Updated: May 25, 2018
“I want to join a tribe.”
Ghokarian raised his head and shot a sidelong glance at his constant companion, his soul's other half. She sat with her back to him, perched at the edge of their cave overlooking a steep drop-off. Her legs were folded beneath her and the mountain wind whipped her hair into a red-gold flame as it whistled through the peaks.
“Do you think that's wise?” he asked.
She turned to give him a flat glare, her violet eyes glinting as they caught the light of the morning sun. “You'd know the answer to that question as well as I would,” she replied in her native human tongue.
“That's not what I meant, Beledine,” he said, addressing the doubts and fears in her mind. He got to his feet and plodded over to settle down by her side. “Any tribe would be lucky to have you. But I've been a poor substitute for human interaction these past ten cycles.”
Since the moment they'd met, Ghokarian had been like a father to Beledine. He had taken her under his wing, nourished her, raised her, educated her. He'd taught her how to hunt, and though she lacked useful things like claws and fangs and wings, her magic and human ingenuity made up for it. He'd taught her to speak both his language and hers—that had been an interesting experience, for he'd had to first seek the consent of bonded dragons who knew the Surdri dialect so he could absorb it through their thoughts and memories. He'd taught her how to read the stars and predict the weather and heal injuries and find water in the vast desert wastes . . . but he knew next to nothing of human society.
And therefore, neither did she.
The only knowledge Beledine had of her own kind came from memories of her childhood, but those memories were full of dark and horrible things. She refused to revisit her youth. She didn't speculate on her past. She suppressed the worst of it—whether intentionally or not, Ghokarian could never quite be sure—but he had caught glimpses of violence and tragedy in her nightmares and the deepest parts of her subconscious.
It didn't take a dragon's intellect to piece together what her people had done to her. Humans were complex, far more complex than dragons in many ways; but at their core they were simple, base, vulgar creatures. Beledine's own people had thought to use her for her power, and when it had become apparent that they couldn't control her, they'd turned on her.
For this reason—plus countless others—he didn't think it wise for Beledine to return to her own species. They were nothing but trouble.
<Nothing but trouble?> she thought, sending her words directly to his mind. She must have picked up on some of his private musings. <Do you think so little of me?>
<You're more trouble than you're worth,> he replied, affectionately nudging her shoulder. The two of them grinned at each other, but Beledine's smile was quick to fade.
“You cannot protect me forever,” she whispered. “I belong with them.”
“You don't belong anywhere,” he reminded her. While this statement would be construed as offensive in human society, to dragons it held a different weight and meaning. “You decide your own fate. You are free to choose where you go and what you do.”
“Then I want to go back.”
“Is my company not enough?” he quipped.
Though he tried to keep his tone light, he couldn't conceal the ache in his heart. In truth, he'd feared this would happen sooner or later—humans were pack animals, and they seemed desperately co-dependent. The hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the wastes never had fewer than thirty members. He had worried that one day Beledine would want to return to her own kind, perhaps even find a mate and start a family . . . but he had always thought it would happen later rather than sooner. She was still barely more than a child. By draconic measure, the time they'd spent together had been no more than the blink of an eye.
Beledine stood and faced him, growing serious. “You saved my life and made me what I am. That's why I want you to come with me.”
Ghokarian arched a skeptical brow ridge. He had mixed feelings about humans—probably because Beledine herself still had conflicting thoughts. They both knew humans were capable of atrocities, like what the Patcha Tribe had done to her. But they also knew humans were capable of greatness. Stories had floated in from the west, stories of grand settlements where thousands of people flocked together in harmony to learn and build, to make the world better. And that, Ghokarian could tell, was at the heart of Beledine's yearning. She wanted to be good and do good.
“I would go with you to the ends of Selaras, Beledine,” he assured her. “But I don't think much of joining a tribe to be their resident pet.”
“You wouldn't be a pet,” she scoffed, offended by the very notion.
“I have observed my bonded kin. I've seen what they do and how they act. I have no desire to be a tamed beast flying flesh-rats to and fro, fetching water and food for them, catering to their every whim.”
“It wouldn't be like that. You would be part of the family. Humans have big families—everyone in the tribe helps everyone else. Everyone has a job and a purpose. Think of how much we could teach them. Our tribe would be the most powerful tribe in the world.”
He allowed himself a mirthless chuckle. “With us leading it, I have no doubt.”
“I was on the eastern slopes yesterday,” she said, twisting the hem of her self-made fur toga, “and I saw a tribe passing through. It's a small tribe, so I know they'd have room for us. And they're in rough territory, so I know they'd welcome any help they could get.”
Ghokarian's scaly lips thinned. He didn't like this idea, but it was clear Beledine had her heart set on it. And once her heart was set, there was no stopping her.
“If this is what will make you happy,” he said, “then you should go.”
“Yes!” Beledine jumped and clapped her hands. For a moment Ghokarian saw the tiny, emaciated, abused, but joy-filled child shining out of her eyes. How had a decade passed so quickly? Was this how phoenixes felt when it was time for their chicks to leave the nest? If so, how did any parent bear to part with their offspring?
Beledine noticed his grim expression—or perhaps picked up on his internal monologue—and her own face fell. “Ghokarian?”
“I think it would be better for me to stay out of human affairs,” he admitted. “And I think it would be better for you to do this on your own. If you wish to be a human, then your loyalties cannot lie first with a dragon.”
“What are you saying? You want to part ways?”
“Of course not,” he assured her. “I will never be further than your thoughts can reach. But arriving in a strange tribe with a dragon at your side will color people's perceptions of you—some for the better, some for the worse. You must rise or fall by your own merit.”
Beledine frowned, but she nodded. “I understand.”
“Then good luck, and fly well,” he whispered in Surdri, leaning forward and pressing the tip of his snout to her brow. This was a gesture of respect among dragons, and was the only physical contact permitted amongst them. Humans were at the opposite end of that spectrum. They were very touchy-feely, and Beledine—though she'd been raised by a dragon—was no exception. She tolerated the formality only for a few moments before flinging herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her face into the scales of his shoulder.
“Are you afraid?” he asked, picking up a tumultuous undercurrent in her thoughts. “You can always stay if you're afraid.”
“I've never been afraid,” Beledine boasted, pulling away and drawing herself up to her full height. A fierce and proud determination shone on her lean face. Her eyes sparkled and her lips curved into a smile once more. “This is simply my next adventure.”