Several days had passed since Poppa departed dressed much differently than normal, a rope over his shoulders, his old sword buckled to his belt and a black quarterstaff in hand. Reecah watched Grammy sitting before her loom in the flickering candlelight, never once pushing down on the foot pedal to operate the cumbersome machine. Grammy’s faraway gaze told Reecah her mind was elsewhere. “Where’s Poppa?” Grammy looked up from her idle loom and blinked a couple of times, a grim smile fluttering amongst her wrinkles. “He’s off hunting with the villagers.” Reecah frowned. Poppa often hunted for food, but he usually took his bow. “He’s been gone a long time.” “Come here, flower bud.” Grammy held her arms out for Reecah to climb into her lap. “Remember when we told you about the seasons?” Reecah put a finger to her lips in thought, her big, hazel eyes searching Grammy’s face. “I think so.” Grammy kissed Reecah’s forehead and gave her a patient smile. “Let me remind you. Every three years around this time, we must be extra careful with the dragons. Fishmonger Bay has the biggest population of the beasts anywhere.” “Why Grammy? What happens?” “Hmm. I’m not sure how to explain it so that you’ll understand. You see, every creature, be they mice or people or dragons, find someone to love. When a couple loves each other, they become close and, um, well, they mate. And then they have babies.” Reecah frowned deeper. “What does mate mean?” “Well, heh, let’s just say they snuggle close.” Grammy’s face reddened. Reecah turned her head sideways, having no idea what snuggling close meant. She wrapped her arms around Grammy’s thin body and hugged her tight. “You mean like this?” “Yes, something like that.” Grammy cleared her throat. “But that’s not what’s important here. The point I’m trying to make is that during the dragon mating season, the beasts become overly protective of their territory. Fishmonger Bay lies within dragon territory and that means other animals, including people, must be extra careful.” “Is Poppa hunting dragons?” Grammy didn’t respond right away. “Poppa is with a bunch of men trying to keep the dragons from encroaching on our lands.” Reecah nodded, not really knowing what that meant. She did, however, understand Grammy’s serious tone. “Is Poppa going to die?” Grammy pushed Reecah to arms length. “Gosh, child, no. Don’t you ever think that.” Reecah smiled and snuggled back in to Grammy’s bosom. “I like when we mate, Grammy.” She felt Grammy stiffen and begin to stutter, but the sound of boots clomping on the new porch had them gaping at the door in anticipation. Reecah flew off her lap as the door banged open and Poppa stomped inside. Poppa’s glum face brightened when Reecah jumped into his arms. He lifted her off her feet in a tight embrace. “Poppa’s back!” Reecah kissed him several times all over the face before she leaned back and studied him. “You’re stinky, Poppa.” “Hah!” Poppa put her on the floor and hugged Grammy who had walked up behind them.
Lying awake in the dark cabin, Reecah hugged her wooden dragon, stroking its scaly spine and listening to snatches of her grandparents’ conversation from their pallet on the far side of the hut. Grammy’s voice sounded sad. “Why must you go back out again? I thought you showed them where to go?” “Aye, but Jonas is afraid there’ll be trouble. He wants as many swords as possible.” “He can’t be serious. If he provokes them, he’ll risk bringing the entire dragon community down on us.” “I agree, but you know Jonas. You can’t tell him that.” Silence settled over the hut. Reecah’s thoughts drifted. She wasn’t sure she dreamed her grandparents next words or not. “I don’t like it, Vili. What would we ever do without you?” “Shh, it’ll be okay Lizzy. I won’t let that happen. I promise.”
Early the next morning, Grammy hugged Poppa by the door, tighter and longer than usual, her face damp. “What’s the matter Grammy?” Reecah pulled on Grammy’s apron. Grammy let Poppa go and smiled, sniffing. “Nothing, child. Just saying good-bye to Poppa.” Reecah looked from Grammy to Poppa, confused. When her eyes met Poppa’s, his face broke into a wide grin. “Come here, poppet. Give Poppa a big hug.” Reecah held out her arms and was whisked off her feet in Poppa’s loving embrace. He opened the door and walked outside into the cool morning air with Reecah proudly sitting in his arms. Without looking back, he strolled down the path “Viliyam.” Grammy called after them. Poppa said loudly, “It’s okay. I’ll send her back when we reach the trail. Reecah watched Grammy over Poppa’s shoulder—her grandmother didn’t look pleased. At the end of the trail Poppa put Reecah down and reached inside his tunic to pull out a walnut sized, crimson gemstone Reecah had never seen before. He crouched down to her level. “Wow.” Reecah accepted it in her small palm. “For me?” Poppa smiled. “That was your mother’s. I need you to take care of it for me until I come back. Can you do that?” Reecah nodded. “Promise me you won’t tell anyone else about it.” “Not even Grammy?” Poppa’s response surprised her. “Especially not Grammy.” Reecah turned the multi-faceted stone over in her hands, running a finger along its one flat side. “What’s it do?” Poppa swallowed, his eyes on the verge of tears. “There’s no time to explain it to you now. When the time comes, it’ll all become clear, okay?” She nodded. “Promise me. No one.” “I promise, Poppa.” Viliyam knelt on one knee. “Good, now give me a hug. It’s time I was going.” Reecah hugged him around the neck, so hard she heard him gasp. “When are you coming back, Poppa?” She felt him tense, but his soft voice calmed her. “I will always be in your heart, little poppet. Don’t ever forget that.” He held a hand over her chest. “As long as I’m here, it’ll be like I never left.”
Credit for the amazing SOUL FORGE custom cover designs and interior artwork for Richard H. Stephens goes to MARCO PENNACCHIETTI. To learn more about Marco or to connect with him, please visit the links below.
In addition, credit for most of the interior artwork from WIZARD OF THE NORTH for Richard H. Stephens goes to the multi-talented, IAN BRISTOW. To learn more about Ian or to connect with him, Please visit the links below.