PART I - CAPTIVE
There had been a time when Calvin had believed strange things about the Indians – or as his father had called them in his customarily delicate and Christian way, "Our neighbors."
Calvin had thought they were like everyone else, for one thing. That they had souls to be saved, and families they loved as anyone might. He'd thought they were reclusive and likely to leave you alone, if you didn't bother them. He'd thought that they would trade fairly with a man if he managed to be polite enough to satisfy their delicate sense of caution – which must be considered a natural product of living in the uncultivated forests, with bears and cougars and so forth. Anyone would need to remain guarded in that environment, and this must be what led to all the misunderstandings. Fights for territory, white men and Indians killing each other off, forts being raided, that sort of thing.
Those regrettable matters were not helped, Calvin felt sure, by so many tribes selling their services as scouts and warriors to unscrupulous tricksters like the French. Association with them could teach a man nothing in the way of morals.
But in all, Calvin had presumed, Indians only had as much potential for ill in them as any person, be they white or black or whatever came in between, and all the same chance to do good in the world. It was, he had held, unjust to oversimplify things and term them "savages."
Calvin had clearly been completely wrong, because the three braves who'd captured him had earned the name of "savage" by ambushing him and beating him. And after all they'd done over the course of the day, he couldn't consider them human. A human being might break your nose when he was drunk and wanted a fight, or steal everything you owned. By God, a real bastard might outrage a woman's virtue or kill his parents for an inheritance, and if he were a lunatic he'd laugh about it as he was dragged to the gallows, never even seeing that what he'd done was wrong.
But surely, no human being worthy of the name would seal another into a cave with a dragon's egg.
For the dozenth time Calvin screamed "Let me out!" He kept pushing uselessly against the large wooden grate over the cave's mouth.
He'd needed to duck his head to fit inside of it as the Indians forced him through. It was no use. Calvin was weak. The planks had been set into the rock itself and then lashed together. The savages looked in at him with eyes whose whites stood out brightly in the deepening dark of the evening. Three pairs of them. All of the wretches were barely older than he was himself, but leaner, stronger. They'd had no trouble capturing Calvin. One of them had shot an arrow into his pony's neck and the other two had subdued him once he'd fallen out of the saddle. It was a miracle they hadn't broken any of his bones, but his bloody nose had ruined his clothing and his cheek was swollen to twice its normal size.
They'd killed his pony, and they were probably going to skin and eat her right in front of him, warm by their fire while he sat and ached and waited for death.
One of the young men said something in his native tongue and the others laughed. The one who had joked stepped closer, and said, "English," pointing past Calvin, into the cave. He was indicating where the egg rested.
That made no sense at all, of course. As though these fools could have stolen one of the Aerial Corps' precious eggs, which were kept under constant guard in places like Castle Island. The one they had was large enough that it must have been difficult to carry here, for that matter. "You're lying," Calvin said. "Why are you lying?" It wasn't as though the tribes didn't raise their own dragons. Everyone knew it was their practice to give their most courageous warriors the right to ride them into battle.
Without warning, the brave knocked against the wall of wood with the butt of his musket. Calvin recoiled, falling onto his buttocks, the pebbly floor hurting him. "English! Man, English." he pointed at Calvin, then in the direction of the egg, and then repeated, louder and slower as though it would make more sense, "English." Then he put his hand next to his mouth and opened and closed it a few times while saying something in his own tongue.
He wanted Calvin to speak English – which made no sense, since he already was. What did the egg have to do with it?
"I'm speaking English. I only speak English." Calvin felt tears running down his cheeks; they were hot and stung where they touched the wheals on his skin. He was ashamed to be crying, and his captors seeing it made it all the worse.
The brave sneered, stepping away, making some kind of hand gesture significant to his people but not to Calvin. The others laughed again from where they were making a fire using a bow drill with remarkable speed and ease. Calvin shut his eyes while gripping the bars again, listening to that whirring, scraping noise. He tried to gather his courage.
Then he turned around, running the dozen steps it took to reach the back of the small cave. His teeth were bared. He was going to smash the bloody thing.
The egg glistened only dimly in the shadows, blue-green and as tall as his waist. Inside was something that would, left to its own devices, break loose and kill him. The hatchling would turn him into its first meal. Dragons were always born ready to fend for themselves; he knew that much from stories. It was why their parents did not need to care for them.
Well, the animal inside might already be strong enough to cut him apart and gobble up the pieces, but Calvin would rather take the chance that it would be weak and unformed. Unprepared. It might not be anything near sporting to kill something that hadn't been born yet, but when accidents happened and the hens laid fertilized eggs, you didn't waste time tending to them. If you didn't want cockerels, you smashed them. It was a matter of practicality.
Calvin tried to slam his foot into the very center and top, on the theory that this might let him hit the dragon's head, crush it, make it unable to hurt him back while he finished the deed. His boot wasn't too heavy, being only made of deerskin. But Calvin's legs were the one part of himself he considered reasonably strong from all the walking, the climbing, the years of crouched work at planting. He made sure to connect with the shell using his heel first.
It not only didn't break, but Calvin's knee lost all feeling, and then his ankle did the same. They'd been bruised during his beating, but now they were strained by being slammed into something that felt as hard as iron. The shells of dragon eggs were supposed to grow tougher before the hatching, he'd heard, but this was beyond anything he'd imagined. The boy fell over, muttering every curse he knew, and he heard more laughter from outside. Through the water in his eyes he saw the Indians pointing and laughing, one of them patting his musket while shaking his head. It might not have been effective, but he wasn't meant to try it again, either. Calvin shut his eyes, whimpering. He had not been captive for a day, but he already felt starving and parched and exhausted.
Father was dead. No one knew where he, Calvin, was – he wasn't even sure himself, as the area north of the Susquehanna's fork was barely mapped. If he'd even owned a map. No help would come, because in the entire world Calvin had no living relations. He barely had any friends.
What was there left to even try living for, if he had nothing to look forward to but being eaten alive by the most vicious and terrifying sort of beast known to man?
Well. It was a week until his sixteenth birthday, anyway.
He wondered if he could last that long – but upon reflection, that depended entirely on the dragon, and how eager it proved to leave its shell and eat him.
After only a few minutes of sleep, Calvin was woken by shouted commands that made no sense to him. They were entirely in the heathens' language, which was full of strange stresses and intonations that didn't match up to any tone of voice Calvin was familiar with. He couldn't so much as identify it – what tribes even lived in this area, at any rate? The Delaware? The Shawnee? There were people who knew all such things, and Calvin wasn't one of them.
His father had probably known. Father had known half of everything. Other children Calvin had played with said they'd figured out at ten or eleven that they were as clever as their parents, or more so. They'd realized that their fathers weren't right all the time even if they were the heads of excellent homesteads with English educations. Calvin Priestly hadn't experienced those feelings; his father had always, without ever intending to, made him feel like an idiot.
Sergeant Benjamin Priestly had been clever. Too clever for the station he had been born to back in England, or even in New York as an underpaid Marine who needed to take jobs on the side to clothe himself. The frontier was made for men like him, enterprising and ethical and fascinated by the possibilities of the unknown, rather than afraid of them. It fell to them to tame the wild country that was called America, and make it British.
Whatever father didn't know, he'd learned or figured out. He would have been able to understand what the Indians were telling him with their hand signs and shouting about half an hour before Calvin figured it out.
They wanted him to talk to the egg, as part of God-only-knew what heathen ritual. It didn't appear to matter what he said, as long as he said it in English and as long as he didn't stop. Calvin obliged them, especially because they shouted at him to continue if he did anything other than drink the filthy water pooled among the rocks. He needed to do this often, to help his throat.
So, day after day, Calvin talked. They didn't feed him, and didn't acknowledge him unless he slowed down or began mumbling things that weren't words. They seemed more or less able to identify it when he did this.
His main solace was that they couldn't really understand him, no matter what he wanted to talk about. Calvin could go on about anything he liked, and he had plenty to say to himself. Things he felt it was important to give voice to, before he died.
Calvin talked about how he'd gone out into the woods just to get sticks for kindling, and come back to find his father's body hunched over in his favorite chair. He'd known something was wrong before he'd even touched the body, since father never rested while the sun was up.
He talked about burying his father with his own hands, on a pitch-black night with raw palms and no idea how such a hearty man had sickened and died in only two days, scarcely complaining of the pain in his heart. He talked about heading south out of New York Colony's far reaches in search of the nearest real civilization, which was supposed to be here in Pennsylvania – if he'd made it into Pennsylvania yet, at any rate. Father had shown him how to follow the old, marked trail. Calvin had now lost that trail.
Eventually, as he sat there speaking, it rained and the water got a touch fresher. But the ground turned muddy, and Calvin had to curl up in the farthest-back, darkest part of the cave. Right next to the horrible egg.
Days passed. He began to talk about things that were small, childish. He recounted every detail of life in the cabin that had been home, so far from everyone and everything. How he and father used to stuff and preserve birds, and how he'd been taught to recite all the binomial names of the ones they mounted on the walls of their cabin. Calvin had been made to read and re-read every one of their dozen-and-a-half books, so he talked about those. He rehashed the plots of the novels to himself. The history of the kings of England was recited, though he felt sure he'd skipped some. And then he made up some others to amuse himself. He summarized those books of the Bible he thought had enough adventures in them to be worth knowing.
It was impossible for him to deliver Shakespeare, as he wasn't too capable with the outmoded language, but he could rattle off the stories, and did so, inventing the details he couldn't quite bring to mind. The plots worked quite as well when simplified, and fit in nicely with the ones he liked better of the Greek gods and goddesses. Eventually he got down to trying to recollect every word of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book.
Part of Calvin thought he would run out of stories to tell himself before too long, but he was alone with every bit of the contents of his head. Knowing that he would die soon, he appreciated the chance to reexamine them and cherish them, one last time. And in every story he told of his own life, he put his father front and center. The man who he had spent five years almost completely alone with, who had taught him everything he knew, and who was now gone to meet his Maker in the wondrous hereafter, leaving Calvin to face this far harsher world alone.
He was so hungry that his belly didn't even ache, so sad that he'd lost the ability to cry. Deep in the night, while Calvin's captors were asleep, he kept on murmuring to himself about the time he'd been to the Chesapeake and seen a whale. He realized now that he'd never simply told someone about it who hadn't been there.
Knowing that the egg was hardened and would hatch before long, his heart stopped when it began to move.
Calvin sat up straight, watching the egg wobble ever so slightly, and then backed as far away as he could get without venturing to the front of the cave. He didn't want to wake the sleeping braves – it was just possible that if he timed this properly, he could kill the dragon before it had even been fully born. It must spend a time struggling its way out, like a bird, and he hoped that in those few moments it would be vulnerable. He would destroy it.
And then the braves would come in and probably torture him to death – but it might be worth it to do them one last injury, ruin their horrible game.
Except that he'd had enough of pain – his bruises were yellowing and ached constantly. Calvin could take no more.
All right, then, maybe he could just hide in the shadowiest corner and hope they forgot about him while they tended to the dragonet. Although, of course, it was much more likely that it would just eat him, first.
A hairline crack appeared in the turquoise smoothness, and then another and another, until a rough triangle was formed. At once this lifted, and then the rest was not so much cracking as crumbling apart, as though it had been brittle all along, though Calvin knew otherwise. In a moment most of it was shaken off by a dragonet that was crouched, shaking and covered in slime. It was brown as the cave's walls on top, but its belly reflected some light, being striped irregularly with white.
It looked at him intently, at once. There was no hiding from it – it raised its head and extended a long, four-clawed foot out to take its first step. The glistening talons clacked on the rock. They were clearly sharp, each as long as his longest finger.
It was like sitting inside a nightmare, but on some level Calvin had given himself to death by now. He was ready to be eaten, and felt like his spirit was outside of his body. It was almost interesting to study this strange creature, so unlike any he'd ever seen in person. He had never looked at anything but pictures of dragons, and this one was quite like them, only smaller than he'd expected. It was just the size of a common dog. But of course it had far sharper teeth, long talons, instruments that would tear him apart if he tried to fight.
The impression of fierceness reminded him of the birds his father had so liked to spot in the wilderness, recording every different species he could identify.
"Accipiter gentilis," Calvin muttered.
The dragonet really was very close in coloration to that species of hawk, excepting the eyes.
Those were bright yellow, rather than orange. Instead of a staring dot the pupils were thin slashes of absolute dark that darted around – though they settled on Calvin again and again. The talons even reminded him of the preserved example of the raptor from just over his father's desk, where it had stood looking sagely at the far wall with its fake eyes. The curved black blades had always been used as an example to him. 'Our fellow frontiersman here always remembered to carry his knives with him. If you had to choose only one thing to keep with you while alone in these woods, it should be a knife!'
Calvin wondered what being torn apart by talons large enough to gut men rather than mice was going to feel like. He'd never been stabbed before. Perhaps it would happen fast enough that he wouldn't feel it?
The dragonet blinked – then it blinked again, somehow over the first eyelid. Calvin was confused. How had it done that? The first lid had been transparent and come from the side, and the second was more like a human's blink, two parts coming together from top and bottom.
Then he remembered his studies, something he'd read and would never have been able to imagine without seeing it up close. It has a nictitating membrane. Like a hunting bird.
It was just as he thought this that the dragonet stood up on its hind legs, extending its long neck so that its short-horned head was higher than Calvin's. Its mouth opened, and Calvin was looking at a semicircle of very regular, frighteningly sharp teeth. Two of them were fangs that were extremely curved back among queer folds of flesh. It was coming closer.
Calvin shut his eyes and covered his head. His mouth felt salty and foul – if he'd had anything to eat, he would have vomited on himself, but instead he just gagged.
"What does that mean?" he heard.
Calvin didn't open his eyes. He remained nestled against the wall, mouthing the Lord's Prayer, feeling the dragonet's hot breath rush over him every few seconds as it exhaled. Finally its snout nudged him and Calvin shook fiercely, unable to stop himself. He pitched over, and the force of his forehead hitting the pebbly floor made him sit up, involuntarily rubbing mud from his soiled jacket. As though keeping it clean mattered at all now.
He was terrified to find the dragonet's face a foot from his. He couldn't see its teeth anymore, but had already pictured them crushing his throat with a single bite. "I beg your pardon, Calvin," said the beast in a voice that was rather thin and pointed. Even stranger, it reminded him of his father's, a little. "But I asked you what that means."
"Huh?" Calvin asked, unthinking. The dragon could not only speak directly upon being hatched – Calvin had felt sure that only grown, tamed ones should be able to do this – but it had surprisingly good manners. And it knew his name. The instinct of formality overtook Calvin, something ingrained in him to fall back upon at this trying moment. "Uh, I mean... I crave your... sorry, I ask forgiveness... what are you speaking of?"
The still-slimy dragonet sat back on its haunches. Calvin remaining seated and tried not to move, not to do anything that might provoke a violent reaction. "The thing you said as I came out of the shell, of course. It was the first I have heard from you without anything in the way, so I am interested in it as a matter of course."
"It..." Calvin's mind was racing. He wondered, if he could keep the dragon talking, would it perhaps not kill him for the time being? "... it's the binomial name, the scientific name of the Northern Goshawk. A hunting bird, well-suited to falconry. I've heard so, anyway;, I've never owned a falcon. Or a hawk." He swallowed but his throat was dry, so he wheezed while he added "Accipiter gentilis means 'gentle hawk.' Is that interesting to you?"
"Hmm," the dragonet said, then set about flicking fragments of powdery eggshell off of itself with its talons. It spoke in an entirely conversational manner, as if it were completely used to talking to people who were cowering in fear from it. "Do you suppose I could use that for my name? Not the second part, it seems a wrongheaded thing to call a dragon. You said dragons are meant to be fierce, at one point. But hawks are hunting birds, and I think I would like a name to do with this matter of science. It seems terribly interesting."
Calvin nodded rapidly. "Of course. Yes. Yes! Anything you want. Accipiter is a good name for a dragon, especially. It's normal for aviators to name dragons in Latin, you know."
He didn't quite follow the order of events for a moment, just watching the dragonet breathe in and out heavily, its sides swelling and then shrinking as it tested its breath, its tongue tasting the air thoughtfully. Then it clicked into place. It heard me, it heard everything I said. It wasn't even born yet! "You understood me, then? While you were in your egg?"
"Well, not at first," Accipiter clarified. "You see, when you began I had not heard English before. It was all the Unami way of speaking. So I had to come to understand you, which was not very easy since you talked about things altogether different from what I had heard of before. There was little to compare between them."
"I see," Calvin said, not seeing at all. He couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Do you have any food, Calvin?" Accipiter asked.
Despite his fear, he couldn't very well lie. "N-no."
"Well, that is too bad. But I suppose we can go get some."
The dragon padded towards the mouth of the cave, its finned tail coiling and uncoiling over the ground as it walked, testing its muscles. Calvin bit his lower lip as Accipiter came to the carefully-sunk planks of wood, eying them up and down. It – no, he, Calvin felt sure the monster was male – would realize it was stuck, and turn on him now for sustenance.
For the barest fraction of an instant Calvin considered trying to rush up behind the dragon and hit it on the head, perhaps stun it and then go about the grotesque work of killing it. But it interrupted him by saying "Oh, you were right; you are quite trapped in here. Well, the two of us shall have to get out. To stay in a cave forever would be veryboring." And the dragon put both of his talons on one of the thick horizontal planks, raised all his weight onto it, and pushed down. His claws cut into the lashings and then broke them with a loud snap.
Right away, the sleeping braves awoke with shouts of alarm and anger. Accipiter backed up a few steps, his tail actually slapping into Calvin's shin, and he looked quite pleased with himself. The corners of his mouth turned up just slightly, to suggest a smile. Dragons can smile? "Ah, here we are," Accipiter said. "We shall be let out in no time."
The three young men were speaking in loud voices and apparently scolding each other; one was shaking his head with his hands on his temples in great distress. The brave who Calvin had decided was their leader came to the cave first, and seemed to think he should work on pulling the grate out of place carefully. Then he reconsidered and slammed his hatchet into it. After a minute's work or so, and with the help of his cohorts, he was taking the barrier apart once and for all.
The Indian had moved on to speaking his own language in a coaxing tone of voice to the dragon. Calvin was bewildered, but he supposed the Indians must have their own way of harnessing – and it wasn't as though he even really understood the proper, European one in the first place.
"Oh, I do not agree," Accipiter said to the young man, and then to Calvin's amazement he spoke a string of words in the Indian's tongue. This did not surprise the lead brave, who shook his head, smiling, still speaking very gently. Accipiter sat back again, this time actually lashing his tail and striking Calvin in the knee, the very one he'd hurt trying to break the egg. It hurt. "Pardon me, Calvin. I am simply rather upset. These men seem to think that they are going to take me away from you."
Calvin, of course, would have quite liked for them to do just that, but he didn't say so. He merely watched as the braves spoke more and more insistently, with Accipiter shaking his head no at them, in imitation of their head movements. At length the leader of them raised his hatchet and pointed at Calvin, making some pronouncement that sounded both final and dangerous.
And then Accipiter hissed noisily, spreading his wings as far as they could be opened in the cave's mouth. Although this blocked his view, Calvin could clearly hear all three Indians scrambling backwards, exclaiming. One dropped a coil of rope he'd been holding, another lost hold of the knife with which he'd hacked at the wall of wood.
Accipiter bounded cleanly through the hole in the ruined barricade, and after a second Calvin clamored through too, on the theory that he might not have another chance to escape this place.
The dragonet was still hissing and punctuating his sounds with swipes at the air, which the young warriors danced back from, looking to each other for counsel but receiving none. One went for rope, but Accipiter merely had to move closer to make him drop it and retreat fearfully.
Calvin had no interest in sticking around to watch the outcome of the mess, though he hoped the Indians would all end up as dragon-food – and then, even more fittingly, as dragon spoor. He was very weak, but he got to his feet, grabbing the bone-handled knife that the brave had lost. Calvin took a few steps on shaky legs, but he felt sure that the feeling was coming back into them, that he would be able to run full-out soon, because he needed to... but then one of his legs disagreed with his thoughts. It cramped up and he fell over yet again, grunting.
"Calvin!" Accipiter's voice came, "You need to run away! These men mean to do you harm!"
Of course they do, thought Calvin, but then, he had never mentioned that particular fact to Accipiter's egg.
It was at this point Calvin understood that the dragonet was intentionally putting himself between the Indians and his own prone body. The lead brave seemed to have decided that trying to harness the hatchling kindly was a lost cause and was angrily swinging his hatchet at the beast, teeth bared. He must want to either hurt it until it was docile or, failing that, kill it.
"Go!" cried Accipiter, "I can fight them for you!"
Calvin had known even as a boy playing soldiers that someone like him could only ever pretend to be brave. His father had been the stout-hearted one – metaphorically, at any rate. In constitution Calvin must take after his mother, who had been given to low appetite and frequent illness, and if he understood correctly, had sometimes fainted for no reason at all. It was only upon her death that Christopher Priestly had taken his young son out to settle the frontier, in the hopes of building a home before he was ready to remarry.
But Calvin was not without a sense of justice. These Indian devils had shut him up in a cave, tried to feed him to a dragon, and now by some surprising grant of providence, their plan had failed and the dragon was defending him. Even if it were just in the manner of a street-dog defending some city-goer who had been kind to it in the past, it was a noble stand that Accipiter was making against evil enemies.
And Calvin's father, he felt sure, would have thought that the only proper course of action was for his son to give as good an account of himself on the young dragon's behalf as the creature was giving on his.
Besides, it wasn't as though his legs were able to take him out of here. What choice did he have?
Calvin stumbled to his feet. Brandishing the long knife, he said, "You brown beasts can come kill me with your own hands, at last! Go on! I'll filet you first!" He eventually noticed that he was holding the blade facing himself and turned the knife around. "Come on! Fight like men!"
The Indians completely ignored him at first, and then the one who had been trying to fetch the rope looked over at him, grimaced, and ran closer to the campfire. In one motion he had picked up, lifted, and aimed a musket – but he had been hasty, and that left his aim off when he fired. Besides which, Calvin had already started diving out of his way, his brave words coming to nothing. The musket's ball sped through the air and was not stopped by the corner of his muddy coat. It was reduced instantly to tatters.
Before, the only sounds Accipiter had made were words and hisses. Now he roared – or shrieked – in a startling noise that mixed characteristics of things as different as a bellowing elk and water turning to steam on a hot pan. Then he coiled back his neck and held his mouth open very wide while hissing, and a look of complete terror came over the face of each Indian. They were staring at his mouth, where the two swept-back fangs had come more into line with the rest of the teeth. It was only a moment before they had quit the camp, running away without offering any further fight at terrific speed, despite the presence of roots and underbrush.
Calvin quivered. "They've left?" Ferocious the hatchling might be, but he hadn't thought they would give up on trying to at least kill it. It wasn't quite as big as any of them, surely all three together could have beaten it, and Calvin himself barely factored into that situation.
"Well, of course they did," said Accipiter with self-satisfaction, turning on the spot to face Calvin."They knew that if I bit them, they would not be able to move."
That did not really make sense to Calvin. He supposed that this meant wounding them might make them unable to escape the dangers of the wild. He might have asked, but the dragonet inhaled deeply, leapt into the air, and with only a few flaps of his wings was perched on a sturdy tree branch, looking into the distance. In the moonlight his shape up there could almost be mistaken for an uncannily large owl. "I cannot see well, because it is so dark," he announced, "But I think they are not coming back."
"All right. Well. Very good." Calvin began to back away, exhaling. "It was very good of you to keep them from me, Accipiter. Really excellent."
"Yes, I quite agree," the dragonet said, landing lightly after a jump down from the tree. "Now, let us see if they have left any food for us. I am quite hungry. And do not go running off, or they are sure to come back and kill you while I am not present. That would be just the sort of underhanded thing real bounders would get up to."
Calvin's stomach clenched on nothing at the mention of food, causing him to think about what he could manage alone, without provisions, in a wilderness where the natives had every reason to want to kill him. I have a knife, he thought. I did as father told me.
But it wasn't enough, and even before his capture he had worried that he would never make it, even if he went as cleanly south and east as possible to find the great river. He'd been in constant need to forage for food. "As you say," he told the dragon. "We should both eat."
There was jerky and some cornmeal for Calvin, also the remains of his pony for the dragon. The Indians had only lazily buried it, just deep enough to keep flies from reaching – Calvin saw worms crawling around the carcass though, and he wondered at how the smell of desiccation had crept up on him, so that he had not even realized it was there. It seemed like the pony could be partly rotting inside, but Accipiter tore into it with aplomb. Calvin made sure not to watch. He had cared for that poor creature for almost two years.
It was now very late at night, and the fire needed to be added to. "I suppose," Calvin said carefully, taking a swig from a metal canteen he'd found (which turned out to contain only water) "That you aren't going to eat me?"
"Pray, do not be disgusting," said Accipiter. He seemed at the moment quite interested in a short necklace looted from the Indians' things. It was mostly wooden beads, but had a few on it that were of shiny purple wampum. "We can keep these things, can we not? Since the Lenape have left them, they must now belong to you and I."
Being as they were already eating the food and Calvin had every intention of taking with him everything else that seemed useful, he nodded. "Well, if you want it, it's certainly yours." He was still not prepared to try taking anything from a dragon.
Accipiter smiled again in that strange way of his, hooked a talon under the necklace and lifted it to examine it better in the firelight. He then tried to get it onto his own head, which failed because it became stuck around his little horns, and he growled in frustration.
Calvin, who was against all odds somewhat amused with the sight, said "I will get that," without really considering it at first. But he found himself only a little afraid while he pulled the necklace around Accipiter's neck and fastened it. The dragon, he now felt sure, was not going to kill him, at least not without provocation.
The jewelry didn't look very fetching against his brown coloration, but Accipiter was quite happy and said "Ah, thank you. Does it sit well?"
"Yes, but I imagine it won't for long," said Calvin. "Dragons grow quickly, and who knows how big you shall become?"
"Hm," said Accipiter, "I suppose that is not a bad reason to become unable to wear something fine." He raised his head, evidently having thought of something. "When I am too big to keep it on, will you wear it? If you do, then at least one of us shall look the better for having it."
"I, uh," Calvin said, and then shrugged. "Well, yes, if we're together... at that time... you could present it to me."
"I hope you do not imagine that I am going to let you wander off on your own, especially not out here. It is terribly dangerous. No, I think we shall have to get to a place with more people before that happens, though I am not large enough to carry you about when I fly, just yet. I think I must eat more for that. We should hunt, soon."
Something was beginning to dawn on Calvin. It was hitting his brain with all the unpleasantness of a cold wind that stole ahead of miserable weather. "So, you're saying... that you are my dragon?" He was unsure if putting it into words was the best idea, but this had to be some sort of mistake. He had placed no harness on the creature, had not asked it to pledge any loyalty to him. Those must be essential steps to form such a bond. It was a dragon – a dragon, it couldn't simply decide of its own accord that it owed him any allegiance!
"I mean you are my Calvin," Accipiter said. He had quickly taken on the air of someone outlining the way matters stood to a simpleton, one that might still not understand where the sun went at night.
"Well, you have saved my life," said Calvin, "And I am indebted to you, I'm sure. But wouldn't you prefer a... a real aviator? I'm sure that given time, we can find you one." There were a few coverts in the Colonies; he was sure of that (though not precisely where all of them were). A companion with training could be found for Accipiter at one of them, that was surely the proper course of action.
"That is very silly," said Accipiter, "Seeing as you are in my charge, and I must take at least some care of you. It is a matter of responsibility, and you mentioned that responsibility is an important thing for a man to have. Well, I am not a man, of course, but you will see my position. I do not understand why this is hard for you to grasp. You explained the notion quite well when you were talking about your father for all those hours."
"Oh," Calvin said. "Oh." It had not been clear to him before, but Accipiter must have not just heard his words all this time, but taken his meaning as well. And almost from the first. "So... you know about my father."
"Yes, you spoke about him so much I feel I know him a good deal better than I know you. He was interesting, at any rate – always trying to learn new things or make his home better, rather than complaining that he would not reach Pennsylvania, or that the neighbors would take his abandoned crops, or how he would never get the chance to mate with anyone..."
Calvin's palm went to his face. Such private thoughts, and he'd had an audience all along! "Enough, enough! I am very tired, Accipiter." He gripped the bed roll he was sitting on. It was so soft, compared to dirt and bare rock. And honestly, he wasn't sure how much longer he had the strength to stay awake. "Do I have your leave to sleep at least?"
"Hm, I suppose," said the dragonet, moving back towards the half-eaten pony and inspecting it with interest. "And I will make sure we are not attacked. But when it gets to be light, I have to go flying. I am quite eager to do so."
"Yes, fine," Calvin muttered, burying himself in the deer skins.
If he'd hoped that things would make more sense in the morning, Calvin was disappointed. For just a moment he was able to imagine that everything – being associated with a dragon, having been caged by Indians, even his father's death – had all been a series of strange dreams. He could forget them before long.
Then he realized Accipiter was next to him, nudging him insistently in the side with a closed claw. "Calvin, Calvin, look what I have found! I have brought us more food."
"Eh?" Calvin blinked the sleep from his eyes, sitting up and looking at the hatchling. It might be his imagination, or it could be because he was lying down now, but Accipiter looked noticeably bigger this morning. At the least he was thicker in conformation. More like a mastiff, perhaps, than a sheepdog. "Where? What? What are you talking about?"
"Well, I finished that pony, but I was still famished. So I went up in the trees again to look around, and it was not long before I found this creature here nosing around in the bushes. And it did not look up and see me, so I came down upon it quite easily. I was quite like the hawk you were talking about, swooping down to kill it; you ought to have seen! So now I have dragged it back here for us to eat. It was very heavy."
Accipiter was manifestly pleased with himself, and in a moment Calvin saw why. He went to his feet, exclaiming in astonishment "Lord! You've done this?!"
The black bear was not small. It was a grown animal, larger than Accipiter himself. It had to weigh almost three hundred pounds, and after spending a few moments frozen and staring at it, Calvin determined that it was stone dead. It neither stirred nor breathed, even after he poked it with the butt of one of the Indians' muskets.
"I only needed to land on its back and nip it," Accipiter noted, indicating the back of the bear close to the spine. "You see here? I have not spoiled the skin, so we may keep that for ourselves and enjoy it."
"You bit it once?" Calvin asked. Had he crushed its spine, or – no, no, the bite mark was on the left side of the body, not directly on the back. "How did that kill it?"
"I told you, it was not able to move." Accipiter evidently had a tendency to become short with Calvin when he did not immediately understand things. "And I bit particularly hard, and emptied my fangs, which I had not used at all yet. So I suppose its insides could not move either, and as they are quite important to carry on with living, it died. May we eat it now?"
Calvin had only just realized that Accipiter had been serious about finishing the pony. Down to bones, it was quite picked clean, with ants crawling over the skull. "Yes. Well, I... you may. But I think I should abstain, because... Accipiter, I am reasonably sure that you are poisonous."
"What does that mean?"
He had never properly explained poison to the egg, actually, not even when talking about Hamlet. He'd mostly dwelt on the ghost of the prince's dead father, for obvious reasons. "When you do this sort of bite that paralyzes, you fill the bitten party with... with venom, it's called. The venom is what makes them unable to move. While I'll wager that you can safely eat whatever you kill with it, like a rattlesnake does, the poison might prove harmful to me. You are simply too dangerous."
"Oh," Accipiter said with some disappointment. "Well, I am sure it is nothing to be ashamed of."
"No, indeed," Calvin said with fascination. He had always been amazed by stories of dragons that could breathe fire or spit acid, and wondered how it was managed. There had been dragons with poisonous bites at one time in Britain, he was sure of that, but he'd never heard of one alive in the modern era. "It is a very useful gift for you to have, I am sure."
"Actually, I was referring to your being unable to digest poison," said Accipiter. "I suppose it is normal among men, and not anything particularly wrong with you. Is that correct?"
Calvin sighed. "Yes, Accipiter."
"Ah, good." He sliced open the bear's belly and began chewing on its guts. Calvin didn't watch, but he could still hear it. The squishing made him wince.
They went south day after day, traversing the endless wilderness at an easy pace. In this virgin country no rabbit knew how to avoid snares, and a dragon could feed himself after only brief searching for game. With no map and one of the Lenape run off with Calvin's compass on his belt, the boy felt lost, but not in an urgent sense. As impossible as it might seem, being a yard away from a dragon now the size of a carthorse (with poison in his fangs, no less) now made him feel safe.
Accipiter was not yet large enough to carry Calvin in flight, but he grew at a speed the young man would never have guessed at – nor even truly believed, if he had simply heard of it and not seen it with his own eyes. Calvin had thrown the old saddlebags over Accipiter's back, and the dragon had in no way objected. "Do they look well?" he'd asked, curving his long neck to try to examine himself. "The material could be finer, like your coat, but I suppose they are better than wearing nothing at all."
"Do all dragons concern themselves with vanity so?" Calvin asked, although he did try to do a good job putting the saddlebags in the right place. He was also the one who suggested transferring the wampum necklace to circle Accipiter's foreleg, when his neck had become too large for it to stay there. Now it glittered above the dark claw, and when they were stopped the dragon would sometimes raise it in different lighting conditions just to appreciate how it looked.
"How am I to know? I have met no other dragons. And you are the one who has given me the most information about them, both before I was hatched and now."
"But the Indians must have spoken to you before I came along, if you learned their language in the shell. Which I am still amazed by. You were quite conscious?"
"Well, it is very easy to sleep in the shell, as there is no light, and little to do. But there was speaking, always. It was women, I think, who were given the task of speaking to me. Mostly of the ways of the Unami and how my spirit was coming into the world to live alongside them. Which I admit, is something I do not properly understand the meaning of – but they said eventually that I would have the right to be companion to a great warrior with many victories. And they also spoke to each other in my presence about common things, which was quite instructive when it came to learning words to do with food and places and the like. But they did not speak very much to me about other dragons."
"I saw no women near your egg," Calvin noted. "Only those three savages who kidnapped me."
"I suppose I might have remembered wrongly," said Accipiter, rubbing a gleaming talon under his chin thoughtfully, as though touching a beard that was of course not present. Calvin could not imagine why he had that habit, although it reminded him amusingly of his father's tendency to do the same thing with his pioneer's stubble. "It is all harder and harder to recall the further I think back. But if they were by my egg previously, and then they were not, it has something to do with the commotion."
"Well, not long before you began speaking to me, I was conscious that... well, I went from being quite warm to not very warm, which was most disquieting. I also knew that the shell was hardening, and I felt like I would be ready to break it before long."
Calvin still could not understand how the dragonet, imposing though he had been from the very first, had freed himself from that metal-hard egg. Perhaps something about it caused it to be breakable from pressure within, but not without? "What does that signify?"
"I believe I was moved. Yes, it could have been nothing else, because I was very upset by all the turning around. Then the young men were speaking for a brief time, and after I was not being jostled about anymore, it was disagreeably cold. One of them told me that I would be a dragon for a young warrior."
Accipiter was clearly not having an easy time remembering the specifics, but the gist of it was strongly imprinted on him. "Yes... they wanted me to have a young warrior, and not a broken-down old one. And I would kill many men with white skin and eat their hearts, and have all the acclaim I liked." He looked quite proud of himself for having recalled this, though it made Calvin's stomach lurch. "But then you came and began talking of more interesting things, like all of those stories, and learning about nature and the world with logic, and that sounded a good deal more pleasant than eating people's hearts. I do not think I would feel in the right if I ate a person at all, since men are somewhat cleverer than deer or bears, and would resent being food."
"Thank you for the approbation," muttered Calvin. "I have always felt sure I was cleverer than a deer."
Accipiter either did not hear him or did not think he was worth assuring on the subject. "Do you know, it is just possible that I was also kidnapped? I do not think I was meant to be paired with any of those young men, or you – the Unami must have meant me for a more important fellow."
"Hm." That did make some sense. Calvin had never heard of a young man flying with a dragon among the Indians. In His Majesty's Aerial Corps, it was within the realm of possibility. Some dragon-captains must inherit beasts, thanks to their fathers' bonds with them – that explained why the same names reappeared among the Admirals of the Corps again and again between generations. And of course, British dragons had proper crews for fighting, as only made good sense. But the tribes left it one man to one beast, viewing the association between them as spiritual in nature.
Blasphemous, yes, but they believed it strongly, so it must surely follow that they wanted men of good character and great accomplishment to be trusted with their dragons. "I don't suppose any of those boys had 'many victories,' as you were promised. We can find you a captain who has that experience, though, if you like?"
Despite his growing affection for Accipiter, Calvin had the understanding that service to the Aerial Corps was essentially lifelong. He was young and probably able to learn all the skills necessary to advance himself in the service, and that wasn't an awful prospect – but it must make all his former expectations meaningless. He had planned to be a woodsman, a hunter, to marry (which he was not even sure aviators were permitted to do) and to turn the cabin he'd built with his father into a true homestead.
"Oh, it is no matter," Accipiter assured him. "We can win a few of these battles I keep hearing of, and then you will be quite as important as anyone else, and with many excellent things to own, besides."
Calvin sighed. He did not think it very likely that he would succeed in getting rid of this dragon. It was quite a step up from being murdered by marauding savages, naturally, but...
"Here, Calvin," Accipiter said, interrupting his thoughts as he walked through a puddle, "You must get on my back and not walk in the muck so. You are dirtying your boots."
It took some maneuvering not to sit on the row of rough spines that was growing on Accipiter's back, but thereafter Calvin had to walk a great deal less, and Accipiter never complained of the burden.
And, in time, they flew.
It was heart-stopping, it threw one's sense of balance completely off, it left you as afraid as a man could possibly be of anything – and yet, Calvin loved it.
On the ground, he was a frightened boy. In the air, he was a creature of perfect confidence and grace, his nerves as cool as a hawk's.
In a life spent as a timid, puny boy Calvin had never experienced anything to compare flying with. Not riding a horse at speed, or the time he had been on a sailing boat, or even jumping out of a tree into water as young people had liked to do back in New York. None of those things had made him happy. He'd been frightened by them. But he loved flying.
Accipiter could roll over, dive straight down, climb as high as a mountain. Calvin even touched clouds, finding them cold and wet and thoroughly unpleasant to be in, but still wonderful. All of it was amazing. Accipiter even asked if he did not need some kind of better harness before attempting the more chancy maneuvers, and Calvin surprised himself by refusing. He wanted to go through them all, as soon as possible. "I think I love being in the air."
"That is excellent," said Accipiter as they flew with the wind at their backs one morning, the sun illuminating the world below them. It was like sailing over an ocean of green canopy. "I would be worried about your quality of mind, if you disliked flying."
He would never be rid of this dragon, no. But, Calvin thought, things could be much worse.
No creature of the forest would give challenge to Accipiter at his present size, and Calvin had to grant that he looked quite fearsome, though he no longer had direct fear of the dragon. Accipiter's horns had not just grown longer and thicker, but had turned into something resembling antlers, featuring a collection of sharp points that curved upwards.
The dragon looked at himself in the surface of the river they had begun following southwards, where Calvin was finally able to wash himself. There was cleared land in the distance, he had seen it, and he wanted to be clean when he finally encountered civilization again.
"I wonder if any Indians have seen us," Calvin said while scrubbing his own back with his hand, conscious that he would not like strangers to see him naked. "We'd never know it if they spotted us, they're quiet as ghosts in the woods. Perhaps they've also stayed away for fear of you, though many tribes have their own dragons. But you'd do them great harm with your poison, I suppose, even if they were much larger than yourself?"
"As I've met no other dragons, I cannot say," Accipiter noted, not for the first time. Despite his much increased size, he still had that same high voice. He was quiet and thoughtful as he watched Calvin rinse his hair, and said, "Why are you in the water like that, anyway?"
"I'm cleaning myself."
"You did not seem excessively dirty. Your clothes are, you might clean them more thoroughly, and so make them more satisfying to look at."
"They're stained. But I've been sweating, and my hair had become tangled – and there, see, where I had a cut? It would be disgusting to leave the blood sitting on the skin like that."
"Would it?" Accipiter blinked, and then eyed his own claws. He had always licked his mouth clean after eating, but never once bothered to get the dried blood off of his talons. "I do not understand why."
"Well, perhaps it's different for a beast with scales, but in our case it's not consisten with hygiene. It could be very unhealthful."
"Oh!" Accipiter said, "Then you must do a very thorough job. Do not forget to wash behind your elbows," he pointed out, suddenly becoming quite the nursemaid, "And you are quite right, your hair could be cleaner. And I must begin washing my claws as well, simply that you might not be made dirty by them."
"I'm not planning to touch your claws," Calvin said, pulling himself onto the shore, "So what does it matter? You're a dragon, your needs of cleanliness are not the same as mine."
"Oh, but you will have to," said Accipiter, "I will be too large for the bracelet soon, and then you'll wear it." This was what he called the necklace around his fore-claw. He was right about his growth, since he'd been eating entire deer nearly every day, and on one occasion had still wished to try some of the raccoon Calvin had shot and cooked. Accipiter was now a very large beast, though by dragon standards, Calvin could not judge what weight class he might be. He was not acquainted with what any other dragons looked like up close.
"Fine, I'll take it off. And wear it, if you like, although I warn you, it won't be appropriate for every venue."
"It is by far the finest thing you have," Accipiter opined, "Aside from maybe the buckle of your belt." Calvin was presently engaged in retrieving his clothes from the useful flat rock where he had laid them, and found them not-quite-dry. The belt buckle was perhaps the shiniest article of clothing he owned, it having belonged to his father when he was still a Marine. "You should put it on, although in time perhaps we can replace it with something better. Since you are young and haven't the accomplishments of an Unami warrior, you will need to make a good appearance to seem worthy of me."
Calvin turned around, frowning while holding his breeches in one hand and pointing at Accipiter's face with the other. "Look here," he said, "I am not a doll you will be dressing up. I believe in being presentable, as a gentleman should, but I am a man of substance. What I wear is of no consequence."
Accipiter accepted this speech thoughtfully while Calvin stood waiting for a response, and then the dragon looked off to his right. "Oh, hello. What do you think, should Calvin not wear fine things to make a good impression?"
The girl was only some twenty paces distant, thick brush and boulders having mostly blocked Calvin and Accipiter from her view before that point. She was clearly not as old as Calvin, and was dressed in clothing that was exceedingly plain, her bonnet thrown back to show hair that was almost as fair as his own. In each hand she was carrying a basket of clothing that must be her family's laundry. Her mouth was open in an 'O' of surprise as she took in the remarkable sight of a naked boy arguing with a dragon.
Not five seconds later she was gone, having dropped her laundry baskets and darted out of sight.
"Ah," Accipiter said, "I must have frightened her off. You were right, some people will be unreasonably afraid of me at first sight."
"Oh, God!" Calvin cried, "You daft beast!" He was jumping into his clothes and cursing while trying to decide what to do next. On the one hand, he had just exposed himself inadvertently to a young woman, and also frightened her with an Indian dragon. There was no telling which was the more scarring.
On the other hand, she was a white girl, and there must be human society of some kind nearby if she had meant to do laundry. He needed to be near people just now, even if it were only to hear them scream at him that he was a pervert and a madman, and all he could hope was that they found the nerve to do that before they found their guns. Besides, he needed to make excuses.
"I don't know how far out in the wild places you started, sir," said Mr. Harper. "But you've come a long way. This is Newtown, or close to it."
"Is it all new?" Accipiter asked from his place well away by some trees, where he might not seem so threatening. Being nearly the same size as the wide-armed willow next to him did not help supply this impression. "Oh, you've done very well in such a short time!"
"It's only a name!" Calvin yelled back at him. "And do not give offense by speaking out of turn! I told you, I'll introduce you properly when the moment is right!"
Mr. Harper was a farmer, and he was talking to Calvin in the middle of one of his fields. It was not yet fully planted, the year being young. He did not appear terrified by the prospect of a dragon larger than his sizeable goat-house being only a stone's throw distant, which was a miracle. However, he was definitely concerned. "And you're sure you're all right, son? The Indians haven't done you lasting harm to speak of?"
"I wouldn't go that far," said Calvin, who now wondered if his wits had been addled. He probably should have waited before haring off to find these people, as his clothes remained wet and his queue uneven. "But you'll excuse me sir, I had only a short time ago despaired of ever seeing a friendly face again. I came from the river in a hurry."
Mr. Harper's face wasn't exactly friendly, though. It was more thoughtful. He smoked his pipe unhurriedly, nodding. "Yes, Margey came running as fast as I've seen her move. Your dragon put a fright into her, no mistake."
"I'm sorry for that," Calvin said. "For... for startling her so, I mean. I assure you we were quite unprepared, and meant no offense."
"Not your fault," said Harper. "Girl's never seen a dragon before, only been to the city a few times, and the couriers aren't thereabouts every day. But seeing as you're not a trained handler for the beast, I'll ask that you not bring him close up to my flock. Or my family."
Calvin almost sighed in relief, but decided not to give himself away like that. Apparently Mr. Harper had not been informed that Calvin had been stark naked in front of his thirteen year-old daughter when she came upon him, and that was very good news. He owed Margaret Harper a great deal for holding back that detail. "I give you my word on it, sir. We'll be quite comfortable there, and I have a little money, I can pay for a goat or sheep that he and I-"
"Oh, no," Mr. Harper said, waving his pipe in the air. "None of that. He can rest in the fallow field, and you indoors with us. My family is of the Society of Friends, Mr. Priestly, hospitality is our duty to any of God's children who have honest need of it."
He might have guessed that the Harpers were Quakers by their daughter's dress, which was painstakingly simple. He could see through the window that both Margaret and a round woman who must be her mother were looking through the windows at him and talking to each other. Their homespun dark dresses matched in every detail. The girl had put her bonnet back on.
Mr. Harper himself wore a straightforward black coat which no one could have inferred anything from. It did not even have metal buttons. In every particular his home was an example of that simple dignity for which his sect was known to strive.
"Thank you so much, sir." That was all there really was to say.
Dinner included the flavors of cultivated vegetables, something that Calvin hadn't even realized how much he missed. There was carrot soup in the style of the Pennsylvania Dutch, thickened with flour, to start. Then they offered him scrapple that had the taste of thyme in it, fresh white bread with cup cheese for spreading, and finally a stack of corn fritters that the family shared, which had obviously been flavored with some precious sugar.
Calvin had probably eaten better meals in the past, but he had never enjoyed one so much, and every time he worried that he ought to slow down for propriety's sake Mrs. Harper would urge him to "Eat, eat! I can see your ribs through your shirt, boy!"
The man of the house sat across from him at the square table, of course. He found that Mr. Harper had explained circumstances well enough that his wife had few questions - except perhaps if Calvin would not like a second glass of beer, which he declined as politely as possible. The bitterness was really too much for him, though he liked the way it let him feel relaxed in unfamiliar company.
The only person who seemed inclined to interrupt his gorging on the excellent cooking was Margaret Harper, who kept asking for more details. She wasn't rude, exactly, and he still owed her a great deal for not mentioning that he'd exposed himself to her. But it was for that very reason that he had trouble looking at her while he spoke, which must not be considered good bevahior for a fuest. Calvin hoped that his being long so out of the society of people – particularly girls close to his own age – would account for the awkwardness to his dining companions.
When it became clear that the chief subject she had not yet broached was his dead father, however, she eased off, and after all the food was finally gone, Calvin asked once more for the price of an animal to feed Accipiter.
"No price," Mr. Harper said. "I told you that."
"That is very polite," said Accipiter when told later on. He was already in the fallow field he'd been promised, watching the fireflies come out. Calvin was unhappy to see that the dragon had moved from the particular acre where he'd been left, getting considerably closer to the sheep pen in Calvin's absence. But he had at least managed to impress upon the Accipiter that it would be unpardonable to steal one without permission, and likely land Calvin in trouble. "Hm. I think we shall have to do something pleasant for them, in return. We are friends now, after all, especially since they have taken some care of you."
"I suppose we all are," said Calvin. He felt a strange touch of unease about the idea of being apart from Accipiter at the present, even if it were just to pass the night inside a house not a hundred yards away. The dragon had kept him warm in the wilds, put a sheltering wing over him during nighttime drizzles – and moreover, had saved his life.
The superstitions Indians held with about that bond between dragon and handler being spiritual would never stand with Calvin; he'd been ministered to too well and too long. But it was hard to see how anyone who'd harnessed a dragon could not be conscious of it at all times. Accipiter insisted on knowing where Calvin was constantly, and at the same time the beast's well-being was fast becoming necessary to his own peace of mind. "You'll be all right?"
"Oh, naturally. The ground is quite soft. But will you be warm enough without me?"
"Yes. They have a stove inside, and the weather is warming up nicely at any rate. This is a lovely spring."
"But having a fire inside of a wooden house presents no danger to you?" the dragon asked, in his worrying way.
"You will not choke on the smoke?"
Calvin was about to explain how a chimney worked when he was distracted by noise from nearby. For the second time in a day, Margaret Harper came up to them unannounced, examining them quietly. This time she was carrying a lantern on a pole. Well, not a lantern, exactly, but a candle in a jar, suspended from a stick. It was the sort of thing a child might make – as she was younger than him by about two years, that might be precisely how she'd come into possession of it.
The sky was still pink with light, but the candle glowed brightly in front of her, and behind her she dragged the carcass of a rather old but healthy-looking goat.
"Good evening, Miss Harper," Calvin said, making a bow, which was in no way necessary since they'd just been eating together. But he was nervous, and that made him err towards ostentation. "I wish you had told me the goat was prepared, I ought to have been the one to-"
"Don't worry," she said, stopping and dropping the legs of the poor creature onto the ground. "Not a guest's job." The girl had deliberately stopped just far enough from Accipiter that he could not have reached out and bitten her head off from where he sat. Although of course, if he'd decided to do just that, there was no way she could have outrun him. "Good evening," she said, looking Accipiter directly in the eyes. Her expression was one of mixed awe and apprehension. "I... have never seen a dragon up close before."
"I have never seen a woman," Accipiter confided. "Or a girl, I suppose. Not until earlier today, when I asked your opinion on Calvin's clothing."
He had to bring that up, didn't he? Calvin rubbed a place on his forehead that seemed to have started throbbing exactly a second ago.
Margaret swallowed and pursed her lips, but soon went on speaking. "I suppose I didn't answer. I'm sorry for that, Mister Dragon. No, I apologize again. Your name is Accipiter." Margaret stepped away from the goat. "And I think your captain's clothes look very nice, considering what has happened to him. This goat is for you, from my family."
"Thank you very much," said Accipiter. "But please do not stand even so close to it, I do not wish to get blood on you. I hear it is not consistent with hygiene."
The girl backed away quickly, and Calvin, coming to her side, said "I also recommend not looking. Even when he exhibits his best manners, his meals are... messy."
Margaret nodded and walked over to the closest stretch of fence, resting her lantern-stick between the rails, and then to his surprise she hopped up to sit on the top one. "Come on," she said, "This one's got a flat top."
Calvin lifted himself onto the four-foot high fence, though as he did it he recognized that he would be, in effect, sitting next to a young woman as night fell, while not chaperoned. The house was within sight, maybe, but he could not see Mr. or Mrs. Harper, and there was every chance they could not keep an eye on him. The inappropriateness of it bothered him. And yet, surely her father must have sent Margaret to do this task, to bring Accipiter's dinner.
"I'm sorry about earlier," she said quite fast, folding her hands together and not looking at him. "I didn't know you were going to be there, I hadn't any idea, and I didn't mean to see you... well, to see you."
"Please don't mention it," Calvin said, feeling sick to his stomach. Especially not to your parents. "I should've, uh, found somewhere more remote for my ablutions." Was 'ablutions' the right word? He was suddenly finding it very hard to speak at his best, because Margaret was now trying to look him in the eyes. He had so little experience with girls his own age. Or other ages, actually.
"No, you see, that's where I go to swim, too. So really, I should've expected that someone would find it one day." Margaret reached up and pushed her bonnet back. Calvin sat up stiffly, wondering if he ought to look away – who knew what custom might be appropriate to the Quakers, who had so many peculiarities? But she said, "I don't have to wear the bonnet, you know. Or clothes this simple, if I don't want to. We may not look it, but we're what they call 'gay Quakers,' so we can dress how we choose. We just haven't so much money that we can buy fancy clothes."
"Oh," said Calvin, thinking it was somewhat inappropriate for her to be discussing how her family stood financially. She was very young, and a woman, besides. He thought he could acknowledge the statement but redirect the conversation with a compliment – father had always said that was the gentlest way to leave a bad topic. "I've found you as hospitable as anyone could hope. The Governor's residence could not have made me more comfortable." This was true; if he'd been staying in a governor's palace, he'd have been constantly on edge and worried about the impressions his manners would make. Although as a matter of fact, that was happening now, as well.
"That's good," she said, "Papa's always nice to strangers. But of course he was also interested in keeping you happy, so that your dragon doesn't knock over our house."
Calvin sat up stiffly. "What?!" The question coincided with a loud crack as Accipiter chomped through the very thickest bones on the goat. "I know he's a dragon, but..." There didn't seem to be any way to finish that sentence that made sense, so Calvin just said, lamely "... he's a very good dragon."
"No, we know that," Margaret said. "Now. I mean, he's very frightening by himself, but we don't think he would eat us. At this point it's probably that Papa thinks this is like quartering, where you simply can't say 'no' to His Majesty's troops if they demand a room in your home."
"I would never-" Calvin began, but she cut him off by putting a hand on his arm. His mouth shut all by itself while he stared down at her fingers clasping his bicep. But it was only a momentary gesture she was making, and she moved her hand away.
"I said we know. But you're going to be part of the Aerial Corps soon. What would their Admiral say if he found out we weren't absolutely perfect to you, when you came to us?"
"I've never met the gentleman. I won't venture to speak for him."
"If he's anything like the Generals who let Regulars take peoples' homes, then he'd probably have you fly back here and knock over the house anyway, just to teach us a lesson. It's really that bad in Massachusetts Bay, you know."
"I didn't know." How could he have? He'd heard little out of that colony since word of the destruction of all that tea. But they were unusual folk in New England.
"I think the Quartering Act is expiring, but they'll have more. All of these coercive Acts are why we didn't offer you tea, did you notice? We're trying to get by without things made in Britain." Margaret adjusted her pole-light, to show it off more clearly. "That's why we've got to save and not buy a real lantern. The Continental Congress is to re-convene in Philadelphia, they'll decide if we do more than continue the general boycott. Oh, and continue not exporting anything to Britain as well, of course."
Calvin had not understood there to be such a deep divide between Britain and her colonies. Admittedly, he only saw a newspaper a few times a year, and never a fresh one. But it had all seemed quite normal, even in the pages which reprinted official communications between men of import. There was the side that wanted more local governance, and the side that wanted them to stop making a fuss, and they were forever at odds. That was the general business of politics, to Calvin's mind; to argue some point until it no longer mattered.
Something occurred to him. "Are you unhappy that I'm going to have to be in the Corps, Ms. Harper?"
Margaret shrugged. "I don't suppose you have a choice. They don't let militias keep dragons, even if they can feed them. The courier-weight ones are almost free in America, you know, to carry letters and make surveys, but... he's already bigger than that, I think. I'm not an expert, I've only ever seen them flying, but some of my books suggest it. Anyway, it doesn't matter what I think."
"It matters to me," he said, completely failing to think before the words came out. Damned beer. He was totally unable to look the girl in the face, but he saw her smile slightly.
"Do you swim often, Mr. Priestly?"
"Sometimes. I prefer to keep clean, anyway, when it is possible."
Margaret was twisting some of her blond hair around a finger. "I know they say it'll drain your natural oils and make you sick, but I love swimming. I don't know how long you're staying with us, but-"
"Calvin," interrupted Accipiter from so close behind them that the two young people nearly fell off of the fence. His voice was commiseratory, but it was far from quiet, coming from such a large throat. "You should give her the necklace."
This was somewhat at odds with the possessive nature Accipiter had heretofore demonstrated. Calvin had been told by the dragon every single time that it was quite unfortunate to leave the hides of his kills, even though there was no practical way for Calvin to skin and clean the poisoned animals by himself. And Accipiter had treasured that necklace since he'd first laid eyes on it. "You said you wanted me to have it."
"So it's yours to do what you like with," Accipiter explained, "Meaning you can give it to Margaret. And then you can mate with her."
This time Calvin did fall off of the fence, collecting himself quickly so he could upbraid his dragon. "You perverted monster of a-"
"Seeing as you never have, as you mentioned," Accipiter interrupted. He sounded very much like he was trying to explain the rules of a game to a child who was having trouble playing. "And I do not know how humans manage it, but it seems to me only sensible to give a gift if you wish to-"
Calvin actually cuffed Accipiter on the nose, which didn't hurt him in any way, or make him particularly downcast. But Heaven did the favor of letting this shut the dragon up, just for the moment. "I apologize for him, Miss Harper, may we please go inside? I am becoming very tired."
"I suppose," she said. At first he thought she had a hand over her mouth to hide a ladylike blush, but the dimples in her cheeks gave the wicked grin away. "Papa won't have realized I already fetched you a goat, after all."
It having been made clear yesterday that social niceties were not going to come naturally to Accipiter, Calvin decided (after they'd made themselves useful to their hosts by clawing out an inconvenient stump that must have been a century old) that he had to teach the dragon manners. For all his clear and formal speech, he said whatever he wanted whenever he wished. Neighbors who came to call on Mr. Harper that morning were frightened off as Accipiter drew near and hailed them, asking if they also had work to do in exchange for food.
It was infuriating in particular because Accipiter seemed to view the entire matter as a precocious notion that Calvin had come up with himself, rather than the settled order of society. He appeared sure that he was entirely within his rights to try arranging a liaison for Calvin as a sort of charge of his, who ought to be kept happy and well-appointed.
"In the first place, you must leave conversations to the people having them," Calvin said, gesturing meaningfully towards the fence where he'd sat last night with Margaret. "Unless you are invited to join, or the occasion is appropriate."
Accipiter looked down on him ingratiatingly. "And what is your idea of an appropriate occasion to interrupt?"
"There are no appropriate occasions to interrupt! What you must do is wait until an introduction is made for you. I've already needed to let you talk to more people than I ever imagined I would, so we had better get used to it. Don't you want to make a good impression when you meet our commanders in the Aerial Corps?"
"Why is it that we need to have commanders, again?" Accipiter wondered aloud, not really asking Calvin directly. He seemed more interested in watching the ways the clouds moved, the motions of the wind up high being something he liked to be aware of.
"That's another thing," said Calvin, snapping his fingers to get the dragon to look at him again, "It will not help my standing in the world if you speak disrespectfully of my betters. Or my equals. Or anyone!"
"Oh, very well. But I must tell you that all of this seems childish to worry about."
"You can't call me a child, you were born no time ago at all."
"But I am a great deal bigger than you, and I can fly and have sharper senses. Does that count for nothing?"
"No." Calvin said. "It means nothing at all."
Accipiter lay himself down on his belly. "Then how do you explain that I have heard something is coming along the path well before you? It seems to me I am forever letting you be interrupted. Are you so sure you understand the matter?"
Calvin looked and saw nothing as yet, but he didn't doubt that the dragon was correct. "No, just- no. I'll handle it."
The carriage that came around the barn had two palomino quarter horses in front and a tall Negro driving them. He was not particularly well-dressed, but looked quite dignified and competent with the reins. That was an unusal skill for a man of his race to possess.
The men riding behind him were well-heeled, each in a bright blue coat with golden buttons. They also had excellent hats. As they drew closer Calvin came to see that one was old and the other quite young, perhaps younger than himself. The boy had powdered hair and a thin face, but when they stopped he leapt from the carriage and opened its door before the black man could do it. Calvin approached them, saying "Stay, Accipiter."
It did not please the dragon to be spoken to like a dog, but as it turned out staying made no difference. The older gentleman, once the youth had helped him descend, began walking briskly in their direction. He used a cane, but he was not much given to hunching over. However, the lifting portion of his gait was clearly labored. Judging by his large belly, Calvin surmised that he would be afflicted with some degree of the gout.
His hair was gray, his nose very prominent but rounded, and on his nose rested spectacles of a truly unusual type. It almost looked like two lenses had been halved and stuck together.
"Good morning, sir," said this old man, and Calvin returned the greeting. The black man bowed and went back to the horses, casting a nervous look at the resting dragon behind Calvin, but the well-dressed boy was not so fortunate as to be able to excuse himself. He was evidently a relative of the gentleman, and was meant to stay and attend him, but he was visibly frightened by Accipiter. The dragon looked him up and down with some interest, surely comparing his fine clothes with Calvin's battered ones.
"I suppose I am correct in thinking I've found the Harper farm?" asked the old gentleman.
"Uh, yes," Calvin said. "Are you here to see Mister Harper?" That seemed unlikely, judging by the way the old man showed absolutely no fear of the dragon. He was examining Accipiter keenly, adjusting those queer eyeglasses on his nose. Then he smiled at Calvin.
"No, my good man, I believe I'm here to see you."
This, Calvin felt sure, must be some representative from the governor, told of his presence. It was certainly not even a day's travel to Philadelphia from here. So Calvin bowed and said, "I am Calvin Priestly, sir, at your service."
"Pleased to meet you, young man. My name is Benjamin Franklin."
END OF PART I
Author's Notes: Well, after reading Naomi Novik's very fun short story "Vici," I realized how open the historical fantasy world of the Temeraire novels is to exploration! You know, by people with a strong knowledge of the past and good general storytelling ability.
Despite lacking both qualities, I bumbled my way through my first Temeraire-setting fanfic all the same. I've made a few deliberate choices that leave the main character a bit less sympathetic than Laurence, I know. Laurence is a brave abolitionist, a gentleman and a fine officer. I'm going with a timid, prejudiced boy who's at best aspiring not to be crude and awkward. And, you know, dumb. Hopefully he'll improve, if he lives that long. Basically I was hoping to make him more of a young adult book protagonist, which I think I'm doing okay at... though I clearly haven't found the narrative voice for it. So many awkward sentences.
Sure, it's set thirty years before the actual novels. But dragons live a long time in this setting, y'know...
I'd love comments, advice, complaints, and of course admonishments regarding historical accuracy so that I can offer the wide-ranging excuse, "Well, it's an alternate universe!" while secretly feeling ashamed.