"Maybe the dragon will bring it out."
And then he vanished. Again.
There was no breakfast this time. No gentle wake-up call. As far as I can tell, Grayson sat and waited for me to wake up, cross-legged, on his sleeping bag. The moment I opened my eyes, he said that - "Maybe the dragon will bring it out" - and left. Got up and left camp.
I didn't know what he meant. I still don't really know. I get the dragon part, yeah, but 'bring it out'? What the hell's he on about? Gods, this kid pisses me off so much… parenting shouldn't be this hard, diary…
Frustrated beyond belief, I tore open my sleeping bag, bundled you up in my cloak, diary, and set after him. I found no tracks, like yesterday, and I didn't expect any. This time, I called for help from a person who should, by all rights, seem more threatening to me than my own son.
"JUNE!" I bellowed, almost (but not completely) surprised at the angry echoes that came back to me. "JUNE! GET OUT HERE! I NEED YOUR HELP!"
The witch appeared at once, from behind a tree. She's never done that before, and I suspect I'll have trouble getting her to do it again. "Yeeeees?"
"Grayson. You know these woods. Where's he going?"
She tapped her chin. "You know, that's an excellent question, one I asked myself, so I did - "
I lunged towards her, fingers curled into claws. "WHERE IS HE GOING?"
June stepped back, gripping her cane for support. There was a flash on uncertainty in her weird eyes that I swear I've never seen before. "Yikes! Stay back, ye fiend! He's headed t'where you faced off with that magical tart. In th'valley. That's where your dragon friend is stayin' these days. S'where I assume the tyke's goin', anyway, seein' as how he talked 'bout dragons and all."
I took off at a brisk pace. I've been in the forests of Pubton enough times to have a general idea of how to get to the valley - follow the slope. Even in winter it's not that difficult to spot the dip in the land. June trailed after me, and though I didn't look at her I don't think her feet were on the ground. I really hate people who can float.
"You seem a touch angered, Mr. Mayor. Ye seein' why I warned you 'bout that boy?"
"Yep." I spat the word, hurt that it was necessary.
"Libby talks 'bout your other child, sometimes," June mused. "That Eve. She hates the kid. I think she sees too much o' herself in her violent spawn, all the bits she doesn’t like. Maybe ye see the same in Grayson, eh?"
"Boy's a subtle schemer, 'e is. Got more going on than you think. Maybe more 'n even he thinks. He likes to lie. That doesn't sound like you at all? Does to me."
"I'm not cruel. I don't do what he's doin' to me."
"True." She tittered. "Wonder how long that'll last."
I refused to speak any further, and eventually June sank into the forest and out of sight. I could feel her eyes on me still, though, and as I hit the true lip of the valley and skidded down snow banks to reach the bottom I wondered if she was right or not. I'd never thought about Libby's relationship with Eve that way before.
The last time I'd come to the bottom of the valley it was teeming with life. Stoic, hypnotized life, true, but life. When I came to it this time… no life. No movement. No sounds, other than the occasional slap of snow falling off a tree branch. Breathing hard from the exertion I slowed my pace, winding my way through the narrow stretch of land and hoping that it wouldn't take long to find Grayson. Or Barrel.
I found both after a short five-minute walk. One was shaking in anger, the other puzzled.
Barrel, full-sized Barrel, half-in-half-out-of-a-cave-in-stereotypical-dragon-fashion Barrel, was pressed to the ground as though held against his will by an invisible weight. His back and wings strained, and he fought unsuccessfully to rise to two legs to properly face the little boy standing a few feet away from his nose. Barrel's lips were curled back, revealing long rows of teeth, and his eyes blazed. Not orange, this time, but white, far too white.
"BARREL!" I screamed, running across the snow to reach my son. "LEAVE HIM ALONE, DAMMIT!"
Grayson flicked his fingers. I went flying, propelled into the snow by a burst of wind. He hadn't even bothered to turn around.
"This is odd," he mused, scratching his chin. "I should be able to control you. They said I could. What went wrong?"
Barrel grunted and roared, straining to get at Grayson. His jaws parted, ever so slightly, as if to bite the boy. A single nip would have killed Grayson in an instant - yet he showed no more concern for this than he did for my approach, flicking his fingers again and forcing Barrel's head into the ground.
"Ahh." Grayson shrugged and stomped the ground a little. "Oh well. I'm still learning. Aren't I, Mr. Mayor?"
I glared at him, pushing snow out of my face. "What… what the hell're you tryin' to…?"
"He wants to get y'mad, of course."
We looked up. June floated into the valley, suspended from her umbrella, a deep frown on her face. "S'what this whole trip's been about. Hasn't it, Grayson? Ya wanna test him out. Only it's not workin'."
"Test me out for what?" I rose to one knee, coughing. "For what? Gimme a damned answer!"
Grayson ignored me. "Stay out of my affairs, witch. When I'm done playing, you're next."
"Oho! Don't think you'll have such an easy time throwin' me about, boy. You're strong, yes, but you aren't crafty enough to trounce a witch. I've been around a long time. S'probably why I know the reason that you can't make that dragon dance to your tune."
This got Grayson's full attention, enough so that some of the weight must have lifted off Barrel's back. The dragon's head reared up, and he roared, prepped to dive in and do… something… to my boy. The rearing informed Grayson of his slip, though, and in seconds Barrel was pinned again.
"Y'don't know animals, boy." June walked to Barrel's side, swiping snow away from her feet with her cane, and patted his shaking arm. "There, there. You can't control this one 'cause he's in heat, so t'speak. He needs to breed."
I gaped, despite the circumstances and my anger. Breeding. I'd overheard my dad saying something about breeding in the pub a few weeks ago, something vulgar and gross. It involved thingers. And… that fun activity I've done with Libby. A couple times. I figured that was a name for it, perhaps even THE name for it.
June turned to me. "I know you've been worried 'bout his temper. He's hot-headed 'cause he feels the compulsion te mate. But he's feelin' all loyal ta you, so he won't leave. S'enough to get anyone's dander up, innit? Surprised my Evangelina managed to weave a spell 'bout him before. Must've done it with suggestions, not the brute force the brat's tryin' to use here."
Grayson nodded, slowly. "Yes… that makes sense… I'll try it with more subtlety next time, I suppose…"
Barrel roared at that. His time slapped against the roof of his cave, bringing down a small rain of rocks and dust.
June laughed. "Next time? I doubt there'll be a next time, young man. This dragon's more like to eat you than to help you out. You'd best be wandering home, now, and lettin' him go once you're far enough outta his sight. Else you're in for a long, cold night of stallin' 'til the inevitable."
Grayson didn't protest this. Smiling and shrugging, he turned away from Barrel and began to walk into the woods. He spared me a single, happy glance before the wind gathered beneath him and launched him into the trees and away, far away.
Once he was gone, Barrel shot up and scorched the sky with fire. Melting snow poured down like rain, and steam filled much of the valley. His roaring continued, hard and harsh, and I wanted to console him - but I was more afraid, now knocked on the ground, that he might stomp on me instead. He came close, too, his footfalls huge and uncontrolled in his anger.
Then, without warning, I was sucked into a door. Into June's house. The door clicked shut, and Barrel's roars faded, left only as pounding aftershocks bouncing between my ears.
"You've gotta tell Barrel to go," June said, not unkindly, as she stood by her fire. "You've gotta let him go. The big greenie's been away from his own kind too long. Much longer 'n he'll wreck Pubton, whether he wants to or not."
I didn't have time for a question. The door opened again, and I was pushed out, into darkness -
- and dropped in my campsite.
I packed up and went home. I had a lot to think about.
Grayson was waiting for me. He was playing with his mother.
Dragomir the Mayor