you've been watching us, you've seen him play! He loves us!"

"Because you feed him. Until he decides to feed on you, instead."

"Cap'n, please! Give us a chance!"

"I'll give you a chance to save your hide, son!" Kelfric tossed his heavy knife to Alyx, who caught the handle reflexively. "Finish it, and I won't mention this again."

"No..."

"Otherwise, you won't leave the village again, either of you. Not even when you're able to walk again."

Still defiant, Alyx let the blade hit the ground between his feet. He glanced over at Conrad and nodded. Go! The fox was shivering with fear, unable to disobey further. Conrad, no! Run! Kelfric sensed what was coming, and ran up to snatch the dragon away from him. Crying out, Alyx leapt in his way, grunting with the impact as they collided, Kelfric landing heavily on top of him. Alyx felt something give way in his chest, and a second later the pain hit him from a broken rib. Gasping as he was yanked to his feet by the snarling captain, the young wolf was still able to find breath.

"Conrad, run! Hide!" As he opened his mouth to yell, Alyx felt a drizzle of blood hit his tongue. He must have hit his nose as well, without even feeling it. "Run!"

The fox spun on his heels, and dashed off at full speed. Still holding Puppy, he left the thin undergrowth in front of the cave, heading out into a nearby field. Kelfric moved to follow, releasing his grip on his son, but as Alyx screamed with pain at the sudden movement, the guard captain seemed to get ambivalent. Then he saw where Conrad was going.

"Not that way!" Suddenly, Kelfric's anger was replaced by concern. "He's leaving shelter!"

"Run and hide!" Alyx yelled, earning a slap to his already bleeding nose.

"The coast watch have reported more sightings! He could..."

From far away, they could hear a bellowing roar, answered nearby. Gripped by an ice-cold fear, Alyx started running, ignoring his pain. Kelfric tried to stop him, but surprise had given the young wolf a head start, and soon he had almost caught up with Conrad, who had stopped, trying to discern where the noise had come from.

"Conrad! The dragons! They're..."

The young wolf fell silent as a large shape swooped by, just above his head. He got a glimpse of glimmering teeth and viciously sharp claws, before the wind knocked him down. Again, he couldn't help crying out as the edges of broken bone grated against each other. Straining, tears running down his face, Alyx got to his feet, to find himself standing right between Kelfric, bow drawn and arrow ready, and Conrad, still holding the dragon baby and shielding it with his body.

"Conrad, let it go," the adult wolf growled. "Let it go or I'll shoot it straight through you, Guides help me!"

"Cap'n, stop this! You can't even think about shooting..."

Alyx's plea fell away to silence, as the ground shook beneath their feet. A loud roar cleft the air, followed by another ground-shaking thud. Turning to look, Alyx fond that two dragons, both larger than the one they had watched die, had landed no more than ten metres from Conrad. Kelfric aimed his bow at the larger of the two, a huge green male, but Alyx was determined to stand in his way. The second dragon, a smaller blue male, let hear a purring noise, which was answered by the baby.

"Cap'n, no killing! They're here for Puppy!"

"You'd let the dragonling live, so he can kill you another day?" Fear and fury were vying for control of the elder wolf. "Madness!!"

"Shoot, and we all die!" Alyx yelled. Behind him, he could hear the hissing, roaring voices of the dragons. "They won't kill us if we hand him over!"

"Alyx, I think they're afraid of the cap'n," Conrad almost whispered. He was holding the baby up for the dragons to see, and this made them stay at a distance. "Won't he put the bow down?"

"Cap'n, you scare them." Alyx was sweating now, both from the pain in his chest and muzzle, and from the intense fear he felt. Behind him, he could smell sulphur. "Please, dad, put the bow down! They're going to breathe fire!"

"I can take one with me!" he growled, his eyes burning with a red rage Alyx had never seen before, and which scared him like he had never been scared before. "One, before I go..."

"Dad..." The young wolf's timid plea was accompanied by a soft whimper that made Kelfric react, tearing his eyes away from the dragons to look at his son. "Dad, you'll kill me, too."

Kelfric stared at Alyx, as if he only then realised that his son was actually there. Seeing the bloodied muzzle, and the way the young wolf clutched his damaged rib cage, Kelfric's determination began to swagger. His eyes... So afraid, yet he holds his ground... My son, what am I doing to you? Bow and arrow fell to the ground, and the guard captain sank to his knees. Immediately, the larger of the dragons began to move. His green scales glistening in the morning sun, he roared mightily as he reared up, raising his wings and getting ready to attack. Alyx ran over to his father, tossing himself around the elder wolf's neck as if oblivious to the pain this caused. Closing his eyes, he waited for what was to come; the fire. He would die like his parents had, like he would have, seven years ago, if not for the cap'n. But the searing flame never came, and the strong smell of sulphur abated. Turning his head, Alyx immediately knew why. Conrad. The fox barred the way for the attacking dragon, clutching Puppy to his chest.

"Let us go!" he yelled. "Let us live and you'll have your child! We didn't kill your mate, we saved this child from starvation and predators!"

A deafening roar ensued, and the green dragon reared its neck to snap at the young fox. Defiantly, Conrad refused to move, holding Puppy in front of him. Then the second dragon nudged the green one, keeping him from attacking. Growling, the larger dragon backed away. Purring again, the blue one bent down towards Conrad, who still didn't move. Nuzzling Puppy, the dragon seemed to check for injuries. The cast made him curious, and he sniffed carefully at it. The baby was squirming, now, anxious to get to what Alyx presumed was his father. Gently, Conrad put Puppy down and watched him run over to the dragon, who lifted the baby up with his forepaws and placed him on his back. A stern look silenced the green one, who seemed ready to attack again, and instead they took to the air. Within seconds, the dragons had disappeared from view, heading towards the coast. Staggering to his feet, Alyx realised that he had been holding his breath, and now he exhaled, wincing as the broken rib ached. Without saying anything, Kelfric pulled off Alyx's shirt and ran his fingers through the boy's chest fur, ignoring both grunts of pain when it hurt and giggles when it tickled. Suddenly, he pressed hard, and Alyx cried out as the broken bone was laid right with a loud snap. Tears streamed down his cheeks as his father gently held him, cooing and whispering to soothe. Conrad trotted over to them, laying his hand on Alyx's head, tousling his hair. The young wolf got up, wiping his tears as he flashed his friend a grin. Kelfric, too, smiled at Conrad as he stood up. Slapping the fox's shoulder, he nodded.

"Will you miss him?"

"A while," Conrad said. "It helps to know he's going home."

"Yeah, that makes me feel a lot better," Alyx said, flexing his upper body. "Wow, cap'n, that really helped. It hardly hurts at all, now."

"Give it a week or two, son, and you'll be all right again. All in all, I'd say you got away easy, right?"

"Yes, cap'n!" Alyx said, smiling warmly. "Does that mean...?"

"It means that if you ever do anything like this again, I'll skin you both. Clear!"

"Yes, cap'n!"

"Can we go home now, cap'n?" Conrad asked, blushing. "I... I wet myself when that blue dragon sniffed me over."

"Hah! Bet that's why he didn't eat you."

Giggling, Alyx dashed around his fox-friend, grabbing hold of his waistband and pulling up as hard as he could. Yelping, Conrad spun around, but he was too late to catch the giggling wolf. Kelfric watched them disappear in beneath the trees, fox chasing wolf in a mock-hunt, joyous whoops and cries echoing through the forest. He shook his head and smiled to himself, then picked up his bow and trotted after the two boys back towards the village.