Discomfort dragged her reluctant mind up toward wakefulness.
Bang, bang, bang.
Her head thumped pain out against the heavy, cold-darkness of the cave.
Bang, bang. The pounding joined by a wave of nausea rolling up from her stomach.
She needed to move, experimented with extremities, to her cost. Spasms jolted through her forearms. Gingerly, she shifted her torso, rewarded with spikes of cramp, down her spine. She’d have to get up or vomit where she lay.
Eyelids spot-welded with crusted sleep, irritation bloomed in her belly, flushing up her gullet, sending a surge of bile to the back of her throat. It was now or never. Straining, she pulled complaining arms beneath her upper body, pushing her chest up from the ground like a half-drowned sailor dragging up from a storm-drenched shore. She glared through sticky eyelids until they fully opened.
Looking forward, swaying, trying to gain balance whilst on all fours, her blackest-night eyes reflected the darkness like two mirrors hung in an unlit dungeon. Above her, wispy tendrils of trapped sunshine penetrated the depths, encasing dancing dust motes as they tried but failed to reach the floor.
Something was wrong. The dark was not wrong, It had been dark when she slept.
Cold. The cold was wrong, cold had seeped into her bones. She had been warm, now the cave was chill, empty.
Empty. Empty was wrong. Alarm flashed through her mind.
An image of curling up on the floor, surrounded by her mate, safe, warm, dark. She’d been so tired, but stayed awake to hear his deep rhythm of rumbling sleep before she let herself sink beneath consciousness.
Now, in place of warmth, it was freezing; in place of a mate and her family, emptiness.
Panic started to build, heart thudding in her chest. She blundered forward into the recesses of the space, as if the shadows might be deep enough to hide a full-grown adult and three large, hard as stone eggs. Stiff tendons impeded her progress, she hobbled around, checking all the darkest edges, using each sense to try to locate them.
With each foray, terror grew. They were here. They had been here.
She searched in a frenzy revisiting each tiny crevice to check again and again, desperate, as only a mother, hunting lost children can be. Where was her mate, where were her eggs?
Ice cold dread shot through her veins. She started to shake whilst spinning, round and round.
Gone. Where were they? They should be here. Where were they?
Eventually, she returned to the centre of the cave, shivering, lost. Those blackest-night eyes, stark-wide with fear, incomprehension.
Gone. They were gone.
Her entire being was focused on a sense of loss. She needed to get out, to reach the outside world so that she could start hunting. Digging claws into the soft earth and rock crevices, she started upwards.
Breathing deeply from the exertion of the climb, Dragon pushed her face into paling sunlight and with a final heave, emerged onto the lair’s rim. Unsteady, she clutched over-tight to the precipice, rear-claws gripping the stony ledge behind. Uppermost was a sense of loss, of wrongness. Where was her mate, where were her eggs?
Dragon grew steadier, adjusted to surroundings, her huge, unblinking, blackest-night eyes took in the vista: the river slicing in half the valley below, mountain ridges leading away into the distance and the clear, dark blue skies deepening into the infinity above.
She stretched out her broad, leathery wings in the last of the afternoon sun; flexing her neck, lifting those wide capes of skin, absorbing the remnants of warmth into her burnished turquoise, reptilian scales.
The air shifted, throwing her off balance; she restabilized. Dragon turned her face, sniffing at a passing thermal. There was no time to wait.
Slowly Dragon leant forward, raising her tail at the same time as opening out her sheets of leather to the breeze. She hunkered down, those massive, strong haunches storing up power. Suddenly, she catapulted herself out into the void. So large, so unwieldy, it seemed impossible that such a creature could ever be airborne.
But she flapped her wings in a strong scoop. Once. Twice. A third time and she caught the air’s upward drift, circled, rose. In huge open loops she moved, beating down against the atmosphere, pushing above the cliffs and lower peaks. Up, up, and up again, in those wide arcs, she grew smaller in the heavens. Until, like a blot, an eagle or maybe just a sparrow, she was lost in the twilight skies.