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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 1

 “I smell bread baking.” Crispin sniffed the morning air; his nose twitched as he inhaled the aroma. “Look Gretel. I see Marti.” Crispin tugged on her sleeve, pointing to the old man off in the distance. “He’s taking Heidi down to the river to graze. Why do you think he never lets anyone come to his cottage? That’s strange! I wonder what he keeps in there. My mom says he’s an oddball and that he’s hiding something.” Crispin sat on the grass, watching a pale green butterfly flutter around a buttercup. Dragonflies darted about, dancing with the sunlight reflecting on the puddles of water.  “I’ll bet he’s got a bunch of zombies, or ghosts, or even monsters living with him.”

“Right, Crispin. I’m sure that’s what it is.” Gretel rolled her eyeballs.

“Why is it that he only comes to town on Saturdays when he wants to sell his cheeses and he never speaks to anyone? He trades them for sausages and chocolates, not for money. My mom calls him a hermit.”

“Oh, Crispin. Eleven-year-old boys are always saying things like that.” Gretel shook her head from side to side.

“Hey! You’re not a grown up. You’re only one year older than me.” Crispin picked a dandelion and blew, watching the tiny helicopters of fluff float across the sky.

“Your mom shouldn’t be bad-mouthing Marti. He’s a nice old man. I like him. He’s not that weird. Sometimes he smiles at me.” Gretel brushed an ant from her yellow and white gingham dress. “One time when I was at the bakery I saw him buying some cherry cakes. Those are my favorite pastries too.  I love the way the vanilla icing sticks to the roof of my mouth and how the black walnuts and cream squirt out of the sides of the flaky raspberry tarts when I take a bite. Oh boy, I’m making myself hungry.” She licked her lips.

            “Answer this then. Why doesn’t he live in the Lachmund, like everyone else? Why is his cottage way over here on this hill, far away from the village? I think my mom is right. He’s got a secret. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a head attached to some wires with no body.” His head turned toward Marti’s cottage. Red and green painted shutters framed the cottage windows and hanging flower boxes added a splash of color with their clusters of red and pink geraniums.

Gretel folded her arms across her chest. “No, Crispin! Don’t even think of it. I know what you’re going to suggest.”

            “I say we sneak into his cottage. He’s taking his cow to the river. We can go inside, have a look around and leave before he gets back.” Crispin’s gaze darted back and forth. “He’ll be gone for a while and nobody else will see us.” He brushed the dirt off his clothes.

            “No, Crispin! I knew you were going to suggest that. We’re not going inside his house; it’s not ours. Let’s go back home.” She stomped her foot and headed toward the village.

            “Are you afraid? You think I’m right, don’t you. You think there are monsters!”

            “Crispin, I do not. You can’t go into people’s houses when they’re not there. It’s not right.”

The boy didn’t listen, but turned and ran up the stony path. “You can wait here if you want, or you can go back home. I’m going.”

 Gretel watched in horror as Crispin opened the door and went inside. “Crispin! Don’t!” She ran up to the door, pushed it open and stepped inside. Her gaze wandered around the room in search of zombies, just in case. “Come out of there right now! If Marti comes back and finds us here, he’ll tell our mothers and we’ll both be in big trouble.”

            He ignored her and walked over to a wooden table sitting in the middle of the room. “There are no monsters. I was hoping there would be. I don’t see anything scary or weird.” He walked over to the table. “Wow! Look at all of this bread. It smells delicious and feels soft and fluffy. My mom’s bread isn’t like this. She puts seeds and chopped nuts in ours.  Let’s have a slice.” Crispin picked up the knife lying next to the loaf.

“Are you crazy? We can’t just come in here and eat his food. Put that knife down!” Gretel’s angry voice echoed onto deafened ears.

            Crispin cut a thick slice of bread, dropping crumbs on the table and floor. He spread some creamy butter, eyed a block of Swiss cheese and cut a thick chunk, shoving it into his mouth. “This cheese is great. Try some. Even the holes taste good.”

            Gretel’s tummy rumbled. “I am not going to eat Marti’s food and you shouldn’t either. Put it down.” She tried to grab it from his hands.

“I’m only having one slice. Leave me alone.” Crispin ran to the other side of the table. Teasing her, he waved the bread back and forth. “Come on, Gretel. Have just one bite. Yummy.” He held it out, tempting her.


“At least try the cheese.” Crispin cut another slice.

            “Leave Marti’s food alone. Would you want someone coming into your cottage and eating your food?”

“We don’t have much food at our house.” He looked around for more. “This cottage is small. Ah ha! Look over there at the window ledge. I see a bowl of ripe berries.”

“You’re not going to eat them too, are you?”

“I might. I wonder where he got these. They look ripe.” He popped one into his mouth. “Tastes sweet, but not as good as the cheese.”

Relaxing a bit, Gretel said, “I think Marti grows his own berries. Didn’t you notice all the flowers growing outside? I saw snowdrops and edelweiss.”

“I don’t care about flowers. I care about eating these berries.”

Gretel leaned on her tiptoes and looked out Marti’s back window. “He does have a garden. I see strawberries, grape vines, blackberries, and red currants. They look ripe and juicy and ready to pluck from their vines.” As Crispin nibbled away on the berries, Gretel heard the mountain bluebirds and larks warbling outside. “Bluebirds! How lovely.” Ptarmigan and rock partridge flew among the bushes, scattering their mottled black, brown, and white feathers. Screech owls hooted and woodpeckers with red-feathered heads drilled tree trunks with their pointed beaks. “It really is pretty here in Switzerland, isn’t it, Crispin?”

He paid no attention to her and picked up the three golden cowbells sitting on another window ledge.

            When he shook them, Gretel put her hands over her ears.  “Put those down, Crispin. The clanging noise is loud. Do you want Marti to hear them and know we’re in his cottage?”

            He set them on the table next to the half-eaten loaf of bread.

            “Just stop touching everything.” Gretel fumed with anger.

            A bed sat off to the side in one of the corners. Two eider down pillows lay against the headboard. A patchwork quilt spread across, hanging down to the floor on both sides.

“Do you think Marti would mind if we lay on the bed?” Crispin wanted to snuggle under the quilt.

            “You have eaten his cheese, bread, butter, and berries. I don’t think it will matter too much if you lie down on his bed.” Gretel watched him leap into the middle of it. 

His reddish-brown hair flew around his face. “It is soft and cozy too. Come and try, Gretel.”

            At first she refused and stood gaping at Crispin, but after he kept patting the quilt, she sat on the edge of the bed. Her golden, braided hair bounced up and down. “You’re right. This bed is comfortable. How’s the pillow?”

            Crispin handed it to her.

            Her arms wrapped around it in a tight hug, squishing it into a ball. “It’s the fluffiest pillow I’ve ever felt.” A feather floated past; snatching it from the air, she giggled. “It’s full of white chicken feathers.”

            “They’re not chicken feathers; they’re eider duck feathers, Gretel.” Something caught Crispin’s attention and he sat up. “What’s that sign on the door over there?” He jumped off the bed. “It says, DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR. Why would someone hang a sign on the door when nobody ever comes into the cottage? I wonder what it's for.”

            “That’s weird, but you should leave it alone, Crispin. If it says not to open it, then we shouldn’t. We need to go home now. Marti will be back any moment and he’s not going to be happy when he sees what we’ve done.” Gretel slid off the bed and went to the table. “Look at the mess you’ve made.” After wiping the knife off and laying it next to the plate of butter, she spread a cloth over the bread and cheese.

            “I’m going to open it.” Crispin reached for the brass doorknob.

“Don’t touch it. Please! Let’s just go.” Gretel turned to leave.

            Crispin opened it a crack and peeked. “It’s very dark in there.” He opened it wider and stepped inside.

            “Crispin! No!” Gretel ran to grab him, but instead, he reached out and pulled her in.

            “It’s pitch dark in here. I can’t even see my hand in front of my eyes.” Crispin

wiggled his fingers in front of Gretel’s face. “Can you see my hand?”

            Gretel ignored him. “I can’t find the doorknob.”  Her fingers searched in the dark. “I don’t like it in here. It’s scary. I feel creepy things. You don’t think there are any spiders, bats, or snakes in here, do you? Where is the doorknob?”

            Crispin turned around. Dozens of ping-pong-ball-sized pale green eyes floated in the darkness, just inches from his face. “Uh, Gretel, what are those? Do you see them? I see lots of eyeballs!” Crispin reached for her hand.

“I see them too.” Gretel's shaky voice whispered. “They’re awfully big for spider eyes and since when do spider’s eyes glow?” A warm breath crept down the back of Gretel’s collar. “I’m outta here!” She rubbed her hands along the wall, found the doorknob, turned it, threw the door wide open and ran out.

Crispin followed her and so did forty-four dragons.

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