"Only two?" Sorrel shook her head. "So people around here have more than two, do they?"
One brave little boy reached out his hand, hesitated for a moment, and then patted Sorrels paw. She flinched at first but decided to put up with it. The boy said something quietly.
"Hmm," said Sorrel. "I understood that bit! The little human with skin like a bay boletus mushroom says I look like a cat goddess. How about that, then?" Feeling flattered, she preened and stroked her spotted coat.
"Come on, Sorrel," said Ben. "Lets give them a bit more space up here. We can sit on Firedrakes back anytime, but its a new experience for these children."
Sorrel shook her head vigorously.
"What, get down there? No way!" She clung tightly to Firedrakes spines. "No, Im staying up here. You get down and let your own kind trample you underfoot."
"Oh, very well, stay put then, you furry grumbleguts." Ben put Twigleg in his backpack and clambered past the children to climb down from Firedrakes back.
A little girl had hung a garland of flowers over the dragons horns, and he was licking the tip of her nose. More and more children climbed up on Firedrakes back, clutched his spines, tugged at the dragon riders leather straps, and stroked the dragons warm silver scales. Sorrel sat in the middle of this throng with her arms folded, keeping a tight grip on her backpack.
"Sorrels in a mood," Ben whispered in the dragons ear. Firedrake glanced over his shoulder and nodded in amusement.
The grown-ups were crowding around the dragon, too, touching him and trying to catch his eye. Firedrake turned to Zubeida, who was watching the children on his back and smiling.
"Tell me," he said, "how can I fly at the dark time of the moon?"
"We need a quieter place to discuss that," replied the dracologist. "Let me show you where I found the answer to the secret."
She raised her hands, bangles jingling, the rings on her fingers flashing in the sunlight. Immediately all was still. The excited voices died away. The children slid off Firedrakes back, and there was no sound to be heard but the roaring of the sea. Zubeida addressed the villagers.
"I am taking the dragon to the tomb of the dragon rider now," Twigleg translated. "I have important matters to discuss with him, matters that must not come to the wrong ears."
The people of the village looked up at the sky. Zubeida had told them about the ravens, but apart from a flock of white seabirds making for the river the sky was empty. An old man stepped forward and said something.
"Theyre going to prepare the feast now," Twigleg translated. "A feast to celebrate the return of the dragons and the dragon rider."
"A feast?" asked Ben. "For us?"
Zubeida turned to him, smiling. "Of course. They wont want you to leave before they give a party for you. These people believe that a dragon brings a year of good luckgood luck and rain, which is the best luck of all in these parts."
Ben looked up at the blue sky. "It doesnt look much like rain," he said.
"Who knows? Dragons luck can come as suddenly as the wind," replied Zubeida. "But follow me." She turned, beckoning Firedrake with her ringed fingers.
The dragon was about to set off after her when Guinevere shyly tapped his foreleg. "Please," she said, "do you think Id be too heavy for you? I mean, I was just wondering, could you possibly . . . ?"
Firedrake bent his neck. "Climb on," he said. "I could carry ten people your size and hardly notice!"
"What about people my size?" inquired Zubeida, putting her hands on her hips. "Too much even for a dragon, I fear?"
Smiling, Firedrake lowered his neck once more. Zubeida gathered in the full skirt of her sari and nimbly scrambled up on the dragons back, holding on to his spines.
From Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, Chapters 27 & 28, pages 275-295. Original copyright 2000 by Dressler Verlag. Original English translation copyright 2001 by Oliver Georg Latsch. First published in Germany as Drachenreiter by Cecile Dressler Verlag, 1997. This translation by Anthea Bell copyright 2004 by The Chicken House. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Chicken House. Published in the USA by Scholastic by arrangement with The Chicken House.
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