There was a hoarse roar and a puff of flame, which swirled and flickered into a glowing thread in the air. A hacking sound followed, hitting the hot dry air and hurting Sylvia’s ears. She sat and waited, and then Anna emerged from the cave. She was coughing, waving the smoke from her face and holding the side of her face. When she peeled her hand away there was a blotch of blistered pink skin, and Sylvia gasped and frowned. Every time Anna went to confront the dragons, something like this happened. Anna looked up and smiled, in a tired resigned sort of way.
“Stop, dear,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt so much, and the poor thing didn’t mean it.” Anna sighed and sat back, crossing her legs and leaning to peer at the cave’s entrance. It was quiet for now, a dark hollow with the occasional faint glow.
Sylvia crooked her eyebrows at her friend. “What, he just spat fire at your face without realizing?”
Anna glared at her, crossing her arms and then wincing. Her tone was soft, though, when she said, “No, it just wasn’t his fault. The whole litter’s colicky, and I swear I don’t know how to make them feel any better.” There was a loud scraping sound from inside the cave, and both women flinched. “Poor sad little beasties,” Anna said. “I hate to see them in pain.”
“I hate to see you in pain!” said Sylvia. “You’re going to really hurt yourself one of these days.”
“Oh hush. They’re harmless mostly, and now they’re just sick. Don’t be a snob.” Anna’s voice was scolding, but she smiled. Her hair was slightly singed too, Sylvia noticed.
There was another scrape and flourish of fire that billowed from the cave, and both Sylvia and Anna started back again. “I’d better go in again.” Anna stood and dusted off her skirt. “Why don’t you come in with me? I’ll make sure I aim them away from you, dear, and you’ll be surprised how they’ve grown in just a couple of months.” Sylvia shrugged.
They stood, and Anna grabbed Sylvia’s hand, who followed her reluctantly into the cave. They both ducked their heads at the entrance, and shuffled together into a room in the back. It was warm and small, and full of dragons. Anna went in first, sinking down at once into the pile of scaly small creatures that writhed up to surround her. She wound her arms through the swarm and scratched a bony little head, which closed slotted eyes and purred.
Sylvia hung back, watching. Anna picked one of the dragons up with both hands, holding it out to her friend. It was red and shiny, whipping its tail from side to side. It thrust its head forward toward Sylvia, who jumped. “Shhh,” said Anna, her voice low and comforting. “She just wants a pet, go on, put her hand on her head.” Sylvia reached forward, timid, and laid her palm on the bumpy brow of the little monster. It wriggled and crooned, starting to rumble. Sylvia rubbed its head and pulled her hand back, and the dragon swooped back to Anna’s side. It mostly fell, shrunken wings barely keeping it aloft, and then nestled into her.
Sylvia folded herself on the floor to watch Anna cuddle and play with the beasts. She tensed and shivered with the spurts of flame and hisses, but those were infrequent. They spent the afternoon that way, quietly together with the dragons.