“It’s Daddy!” SaRa announced with a squeal.
The first sprouts of green made their way up through the receding blanket of snow outside the mouth of the little cave. The sky took on a friendly color as the winter weeks passed into spring. The two children blinked their way into the sunlight, joining the natural world in the waking ritual of new-found life.
She raced over to where Zento crouched in the spring grass. The boy gave her a warning glance, intent on catching a batch of stripe-legs for an experimental soup-lunch.
Through the long winter, the girl did not talk about those who were lost to the snow. Many times she fell ill from the severity of the cold, too weak to even speak. For countless nights, Zento curled up next to his sister, keeping her warm with his own heat and wondering if he would wake up the next morning to find himself utterly alone.
The Dragon Spirit kept watch over them. How it brought them food, Zento didn’t know, but every morning, there was always something near the mouth of the cave to eat. Though Zento was not yet taught the intricacies of hunting, instinct began to surface. Not one to rely upon outside forces for total support, the boy soon shrugged off his once domestic life to embrace the knowledge of the wilderness.
The new spring brought warm weather. New hunting and food. SaRa’s illness washed away in the light of the sun. That’s when her questions began. Questions that Zento couldn’t answer… not for himself, nor for his little sister.
‘Where’s Mumma? When’s Daddy coming to get us?’
There were times when Zento, too, wondered if it was all just a terrible dream brought on by illness. That any moment, his father and mother would appear. That the cave would shift into the familiar image of the old Gathering home.
Where are they?
Zento didn’t know how to answer. Father and brother vanished into the storm. Mother and sister froze, becoming part of the snow banks.
The sound of the little girl’s feet on the grass scattered the stripe-legs. Zento watched dolefully as they sped across the hillside, a flash of fuzzy tail and a beady-eyed chitter that vanished into the budding undergrowth.
“Oops,” SaRa sucked on her bottom lip. She knew the sight of escaping lunch was followed by her brother’s disapproval.
With a slow sigh, Zento got to his feet and brushed off the knees of his threadbare pants — old hand-me-downs from his brother. They were somewhat small on him before he left home. Now, they seemed even smaller with the tattering wear of time, or perhaps because the boy was a bit taller now. Mother always told Zento that he was tall for his age.
“SaRa,” the boy grimaced. Thoughts of outgrowing the only set of clothes he owned were the least of his worries. “Why’d you go and scare ‘em off?”
“Daddy’s coming!” she told him, eyes big and round. “I seen him!”
A twisting knot formed in Zento’s stomach. How could he tell her that it just wasn’t possible? Instead, he found himself asking, “Where?”
“He’s walking on the path!” the girl began to tug at her brother’s sleeve. “He came up from below with a pack and everything! He’s looking for us!”
“Show me,” the boy gave a careful frown. Zento didn’t doubt there was someone out there. He was more concerned that this traveler would pose a threat to them.
Both little hands curling around his wrist, SaRa pulled her brother up the rocky side of the cave. Small trees made their home on the thin soil, daring to spread new leaves in baby-green fans to the sky. Zento pulled himself up into one, getting a good view of the valley below.
Instantly, his eyes were drawn to the figure below. It was nothing more than a shadow in the distance, a glint of blue and gold. But it was the first person that Zento had seen since his parents died. Torn between curiosity and suspicion, he swung down the bounding branches.
“Did you see him?!”
“Yeah. You’re right. Someone’s coming this way.”
Zento shook his head slowly. “We don’t know that yet.”
“Maybe.” He settled on avoiding yes or no.
Crouching through the sparse grass, SaRa clung tightly to her brother’s hand all the way down the hillside. She objected with a round of pouting when Zento told her she needed to stay behind the big droopy tree on the edge of the field. He wanted to be able to run if the stranger turned out to be a threat, and he wanted as much distance between SaRa and the stranger as possible.
“You just want to see Daddy first! No fair!” she huffed.
Zento put a hand over her mouth to muffle her high-pitched whine. “We don’t know if it’s him yet. I want to make sure there’s no tricks. Okay?”
Finally she fell quiet, looking quizzical. “I like tricks?”
“Promise me you’ll stay here,” Zento demanded, pointing at the ground behind the tree.
SaRa scowled at him.
“I mean it! Promise me!”
“I promise.” She gave him one baleful, squinty eye.
“Good,” Zento sighed in relief. “Listen for me. I’ll call you, okay?”
She wouldn’t look at him, and just pouted at the root of the tree before sitting with her back to it.
With all of the stealth of a boy too tall for his age, Zento scuttled from one clump of brush to the next. His hands were stained with the young green of crushed grass, and prickly vines grasped at his shirt as he made his tactical advance.
The Walking Man, as Zento now called him in his mind, was still a good distance away. Far enough for the boy to find a hiding place and observe his approach without notice. Slipping into a small gully filled with last year’s leaves, he peeked around the base of a tree stump.
He was strange, this Walking Man – certainly someone who had traveled a very long distance. He had a medium-sized pack slung over one shoulder, a strange golden-wood walking staff, and the most exotic-colored clothes that Zento had ever seen. His hair was bright blue, the color of a cheerful fish pond, and was held back by a long strip of bandana tied across his forehead.
But what made Zento squint were the man’s ears. They were pointed and fin-shaped, blue and gold, much like the ears of the Dragon Spirit.
The Walking Man drew closer, his stride both relaxed and resolute. The way he moved, Zento had only seen in the fighters of his clan. Even they didn’t seem as unwavering as this fin-eared stranger was.
The boy found himself at a sudden loss. Having observed the Walking Man so closely – maybe he had hoped it was his father? – he had no idea if he should approach or return to SaRa. After all, there was no proof that the stranger was going to climb the hills to the cave. He could very well be passing through.
Zento crouched slowly backwards, moving out of the gully and back towards where SaRa was hiding. He was very careful not to let the crackling of the leaves give him away, even though the Walking Man was still too far away to hear.
“Stop,” a voice commanded.
The tone left Zento with no other option but to obey. With a frightened breath, the boy twisted around, only to fall backwards in disbelief. The Walking Man was now perched on the rim of the gully, one foot balanced against the tree stump.
Gold eyes peered down at the boy, unflinching and merciless. The face was like stone, body poised, ready to break into a battle-dance at any moment. Zento’s panic must have shown on his face because the fin-eared stranger’s voice grew less commanding. “Do you live in this area?”
The boy nodded slowly, his palms behind him, pressed into the dirt. Part of him wanted to shout to SaRa, to tell her to run. But he knew that this man would be able to catch them no matter the head-start.
“I have questions,” the Walking Man said, lowering himself down the gully in one smooth motion. Up close, the boy realized this was the tallest man that he had ever seen. “You do not have to fear. I am only looking for answers.”
Zento ran his tongue over his lips, nodding to show that he would cooperate.
The Walking Man nodded, too. His stance seemed somewhat less threatening. But only by a little bit. “Are there any settlements nearby?”
“I… I’m not sure what you mean…” the boy answered honestly.
“A place where many people live. A settlement. A city?”
“You mean a Gathering?” Zento offered the only word he knew. He had never heard of a ‘city’ before.
“Perhaps,” the Walking Man answered. “Do any Gatherings exist nearby?”
“I don’t know…”
The golden eyes flickered down upon the boy, weighing him.
Zento swallowed, needing nothing more to make him continue talking. “Arddun and Nefol are the big places for Gathering. I think this place is somewhere between the two, but I don’t really know for sure.”
“I see.” He frowned a little. “You do not live in a Gathering?”
“No…” the boy replied. Zento knew his voice alone gave the impression of there being more behind the story than just that. Still, he didn’t want to tell the stranger about their cave… about SaRa… about the Dragon Spirit.
The Walking Man seemed to take note of the tone, but chose not to pursue it. Instead, he pulled another question from nowhere. “Maybe you can tell me where I can find someone.”
The boy decided it was better that he didn’t let the stranger in on the fact that he knew absolutely no one. He nodded slowly, thinking that he could always answer truthfully that he didn’t know who the man was looking for.
“I am looking for a warrior. His name is ZenToYa,” the stranger said grimly.
Frozen, the boy stared up at the Walking Man.
“I was told that I could find him in this area. Maybe you have heard of him?”
He had no idea why he admitted it. As he did, his voice came out a little squeak. “I… am ZenToYa…”
The gold eyes peered down at the boy for a very long time, considering the words. “There must be a mistake. I am looking for the warrior, ZenToYa. I have been sent here to train him.”
“I am ZenToYa,” the boy repeated, not knowing where the boldness came from. Or where it would lead.
The stranger leaned heavily on his golden-wood staff, looking off towards a distant tuft of grass. An expression of pensive exasperation washed over the stone face.
The Walking Man didn’t argue Zento’s identity. He seemed to know that the boy was telling the truth. He simply sighed up at the sky with a soft grimace. “Lord Zemi, you send me a child?”
Zento perked up slowly, finding a moment of connection. “You know Zemi?”
“Lord Zemi,” the stranger corrected. “Yes. I am one of his Dragon Servants.”
The boy’s eyes grew round. “You’re… a DRAGON?”
The stranger pressed his lips together.
“You don’t look like one… ‘cept for the ears?”
“Not everything is what it seems on first glance.” The Dragon gave him a penetrating look. “You know of Lord Zemi as well?”
“Sure! That’s the name of the Dragon Spirit that lives in our cave.” Zento nodded. Somehow, all the mistrust evaporated. Talk of the cave-home was perfectly okay to do with a Dragon Servant.
“You said you were sent here? By Zemi?” The boy sucked on his bottom lip, uncertain at the man’s lack of response.
“Yes. That is correct.”
“Does that mean you’re gonna come stay in the cave?” Zento perked up a bit. Dragons were good hunters, so that would mean good food.
“I am here to train you,” he simply answered. Something about it seemed resigned.
“Like… train me to fight?” The boy grinned up brightly, showing the Dragon a few swings of his arm.
“Yes. I am known as Kudako. I will show you how to fight.”
Kudako’s eyes fell back on the tuft of grass. They almost seemed accusing.
But Zento didn’t notice. He was too busy calling across the field, “SaRa! Come out! Come meet Kudako! He’s a REAL Dragon and he’s gonna show me how to fight!”
“Who?” the Dragon turned to peer out across the field.
“My little sister, SaRa!” Zento grinned widely. “She lives in the cave too!”
“Little… sister…?” Kudako’s mouth was slightly open. Then he put a hand to his forehead, covering his face.