Disclaimer:  Star Trek and characters are Paramount's property.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Any original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author.  Copyright 1980 by Maggie Nowakowska.  Rated PG.

 

Dragon Ears

Maggie Nowakowska

 

On a hot crisp day in spring, when the air crackled and sounds sang with a sharp snap in the ear, a Starfleet lieutenant went cliff-climbing on Berengaria VII.  He packed out at dawn, walking through the wakening market-place, passing by sleepy merchants as they prepared their wares of flowers and foodstuffs and highly-priced crafts for the curious tourists, and the shopping day natives.

Outside the city gateway, dusty with sweet flour and the greying hair of age, a fav'rickiman  sat on an embroidered cloth cushion with baskets of pastries piled high all about him and the children on their way to class gathered around him in greedy anticipation.  "Buy a tasty before your journey, young lord?" he called out, bowing his head in humble supplication as the youth stopped and considered his wares.

"The air will be crackling hot today, sir," he said eyeing the equipment at the lieutenant's slim hips.  "Heat on the rocks can deceive the best of climbers' eyes.  Before you ascend, buy a bite of good luck."  He held out a straw tray of swirled and wavy winged powdered cookies.  "Look, my Dragon Ears are crisp, like the air, and soft with sweet snowy refreshment.  Buy one today," he cautioned further, "and never fear dragons."

A sparkle of amusement gleamed for a moment in the young Vulcan's eyes, but he declined politely.  "I think not, Old Pahn," he answered in careful Waskasii.  "These favors are too heavy on the body; I will eat after my climb.  And," he added as he bowed slightly to take his leave, "I do not believe in dragons."

The fav'rickiman  reached out to place his jeweled hand on the Vulcan's arm, the inset stones of his fingernails gleaming softly in the dawning light beneath their snowy dusting of flour.  "And yet it is said they exist.  Tell me, where do you climb?"

Even as the youth answered, "The Black Cliffs of Ban," a spectrum of pastels fluttered by him and the children cried out in delight.  To please them, he tarried and held out his hand high for the delicate insect to light; for a moment it rested, beautiful and delicate, the dew still heavy on its wings.

Its body was long, like a tiny snake, with a curved, gripping tail, four finely arched legs, and perfectly formed dragon head at the end of its question-mark neck.  The scalloped wings were half-moons of cracked crystal membrane, shot through with amber and as large as the span of his quietly outstretched hand.  The children squealed to hold it closer to them, but at the sound it flew out of their reach, disappearing with a flash of color into the first breaking rays of the sun.

"Wazkii love the sun," the fav'rickiman  said as the children scattered in disappointment.  His long, tall straw dragonhat nodded wisely, in rhythm to his words.  "They destroy themselves in the spring, trying to fly to the Star, even as men disappoint themselves trying to possess the essence of beauty."

"To attempt to possess an idea is illogical."

"Yes, it is.  Have a crusciki."  The straw basket rustled temptingly.  "They protect one from real dragons."

The lieutenant shook his head in slight amazement at the old man's ability to travel from wisdom to superstition in a breath.  "No, I must decline.  Your dragonflies that love their sun are the only 'dragons' I acknowledge, and I do not fear their beauty, nor wish to possess it."  He bowed once more, then turned and walked away to the waiting aircar.

As the silver ship disappeared into the still darkness of the west, the fav'rickiman  smiled and nodded his head in bemused contemplation.  He sang out to merchants and shoppers passing by, "My Dragon Ears are crisp and golden; buy a Dragon Ear today and good fortune shall be yours each hour!"

* * *

 

"Stardate 0957.3.  Lieutenant Fira reporting: shoreleave, Berengaria VII, third shift.  Science section: junior officers Yetnal, Caruso, Martinelli, Swas-quo, Jennings, Siratu, Cleveland to main city, Warsgrad; Spock to Smok.  Senior officers..."

Christopher Pike looked up sharply and stared at the computer terminal by his desk.  Annoyed, he stopped the tape and rang Lt. Fira's station.

"Jacq, I'm reviewing your shore leave report.  What's this 'Spock to Smok' business?"

The man on the screen laughed.  "It does sound a bit funny, doesn't it?  Smok's a small border city near the Black Cliffs; Spock's going climbing there.  City's name means 'dragon' like most everything else here.  After those pretty little flyers of theirs, I suppose."

"Hmf."  Pike was not interested in linguistics at the moment.  "Mr. Fira, I thought I said everyone was to stay within the Anyo-Han district ; this is a short leave and I am not interested in chasing after lost crew, especially young, inexperienced junior officers with notoriously high curiosity levels.  And that means, especially the Vulcan.  If anyone should be sensitive to that order, you should; you were the one who had to go after him last time!"

Jacq Fira stared back at Pike levelly.  "Sir, I am aware of both your order and the lieutenant's curiosity: Smok is within the district..."

"Just barely."

"...and the lieutenant has a working command of the language having spent some time here when he was younger.  Sir."

Pike sighed.  "If he gets into trouble this time..."  

"He has assured me he is an expert climber, Captain."

"Oh, all right, Jacq." A faint, sarcastic grin crossed Pike's face.  "At least we won't have to worry about this one coming back with tales of dragons and hidden treasures."

Fira guffawed heartily.  "For sure, Cap, for sure!"

* * *

 

It was well into noontime when he fell, tumbling with the cliff, sliding and skidding, braking at last as he rolled onto a swirled, rippled boulder that lay against the cliff on a broad, plate-like shelf.  He slid off the boulder in exhaustion, but in his dizziness, caught his ankle in a stony convolution.  The new pain overrode his throbbing scrapes and bruises and he gasped.  Carefully, he stretched out on the wide shelf, examining his injuries.

Much to his relief, he found his ankle only twisted, not broken; still, it was unwelcome complication.  If he hadn't hit that oversized rock, he knew, he would have landed bloody and sore, but able to resume his climb.

He looked up.  The rocky shelf supported a substantial amount of vegetation, most of it obscuring the boulder.  To his left, the cliff fell away once more, a black pedestal of basalt that now held him prisoner.  Spock pulled himself to the edge of the shelf and stared at the lagged rocks far below him.  On a jutting ledge he could see a glint of metal, and further down, the scattered contents of his pack.  His communicator and his supplies.

A feeling of annoyance crept through his consciousness and disrupted his concentration, allowing the pain in his ankle to return with resounding acuteness; he also had a headache.  He sighed impatiently and rolled back to the shelter of the boulder, resting his head on his forearms.  First, he redisciplined the pain and began the healing process in battered ligaments and tendons.  Next, he gave a silent tribute to the skill of his instructors whose lessons in this sport had enabled him to engage such a well-executed, saving, fall.

//Well-executed, my tail.  And as for your ankle, if I hadn't caught you, you would've kept right on bouncing.//

Spock looked up swiftly.  His physical senses, jostled and joggled as they might be, were firm in their conviction that he was alone; could he be hearing things?

He searched through his mind for some cause to such phenomena, and finding none he would admit to (for he was very young after all, and from Vulcan, besides, a planet whose people are quite reluctant to admit to any mental failing at all), dismissed the experience.  He returned his thoughts to the problem at hand:  rescue.

//You're certainly an unimaginative one.  You look for facts to explain my voice and finding none, dismiss me as a product of your rock-throttled brain.  I should have let you fall; indeed, I should have never paid any attention to you at all.//

Mentally, Spock froze at the alien thoughts that traveled through his consciousness.  He reacted first in anger at the unwanted touching, his youth feeling first the invasion of privacy.  "I require that you cease your intrusion!"

//Ho, ho! That's better.  I never could stand being thought of as merely someone's meandering mental faculties.  Maybe I won't eat you after all.//

Caution, his inner voice warned.  Anger distorts careful assessment and endangers the being.  And you are in danger.  The anger was still there, but controlled now.  He coldly created a barrier against the thoughts and spoke out loud again.  "Who are you?"

A moment passed; he felt the other consciousness testing his defenses.  There was a certain detachment about the examination, as if the other were not terribly concerned.  Spock came to realize that it considered his efforts at obstruction with amusement.

At that, the spark of anger was dimmed by a slight brush of fear.

Still, youthful indignation and, if the truth, be told, a certain sensitivity to being laughed at that exceeded the usual boundaries, cried out for action.  He raised himself up on half-stretched arms and demanded to know just where this uncivil being hid.

A hearty, rasping chuckle rattled through his mind at that.  He looked sharply about him, to the left, to the right, even above him to the dark, brooding wall of stone stretching away from his scrubby shelf of questionable safety.  He saw nothing but sky and stone.  Perhaps it was a bird-like creature flying high beyond sight; or maybe some small clinging being who hid in the bristly sage all about him.

He started to reach out to push aside some of the bramble when the chuckle exploded into a thought-paralyzing roar and the whole shelf started to shake.  Violent trembling overcame the boulder and one of the swirling jetties began to move.  Caution and vibrating sound froze his movements, but Spock's eager eyes watched in silent fascination as slowly, slowly a massive log of rock rose upright before him.  Higher and higher it went; dirt and pebbles tumbled about his head from weeds and roots and clumps of dirt that dangled above him.  It shook itself, and the shaking rippled through the whole stone like a torpedo-shock tremor.  Moving, shifting, rolling and groaning, shedding its camouflage of brush and debris, the boulder came alive.

Suddenly, the rock log crashed down, crushing everything beneath it.  Spock jerked his head back, his eyes tightly shut against the gritty cloud of dust dancing around him.  He wasn't dinner yet, and as that realization relaxed him, he turned back, opening his eyes slowly as the air cleared.

Inches away from his face lay a large, living leg.

It was dusty gold in color, with leathery, corded muscles that flowed from its taloned paw -- hand? -- through a broad haunch-like forearm and back, rippling across a long, sinuous body that coiled in and about itself, ending at last in a diamond-tipped tail resting lightly on top of two folded golden wings.

Another "rock" lay on the other side of the scaled leg.  The sage which had concealed it was gone, and now the few plants and pebbles that remained on it were shaken loose as a mighty neck arched, carrying the creature's head high in the air.  When all the debris was clear, the neck swooped down and rested its head once more between its paws, maybe hands; slowly an eyelid opened.

A soft, moist pearl the size of Spock's head regarded him coolly.  Spock stared back with a stern expression that belied his apprehension, but the point was lost on the creature who saw him only as a filmy figure.  Its specific sight was still hidden beneath two more shiny lids.

When Spock remained silent, not really knowing what to do, it began to lick clean its talons like some giant cat at its bath.  All that prevented the truth of the simile was the way it stopped now and then to admire its work and to note, even through the cloudy membranes, how the bright sun sparkled on the embedded rubies and crystolelii.

Five minutes had passed by without comment by either being when Spock became aware of yet another movement, this one further down the body.  He looked over his shoulder and saw the flat tip of the tail twitching, regularly, repetitively, thump, thump, thump against the membrane of a wing.

Like a human tapping his fingers in impatience, Spock thought; or ... the tip of a lematya's tail before the strike.  He turned back to the eye as a pang of anxiety crept through him.  "You..." he said to break his tension, "are a dragon."

The giant hand lifted and Spock stiffened, but the talons merely reached back and scratched at a rodent's nest in a long, flaring ear.  When the mess was cleared out, the hand returned to its place.

"You are a dragon," Spock repeated, more surely now and with a touch of amazement.  "I have never believed such creatures exist, but you obviously meet all the physical requirements."

A second lid lifted and the nearest eye became more yellow with a hint of a long, narrow pupil in the middle.  The mouth which seemed to wrap around three-quarters of its head opened slightly.  A deep and quiet sound came out that remotely resembled lan­guage.  It spoke a sentence or two, and when the speech was ended, the eye closed up completely and silence engulfed them once more.

Thirty-five minutes later, the sun glared down in the white hot anger of midday, but the dragon did not move.  Spock began to find the heat oppressive and moved closer to the dragon, seeking to take advantage of what little shade remained.  He regretted most of all the loss of his head-covering; he should have worn a jumpsuit with a hood as he did at home, but... if-only thoughts were foolish, he reminded himself.  Better to concentrate on attracting a rescue ship and crew.

"Rescue?  And how, may I inquire, do you reason you'll be rescued?"

Which was more startling, the worldly-wise voice that rumbled from the dragon in perfect Fed-speak, or the fact that it spoke at all, Spock did not debate.  He merely stared at the being a moment, eyebrows raised to the tips of his dusty dark bangs, and said, "So, you can talk."

"Naturally."

"Where did you learn our language?"

"Where do you think?  Do you believe I spend all my time up here in the mountains like some indolent freizcat?  I am a dragon, thank you, yes."  It paused, as if in tribute to that statement.  "Two-legs are my hobby, my study if you will..."

"But there have been no substantiated reports of dra--"

"...I find your kind intrusive ... but amusing.  Tasty, too."  One eyelid opened.  "Hmmm.  Speaking of tasty..."

Biting his lower lip, Spock thought furiously as the dragon continued.

"Tell me, must I go on like this, talking out loud?  It's really too hot, and my throat is getting dry.  Since you were clumsy enough to lose your canteen, there is no refreshment."  It paused for effect.  "And dry dragons are cranky dragons; I've eaten your kind before, you know."  At this thought, a happily nostalgic expression animated its face.  "Are you salty, or are you flaky like the wrinkled small blue ones?  No, perhaps juicy like the boar ones, or are you rangy, red and hot?  HMMM?"  The dragon grinned wickedly and rested its fanged jaw on the hefty gold forearm, inches from Spock's nose.  "HMMMM?"

What now?  Spock hesitated, and the long golden tongue slithered out around a jeweled fang, flicking at his face.

"It is a very personal thing to enter another's mind; I haven't done it much outside of family," he objected weakly.

"It is a very personal thing to be eaten," the dragon observed.

"You are threatening me."

"You noticed."

Annoyed by the irrelevance of the sarcasm, Spock took a stronger stand.  "I shall be rescued soon, of that I am sure.  If they find no trace of me, they will be very suspicious and search this cliff thoroughly.  You will then be discovered, your existence uncovered, and your situation will be a most unpleasant one."

There.  He could threaten too.

The dragon ignored him.  Again, the tongue snapped at his face, this time making contact with a stinging "thwack!"

Spock inched away quickly.

"Don't."

Spock stopped.

"Now, I repeat, how do you plan to be rescued?  You are very small and these cliffs are very large.  My fellows and I have hidden in them for years, eluding the most frantic of hunters."  The dragon snorted in derision.  "However ravenous for a dragon skin to hang on their walls they might be, or however eager to chalk up another scholastic victory for mythology."  It cocked its head and the second eyelids opened.  "Speaking of ravenous..."

Spock hastily spoke up.  "I can discern no reason they should not find me.  Although out of reach, my communicator has fallen open to the emergency signal; I can hear the whine.  The signal will be traced, and a ship will come after me."

"Oh?  That sounds more like a wish than a statem--"  The dragon stopped; the massive head pulled back a little, a frown beginning to cross its features.  "That obnoxious noise down below; you can hear it?"

"Faintly, yes."

"Impossible."

It was Spock's turn to brag.  "Not at all; I'm a Vulcan.  My hearing is quite acute."

"Don't be so smug," the dragon snapped, rumbling about how none of the two-legs he knew could hear all that well.  It seemed to consider a moment, then, for the first time, opened its third eyelids to take a better look at this creature.

The eyes Spock looked into were alive with color flowing through them like hot, molten gold.  Dark and sharp as obsidian knives, two black, narrow pupils sliced through their centers.  "Turn your head to the side, Vulcan."

Spock did so and the dragon observed his gently flaring ears.

"Now the other."

Again.

"Well!  Not bad, not bad at all.  They remind me of a young dragonette's ear, before they're fully grown, of course.  In fact, I think I do remember a sharp-eared people like yours..."  The dragon's voice trailed off into a quiet mumble.

"I can't quite understand what you're saying.  Could you speak up a little?"

For an answer, the tongue struck again, flicking at Spock's right ear, causing an involuntary twitch Spock regretted immediately.

"Ticklish, too."

"I am not ticklish," Spock countered, a bit too energetically.

Chuckle.

Wounded dignity radiated from Spock, who struck a dreadfully serious pose.  "I do, however, wonder that your presence in these mountains is not known.  And I am concerned; a human or some other being more emotional than myself might find an experience such as this more than their nervous systems could bear."

"You're getting smug again," the dragon warned.  "My camouflage has not failed me yet ... and you could say, I pick my visitors carefully.  Oh, I've placed your people now."  The ragged brows lowered and Spock grew worried once more.  "Nosy and self-righteous creatures; pesky, always bickering among themselves.  Tiresome to talk with even then, and the few I could communicate decently with were far too jealous of their integrity, too.  Though I will admit, I perceive you define 'integrity' differently now."  Without missing a beat, the dragon then changed subjects.  "Are you hot?"

"I ... yes, I am."  Caught off guard, Spock employed an explanation to cover his confusion.  "I had planned to spend the noontime at the oasis below; and, I've lost my hat."

"Ah, the hat," the dragon nodded sagely.  "Were it not for the hat, I would have noticed sooner.  Consider a proposition, Vulcan Spock: if you agree to drop this ridiculous antipathy you have to communicating like civilized beings, I will shade you from the Star.  Agreed?"

A moment's pause.  A capitulation.

//No, merely a logical assessment of the situation.  I agree.//

The dragon's response was immediate.  The dust rose and fell in the still air once more as it unwrapped itself, winding its tail around the small figure beside it.  The skin was cool to Spock's touch, and dry; like a reptile's, yet with a quality of softness about it.  As he settled comfortably within the golden cords, the dragon opened a wing, spreading it out and up in the air like a brilliant metal sail, then bringing it down over the shelf, shading the Vulcan.

In the pale yellow light, the temperature lessened.  Spock watched the whole movement then turned back to his companion who was resting its head on the rock between its talons, eyes closed.

//Thank you.  Does this mean you do not intend to eat me?//

All three eyelids opened half way as the dragon glared balefully, and with just a tiny bit of exasperation.

//It could very well mean I don't like parboiled meat.  Although my fellows think I am far too patient with, two-legs, I do believe you are good for something besides eating.  Don't change my mind.//

If Vulcans can look sheepish, Spock did.

//However, I did find you attractive, and bothered to come out....//

//So, just keep quiet and listen to me.  I haven't had a captive audience like this in years.  To begin with, my name is Kierownik...//

The afternoon grew old.  The dragon's stories passed through Spock's mind in a kaleidoscope of fairy tale and historical fact.  Told to shut up every time he asked questions, he listened.  The heat, the steady rhythm of the giant being's heartbeat, the almost hypnotic effect of the mental impressions made Spock drowsy and slow.  Although he tried to stay alert and receptive , able to correlate what Kierownik told him with his knowledge of interplanetary history, with time he fell into a drifting half-consciousness.  A sense of deep security filled him; an image grew with it.  He was four, maybe five, and had wandered away from the family in the old and forested southern mountains.  The sehlat had found him, and together they had waited for rescue.  In his mind's eye he saw his father and companions finding him at last, curled against the cold in the warm curve of I-Chaya's belly.

Kierownik turned and looked at his companion curiously.  How small he looked, and how poignant that last thought.  A deep dragon sigh echoed through the cliffs; he was getting old.

He looked up suddenly.  To the east a nagging drone entered the range of his long, graceful swirled ears.  He scanned the skies, ears cocked at attention.  Yes, a steady, mechanical noise.  The kind two-legs made.

//Wake up, small Vulcan; your friends are approaching.//

Even as Spock stirred, the dragon was rising, the huge wings unfolding overhead, stretching out, ready to catch a wind in the evening.

Spock scrambled out of the way.  //What is happening?//

//I'm leaving.  Your friends are coming and if I am seen, there will be no more peace in the Black Cliffs of Han.  I'm too old to be bothered with fortune hunters, biologists, theologians and scientists, or Waskasii natives who hope to make a profit on their legend come true.  Let them enjoy their little dragonflies and leave me alone; I've lost much of the fire.  A dragon can't afford to be charitable.//  A slight breeze caught the dragon's wings, billowing them into sheets of rippling amber in the late afternoon sun.  A distant look came into the rich, ancient eyes.  //Ten thousand years I've seen, a hundred planets.  On some they called me worm, on some the serpent, on others a god.  Those who spoke with me were named Dragonmasters, priests, or worse, fools.  At last I came here, where the world's climate suits me, and the beauty of the lands gives me pleasure.//  A sigh, long and rolling.  //Of course, who had the choice?  Those who flew with, us from star to star are all gone now, lost in legends and dreams and anthropologists' theories.  I am here, and here I shall stay till I fly one last time to my Star.//  It looked at Spock, a slight smile on its lips.  //Besides,// it thought in amusement, //without us in these hills, how would the fav'rickiman  sell his sweet pastries?//

Rearing back, the dragon's head nodded like the long, tall straw hat with its dragonhead crown.  "Dragon Ears!  Buy my sweet Dragon Ears!"  The resonant voice sang out in uncanny resemblance.  "Good luck will be yours when you buy my crusciki!"

Kierownik laughed, like a trumpet greeting the beginning of sunset.  The powerful neck curved back toward Spock and the great eyes regarded him slyly.  //Of course, he could always call// "Vulcan Ears! Buy my crisp Vulcan Ears!" the dragon sang softly, his tongue affectionately tweeking the youth's ears one last time.  //And no one will tell him they don't believe in Vulcans.  You should have bought a pastry, my friend.//

//What?!// Spock reached out as if to stay him, but the dragon was gone, swooping down the basalt cliff in a golden swallow's dive.

Spock scrambled to the shelf edge and watched Kierownik disappear into the shadows below.  By now, even he could hear the aircar's distant drone.  He knew the dragon had left with only minutes to spare, yet he called out to him, hoping to speak to him just one more time.

//Kierownik!//

Still drifting through his mind were the ancient calls of the horns on a hundred different planets, all the treasures, all the beauties of peoples beyond call and peoples he knew well; even the tempting whisper of the winds on his own world in a time when legends say men of magic walked the earth bringing wisdom to the waking races lingered in his thoughts.

"Kierownik!"

He looked up.  The aircar could be seen now, a glinting speck gliding over the far cliffs.  He sat back, disappointed, trying to fit the tales he had heard in some sort of order.  In a few hours they would be gone, he and the ship, but perhaps he could return one day and seek out the being.  If not Kierownik, some other dragon who could help him capture the stories in writing to treasure.

//Spock!//  He turned.

Out beyond the shelf's edge, a legend was hovering, brilliant and golden in the long red rays of the sun.  Dusty no more, but glistening with tiny droplets of water from some spring far below on the plains, Kierownik hung suspended on the cooling air, its great wings beating slowly.  Now Spock saw its whole body, long and corded like some precious rope of gold, its wings uncurled like a yellow crescent moon; the jewels in its talons flashed, and there were tiny prisms of diamonds shimmering in its teeth.  The neck bent toward him, and for a moment the flared, narrow head with its delicate seashell ears and eyes that were cauldrons of melting shifting metal, was on a level with Spock's.

//Don't make any great plans, my young child.  I am Kierownik, the Balancer.  I see all sides, all impressions.  There are many of my kind who have no love for Master Two-Legs; we have not fared well at your hands, and many are those among us who follow an order far older than yours.  Your compassions, your altruisms, your loves and your logics are alien to us.  If it amuses me to spare you today, I shall and I will, but tomorrow has not dawned.  So, take the stories you have heard today, and be wiser when you learn of new legends in faraway lands.  Rare is the being who creates tales from thin air; all stories have roots if you have the patience to see.  Also// it admonished gently //remember the wisdom of the fav'rickiman 's wazka.//

The dragon pulled away suddenly and looked over its left wing; the aircar was too close.  //Goodbye, Spock Two-Legs.  Lay your planning aside; you'll have trouble enough, telling the tale yourself!//

With a trumpet call Spock had to accept as farewell, Kierownik rose and vanished into the violet mountain deeps.

* * *

 

"Dragons."

"No, Mr. Fira.  Only one dragon."

"You said you were an expert climber."

"I am."  Spock said with firm conviction, then paused, and added with a touch of irony, "Even proficient climbers have an occasional bit of ... bad luck."

Jacq Fira looked out the window of the aircar and sighed.  "Great.  First, you of all people, start talking about dragons, and now 'bad luck'.  Pike'll have my head if he..."

Fira's mutters faded away as the Vulcan began discussing his fascination with the dragon again, describing the creature with great animation; indeed, Fira had never seen him so intent.

"...the fact that it knew about certain conversations held in town earlier leads me to suspect--"

Enough was enough!  "Dammit, Spock," Fira exclaimed, "shut up about that dragon!  You didn't see, and for godsake, didn't talk to a dragon!"  He leaned over and glared in the Vulcan's face, nose to nose.  "Not another word, not one more word!  Do you read me, mister?!"

Spock pulled away fast, his shoulders set at attention, a stoic cadet look on his face.  "Yes, sir," he said crisply.

"Good.  And if I do hear you saying anything, be it word, grunt or breath about this ... this ... hallucination of your--"

"Sir!" Spock objected.  "Were it even possible for a Vulcan to hallucinate, I would certainly have reported it as such.  This was no--"

"I said, shut up!"

"Yessir!"

Furthermore, if you so much as think about mentioning dragons to Pike, I'll have you repairing the backends of computers till they cart you away as space debris.  Understand?!"

"Nearing Smok, Lieutenant Fira," the pilot interjected.  As the aircar began its bank, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled at the quietly indignant junior officer.  "Just before we approached, I saw a flash of gold in the valley.  I've seen it before, flying in the mountains.  I believe you."  Laughing as Fira exploded once more, she winked at Spock and began her descent.

They left the aircar at the outskirts of town, by the broad market gate.  Fira, satisfied that Spock's ankle was not overly damaged, had decided the crazy lieutenant could darn well walk to the transporter station.  Maybe a little discomfort would inject some sense into his head.  Dragons!  The settlers on Berengaria VII had looked for dragons for years, but no one had ever found one, let alone spoken with one.  Jesu, what an imagination!

Now, it was entirely possible to slip the event right past Pike's notice, Fira calculated.  Not easy, but possible.  No ship-time had been lost, and if he spoke with communications ... the senior lieutenant strode toward the gate, lost in thought, ignoring Spock, who followed more slowly.

The merchants were leaving now; their stalls covered in silence.  At the gate, they passed the old fav'rickiman, selling his last few pastries to the stragglers walking by.  He called out, "Dragon Ears, Vulcan Ears!  Crisp and sweet and tasty!"

Spock stopped abruptly.  "Mr. Fira!" Jacq looked back in irritation.  "The fav'rickiman.  Listen."

"Sweet Dragon Ears for sale here.  Yellow as the Golden Dragon that flies the Cliffs of Han!"  The old man nodded at the spacemen and held out his snowy basket where a small number of swirled, pointed cookies remained.  "Buy a Dragon Ear, my lords?  Half the price because it's late."  He smiled at Fira, who winced at the word 'dragon'.  "And did the young lord have an interesting climb, hmmm?"

"Far too interesting," Fira answered.  "We'll pass on the cookies; my young friend here has seen enough dragons for one day."  He started to walk away; when Spock didn't move, he reached back and grabbed the jumpsuit sleeve, jerking him forward.  "Come on!"

Reluctantly, the Vulcan followed, looking back at the old man every couple of feet.  Half-way through the market, he heard the sing-song voice again.  "Dragon Ears, Vulcan Ears, give you safe, sweet passage through the dangers of the night."

Spock stopped flat and spun around, an incredulous expression on his face as he stared.

Under the arch of the stone gate the colors of the setting sun made a silhouette of the fav'rickiman.  As if aware of Spock's gaze, he turned and they stood there, alone in the red and gold dusk.

The wind had grown stronger, heavy with the promise of rain on the morrow; it whipped the old man's cape out about his shoulders till it flared like a gigantic beating wing.  The tall supple hat with the dragonhead crown tipped forward and nodded as the fav'rickiman raised his hand in salute, his long jeweled fingernails gleaming wickedly with fire and prism flashes in the sun.  He called out, "Dragon Ears and Vulcan Ears make good companions on your journey; luck rides with you on wings of gold!"

A laugh, deep and free, then rang out across the plaza.  The cape spread out on the wind, larger and larger; the fav'rickiman loomed mightily above the marketplace, and from atop the arched neck of the hat, an eye of gold winked and a row of diamonds glittered.

A gust of dusty wind blew suddenly into Spock's face and he shielded his eyes for a heartbeat, no more.

When he looked back, at the gate--

"Spock?! Are you coming?!" Fira demanded from across a great, echoing distance.

"Right away, Lieutenant; I'm coming, right away."

--all he saw was a merchant bending low to buy a few pastries from a dusty old fav'rickiman in the closing light of day.

 

THE END