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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 12

           Darmantha carried Gretel under his arm, pushing the snow-covered pine branches out of the way. Her legs kicked his back; her fists pummeled his chest and she repeatedly bit him on the arms, but with no avail. “Stop wasting your energy, girl. Nothing you do will hurt me or loosen my grip on you, so you might as well be still. For every bruise you give me, I’ll make a painful slice with a knife on one of your dragons.”

            “First of all, my name is Gretel, not ‘Girl’. I’d prefer you call me that. You’d better not hurt the dragons. They’re just babies. What’s your name anyway? It’s probably something like ‘Idiot’, or ‘Meany’, or ‘Creep’.”

            He ignored her, so she decided to relax and let herself go limp. He may as well do the work, carrying her dead weight. Darmantha didn’t answer.

            “I suppose because you’re not answering, that means you don’t have a name. Should I just keep calling you ‘Stranger’?”

            “Silence!” Darmantha’s shout echoed through the still night.

            “You’ll cause an avalanche if you shout that loud,” Gretel warned.

            “The last thing I need is a blabbering, smart aleck child. If it will shut you up, I’ll tell you my name, but only if you promise to stop talking.”

            She nodded in silence.

           “Darmantha is my name. I am a wizard. You’ll become familiar with it as time goes on. Memorize it well, Gretel. It’s a name you’ll regret ever hearing. Now shut up before I smash your dragon’s heads in right now and toss them to the bears.”

            “Darmantha?” Gretel whispered so he couldn’t hear. “What kind of a name is that?  It’s stupid.” The snow continued to fall and the wind blew her hair into her eyes.

            Ten minutes later he opened the door to an old abandoned cottage and threw her down on the floor.

“Hey, that hurt.” She brushed the twigs and pine needles off her arms and rubbed her sore back. Not wanting to be anywhere near him, she scooted next to the closest wall, pulling her legs to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. The wooden floor, with no rugs, and the walls, dirty and stained, made Gretel cringe. Trash blown in by the wind, piled in one of the corners. A cold draft seeped in, its frigid tentacles finding each and every crack in the walls. “This place is cold and it smells like old shoes.”

           Darmantha glared. He dropped the bag of dragons on the floor next to her. His booted foot kicked it across the room. The two dragons squealed in pain and fear. “You dare talk back to me!” He opened the bag and the two babies stretched their wings and immediately ran to Gretel. Their claws made loud clacking noises on the floor. “Enjoy them while you can. They’ll be gone soon enough.”

            Gretel allowed the wounded dragons to crawl onto her lap. A bruise began spreading across the blue one’s stomach. Already she saw signs of purple and black from the kick. The brown dragon’s injured wing didn’t look too severely damaged. “Look what you’ve done to them. They’re just babies. You’ve hurt them. This one has a torn wing.” She wrapped her arms and coat around them, snuggling them to her. A thought came to her mind. Don’t worry, Venec and Cardew. I’ll protect you. How did that happen? How did I know your names? Did you make the thoughts go into my head? She looked at the blue dragon. You can read my mind? I wish I could read yours. I suppose maybe I can. Out loud she said, “Don’t worry.”

            Darmantha removed his cloak. He rubbed his wet hair with it and then threw it on the back of a chair. Turning to look at her, he snarled, “You’re talking to the dragons now, are you, or are you talking to yourself?” He laughed, mocking her. “Foolish girl. Oops, I mean, foolish Gretel.”

            “I’m not afraid of you.” She stared at him, her gaze cold as ice. “You’re just a bully. You’re not even a decent wizard. You have to pick on babies and little girls. What sort of wizard did you say you were anyway?”

            Darmantha looked like he was about to slap her.

            She tried to say something a little less threatening. “Why do you want the dragons anyway? What did they do to you?” Gretel stroked the two. “My mom and dad are going to throw you in jail.”

            “Oh? And your parents are?”

            “Erika and Jules Bendel.”

            Darmantha’s eyes nearly flew out of their sockets. “I see. You’re that Gretel.”

“Isn’t that what I said? Who are you?”

“Would you really like to know?” Darmantha took the breastplate off and put it on a rickety wooden stool.

            Gretel watched as it wobbled and expected the stool to tip over, but it didn’t.

             “I may as well tell you. You’ll not be talking to anyone soon, except your dragons.” He laughed again. It sounded cruel and evil. He sat on the floor and leaned his back against the wall across from Gretel. “I am Darmantha, a wizard, yes, and one of five dragonslayers, though there are only three of us left now.”

“I knew you were a dragonslayer. How old are you anyway?”

            “How old am I? Let’s just say I’m well over 700 years old.”

            “700 years? That can’t be true. It’s probably another lie. There’s no such thing as a real dragonslayer.”

            Darmantha scowled and then an evil grin spread across his face.

            “Where are the other two alive dragonslayers then?”

            Darmantha hesitated in answer to her question. “The other two are named Jorna and Provan, but they are better known to you as Mother and Father.”

            Gretel’s jaw dropped in disbelief.

             “You can’t believe it, can you? Before you get too sentimental, the truth is, Jorna and Provan aren’t really your parents.”

            “What do you mean? Who are Jorna and Provan? What are you saying? My mother isn’t really my mother? My father isn’t really my father? You’re a liar again. Of course they are.”

            “I’m sorry to tell you this, Gretel, but they aren’t.”

            “Who are they then? Where are my real parents?”

            “Your real parents died just after you were born. We knew the dragons were somewhere near this village. Your real parents, Astrid and Reyka, were dragonkeepers. It had to be done. Never fear; I did it quickly, while they were asleep. They never knew what happened and didn’t suffer, so don’t get all sobby on me.”        

“Dragonkeepers? No! You murdered my real mom and dad?” She buried her face behind her bent knees and cried.

            “Oh, stop shedding tears. That was years ago. Jorna did a good job of being your mother, didn’t she?”

Gretel thought about Jorna and Provan. She never did feel much of a bond with them and it didn’t upset her too much to find out the truth. “My parents aren’t really my parents. No wonder I didn’t like them. Mother, I mean, Jorna, was a horrible mother. She didn’t act like a mother at all and was mean, like you. Provan wasn’t much of a father either. All they ever did was fight. I’m glad my parents were dragonkeepers. Why did you kill my real mom and dad and why do you want to kill the dragons?”

            “Centuries back, dragons terrorized my people. One of your stupid dragons killed my younger brother. When King Dinth asked for five of his most courageous subjects, I volunteered, as did Jorna, Provan, Pril, and Festi. We were later trained in magic and then he titled us ‘Dragonslayers’. We hunted the lands of our kingdom and one by one, destroyed each dragon. I did it gladly. I hate those creatures.  I went on to have more training and became a wizard. Jorna and Provan are simply my assistants.”

            “The dragons probably only started terrorizing you after you tormented them. Dragons aren’t cruel and don’t hurt people unless provoked.” Gretel’s angry voice echoed through the empty cottage. “I hate you and I hate Jorna and Provan and I’m glad they’re not my mom and dad!”

            “So now you’re a dragon expert. We only defended ourselves. You know nothing.”

            Gretel closed her eyes. Her mind filled with pictures. She saw back in time, when the dragonslayers hunted the dragons. Her vision showed villagers harming the dragons who fought back, trying to defend themselves against swords, spears and bows and arrows. “I know enough to know you terrorized them, Darmantha, you and the others. King Dinth was just as cruel as you were. I’m glad he’s dead.”

            Darmantha stood and grabbed the brown dragon, Cardew, and held him up by his neck. Cardew squirmed and wiggled about, trying to free himself from the wizard's grasp. He turned his neck and bit Darmantha on the hand. Darmantha pulled his knife out of his pocket. “Why you vicious beast. I’ll slice you from neck to tail.”

“No. Leave him alone!” Gretel grabbed the dragon’s tail, pulled it out of Darmantha's hands and ran back to the wall. “He only bit you because he thought you were going to hurt him. And you were.”

            Darmantha put the knife back in his pocket and slid to the floor. They sat in silence for a long time. He rummaged through his pockets, pulling out the contents – a bear claw, a glass ball about the size of a marble, a piece of purple string, and a black obsidian cube. He rubbed his temples.

            Gretel scowled at him, fighting the anger in her heart. She tried to distract herself and calm down by imagining what her real mother and father looked like. “I need to take their place. I need to be a dragonkeeper.” She whispered to Cardew, who still shook with fear. “Don’t worry. The others are safe.” The dragons curled up and closed their eyes. She stroked their backs. Sleepy and afraid, Gretel questioned Darmantha. “What about the dragonkeepers? You said my mother and father were, but who else?”

            Darmantha laid his head on his arms. “Quirin, Sindri and Claring.”

            “Who are they?”

            “The man you call Marti; two of them are his parents.”

            “Marti’s parents? But they’re dead.”

            “No they’re not. He only thinks they’re dead. I’m sure your Marti has inherited some of their gifts and powers. That’s why he was trusted with the dragons for seventy years. Yes, I've been following you three all day.”

            Gretel’s mind raced with all the new information.

             “At the same time King Dinth formed the ‘dragonslayers’, another group, the ‘dragonkeepers’, was formed by another wizard, Gordinth. He counseled them to search for every dragon egg and gather them to one place. They hid them and we never knew where. Gordinth made sure of that. I can’t understand why he didn’t take them back to Arbutel.” Darmantha looked at the two dragons. “There must be more of them. There can’t only be two. Surely Quirin found more than this. How many are there, girl?”

Seeing no sense in holding back information, Gretel told him. “My name is Gretel. There are forty-four baby dragons.”         

            “Forty-four? Well, well. That’s more like it. Quirin was more diligent than I gave him credit for.” His thoughts wandered. “I’m tired. I need sleep. Don’t think of trying to escape or I’ll kill the dragons, every one of them, starting with these two, and I’ll do it slowly, making sure they suffer in extreme pain. I may even let you watch.” He lay down, covered himself with his still-dripping cape. As an afterthought, he raised his head and said, “If you’re not afraid of me now, Gretel, you soon will be.” He lay back down and fell asleep.

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