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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 13

           Quirin sighed and then explained the story to Marti and Crispin. “Long ago many dragons wandered this land. They were peaceful creatures and magnificent too. I can still see them now; the bluest of sapphire blue, crimson red, emerald green, brilliant purple, brown as the earth after a rainstorm, and black as obsidian glass. Their radiant scales shimmered. Never has there been anything as magnificent.

            “It all started with a man named Jarltor. He was known in the village as the greatest bear hunter in the country. One day in the spring, he went hunting. By accident, he came upon a female dragon, Dewmist. She’d just laid two eggs. Most dragons lay one egg at a time. Laying two meant twin dragons. That’s a rare thing. She was as red as the rarest ruby. I knew her well. No other dragon had horns like hers. They spiraled up from her head for about an arms length.” He held up one of his arms. “She lay sleeping, exhausted after her ordeal, the eggs close by. While she slept, Jarltor crept into her cave. Instead of searching further for a bear, he decided to kill her, cutting out her still beating heart. After he butchered Dewmist, he picked up the eggs and threw them over the cliff onto the rocks below, shattering their clear, glass-like shells. Dragon eggs glow. I’m sure he thought there might be a diamond inside. The babies died, of course.

“He tied pieces of the dragon, her head and tail, to his sleigh and pulled it down the mountainside and into the village. When the people first saw what he’d done, they were horrified. Jarltor mocked them and built a roaring fire. He roasted her parts right in the village square and then had the nerve to invite all to partake. A few hesitated, but after one or two tasted her meat, the other villagers decided to try it.

            “Some of them were furious and found it barbaric and unnatural to kill a dragon. Some were frightened of the dragon’s revenge. Most were happier than upset and soon dragon hunting became a sport. Fear of the dragons seemed to have disappeared once they discovered the creatures were mortal, just like them. But, it was only the beginning. The dragons, after finding the remains of Dewmist’s carcass and the broken eggs, went on a rampage. They fought back. Never needing to use their fire before, they attacked the villagers, breathing flames and even roasting a few. They sliced open a few bellies with their sharp claws, but only for self-protection.

            “When the villagers found the bodies of their friends and family, they went to King Dinth. That’s when he formed a group of five dragonslayers. They swore oaths of commitment and their sole purpose of being from that moment on was to spend their lives hunting and killing every living dragon in the land. Five of us, under the direction of the wizard, Gordinth, were appalled by the massacre. We formed a group of dragonkeepers and we vowed to save the eggs. We knew we couldn’t do anything to stop them from slaughtering the dragons. Darmantha and the others beat us to them. Though it took many months, we gathered every egg we could find and you know the rest of the story.”

            “Wow!” Fascinated, Crispin wanted Quirin to continue. “Where’s Gordinth now?”

            “He left after our group formed, feeling sure we could handle the job, and returned to his homeland, Arbutel, where there are two living dragons named Jago and Rosenwyn. Yes, little Jago and Rosenwyn are their eggs and another set of twins. There is more. Marti, you know your parents as Anika and Rolph. They are known to me as Sindri and Claring and they are two of the dragonkeepers. When we felt all the eggs had been gathered, we five agreed to hide them. Astrid and Reyka, Gretel’s real parents, were dragonkeepers, along with myself and your parents.”

            “What do you mean Gretel’s real parents? You mean Erika and Jules aren’t really her parents?” Crispin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “They weren’t lying.”

            “No. Darmantha killed her real parents a few months after she was born, before they came to your village. The ones you know as her parents are really Jorna and Provan, two dragonslayers who’ve pretended all these years to be her mother and father.” Quirin turned to Crispin. “You surely heard them talking to each other in the cave, calling each other by their real names?”

Marti, caught up in the conversation, tried to understand fully. “You mean my parents are dragonkeepers and they are alive? They knew all about the dragons?”

            “Yes, Marti. They didn’t die in an accident. They left here and went to Arbutel and are waiting for us there. We were supposed to take the baby dragons to them tonight. After this long, we thought it would be a safe haven for them. Now, I’m not so sure. Darmantha knows too much. You’re mother and father will be wondering what has happened.” Quirin watched Marti’s expression. “You, Marti, are the son of dragonkeepers. You will live for a thousand years, as your parents are doing. You are also endowed with special powers. You’ve not yet discovered them, but soon will. When we see your mother and father, you will understand more, but know this; I left the dragons with you for so long, just for that reason alone. I knew, as the son of dragonkeepers, that you needed the experience and training. It wasn’t easy for your parents to stay away, but I convinced them it was for your best interest.”

            “I can't believe all of this. Mother and Father are alive and I'm going to live 1000 years?” Marti shook his head back and forth in confusion.

            “Wow, Marti. You’re a dragonkeeper too. That means Gretel is also a dragonkeeper because her real mom and dad were. Is that right, Quirin?” Crispin’s curiosity and enthusiasm overflowed. “Why did you leave Gretel with those bad people after her mom and dad were killed?”

            “That’s another difficult decision we needed to make. We discussed it and knew that Gretel was safe and that it would do her good to be raised by non-wizards, at least for a while. Jorna and Provan aren’t wizards. They never had the qualifications or dedication to be chosen. We’ve kept our eye on her. Yes, Jorna and Provan weren’t the best of parents, but they didn’t abuse her, or harm her in anyway. Had they, we’d have immediately taken her. They knew she was the daughter of dragonkeepers and that she’d come in handy some day. You see, Crispin, being a dragonkeeper requires many strengths. Gretel’s younger years with them helped her to grow in certain ways. I know it sounds like a poor excuse, but someday you’ll understand.” Quirin gazed at the boy.

Crispin seemed accepted Quirin’s explanation. “We’ve got to save Gretel from that bad guy. What’s his name again?”

            Quirin responded. “Darmantha, and yes, we need to get Gretel and the two missing dragons back as soon as possible.”

            “What about Jago and Rosenwyn?” Marti remembered the missing dragon babies.

            “The good thing is that Jorna, Provan, and Darmantha don’t know about those two. We’ll have to act quickly, before they do find out. Now that Darmantha has Gretel captive, it won’t be long until he knows.”

            “What happened to the other two dragonslayers?” Crispin wondered.

            “Their names were Pril and Festi. They died. I killed them. That’s another story for another day.” Quirin didn’t want to explain any further and stood up. “Come on. I know it’s a blizzard out there, but we’ve got to find Gretel. I think I know where she is.”

            * * *

     Gretel, afraid to move, watched Darmantha. He lay asleep, curled up in a ball like a black cat. Snores erupted from his nose and mouth. For a moment, Gretel thought she might giggle. “He sounds like Mr. Tobler’s pigs.” She whispered to the two dragons. They looked over at Darmantha. She closed her eyes, concentrating. You understand what I’m saying?  Venec’s tongue darted out of his mouth, dragging it along her arm. You do understand! You can read my mind. Which one are you?

Venec sent his thoughts to Gretel. I’m Venec. That’s Cardew. We’ll help you get out of here. We need to get away from here and warn Marti.

The blue dragon added, Stay here while Venec and I find a way out.

Gretel nodded her head. She understood.

The two dragon babies went over to the chimney. A cold draft blasted down from outside. They pulled back in hesitation.

 “Go on,” Gretel whispered and shooshed them on with her hands.

Cardew stretched his wings. Gretel hoped his torn wing wouldn’t prevent him from escaping. He flapped it up and down a few times. It seemed to be working well. The dragon peered at Darmantha and then flew up the chimney. Venec followed, his brown body disappearing into the sooty hole. They flew out through the top and into the night air. The snow still fell, but not at the rate it did before. Smaller flakes brushed against them as they hurried toward Marti’s cottage.

Relieved, Gretel stood and went to the window. She watched the dragons fly away.  Darmantha’s snores continued. Exhausted, she sat on the floor and laid her head against the wall. Soon she joined the dragonslayer in sleep.

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