Something flicks in front of my face. It takes all my concentration, but I resist the urge to bite it. I know it’s my tail. Attacking it will only hurt. Princess Awendela, my current tenderling, hasn’t grown so wise yet. In fact, she still believes she’s my master. I purr from my pillow as she strokes my back, oblivious to the true nature of our relationship.
Thunder booms in the distance and Awendela shoots to her feet. I arch my back and hiss. Not at her. At the dragon. We both know it’s coming. I know how to survive. But the princess hasn’t learned to listen to her cat.
This morning, when her enemies caught her alone, foraging for berries, they thought they’d found the perfect gift. A maiden from a rival clan, sure to appease the monster’s appetite. They bound her hands in front of her, just beneath the sweep of her long black hair, and tied her to a tree, but not so tight she couldn’t move. The dragon likes prey that struggles, after all.
I followed, of course, mewling and rubbing myself against the enemy’s legs then skittering away when they tried to catch me. I even scratched their Chief. Awendela cried out, fearing they’d tear me apart right in front of her.
But Chief Dark Owl was an old friend. He’d felt the sting of my claws before and recognized who crouched before him. Years of experience had taught him this was not a sign of submission but a prelude to attack. He knelt before me and stroked the brindle fur bristling along my back.
To him, my unexpected presence indicated that his offering would be accepted and the dragon would leave his village in peace. The Chief has a lot to learn about dragons. And cats. I could teach him. I could spring on his face and scratch some sense into him. But Awendela is my tenderling now. Dark Owl had his chance and never truly learned to see. I cannot make him believe he must free her, but he sensed my thoughts and provided the next best thing.
While the medicine men shook their smoking sistrums around the great oak, the Chief brought me a sumptuous pillow, dripping with gold beads and a brown-feathered fringe. A rumble of discontent eddied across his clan. Why throw away such an honored prize? I’m certain they thought the monster would swallow the princess, the pillow and probably me. But Chief Dark Owl bowed and walked away, certain his sacrifice would bring the desired result. His clan followed.
Now, Awendela trembles beside me while the forest shakes with roars. Trees crumble to the ground as something huge presses toward us. My tenderling longs to tell me to flee, but can’t bear to face the dragon alone. She closes her eyes. Not that she’s accepted imminent death. She’s just pretending it isn’t about to happen.
I leap to her shoulder and strike her with a soft paw. Hear me, I implore. She grabs me to her chest and I shove my nose against her face, forcing her eyes open. Then I wriggle from her grasp and drop to my cushion. With the forest swaying around us, Awendela scoops me up again, this time with the pillow. She rubs my neck with quick, short strokes that border on painful. I’m about to nip at her when she stops. A stench of sulfur drifts over us and we know the dragon is near.
My initial plan was to throw myself down the monster’s gaping maw then scratch my way back out with the help of its violent coughs. Dragons hate furballs almost as much as cats do. I’d only be a little singed. I hoped. And the dragon would settle down with a violent migraine, triggered by the fur and the coughing. But Dark Owl’s feathery pillow is even better. If only I can persuade the princess to hear me, to see me in my true nature, as her guide. I can’t throw the pillow. But she can.
I flick the feathers against her nose and she sneezes then goes still, her gaze darting around the woods. I do it again. She almost throws me to the ground, pillow and all, but stops at the last moment, her eyes widening. That’s right, tenderling. The cushion will save you. Behind her hope-filled glance is a tinge of regret. She’s never owned anything so beautiful. Her fingers run along the beadwork and down the feather trim.
The dragon lumbers into the clearing, smoke billowing from its nostrils. Awendela lets me slip from her arms. I scurry in front of the beast then flit away, tormenting it. The dragon snaps in my direction, its orange eyes wild with hunger. My tenderling shouts and hurries behind the great oak, as far as her bindings allow.
The dragon rears its head and bellows, shooting tongues of flame into the treetops. I skitter beneath it again, dig my claws into its leg, and climb its scaly back. The monster shudders and writhes the same way I do when bitten by fleas. I scamper up to its head and slash at its eyes and snout. The dragon snarls and the princess tosses the pillow. With a snap, the beast gulps it down then gallops toward us. Awendela cowers, helpless, at the base of the tree. I spring down beside her. Maybe our trick didn’t work.
Then the dragon lurches to a stop, lowers its crusty head and coughs. Its neck swings from side to side as it coughs again, a thousand times harder. Smoke and flames sputter from its mouth and nose. Awendela’s hair curls in the heat and her leather kilt darkens and cracks. Then the dragon arches its back in a way I recognize and hacks up a soggy, singed pile of feathers and beads.
It blinks its fiery eyes, shaking its ugly head. The aura is descending upon it now. Bright light zigzags across its vision. Flashes of color, followed by spikes of pain. Awendela won’t even smell like food now. Buzzing insects sound like monsters, crackling leaves like pounding rocks. The dragon drags itself away, and huddles, moaning, in the shade of a tree.
I tread lightly to my tenderling, who has collapsed on the ground. When I start chewing her bindings, she raises her head and sees me for the very first time. “You knew.” Her wild gaze takes in the feeble dragon as well as the sodden pillow. “You knew what to do.” A heavy breath escapes her lips. The final rope breaks and she rubs her sore wrists.
In silence, we traipse back to her village. She glances down at me now and again, stalking beside her. As we walk, she weaves a wreath of flowers to hang around my neck. At home, the princess feeds me little bits of fish and gives me her best cushion, although it’s nowhere near as nice as the ruined one we left behind.
And I think, perhaps my tenderling has changed. Perhaps she is beginning to see.