The wind was cold as it blew out from the desert. Enfri turned to look towards the source, a frown pulling at her lips. Desert winds shouldn't be cold at midday. Her mother would have called that an ill omen, but there was little that the woman wouldn't have called a sign of bad luck.
"Is something wrong?" Enfri's visitor asked with a timid hesitance.
Goodwife Cobbler kept to the edge of Enfri's garden. She wrung her delicate, unlined hands. The girl was nervous being this far from the village. This wasn't her first time visiting the house, but one would hardly know it by looking at her.
"Just the wind," Enfri said. "Winter must be coming sooner than usual."
The shoemaker's new, young wife gave a startled gasp, her eyes wide with a mixture of wonder and fear. The look on her face made Enfri want to rub at her temples. An off-hand comment given to a village girl, and now the local gossip was likely to turn towards incoming snows three months too soon, six-foot-thick sheets of ice covering the landscape, and the nefarious sky woman who called it down on all of them.
Enfri picked a few extra tomatoes to go with the girl's package. Something sweet and juicy might prod her towards thinking kindly of the bringer of doom.
There was a crack in Enfri's back as she straightened. Too long stooping over the dirt and picking through herbs. Even the strongest of joints could only be pushed so far before giving protest, and Enfri's back had never been strong.
Winds, she cursed inwardly. Mother wasn't far wrong. I'm already an old woman.
There weren't many years separating Enfri from Goodwife Cobbler, and in the opposite direction most would think. The shoemaker's wife, who had obliquely refused to hand over her given name, couldn't have been older than seventeen. Enfri, though hunched like an ancient crone, was three years the goodwife's junior.
It was an easy mistake to make. The crooked silhouette shuffling through the fields of a distant house would naturally be assumed to be that of an old woman, not a young girl fresh to the world. It came of Enfri's back, hunched and bent from a mistake of birth.
Few came to the sky women anymore, not since Enfri's mother and grandmother passed. It was a lofty name for a simple life, Enfri wasn't even sure who came up with it. A sky woman was a healer, a woman of the village who spent her days gathering herbs and mixing poultices. A caregiver and midwife.
"Here you go," Enfri said as she handed a basket of herbs and vegetables to Goodwife Cobbler. "Set the sunwillow to dry on your windowsill. Mix a few pinches into his tea, and the pains will lessen. Don't let your husband have more than a few pinches a day, or he'll get weird. Talking to the chairs and thinking that a scale lion is sitting on his head, that sort of thing."
"Magic…" the girl breathed in awe.
"Hallucinogenic. Big word that means it can make you see things that aren't there. But, it does wonders for the biting coughs. I packed some tomatoes in there, too. For the walk home." Enfri gave her as big a smile as she could manage.
Goodwife Cobbler returned the smile a bit uncertainly. She handed over a silver penny, bobbed a curtsy, and gave her thanks before she retreated from the garden at something only just short of a jog.
Enfri sighed as she watched the older girl trot away. When she was well down the road, Goodwife Cobbler plucked a tomato out of the basket and gave it a tentative sniff before biting into it. Baby steps. Before long, Goodwife Cobbler would return again for more remedies when she needed them, maybe even give Enfri her name next time.
The hour was reaching towards evening. Goodwife Cobbler would have to walk quickly if she wanted to get back to the village before sundown. Likely, she'd make it in record time, the pace she was setting.
Enfri returned to her work in the garden. She had a few chopped up fish that she still needed to bury in the soil. Grandmother had always said that fish made the best fertilizer. A few trout from the stream should keep her garden fertile for the season.
It wasn't particularly hard work, but most things were hard with her back. Grandmother had called it spinal kyphosis. Mother had called it being a useless hunchback. Grandmother had been the gentle one of the family.
Both were gone now. Mother died from an infected broken leg when Enfri was ten. Grandmother passed away three springs later. Enfri had been desperate to learn the right herb to save her, but Grandmother patiently explained that there wasn't a herb to be found that could cure what she was dying from.
"Life," Grandmother had said, her eyes closed because she was too weak to open them. "I'm dying from far too much life. It's a much more pleasant way to go than most get."
Her work in the garden done, the last of the sky women took off her head scarf and let her hair tumble past her shoulders. Gold hair, much unlike the women of the village. Mother and Grandmother had had dark brown hair, which was more common here in western Althandor. It was Enfri's father who had brought blonde into the bloodline.
Father had been a foreigner in the king's army, a simple spearman that had been entranced by the beauty of Enfri's mother. He died when Enfri was little more than a quickening within Mother's belly, killed in one of the king's wars against another faceless enemy.
Enfri tossed out some feed for her chickens, dropped the last remnants of trout into the pigs' slop bucket, then put some fresh hay down for the old milk cow. Where had the geese gone to? Probably off to argue with the wild ducks at the pond before waddling back for dinner. Enfri filled up their water in case the little hooligans forgot to drink while they traded barbs with the rival gangs of fowl.
As the sun fell, she felt the fatigue of the day beginning to pile up. Even relatively easy days such as today left her feeling spent and sore. The days when her back didn't bother her were few and far between.
Enfri went inside and put a kettle to boil over the hearth. She mixed her tea, a blend of raspberry leaves cured with rattlewood sap. Grandmother came up with the remedy. It did little to straighten Enfri's back, but it did help with the pain. She settled into her grandmother's old rocking chair with a sigh and sipped her tea. She lit a candle and picked up one of Grandmother's many notebooks to study.
She read of the symptoms for the golden flu and how to treat it. Drink plenty of water, preferably mixed with two spoonfuls of sugar. Breathe the fumes of smoldering spark blossoms whenever possible. The patient should survive so long as the skin doesn't turn yellow. If the skin turns yellow, make sure the patient refrains from eating. Keep hydrated with sugar water. Change bandages once an hour as soon as the sores appear. Survival at this stage is possible but unlikely.
Dreary reading, but such had always been her bedtime stories. Mother had never given Enfri tales of princes and knights from bygone days, but lectures on the rattling sickness, the proper use of leeches, and the droops.
"You're doing it again," said a tiny voice from behind Enfri's shoulder.
"What is it I'm doing?" Enfri asked. She felt a smile tug at the corner of her mouth. It had been several weeks since her visitor last appeared.
"Looking at that dead thing and seeing pictures in your head."
Enfri's hand stopped in the midst of turning a page of Grandmother's notebook. That was… an interesting way to describe reading. It made it sound like some manner of medication.
"I'm only reading, Deebee. The marks on the page symbolize sounds, and the sounds become words."
"And the words become stories," Deebee said. "I know the method. I know the uses. That doesn't stop it from seeming silly to me."
Enfri closed the notebook. She was exhausted, but she would always have time for Deebee. After all, how often did one have a chance to converse with a dragon?
"Not stories," Enfri explained. She peered around her home for sign of Deebee. "Information. About herbs and sicknesses. It's how we leave wisdom for the ones that come after us."
The dragon had a talent for remaining unnoticed, only appearing when she wished to be seen. Enfri sometimes— not often, but sometimes— could catch the scamp before she revealed herself.
"Useful," Deebee conceded. "The mighty can learn from you mortals, I think."
"Are you saying dragons didn't write things down?" Enfri asked. "Is all your knowledge passed down orally? Or are there pictures?"
There came a soft harrumph. "Mosaics, if you must know."
Enfri's eyes settled on the shelf on her right side. There were five inkpens. She had a habit of misplacing them, but Enfri rarely discovered more on her shelf than the four she owned. She squinted and decided that one of the pens had a bit more curve to it than it should. She reached over and stroked the blackened length of wood with her fingertip.
There was a startled yelp and the inkpen wriggled away, taking on a silvery sheen as it did. The rest of Deebee materialized soon after.
For a dragon, beasts of story and legend, Deebee was smaller than one might expect. If Enfri held out her hand, Deebee could have fit snugly upon her open palm. Her sinuous neck was the length of a forefinger, and if she stretched her snout and tail out as far as she could, Deebee might have been able to reach from wrist to elbow.
Her scales were bright, silver, and so fine that Enfri would need to peer closely to see them individually. Deebee's eyes were like clear amber, large and inquisitive. Her wings, like those of a bat, folded across her back like an elegant cloak. She was startlingly strong, often able to move things that Enfri would have thought too large for her. Also, astonishingly clever. Despite how she seemed to disdain the written word, Enfri knew for a fact the tiny dragon could read faster than even Grandmother could.
"I found you," Enfri stated proudly. "What do I win?"
Deebee alighted on the closed notebook on Enfri's lap. She rubbed her foreclaw across her cheek in an unconcerned manner, as if she had allowed Enfri to find her. "I have a treasure I could reward you with."
Enfri nodded with false gravity. "Oh, indeed. The legendary horde of dragons. Are you certain you would be willing to part with something so grand?"
"Not all of my treasures, you wicked, little thing," Deebee scolded. "One treasure of my choosing. But fear not, I promise you that it is grand."
Enfri grinned. "Well then, let me have my prize."
Deebee produced a small item and held it in both her claws. Where she had such a thing sequestered away was a mystery, but Enfri had long ago learned not to be surprised at the small miracles a dragon was capable of.
"What is it?" Enfri asked. She leaned down to get a better look.
"The heart of a stag beetle," Deebee said as if she had just presented the Imperial Diamond of the king. "Small as a grain of sand but strong as the sun."
Dragons and sky women had very different measures of what made something a treasure.
"I've magicked it," Deebee explained as she placed the heart on the tip of Enfri's finger. "It will never fade, it will never rot, and it will always hold onto its power."
Enfri suppressed a shiver. Magic. So many thought her capable of such that she had nurtured a strange sort of aversion to the idea of it. Nonetheless, she was grateful for Deebee's gift.
"I will keep it safe," Enfri promised. "Now, to find a place I won't lose it."
"I can see to that," Deebee said. She snatched the heart away and flapped to a shelf on the other side of the room. That was where Grandmother kept all manner of small curiosities and trinkets. Enfri was certain that Deebee believed that shelf to be the sky womens' hoard.
"As safe a place as any," Enfri said once Deebee returned to her lap. "Now, what brings you back? It's been a long time since you were last here."
Deebee's tail went straight up in the air. It was an anxious posture. "Dreams," she said. "I dreamt of your father's face."
"Oh?" Enfri was aware that Deebee had known her father. She even suspected that they had been somewhat close, though Deebee rarely spoke of him.
"I dreamt of golden hair and the eyes of a beast. Pools of blue and a dark place. Metal and green things that grow. Sand and rock and blood and fear."
Enfri's brow drew together. "Is this a thing of dragons? You dream of omens?"
"Omens?" Deebee scoffed. "Don't be absurd. Dragon dreams hold no more prophecy than your own, girl."
"Then why would your dreams make you want to come here?"
"Because neither dragons or humans dream of what will be. Humans dream of what was. We dream of what is."
Deebee liked to hide her intentions as much as she liked to hide herself. It could be maddening, though Enfri supposed it carried a sort of charm. "That doesn't really answer the question."
The little dragon harrumphed. "Fine. I will speak more clearly. Your father was in my dream. I know he is gone, and what is gone can never come back. That means that something of his is concerned, and I could only think of you."
"What could be going on with me?" Enfri asked. "Something about 'eyes of a beast'?"
Deebee hunched her shoulders and pressed her jaw against the leather binding of the notebook she sat upon. "I don't know, but the dream made me afraid. You're alone now. I was not sorry to see your mother leave this world, forgive me for saying, but your grandmother was good. I was more at ease while she was with you, but now she has gone as well."
Enfri wasn't certain how she felt about Deebee's bluntness. Mother had been a harpy, certainly, but it felt wrong to accept ill-will towards her.
"I will stay awhile," Deebee declared. "Until my worries go away."
Enfri laughed. "I'd be happy to have you, love. Care for some tea?"
Deebee turned her nose up at the idea. "No, thank you. A dragon must fend for herself. I will hunt, then return once you have fallen asleep. I will then watch over you until morning."
A protective worrywart of a dragon. Enfri supposed she was blessed to have such a thing in her life. "As you wish, Deebee. Just don't bother the geese."
"Blaggards," Deebee muttered.
"Don't let them get to you. They're just jealous of how pretty you are."
The compliment set the dragon at her ease. She leapt from Enfri's lap to the windowsill. "Mmm. Yes, you must be right. To bed with you, girl. I will be here when you wake."
"I have studies, Deebee, but I promise not to stay up much longer."
That seemed to satisfy the dragon. She leapt into the darkness outside and took wing. Enfri wasn't certain what it was Deebee hunted. Mice, perhaps.
Enfri opened Grandmother's notebook and returned to her reading. She felt warmer now that Deebee, her pugnacious guardian, had returned.
As she read of the black fever, Enfri's mind wandered back to the things Deebee had said. Dreams and a beast's eyes. Strange riddles. Omens, Grandmother would have said despite Deebee's assurances otherwise.
It wasn't long before sleep found her.