When Sticks Move

Welcome to a new short story. This one started from a random dream snippet of a dragon walking on me. Go figure. I don’t usually remember my dreams but this one stuck and I couldn’t resist attempting a story.

It grew longer than I’d like but I really prefer to keep it all within a week, so I’ll post it in three parts with an extra post on Saturday. Personally I prefer that over posting two gigantic posts. Let me know, Dear Readers, if you would prefer something different because these stories are for your enjoyment. Or, if you have any editing suggestions that would help tighten the story, I’d love to hear those too.

Again, welcome and I hope you enjoy=)

When Sticks Move

I should know better. Layla prided herself on being able to see practical jokes coming. She’d never been the brunt of one—until now. Micah would never let her live it down if he’d just succeeded in pulling one over on her.

But he swore dragons existed and there’d been something to his confidence that made her believe him. Said he’d seen a few but most people never slowed down long enough to see what lay hidden right before their eyes.

The tall grass swayed, tickling Layla’s cheek. She resisted the urge to scratch. Laying on her back, she remained still, taking slow, long breaths.

She wanted to believe Micah but now she was starting to think he was making a fool out of her.

He lay a few feet to her left, probably laughing this whole time, staying still just to see how long she would wait.

Layla could see it. His silent laugh spread across his face. That was Micah’s way. He played jokes on people all the time and this would be the laugh of the month for him. She almost sat up to see but then stopped herself.

What if he wasn’t lying? What if there really were dragons?

She stopped a snort in her nose. It tickled. Blinking a couple of times to distract herself from sneezing, she refocused on the stick jutting out of the grass several yards from her feet.

The tree it came from probably lay hidden in the grass, recently fallen. At least Layla guessed recently fallen because the bark still covered the branch in a thick layer of dark ridges. It curved toward the end and rounded out like a snout.

If she imagined it, she could believed the little bowl toward the end to be a nostril and the oval circles farther back to be a closed eyelid and brow ridge.

Perhaps her fancy was getting the better of her but the longer she stared, the more like a head the stick looked.

It moved. Layla twitched and blinked. Then kept her lids open for a prolonged period of time, watching. It moved again, swinging slowly to the left, then the right with the nostrils flaring in air.

The lids opened just a crack. Emerald green glinted through. Layla bit the inside of her lip to keep from squealing.

A dragon!

It rose in the grass and the hint of a back emerged below the long neck. Layla wondered how she ever mistook it for a stick but Micah was right, she usually would have walked right past it without a question in her mind.

The neck stretched out like a cat getting up from a nap before the dragon moved off to the right.

Layla wanted so badly to follow it. To simply pivot her head to keep it in her line of sight. But Micah had been adamant about not moving. He said dragons sensed motion. Any movement and she’d never see it again.

She could hear it though. The creature’s sinuous steps swished in the grass, slow and cautious.

Something brushed her arm and Layla choked in a scream. A clawed foot rose above her, the toes stretched out for balance. The dragon’s head lifted high above its body, not watching the ground it walked on but watching the horizon like it expected something to appear.

The foot came down across Layla’s torso, shifting heel to toe from her right to her left and pressing into her rib cage as the dragon put its weight down.

Micah swore she wasn’t to move, especially if it’d spook the dragon because then it might attack.

Layla held her breath and tensed her stomach as the weight pressed into her. She rolled slowly with the heel to toe motion, right to left. Tears pooled and then streamed from the outside corners of her eyes and into her hair.

The dragon never looked down. It placed its other foot and the weight slowly lifted.

Just as Layla started to relax, the tail drug across her body. Its rough scales heated her skin and, when the tail was gone and she braved looking, she saw it had burned her like the rug in her mom’s living room.

***

“It burned you!” Micah held her arm to examine the burn.

“Its tail did,” Layla attempted to pull away but it didn’t work. “Alan would love seeing a dragon! I’ve got to tell him.”

Micah’s grip tightened, keeping her from racing home “He’d hate it.”

Layla stilled, searching Micah’s eyes. “Hate it?”

Micah looked away and released her arm.

“What do you mean, Micah?”

“Nothing.” He walked away, no sign of humor in his eyes.

***

Layla kept her head down as she ate dinner. Beside her sat Alan, his elbow brushing her burned arm every time he lifted his spoon to his mouth.

His elbow brushed her again and Layla winced. She covered it by taking another bite.

“Long sleeves, Layla?”

Layla looked up. Mom interrupted Alan to ask the question. It was Mom’s way. She blurted whatever caught her attention.

Layla tried not to look at the scar that ran into her Mom’s hair. Being hit by a runaway wagon had done more than leave a scar. It’d destroyed a part of their Mom’s brain. The part that could track a whole conversation.

“Just chilled,” Layla lied. In reality it was hot—really hot—but she couldn’t think up a way to explain her burn without confusing her mom. “Too much sun, maybe.”

Mom hummed and Alan picked up talking again like nothing happened.

Layla finished eating and took the plates, rushing away to escape Alan’s elbow. She’d never noticed before how much he bumped her while eating.

“Whatcha hiding?”

She spun to find Alan leaning against the kitchen doorframe.

“Hiding?”

He smirked. “Long sleeves when it’s burning hot outside? Really?”

The mention of burning made Layla twitch. “Just got burned when Micah was showing me how to start a fire using witch’s hair. Didn’t want to explain to Mom.”

Alan eyed her and Layla knew he didn’t believe her. He shrugged before turning away. Layla breathed in relief. He hadn’t pressed, which was odd, but she wasn’t going to look the gift horse in the mouth.

***

Maybe she should have looked the gift horse in the mouth. Layla lay still in the middle of the field. Micah refused to come with her. He said too much time out in the field and someone might start asking questions.

But Layla hadn’t been able to resist. She’s waited for everyone to leave the house and then headed out the back.

Instead of seeing a stick or something that might resemble a dragon, she was pretty sure she’d been followed. Something moved in the trees to her left. The movement hadn’t started until several minutes after she laid down. It was unlikely then that her follower could see her in the tall grass, but whomever it was seemed to be searching.

Layla wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that, with the motion no dragons would show themselves, or be disappointed someone ruined her chance of seeing one again.

Movement to her right, a flash of something dark, drew her attention. She shifted her eyes left but didn’t turn her head. More movement zeroed her eyes to the long arch of a scaled back.

Her follower still moved in the trees to her left. She could hear the occasional snap of a twig to prove it without her even looking. Surely the dragon could hear it. Why was it showing itself then?

A snout parted the grass. The nostrils flared and lips parted over long teeth. Layla stopped breathing. It was that or scream.

Finally she looked up from the teeth to meet the emerald eyes watching her.

Another seer.

Layla twitched.

“Seer?” She mouthed the words but no sound came with them.

Prett—

The dragon flinched. Layla cringed back as the parted lips pulled into a snarl and the eyes narrowed.

Trap!

The dragon tipped onto its side, its legs pulled from beneath it. The tail lashed out but something pulled it back mid-swing.

Layla sat up only to see men rushing at her. She scooted backwards from the ropes they threw but then she realized the ropes were not meant for her.

Several twisted around the dragon’s legs and more crossed over its back, holding the massive torso to the ground.

“What?” She couldn’t form the full question. She didn’t know what to ask.

“Well done, Layla.”

She pivoted into a crouch to see who spoke.

“Micah?”

He grinned. His eyes sparkled with the familiar humor but it was tinged with something mean.

Layla’s stomach clenched with the desire to throw up. “What are you doing?”

“Making money.” The grin widened. “You’ve any idea what a dragon will sell for?”

“Sell for?” Layla glanced over her shoulder at the beautiful beast.

Make it right, Seer. Find Alan.

She stared as the men finished trussing up the legs and then loaded the dragon onto the flatbed wagon they’d hidden in the trees.

Make it right?

No answer came.

“Don’t sweat it, Layla. This wouldn’t be the first time a seer’s helped capture a dragon.” And with that Micah strode away, following the wagon from the field.

Not the first time?

“Alan.” Layla was sure of it. That’s why Micah hadn’t wanted her to say anything to her brother.

***

“Alan.”

He didn’t immediately turn to acknowledge her. Tying up his horse, he pulled his coat from behind the saddle and gave Grover a scratch behind the ear.

“He tricked you, didn’t he?”

Layla twitched. “How’d you know?”

“Pulled the same stunt on me a few months back. Tried to convince me to help him again but I refused. When you mentioned Micah yesterday, I contacted Haverim.”

“Who?”

Alan eyed her and then sighed. “Micah didn’t let you introduce yourself?”

“No.”

Pushing his hair back, Alan sighed. “Follow me.”

He led the way into the house and then out the back door to the cellar. Layla stayed at his heels all the way into the cool darkness until he lit the lantern. She froze but Alan continued forward to place his hand on the dragon’s forehead.

This wasn’t the emerald-eyed beast she’d seen in the field. Of course not. That one was being held by Micah’s crew.

This creature was bigger with a spine running all the way from the tip of its tail to the end of its snout. And its scales glowed a dull golden brown.

Layla’s cheeks warmed in shame.

“Meet Haverim,” Alan introduced.

“Hi,” Layla stepped forward with a tentative hand stretched out.

“Place your hand on his forehead.”

She took another step to rest her palm on the cool scales. Haverim’s eyes closed.

Hello Layla.

“The one in the field didn’t need contact,” she blurted.

“Neither does Haverim to speak, but to understand us they need contact.”

“Oh.”

Mallon was taken.

“Yes, I think. I didn’t get his name.”

I cannot go into the city to save him. 

“I’ll go,” Layla promised. “I messed up.”

Haverim nodded. Good. Make it right or I will make sure you never see us again. Then he vanished.

Layla jumped back with a choked screech.

“He does that sometimes.” Alan shrugged.

“Why did Micah need us?” Of course Micah had seen dragons before, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to sell them. What did she and Alan have that he didn’t?

“We’re seers. Means we can connect with dragons, so they’re attracted to us.”

“But why haven’t I seen one before?”

“Never slowed down long enough.”

All of Micah’s words made sense now. Layla felt sick.

“What do we do?”

“We free Mallon.”

Layla followed him from the cellar with too many questions to voice.

***

Micah’s wagon was left beside a house in the city. It wasn’t a house his family owned but Layla recognized the arms above the door. The house of Erik Coglin, one of Micah’s friends.

Layla shook her head.

“Why didn’t I suspect him?” She asked again. She’d asked the question several times on the ride to the city.

Alan raised a brow at her. He’d already pointed out that she had suspected Micah, just not in the way he deserved.

I’m an idiot. 

“You’re not an idiot,” Alan said.

Layla turned to stare at him.

“What? You’re not.”

She let it go. Alan always seemed to know her thoughts. It was creepy at times.

“They must be holding him in the basement.” Alan mused.

“How you figure?” Layla shook her head and joined him at the wagon.

“They wouldn’t have wanted to move Mallon far. Not in the middle of the day.”

The thought of moving a dragon brought up all sorts of difficulties. “How do they move a dragon?”

“Trussed up tight and with a lot of men,” Alan said. He moved around the wagon, considering it.

“Did you bring your fire kit?” Layla blurted as an idea hit her.

“Of course. Why?”

“Burn the wagon when you see Mallon. The smokier the better.”

“Layla!” Alan called after her but Layla was already moving. It was almost dusk and for her idea to work, she had to be in place before the sale of Mallon happened.

Micah glared at her from where he leaned beside the door to the basement.

“I want in,” she repeated. “You want to continue selling dragons, I want to be part of it.”

“Why would I let you?” Micah asked. “You’re worse than your brother when it comes to having a conscience.”

“It’s not like we live in luxury. Plus, Mom can’t continue working. Not in her condition.”

The glare still graced his face but a line formed between his dark brows.

“We don’t need you for the sale,” he said. “You don’t need to be here right now.”

“Actually,” Layla stepped forward, forcing herself to be bolder than usual. “I can help with moving the dragon.”

“How so?” Micah eyed her as if to say she wasn’t strong enough to be much help.

“I can convince the dragon to move all on his own. No ropes, no men to carry him, just little old me. Less chance of damaging him and far more quiet so the neighbors don’t notice.”

“Prove it.” Micah opened the basement door and gestured for Layla to lead the way.

A single lantern lit the steps on the way down. Layla trailed her hand along the wall, half to feel the rough stone, the texture of something solid, and half to hide the shaking in her hands.

“How’d you get the dragon down here?” she asked. The stairs were too narrow for Mallon’s torso. Even trussed up, he was simply too big.

“Back door.” Micah didn’t elaborate.

The stairs continued downward longer than Layla expected. As she reached the bottom, the basement opened up and she understood why.

The single room doubled the size of the house above and, on the far side, a door like that of a barn took up most of the wall. It was perfect for the sale of a dragon.

“Still can’t get the tail hooked,” a man coming up to Micah’s shoulder informed him.

“He must be secure for the sale,” Micah raised his brow as he turned to Layla. “Prove you can control him. His tail needs to be tied to those rings.”

Three metal rings jutted from the ground along where Mallon’s tail lay. Other ropes held his legs and neck to similar rings.

“Fights more than most,” the short man cautioned.

Mallon’s tail lashed sideways, knocking two men over and slamming a third against the wall.

The emerald eyes rolled under the brow ridges Layla had once mistaken as part of a tree. She couldn’t see how she’d been so blind.

The eye facing her stopped, fixated on her.

Come to make it right or to worsen your crime?

Layla wasn’t touching him yet and so she didn’t respond. Micah’s short assistant sputtered more cautions as she approached the dragon. Even strapped to the floor, Mallon’s head reached her hip.

Laying her palm on the cool scales of Mallon’s forehead, Layla marveled. The texture was different from Haverim, almost smooth but with more ridges.

“You knew I was there,” she said, “when you stepped on me.” There was no way Mallon wouldn’t have killed her unless he’d dispersed his weight.

“Why’d you do it?”

Testing you. Most hunters, Mallon snorted, hitting a man’s face with hot breath, won’t sit still for such a thing. They call in their men long before I get the chance to walk over them.

Layla almost laughed. “You need to be still now.”

Why?

Looking over her shoulder would only alert Micah that she knew he was there, watching and listening. She lowered herself to look Mallon directly in the eye.

“You want to see Alan or anyone else again, you need to be still.” Layla hardened her voice like her Mom used to, before the accident. “You’ll walk out of here after the sale because I’ll make you.”

Defiance flared in Mallon’s eye, bright and angry. But then he closed the lid with a soft click of his scales. His body relaxed as though sleeping.

“Tie his tail,” Layla called over her shoulder.

“Impressive,” Micah said. “Stand over there for the sale.”

Layla retreated to the wall Micah pointed to. It was too far away to touch Mallon.

Alan and Haverim? Mallon’s voice was soft in her ears.

Settling her shoulder blades against the wall, Layla nodded. Mallon stayed relaxed, even snoring part way through the bidding. Most of the bidders Layla didn’t recognize but then, she wasn’t well acquainted with the city’s upper class. She kept her head down until Micah approached after the sale.

“Move him out the doors onto the wagon waiting outside. Then you’re done for the night.” Micah instructed.

“And payment?”

“I’ll swing by tomorrow and we’ll talk.”

Should she push it? Would Micah expect her to? Micah strode away before Layla decided. She took that as a good sign and pushed off the wall.

“Time to move,” she instructed Mallon. “No funny stuff. I’d rather not see my payment go up in smoke.”

I can’t breath fire.

“Untie him.” Layla looked at the men gathered without responding to Mallon’s comment. They hesitated but when Mallon stayed relaxed and Micah nodded to them, they complied.

Mallon rose but kept his head low enough for Layla to maintain contact with his forehead.

“Let’s walk—for now,” she muttered the last part. The handlers were backed up to give them space but Micah stayed close as they approached the doors. Layla eyed the dragon’s sides as he walked. The scales shifted seamlessly over the creature’s muscles. She’d always imagined dragon’s with cape like wings but there was no hint of such appendages.

“Guess the tales of dragons with wings were just that, tales,” Layla commented to Micah.

“Never seen one fly,” Micah responded. He gestured for the men to bring the wagon closer.

You’re blind. But I can’t take off in an alley.

The wagon barely fit between the walls.

“Why’s the wagon full of boughs?” one of the men asked.

The driver glanced over at him. “Following orders.”

Layla knew that voice. She spotted the boughs in the light of the driver’s lantern as he un-shuttered one side. Layered within the branches was a nice film of witch’s hair.

“Run!” she shoved Mallon’s head toward the open end of the alley just as Alan pitched the lantern into the wagon. He jumped from the seat, knocking into Micah on his way past. The witch’s hair caught with a whoosh.

Mallon’s claws wrapped around Layla and then she hung, bouncing, as the dragon cradled her against his side, running on three legs.

A clicking rustled along his sides, above his legs. Layla blinked as Mallon’s scales rippled outward, parting from his body.

The alley ended. Layla caught a brief view of an open avenue and then nothing but green scales darkened by night and the buffet of wind. Her stomach sank like she’d missed a gigantic step.

Relax Seer. It’s my turn to help you.

***

Layla sat on her bed, unable to sleep. She couldn’t decide if flying was the most exciting experience she’d ever had or the most terrifying.

One thing she was sure of—Mallon saved her. She’d thought through his escape but not her own. She would have been caught in the alley had the dragon not taken her with him.

That left the question of Alan. She’d made it home an hour earlier and still there was no sign of her brother.

Something thudded against her door. Layla jumped. She thought about hiding but there was no place to go.

Had Micah come for her?

But it wasn’t Micah who stood in her door.

“Alan,” She rushed to him.

“Next time,” he said, hugging her back, “tell me your whole plan before setting it in motion.”

The End

Blessings and have a wonderful weekend,

Jennifer

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