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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 11

            Marti heard a knock on the door upstairs. “It must be Gretel’s parents. I’ve got to tell them the news of her disappearance. Wish me luck.”

            “I’ll stay down here with the babies.” Quirin sat on a ledge, reveling in his new-found family once again.

            Marti climbed the stairs one at a time, stopping for a breath. He rubbed his knees, leaned his cane against the wall and opened the door. “Crispin, what are you doing here?” He saw two adults standing behind him. “Erika, Jules, please, please, come in.” He ushered the three into his cottage. “I thought I told you to go straight home.” He pointed at Crispin.

            “My mom and dad said it was all right to come as long as I was with Gretel’s parents, so I came.” Crispin ran to the table and ate a piece of the buttered bread with marmalade. “Whose green hat is this?” He picked it up and slipped it on his head. “Wow! It’s big. It feels funny though, like it’s alive.”

            Marti rushed over and pulled the wizard’s cap off Crispin’s head, turning in time to see the Bendels exchange glances. He set the hat down on one of the benches. “Never you mind, Crispin. Now, eat your bread and butter.”

            “Where’s Gretel? Crispin wouldn’t tell us a thing. Is there some sort of problem?” Erika clenched her fists and paced back and forth. Her skin-tight black pants rubbed against the table, getting crumbs on them.

            Jules sat on a stool, surprisingly calm and staring at the pointed hat. He brushed his light brown hair from his forehead.

Motioning to Erika, Marti sighed. “You’d better sit down next to your husband. It’s a long story. Gretel’s been taken captive.”

 Crispin finished his food and sat down on Marti’s bed. He pulled the blanket over him and listened.

            “Captured? By who? What is going on here?” Erika’s voice rose to a high pitch, annoying her husband, who pulled her down next to him and told her to calm down and listen.

            “A few days ago…I’ve forgotten how many, or was it only this morning…?” Marti struggled to remember.

“It was only this morning, Marti,” Crispin said.

“Ah, well, this morning Crispin and Gretel decided to visit my cabin while I was away. After helping themselves to my food,” he glanced at Crispin, scowling, “they opened this door.”

             Erika and Jules looked over at it.

            “What did you do with the sign saying not to enter?” Crispin saw it lying on the floor. “Oh. There it is.”

“What do you have behind there?” This time it was Gretel’s father who asked the questions.

            “When the children opened the door they let out the baby dragons.” Marti watched for their reaction, surprised to see all they did was give each other quick, suspicious glances. He continued. “The window blew open and they flew out. We’ve spent this whole day trying to catch them and bring them back to the cavern, which is behind the door.”

            “Dragons, you say? Just how many baby dragons are there?” Jules didn't know how many eggs the dragonkeepers had managed to save.

“I’ve never really counted. You don’t seem too concerned that Gretel is missing. I must say, you both don’t seem surprised that there are dragons in this day and age. I’m a bit confused. What is going on here?” Marti, prepared for any answer, gasped when Gretel’s parents pulled out their daggers.

“Wow! Those swords look just like that other man’s sword, the one who took Gretel.” Crispin jumped off the bed and ran toward Marti.

            “That man’s name is Darmantha. He’s a dragonslayer and so are we!” Jules snarled at them.

            “What do you mean? Gretel doesn’t know anything about this, does she?” Marti couldn’t believe it.

            “Gretel only thinks we’re bad parents. She has no idea we’re dragonslayers. When Quirin hid the dragons, we knew it was somewhere in this area. Darmantha told us to stay here and keep an eye on the villagers. He wanted us to look for odd visitors or strange events. Never did we dream you had the dragons hidden right under your house. We kept our identities hidden. Foolish old man. You’ve no idea what your involved in, do you? Enough of Erika and Jules. My name’s Jorna and he’s Provan.” Her voice was full of anger and rage. “I’m so glad we don’t have to use those pathetic names any more.”

            “Will Darmantha hurt Gretel?” Crispin wondered.

            “You’d better hope not. I don’t know if he realizes who she is yet. Show us the dragons.” Jorna grabbed Crispin's arm.    

Quirin, curious about the visitors, made his way up the steps. He stopped at the door and listened to the voices. Recognizing his foes, he whispered, “Jorna and Provan. They’ve found the dragons.” He crept back down the stairs to hide.

            Marti led Jorna and Provan down to the cave, wondering where Quirin lay hidden. He saw no sign of the wizard. Out of nowhere the dragons flew at them from all directions, squealing and screeching, with claws out, as if they sensed death and approaching doom. They attacked the two dragonslayers.

“Call those dragons off, or I’ll start stabbing them.” Provan swatted at the dragons. Shouting at Marti, he drew his dagger. “It doesn’t matter to me if there are fifty or ten of them. They’re all going to die soon anyway. Call them off. Now!”

            Marti didn’t know what to do. He had no way of calling off the dragons without concentrating.

            Quirin, still hiding, communicated through telepathy with the dragons. They flew down to the bottom of the cave and lay still and quiet.

            Provan and Jorna glared at each other. “That’s better. How are you able to communicate with them old man? How many did you say were here?” Provan started counting them.

            “There are forty of them.” Jorna had already counted.

            “That makes forty-two, including the two you say Darmantha has with him. How did Quirin gather that many eggs?” Provan mumbled to himself.

            Crispin, well aware of the two missing dragons, glanced at Marti.

             “By the way, I like the touch of sparkles on the cave walls. It’s an old trick used to keep things undetected. I sense Quirin’s hand in this. No wonder we never knew they were here,” Provan snapped, looking at the glittery walls. He walked around the cave. “Well, well, well; what’s this? Come and see, Jorna. Bring those two with you.”

Jorna pushed Crispin and Marti ahead. Her mouth dropped open when she saw Zara. “What is that?”

“Can’t you tell it’s a dragon?” Crispin made fun of her. “Even I can tell that.”

Fury raged in Jorna’s eyes. “Don’t mock me, boy.” She took out her dagger and jabbed it into the dragon and walked over to see the wound. “There’s no blood.” She squeezed it. “It’s made of cumminosal.” Provan kicked it with his foot.” This is what will happen to the dragons if you don’t cooperate with us.” He kicked it again, this time in the face. “Look at all this junk. It looks like a child’s nursery in here. These balls,” he reached over and picked one up, “are made of cumminosal too. And look, Jorna. They’ve got pictures of dragons on them. Isn’t that sweet. It disgusts me.” Provan threw the ball across the room. It bounced off the cave wall and rolled across the floor, stopping at the bottom of a stalagmite.

            Marti shook his head in disgust.

           “Provan, they’ve got Rainbow Lights.” Jorna pointed to the ceiling. “Do you know how rare those are, Marti? How did you get three of them?” Jorna moved her face closer to his. “You’d better tell me old man. Remember the dragons.”

“They were given to me by my parents long ago.” Marti lowered his gaze.

“Where did your parents get them, or don’t you know that either?” Jorna sneered.

“I don’t remember what they said,” Marti muttered. “I was only a boy.”

           “It doesn’t matter. I think we’ll take them with us, along with all the dragons.” Provan jumped onto a ledge, wrapped his legs around a stalagmite and scooted up to the top.

“Don’t take them, please. I haven’t got much left to remind me of my parents.” Marti pleaded.

            “Sorry, old man, but they’re ours now. This is a beauty, very rare. You could say, priceless. You don’t need these without the dragons around. Anyway, you’ve got memories of your parents, don’t you? What more do you need?” Provan lifted one of the lights off its chain.

Crispin held Marti back. “Let them have the lights, Marti. It’s not worth it.” They watched as Provan removed all three Rainbow Lights.

“Lovely and rare,” Jorna said when Provan handed them to her. “We can make a fortune with these things alone.”

            “Tie them up, Jorna. We don’t need these two interfering while we gather the dragons.”

            Jorna picked up a piece of rope lying on the floor. She forced Marti and Crispin to sit next to a stalagmite, their backs pressed against it. Cold moisture seeped through their clothing chilling their flesh. Jorna wrapped the rope around the jutting rock several times, tying them to it. Provan gave it a few extra tugs to make it extra tight. “That should hold them.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several large stiff cloth bags.

Crispin noticed. “Don’t take the dragons. Don’t put them in those dirty coal bags.”

“Shut up, boy, or you’ll taste my dagger,” Jorna said.

Crispin whispered to Marti. “Will the coal dust hurt the dragons?”

            “No, but cramming forty dragons into four bags won’t do them any good.” Marti’s heart ached for what lay ahead for the dragons.

            Quirin sent the confused dragons a message, urging them to stay calm and do as they were told.

            The dragons cooperated as Provan and Jorna put them in the bag. “If these dragons know what’s good for them, they’ll not fight back or resist. I’ll not hesitate to stab them to death.”

             Marti turned his head, not wanting to watch.

            After a few minutes Provan tied the last bag up. “I’ve got them all. You stay down here and guard these two. I’ll carry the bags and our three new Rainbow Lights to the sled.” One at a time, Provan removed the bagfuls of babies from the cave. When ready to leave, he stood at the top of the stairs. “Come on, Jorna. We’re ready to go.”

             She looked at Marti. “Stupid old man. Did you really think you could keep the dragons from us? I’m going to take great care to make each of them suffer as I kill them.” She laughed in his face and then ran up and stood near the door. After she reached the switch, she turned the lights off at the top. “Enjoy the dark boys.”

            Marti and Crispin found themselves in total darkness, surrounded by a thick darkness, an emptiness, a nothingness. Crispin forced himself not to cry, shivering in misery and cold. 

            Marti shouted, “Hang on boy. Stop that squirming. Quirin, help us.”

It started with a soft glow deep at the back of the cavern and then inch by inch, a light illuminated the cavern until it shone like the full moon dancing on fallen snow. Quirin walked towards them. The ropes untied, falling to the floor and without any struggle and the two stood up. “Who are you?” Crispin knew it was the owner of the cap.

“I’m Quirin, the wizard.”

 “If you’re a wizard, then why didn’t you stop them from taking the dragons? Why did you let them take them and the Rainbow Lights?” Crispin wailed. “They’ll kill them and you could have stopped it. You’re not a very good wizard.”

“Crispin,” Marti said, grabbing the boy’s arm.  “I think the dragons will be all right.” He looked to Quirin for assurance.

           “Yes, Crispin, I could have stopped them, but I feel this needs to be played out, if we want to get all the dragons back alive, so I allowed it,” Quirin said. “Remember, Darmantha has two of them and Gretel. No harm will come to the dragons, or Gretel, at least for the time being. We may also have a chance to get those Rainbow Lights back. Both of you please sit down. There are some things I need to explain.” Marti and Crispin sat down on the cold stone floor. “I meant upstairs, where it is warm.” Quirin climbed the stairs with a grateful Marti and Crispin close behind him.

            “How do you know the dragons will be all right? Gretel’s parents are mean. They’ll hurt them. You heard what they said. They are going to kill them all. We’ve got to go and get them right now!” Crispin ran toward the door.

            “Crispin! Come back here. You’ll have to trust that I know what I’m doing,” Quirin said.          

            Crispin pouted and flopped down on the couch. “How can someone as nice as Gretel have such horrible parents? Does she know her mother and father are dragonslayers?” Crispin frowned.

At the top of the steps Marti turned and looked down into the empty cave. “I think Quirin is about to explain that to us.” He sighed. “I can’t believe they’re gone. Seventy years with them and this is the first time I’ve felt such loneliness.”

Crispin said, “We’ll get them back! I know we will.”

Quirin sat at the table. “You two had better sit in front of the fire and dry off. It’s a long story I have to tell. I don’t know where to begin except at the beginning.”

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