Red climbed the wooden rugs of the tower ladder easily. After doing this for most of his twenty-four years of life, he could climb it in the dark. He poked his head up above the floor and called, "How you doing, Dan?"
Dan shook his head at the man after scanning the skies again. "Not good."
"Yeah." Red smiled at the horizon. Still blue after so many years. Trees were still there. "Think we'll ever see any?"
Red chuckled and kept his eyes on the sky. At the top of the tower, the sky seemed to stretch out forever.
Too bad the ground didn't.
Years ago, lost to the record-keepers, the earth cracked. It splintered and fell. Earthquakes decimated the land that was stable. The oceans rose.
People died, the ocean their grave.
Records were lost. Sometimes they found a sign or a map that said where they were. Scouts ran along the edge of the land, sending messages when a crack was found.
Sometimes, the settlements had time to grow food or plants for clothing before they had to leave. They drove animals before them for food and gathered plants when they stopped for the night.
They still had towers and people to repair them. Sometimes radios worked.
Rumors flew. Australia was gone as was most of Africa. Europe was completely underwater. No one knew what was true.
Dan sighed again and Red looked over at him. "What?"
"No one's ever seen one."
Red snorted. "You with the people who think they're just stories?"
"They were here, they left, then came back? Where are they if they existed at all?"
Red looked at the tops of the trees as they swayed in the distance. He never got tired of watching that. And the terror never left him of seeing them fall while he was still within sight. The earth splintering far away from him that could catch up so fast...
"Maybe they're asleep," Red said softly.
"Or have another continent that they've stabilized and are just waiting for us to die."
Red frowned. "Don't think like that. We're here. We're watching."
"For something that hasn't been seen in living memory." Dan lowered his eyes to the floor. Day after day in a little wooden tower, scanning the skies for something that some people thought didn't exist.
Red reached out and patted Dan's shoulder in silent encouragement.
She opened her eyes and looked around.
She thrummed in her throat, calling for someone.
She rose from her bed and began exploring. A high mountain. Books. Pictures.
Her name came back to her along with others. She raised her head and keened to the clouds.
Dead. They were dead. Her mate. Her hatchlings. Dead!
She clung to the side of the mountain near the top, her talons dug deep. Clouds, the sun, the cold. Nothing affected her. She could stay here, sleep until she died.
That's what she had intended.
They'd died. Not by human hands. Unhatched eggs crashed to the ground as the earthquakes started. Her oldest by a wave of water that smashed her to the ground, broken. Her middle hatchling by a piece of metal that punched through his chest as a building collapsed. Her youngest by poisonous gases that had ruptured somewhere nearby.
Her mate... Electricity had fried him, singeing him. She hadn't been able to touch him until hours later.
She'd fled back to her mountain, unable to care for anything. Everyone she knew was dead.
Tears fell to the stone below.
She flew without direction. Just her and the sky.
It was the only thing that was familiar.
The earth that she knew wasn't there. The shape of it, the cracks, pieces fallen into the earth.
Was she the only thing alive?
Dan blinked his eyes several times. The dot in the sky grew bigger. He scrubbed at his eyes. I'm seeing things, he thought.
No. He wasn't.
He reached for the handle and cranked it furiously.
What was that?
Her head turned toward the huge flag fluttering in the wind. It was bright blue with something sewn on it.
Her eyes picked up movement. For someone who hadn't even seen a lot of birds, she was thrilled to see signs of life.
She turned and flew toward the flag. What was on it?
Once close enough, her wings stopped in mid-air and she used air magic to keep herself from falling.
The flag bore the image of a crude form of a dragon and a human. She tilted her head as the flag flapped in the wind. What did it mean? Had humans gone back to killing dragons? Were there other dragons here?
A few humans were running toward the tower now. They were pointing in her direction.
She wasn't close enough to see what their faces looked like. But they hadn't brought out any weapons yet.
They might know what had happened. What year it was. And it wasn't like she knew what she was doing.
Dan held his breath. Did he see them? Would he come closer?
Dan watched the dragon pause in the air and his eyes widened. How did he do that?
He tore his eyes away from the dragon and looked at the ground. "Yeah?"
Red pointed at the sky. "You found one!"
Dan grinned and nodded. Where there was one, maybe there were more. Even if this one didn't approach, he'd keep watching.
"Oh." Red's eyes widened in surprise.
Dan looked back at the sky and saw the shape coming closer. He swallowed hard and started climbing down from the tower. He didn't want to be up there by himself if the dragon did that hovering thing again and wanted to talk to him.
She decided to land as a dragon. She was better suited to defend herself in her dragon form than human.
She felt the ground underneath her feet and frowned. It was solid, but so much of what she'd flown over wasn't.
She raised her head slightly to look at the humans approaching her. They didn't look like they were going to attack.
They looked scared.
Red glanced at Dan. They were at the front of the crowd. Daren wasn't here, though. "Who should go over and talk to him?"
Dan shook his head. "Not me."
Red grimaced as he looked at the few who had come out with them. No one here was looking all that anxious either. "Wish me luck."
I really don't want to die, Red thought as he walked toward the brown dragon. Really. But no one else is going to do it and someone should try.
She watched as a lone human male stepped away from the crowd. She tracked his every movement, the way he scrubbed his hands against his pants, his adam's apple as he swallowed.
He stopped a good distance away and raised a hand. "Hi, I'm Red."
An introduction. Good. Now what else did he have to say?
"Um... It's nice to see you. We haven't seen a dragon in a long time. A really long time." He reached around to rub at the back of his neck. "Uh... We're not going to hurt you? Would you like to come in and have something to eat?"
Geez, he sounded like an gibbering idiot. We're not going to hurt you? He was a dragon!
The dragon took a step forward, watching him. Was he supposed to run away or lead him in or what?
The dragon walked forward when Red didn't move. He stopped fifteen feet away and lowered his head until he was only a few inches away from Red's nose.
Red stared into the dragon's eyes and felt his heart speed up. He was this close to a living dragon. He was still alive, too.
She looked at him. Should she trust this one and go in?
She gave him a good sniff that ruffled his short brown hair and turned her head minutely to the side, looking at the human settlement. It looked like an old-fashioned longhouse. It was just the longhouse, a couple out-buildings, and the tower.
There wasn't even a fence to keep out intruders.
Maybe there weren't any.
Red watched as the dragon looked over his shoulder at his home.
Then the dragon did something amazing.
He stepped toward the crowd. After a few steps, he looked at Red and then at the longhouse.
Red smiled and started in. He hadn't screwed it up.
She stopped by the longhouse and looked around, stretching her neck this way and that. One of the buildings was definitely a smokehouse. Another, the necessary.
So, a place to sleep, a place to relieve themselves, a place for food, and the tower. Just the necessities. The tower had to be used for something else, too. Maybe to watch the weather.
She was curious about what they'd offer her as a meal. A whole cow?
Dan was filling in the people in the longhouse, but a lot of them were outside, too. The buzz of people talking grew and Red didn't know how it was going to affect the dragon. Currently, he was just standing there and looking around. He hadn't spoken.
"Is it staying?"
"Where did it come from?"
"Is he going to hurt us?"
"What is it going to do?"
Red walked closer to the dragon and smiled when the head came around to look at him. "Hi. Do you need anything? Is there anything we can do for you?"
Well, that was odd. From the questions, they wanted to know all about her. But this one was asking if they could help her.
Perhaps she should shift and talk to him. This Red seemed like a good sort so far.
Then someone touched her.
Red watched as the dragon's eyes widened right before his head swung around like lightning.
He almost ran to see what had caught his attention. Oh, no.
Irwin, only eleven, stood frozen with one hand on the dragon's back leg.
He. Was. Touching. Her.
Her eyes narrowed and she glared at the child. What did he think he was doing?
A young woman darted forward and slid in front of him. "Please don't hurt him," she said anxiously. "He didn't mean it."
Her head reared back slightly in shock. She wasn't going to- She'd-
The child hid behind his mother, fist in her shirt.
She turned her head away and moved sideways away from the child. There was a crowd all around her, but she was going to get away from here.
Red's eyes widened and he spread his hands. "Let him through," he said.
The crowd parted as people dodged out of the way. The dragon kept moving sideways until there was enough room to turn. He headed away from the crowd and the longhouse.
Where was he going, Red thought.
He ran, catching up with the dragon. "Please, don't go," Red said, trying to keep up with four large feet on his smaller two. "He's just a child. Someone probably dared him or he was curious or something."
The dragon stopped and looked at him. Then he raised one leg and pointed at Red. The leg came up to the dragon's chest, tapping himself, then pointed away from the human settlement.
He's leaving. Red's heart sank.
She continued away, the humans falling behind her. She'd never been fond of shifting forms in front of humans, but she didn't want to go too far away, either.
A few hundred feet away from the majority of them, she shifted.
Red froze as he watched the transformation. Oh. So that was what he wanted.
Long hair fell down his back, strange clothes appeared, and-
She turned her head toward him and his heart sank. She was thin and looked like she needed a week's worth of sleep. The dark circles under her eyes spoke volumes.
She walked toward him cautiously, her hands out to her sides. "I'm not going to hurt you," she said softly, her voice hoarse.
"Okay," he said. "Um. Did you understand me before?"
"Yes," she said, giving him a small smile. "My name is Eleanor." She tilted her head minutely. "I apologize for my abruptness, but I believe you mentioned a meal? Perhaps somewhere I could rest? Put down my bag?"
"Oh! Yes." He turned sideways toward the town and pointed. "That's the door to the longhouse. There's always something cooking."
"That would be good." Her body felt incredibly tired now that she'd stopped flying. "I've been in the air for... two days?"
He wanted to ask her where she'd come from so badly, but he bit his tongue. "We'll find you something to eat and somewhere to sleep, Eleanor."
They walked slowly toward the longhouse, Red staying close as Nora didn't seem too steady on her feet. People were quiet as she walked by, her eyes only for the door.
They entered the building, him holding the door for her. He led her to the right where they prepared their meals. There were cupboards, long counters, knives, and other things to eat with.
He hesitated by the big soup pot. Should he find her somewhere to sit first?
She solved the problem by folding up to sit on the floor. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't think I can get any further."
"That's okay," he said, glancing around for Dan in the crowd that had gathered. Where was the man? He didn't want to leave her alone. "Hey, Hen? Could you get Eleanor a bowl of whatever's cooking?"
The woman on the edge of the crowd froze, then bobbed her head. "Sure."
When the bowl was filled, Hen passed it to Red. Not to Nora.
Red gave the bowl to Nora with a wooden spoon. She dipped the spoon into it and raised it to her lips. She sipped at the soup and smiled once it was in her stomach. "It's good. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Red said. He hesitated, but sat across from her. "We've got enough for seconds if you want it." He frowned. "Or do you have a dragon-sized stomach in there?"
He froze at his words. "I didn't mean that."
Nora chuckled. "Why not? It's an honest question. No, I'll eat as a human with human-sized portions." Then she devoted her time to making sure as much of the soup got in her stomach as possible.
Dan caught Red's eye when she was through with her lunch. "Yeah, Dan?" Red asked.
Dan edged forward, one eye on the dragon. "Um, we've got a place for her to sleep."
"Okay. Eleanor, you want seconds?" Red asked. She shook her head. "Then it's time to sleep."
Nora nodded and rose. Her feet were more sure of themselves and she walked after Red.
Someone had put up three cloth-strung dividers and piled the blankets high in a generous portion of sleeping space close to the wall. Nora crawled into them and was asleep minutes later.
Red and Dan weren't having as peaceful a time as Eleanor was.
Everyone wanted answers. They didn't have any.
"What does she want?" Daren asked.
Red looked at the leader of their little town. "I don't know. A meal and a place to sleep so far."
Daren nodded slowly. "What do you think of her?"
Dan shrugged. "I just saw her from the sky mostly."
"Tired," Red said, right on Dan's heels. "Jumpy, but she said she'd been flying for two days."
"Where did she come from?"
You already asked that, Red thought. "She didn't say. Daren, let's wait until she wakes up. She said she wasn't going to hurt us, then asked for something to eat and somewhere to sleep."
Daren eventually agreed.
Nora stretched her legs out straight as she woke. The blankets were pleasantly warm and she felt fully rested.
The pain was still there. Her mate wasn't contributing to the warmth of her bed.
Her foot touched something wooden and she curled her body to look at it. A screen.
The previous days came back to her and she pushed herself up a little. She knew three names, Red, Hen, and Dan. These humans were living in a situation not like the ones she had known. And they'd treated her like something precious and rare.
Nora sat up in the blankets and listened. She heard a noise she didn't recognize and the faint buzz of talking.
She rose and looked down, puzzling at the blankets. Should she fold them?
No, she decided. They were that way when I arrived. And I don't know if I'll be sleeping here tonight.
She changed into a fresh set of clothes and left her bag by the blankets. No one could touch it except her due to the spell.
Nora pushed one of the screens aside by the edge. The walls were logs and didn't have any windows cut in them. It was beyond her to tell if it was day or night.
Except that there aren't any people sleeping, she thought, smirking at herself.
She turned her head toward the man walking toward her. "Good morning?" she asked in a questioning tone.
Red shook his head. "It just turned noon. Are you hungry?"
Nora put a hand over her stomach and nodded. "If there's enough."
"Sure," he said, grinning. She started walking toward him and he paused. "Um, do you want to eat alone? I can bring something to you."
She stopped. "I can't eat with the others?"
"Oh, sure! I just, well, we've got a lot of questions and you don't have to answer them, but we wish you would. Just if you're talking, you're not eating."
Nora smiled as the man didn't stop while he talked. "I can wait here."
Red nodded and moved away quickly.
A few minutes later, Red was back with another bowl of soup and some bread. Nora accepted the bowl from him and folded her legs to eat.
It unnerved her a little that Red just watched her eat, though.
Halfway through her meal, she glanced up. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes, Eleanor. Go ahead."
She glanced down, then around at the building. This style of architecture plus a field and cows suggested... "Is someone going hungry, because I'm eating?"
"No. There's enough."
That sounded practiced. She ate the rest of her soup and finished the bread. "Thank you." She set the bowl aside and gave him an even look. "You said you had questions."
Red took a deep breath. "Yeah."
"So do I. Why don't you start, then I'll ask you one."
"Sure. Where did you come from?"
Nora glanced left and right. "I'm not sure of the direction, but I was inside a mountain. What year is it?"
"We don't know."
Nora frowned. "It isn't something like twenty-one hundred and thirteen? Twenty-one thirteen?" Red shook his head. "Okay, how about an 'at least'. Who is the oldest person here?"
"Teresa. She's seventy-three."
"How old were her parents?"
"I don't know."
"Mm." Nora grimaced. "But she doesn't remember the earthquakes starting?" Red shook his head. "At least seventy-three years. Or a little later if she was young. No," Nora said in a hushed voice. "I think it's been longer. It feels longer."
Nora sighed again and said, "Your turn."
"What do you want?" he asked. Nora raised an eyebrow. "Daren, he's the leader, he's wondering about that."
What do I want, she thought, tilting her head. "I don't know," she said.
"Do you want to hurt us?"
"No." She winced. Oh. The child. "Who was the child yesterday?"
She raised her eyes to his and he saw the concern. "Is he okay?"
Red nodded. "Yeah, he's fine. A bit scared."
Nora looked over Red's shoulder like the boy would appear. "I should talk to him. Or his mother."
"They might like that." Or not. If I'd ticked her off, I might not want to see her again. At least not until I was a little taller.
Red went back to his question. "Do you want a place to stay?"
Nora considered that. Her mate and hatchlings were dead. The world was changed. She didn't have anything else to do and she couldn't think for some reason. "Maybe. I'm not sure if I want to stay here, but I do want to know what's happened in the time I've been asleep."
"That would be why you don't know what year it is."
Nora nodded. "It was in the early twenty-first century that the earthquakes happened."
"Would you tell us about that time?" Red asked, his eyes wide with fascination.
"Yes." Her head tilted toward the sounds she couldn't identify. "What is that noise?"
Red frowned, then turned his head when she pointed. "Oh. Those are the looms. Some of the others are making cloth."
It was his turn and he didn't know what to ask. "We've kind of covered the basics, I guess."
Nora smiled. They weren't going to hurt each other, she was staying for the time being, and there would be more information passed between them. "Can we go for a walk? I'd like to look around."
"Uh, sure." Why was he so off balance around her? Other than the fact that she was a dragon. Big. Flying. Heavy enough to stomp him into dust.
No, that was enough.
Nora rose and picked up her bowl. He automatically reached for it and she frowned. "Is this a new custom, to look after women this way?"
"No, I just thought... You're a dragon," he blurted out.
Nora looked faintly confused. "Yes."
"We've never seen one."
"Oh," she said, handing him the bowl. "You're being polite. That's fine." Her mouth quirked into a smile. "I can carry my own dishes, though. If you ever get tired. Wash them, too."
She walked beside him and slightly behind as he went back to the kitchen area. People stopped and stared as they walked by, whispers sprouting up after them.
Red put the bowl and spoon with the others and turned to her. "What do you want to see?"
"The necessary first," she said. He frowned. "Bathroom? Where you go to relieve yourself?" He wasn't getting it. She sighed. "I'll find it again."
Nora left the longhouse and ignored the looks she got. She went straight to the necessary and figured out how to use it.
When she came out, Red was waiting. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know what you meant."
"That's okay," she said. How many times am I going to have to reassure him, she wondered. "You call it something different?"
Nora nodded. "That's an older name, but I know that one, too." She glanced around. "Where are your plants? It's fall, but there should be something."
Red pointed off in another direction. "It's over there. That's where most of us are."
"Longhouse, outhouse, tower, and smokehouse. Farming and herding," she mused. "How long have you been here?"
"Two years. What did you do before the earthquakes?"
She was quiet for a moment, remembering. "I had a bookstore," she said shortly. "Where is this Daren?"
"At the field."
"I'd like to meet him. And maybe Irwin and his mother."