A Story from the Realm of Emerus
Mudwyrm. Dirt Dragon. Soil Snout. The taunts echoed in Smoek's mind, although copious salt water had rinsed away the worst of the taste of loam and leaf matter. She winged her way across the white-capped sea towards her cave, eager to get away from the bullies before her emotions broke her mental shield. They didn't deserve the satisfaction of knowing how much their actions hurt.
No one was supposed to interfere with a fishing dragon--the rules were to respect each other's space. But no elders cared when only a mere grey was targeted. Had Auric or Rubinia been hassled...
Smoek felt the cracks spreading in her shield again and her chest tightening with an impending sob. Fifty more lengths to go. She pictured her shield as a sealed cave, carefully erasing the cracks in the rocky walls around her mind. She pumped her wings with each breath as she visualized the rocks smoothing and melding in her mental walls.
A growing tickle in the back of her throat turned to a cough. Probably something stuck in her baleen from the dirt she swallowed. The gang had pummeled both her head and the sea where she was fishing with numerous pawsful of grey mud and loam. She hadn't been able to stop fast enough to avoid taking it in along with the fish.
The coughing worsened. She lost altitude, barely skimming above the breaking waves. Sea foam sprayed her deep charcoal belly plates. Her mental shield shattered as she struggled to control her breathing and create enough lift to get above the black crags of broken mountain between her and her cave.
She was glad she only warranted one of the lower caverns, not far above the gremlin back entrances. A few more lengths, and she landed in the entrance to her cave. It was hers alone. No one wanted to nest near a smelly grey, so instead of a side room near the large common caverns, Smoek had a simple little cave of her own. She pulled in her wings and shrugged through the rough-walled tunnel to her secluded living area, enjoying the uncomfortable distraction of the rocks scraping roughly on her scales.
After quickly scanning to the full range of her powers to confirm no dragon life forces were in range, only simple gremlin minds in the upper portions of their colony, Smoek sank with relief onto her nest. Finally she could cry it out without worrying about her shield. But the sobbing quickly turned to coughing. She sent a mental picture of herself coughing in her cave to her gremlin slavant, Kharis, to call her to service.
The resentment was instantaneous: the girl imagining skipping off deeper into the colony as if she hadn't received the summons. Smoek sympathized too much with the slavants to be angry. She knew how it felt to be ordered around and bossed and bullied and disregarded. Gremlins were not without thoughts and feelings, yet the Dragon elders required coldness and distance in all dealings. Technically she should have disciplined Kharis for the few moments of rebellion that arose from being summoned so urgently, but she hated to do that.
As Kharis neared the cave, Smoek tried to wipe the salt from her face. A dragon must never show weakness before a gremlin. Her efforts resulted in scratching herself, when a claw slipped between the small scales around her eyes.
Kharis entered from the small slavant passage that headed deeper into the mountain. "Mistress, how may I serve you?" Kharis's tone was regulated, but when Smoek swung her head to look, she sensed compassion emanating from the young gremlin. Surprised, Smoek gently probed deeper and saw an image: Kharis with her long arms around Smoek's neck, just holding her. A hug. She'd never had a hug.
"Thank you," Smoek whispered when she could catch a breath between coughs. A salty tear burned into the scratch near her eye.
Kharis's earwings perked. "You aren't angry, Mistress?"
Smoek shook her head. "Just be careful. You know thoughts like that are dangerous around dragons. I called you because something is stuck in my baleen. Can you get it out?" She opened her mouth wide, resting her lower jaw on the floor.
Kharis extended her claw to flick the wheel of her wrist lantern. Once the carbide lit, she folded the translucent lantshell over the tiny flame. Smoek felt the gremlin focus on her actions, as was expected of the slavants in these situations, so Smoek could easily "see" what she was doing. Kharis kneeled in front of her jaws. Avoiding the small dagger-like central teeth and remaining between the large canines, she stretched her thin upper body into Smoek's mouth. Kharis extended her left arm. The small lantern dangling from her wrist glowed with a warm, yellow light that reflected off the sharp edges of Smoek's teeth.
Several twigs and some leaves clung to the curved sheets of baleen that lined the sides of her throat. She had felt the hooks of her tongue catching something, but been unable to free the material. Now it hung in shreds.
When the light moved deeper, it revealed the cause of her cough--a larger stick lodged in the last section of baleen that disappeared into the darkness beyond the base of her tongue.
The weight on her tongue moved and shifted, but Kharis's long arms and fingers were still a hand's length from the stick. "Mistress, I can't reach it." The high pitched voice was muffled inside her mouth, but understandable.
The pressure in Smoek's mouth changed again, then Kharis emerged from her mouth. "I'm too small. I just can't reach." Her ears drooped, and her head bent forward. "I have failed."
"Don't say that, Kharis. Don't even think it."
She shivered at the unbidden memory from some thirty years earlier. She, only a small dragonlet, watched from an adjoining chamber. Her mother, a deep blue dragon, raging when her older male slavant had gotten the lantern too close to her tongue. Forcing him to impale his own hand on her mother's canine tooth then tear it off, so his hand was torn partly in half. Dark blood contrasting with the light glistening on the tooth. Her mother laughing as he collapsed to the floor, spasming, once released from her compulsion. She'd heard whispers of worse punishments among higher ranking dragons. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the memory.
Smoek probed once again for signs of another dragon. Could anyone have heard what Kharis said and force a punishment?
Relief. Still only gremlin minds. "Good, no one is close. You haven't failed. You just haven't found a way to do it yet." Smoek slowly reached out with her foreleg to touch Kharis's arm, careful to avoid scratching the gremlin's smooth skin with her claws. "You will not fail." Her own pale grey, scaly, clawed paw contrasted with the smooth, dark, slate blue gremlin arm, so small beneath her massive paw.
I will not bully anyone, not even a gremlin. "We will not fail."
Kharis raised her head and Smoek looked into her black eyes, which shone with tears. Kharis's ears lifted, spreading their wings wide. "We, Mistress?"
"It's my baleen, so it's more my problem than yours to get it clear. What can we do?"
Smoek tried not to listen in as Kharis's mind jumped all over. She couldn't completely ignore it, but now it felt wrong to eavesdrop. If only the gremlin didn't project her thoughts all over, especially when they were close together.
Another wave of coughing overtook her. At least it's easier to stay out of Kharis's head this way.
As she caught her breath when the cough settled again, she felt Kharis's hand touch her cheek. "Mistress, may I leave for a moment to get something?"
Smoek could only nod as she tried to process the image Kharis had focused on. It was forbidden to ask or require such of a slavant. But was Kharis offering?
Kharis returned a few moments later with a heavy blanket woven out of uldweed.
"Are you sure about this, Kharis? What if I cough or something again?" Smoek didn't want to risk hurting her. She was a gentle girl, the first of her kind to show her kindness.
"Is the risk really that much greater than when I kneel, Mistress?"
"No, I guess not. And call me Smoek when we are alone." She lowered her jaw to floor. "I'll be as still as I can. If I tell you go, you get out as fast as you can!"
She opened her mouth as wide as she could and tried to focus on being still. Smoek closed her eyes. Unbidden but strengthened from their contact, the images from Kharis filled her mind. The girl laid the heavy blanket, folded into several layers, over the teeth of her bottom jaw, and crawled into her mouth. The blanket tasted surprisingly fresh--of the forest air on the other side of the mountain and something floral.
The image darkened as Kharis filled most of her mouth with her own body. The wrist lantern? Why didn't she light it? Smoek felt the weight shifting on her tongue. It was spread far wider than with normal cleaning. It shifted.
The light finally flared, showing the debris-filled baleen and Kharis's hands. She reached towards the deepest stick. Kharis grasped it firmly and wiggled it loose. Slowly it came up from her throat until the end, which had a few leaves still attached, was also above her tongue. She did it! Smoek focused on sending happiness and thanks to the girl, but she didn't know if gremlins could receive anything beyond the picture orders.
She expected Kharis to hurry out, but the girl carefully removed all the other bits of debris from the baleen before she extinguished the lantern again.
Smoek felt Kharis wiggling her way backwards. Then she struggled but mostly stayed in one place. Smoek focused on Kharis's mind, her worry overwhelming her desire to give the girl what privacy she could. No, no pain. But she was stuck. More wriggling weight shifts then finally the weight eased from her tongue and the girl again stood before her, a few tears in her shift, but no blood.
"Just a minute, Smoek. Let me get the rest out." Kharis bent forward and Smoek felt some light touches on her tongue. It tickled! "There." Kharis stood up again, the branch in one hand and a few bits of cloth in the other.
Smoek closed her mouth. Tears ran down her cheeks. What Kharis offered and did. For her. "Thank you, Kharis. I..." She paused to wipe the tears from her face with her paw again. "I promise you that I will try to find a way to make your life better. I will never hurt you." Maybe someday we could be friends? If only she dared...
The gremlin girl smiled widely and her ears perked upright. Then Smoek felt smooth gremlin arms tight around her neck. A first real hug for a lowly grey dragon.
While it should function independently, this story is set in the realm of Emerus, which is a collaborative project with @RhondaK and @GMuxx. Please see Troll Tears and Amalynde. I wrote this story with Rhonda in my heart. She is a very dear friend to me.
I pledge to donate at least 50% of the SDB payout of this post to Tazewell ARC. Please consider checking and upvoting this post to read more about @RhondaK and her struggles with her rescue. It is a very poverty-stricken area and animal abuse is rampant. I've been personally following her struggles since before the rescue began.