Alone in the Cave
Natasatch yawned for the hundredth time in the last few moments, fighting the urge to sleep even though the crag of the mating cave and the warmth of a beautiful sunny day beckoned to her. How tired she was, not yet recovered from bearing her lord's offspring just two nights ago. She could not afford to sleep now, not while AuRon was hunting for her, leaving her to guard their clutch alone for the time being. Not that he really needed to hunt. He had gone out of his way to bring her food the moment he knew their mating would result in a new brood of dragons as it was, and now that the young were finally here, after a month's time? Truly, she would grow fat like Shadowcatch! Her half-eaten morning meal of a wild horse lay a short distance away, on a crag just below hers, within an easy neck-stretch. If she gorged as much as her mate wanted, she would hardly be able to walk, never mind fly with their hatchlings, and she resisted the temptation to eat the rest of the horse and save it for her mate.
But, growing larger was not the only problem, was it? All this time, while AuRon hunted in excess for her, he hardly fed himself. He was frenzied in his efforts, rushing out of their cave before she could argue. It frightened her. He had begun to lose muscle, and was not nearly as hearty as he had been, especially in the past two days. Worst of all, she suspected she had something to do with it.
She had been asleep—rather uncomfortably, she remembered—two nights ago, when her insides seized up and roused her fully from her slumber. AuRon had been sound asleep next to her, his nub of a tail draped over hers, tender even in his dreams. Having been in the Wyrmaster's dragonelle caverns for most of her life, she was well used to clutching, and with the discomfort that came with the act. She had hoped she could discreetly lay their eggs and be done with it by morning when her mate awoke. How she wished for that, also well used to what happened to her eggs time and time again on that island; how grateful she and the other females had been when they had the peace and sanctity of night to let nature take over, rather than during the day with the Dragonguard prowling around; how she wanted to surprise her mate with his clutch the next morning.
But that was not to be.
Perhaps it was because, on some level, she thought of bearing her beloved's offspring this time, rather than a dragon's. Perhaps it was because her "sisters" were not with her to give her comfort as they all had done in the caverns when one of them clutched. No matter what the cause, it would seem that she would not be granted a relatively easy time of it—her very gut burned. She had let out a small groan, and though she thought she had masked it well enough, AuRon had nevertheless been roused with a start as she lay there panting from the pain. He had panicked, trying to gauge what his best reaction would be: to stay and fawn over her, as his instincts told him to, or to pace the cave looking for threats, as his knowledge of what had happened after the rebellion told him. He knew as well as she how Alhala, a dragonelle who had been about to clutch when the rebellion began, fared in the aftermath. RhaSeen, a blue dragon from the fighting stock (his Wyrmaster name had been Seecrest), was distraught as his new mate suffered from the exertion of the revolt, at such a crucial time. The thought of Natasatch experiencing the same trauma was unthinkable!
And so AuRon had done both, in a way, racing from the entrance of the cave to her perch, to the back of the cave, to her perch, and to the entrance again, several times. In her discomfort and frustration, she had lashed out with a mind-picture of her time in the cavern, of the countless clutches she had laid for that human, alone, with no mate at all—panicked or otherwise—by her side. He had stopped his pacing, taken aback, and had hushed her apologies with his prumming and loving nuzzles until, when the sky had turned grey with the Sun's arrival, their first clutch together lay on the egg shelf. He had not rushed to hunt then, preferring to let her sleep before he left her alone on guard. That had been the beginning of this unsettling drive in him to care for her.
Thinking thus, Natasatch turned away from the sunny afternoon outside. She absently pulled the eggs closer to her with her tail and ran a forked tongue over them. They were a little too cool for her liking, she decided. She nosed one closer to the others, making certain the precious air sac inside was not disturbed.
How cruel she had been, to have shared such a thought with AuRon. Of course he would have been panicked. The dragons she had mated—no, whose rutting the Wyrmaster had forced her to endure –had been stripped of many of their instincts, and cared more about being intact at the end of the each day than the dragonelles. (Although, she had to say, under AuRon's tutelage, many of the males not only renounced the lessons the Wyrmaster had fed them but had revealed their innate hatred of what they were doing, and had proved themselves worthy mates to Ouistrela, Epinonia, and the others.) She could go so far as to say that the Wyrmaster had them on a human breeding regimen, for he had wanted human servants just as badly as drakine ones. But her AuRon, he had grown up as a proper dragon, and followed instincts she had long ago forgotten about, so he could only want to protect her.
She nosed the horse carcass in front of her. She was terribly hungry, and wanted to eat it, but she had plenty of food stores to live off of because of her mate's diligence. He insisted that she could only have the freshest kills, and ate what she left behind, which is probably another reason why he had grown thinner over the past month…she had never left much for him, admittedly. But this time she was going to resist and see that he got a good meal, too.
She heard flapping and picked her head up from the meal. AuRon swept down from the sky and alighted just in front of the cave. He hobbled as he carried a grown ox in his mouth and its calf in one sii. He made his way to her perch and put the fresh kills down. "Good, my love, you are awake for the midday meal."
"You know I do not so much as doze when you are out, my lord."
He nosed the ox around and peeled a leather harness away from it; metal bits and coins clattered to the ground from the main compartment. "Here, for you."
She gladly let the metal slip down her throat and prummed. "Thank you, AuRon."
He eyed the horse carcass after he finished the calf in one bite. "You have left half of this."
"I want you to have it."
He snorted. "Only because it is here." He had to work at it, since the body had long been cold, but he tore at the trunk and rear quarter of the horse she had left for him.
"And I want you to partake of this ox, too."
"Certainly not." He licked a bit of skin from his teeth.
"AuRon, I cannot eat this myself. It is much too large for me. You take what you want first."
"No, no, it is out of the question, Natasatch. You need this more than I."
"Don't be daft! Look at yourself, AuRon! Already, you grow thin, and you haven't the appetite for metal as I do to make up for your meager meals. A weak dragon is as bad as a weak dragonelle."
He whipped his head around to look at himself, perhaps to argue, but froze, defeated. "I suppose you have me there."
"And look at your tail," she added softly. "Starlight bit you over a month ago and it has hardly recovered." AuRon conceded, begrudgingly it seemed, and forked his tongue over the dead ox. He picked the foreleg as his starting point and pulled until the limb separated at the shoulder. He licked at the blood still running from the puncture wounds his teeth had made. His mate grew more despondent at the sight of the hunger in his eyes. She sighed and looked at the stub of his tail. By now, had he been eating properly, it would have been regenerating and regaining length. How he flew, she could not imagine. "I…would ask your forgiveness, my lord."
She heard rather than saw the limb drop from his mouth.
"Why ever would you say that?" he replied.
"I would ask forgiveness for the mind-picture I shared with you, two nights ago, when I was belabored." She looked at their eggs sadly. "It was wrong of me to do, when you were only doing what any good mate does. Barring what you yourself saw, my time and my misery in the dragonelle cavern should never have been shared: not with our daughters when they look for mates and ask me about such things, not even with you."
"To have given you that experience, when you were troubled so, was cruel of me. I fear I have caused this hunting frenzy of yours, this showering of me with food when you hardly take for yourself that I know of. So, I would ask your forgiveness for that, AuRon."
Without pause, he drew closer and touched his nose to hers. "You needn't ask that of me, my love. Apologies are unnecessary."
"But how can that be? You provide me with so much—"
"It is the nature of a good male. Father taught that to me. I am duty bound to make sure you, my mate, have all the nourishment you need to raise our young. But, is it so different from…then?"
"We were always well fed with fish—"
"No, what I mean is…. Were you not given extra food after you clutched?"
"No. We were given the same amount of food as the males, and as our eggs were taken from us to be raised as the Wyrmaster wanted, I suppose there was no reason for us to be fed extra portions."
His griff rose at that. "And no other male—"
"I'm sure some of them would have, given the chance—consider how attentive RhaSeen was of Alhala, as well as LaMere of Epinonia and RuMat of Ouistrela—but what did it matter? They were all out-matched by new males eventually and castrated, so they were never near us after that. I remember another male Ouisa mated. He won his trial as was granted his rights one week, and the next week he was with the fighting stock, altered."
"I see." Why, that poor excuse of a man who was worth less than dragon waste and—
"But, you speak the truth, right? This is not just to placate me?"
AuRon shook himself from his thoughts. "Of course not, my love. I cannot help myself."
Natasatch nosed the leg he had dropped. "Eat then, my lord."
He nuzzled his mate again before he took up the ox leg again and made quick work of it. He took the head, too, and part of the thick neck muscle. Then he stepped back and licked at his mouth. "There you are."
"You have had enough?"
"I have. The rest is yours." She latched onto the remaining front leg and pulled it a little closer. She went straight for the midsection and ate the organs, especially the liver, which AuRon had told her was supposed to be the best. Bordering on voraciousness she took to the other limbs and fleshy parts. "And you say I hunger."
"I never denied it my own hunger, my lord, but I did not want to gorge while you denied yours."
"I would rather it."
She looked up. "What?" He shared with her mind-pictures from his days as a hatchling in the cave with his parents; of Father, AuRel, returning with food for his family and of his arguments with Mother; of Irelia refusing time and time again the meals her lord brought to her and growing thin and weak and listless; of her inability to fight that day in the cave. Natasatch suddenly felt worse than she had after she clutched: wilted, barely able to lift her tail to play with her hatchlings, and so hungry. Moreover, she was overwhelmed with great sadness, although she could not think of why.
She shuddered. "My lord…."
"I saw my mother waste away, Natasatch, and that was probably why she hadn't the strength to fight that day when the dwarves betrayed her, and I lost her along with Father and my siblings."
"But, surely what I did—"
"No, my love, your mind-picture had nothing to do with it. Truly, I would rather give my life in weakness—"
"Don't speak of such things!"
"—than have my hatchlings lose their mother to it. I know I would have benefitted greatly from what she knew, but she allowed herself to wither."
"That I do not know, but thinking on it I have the sense that her reasoning was similar to yours, whatever the reason. I think Father had some idea, too, because he always insisted she eat, and looked upon her so gravely sometimes." He nosed the carcass. "Come, there's still meat for you here."
"Later, AuRon— I mean…thank you."
She left the bones for her mate, since he probably could have used the nourishment, and while he crunched away she thought to the young. She shared the images of their grandsire and of his beloved Irelia, of the look of devotion AuRel had had for her. In that way, she gave them images of their own sire and dame, of his devotion to his Natasatch, and of her loyalty to him, her lord, her AuRon.