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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 15

          Marti stood next to Heidi petting her cheeks and the crown of her head. “I’m sorry girl. Life has been rather hectic the last day or two. I’m going to let you out after I milk you. Go back down to the river, or stay near the cottage, it’s up to you. You’re on your own now, girl. I might be gone a while. If I’m not back and your udder is full, walk over to Lachmund. Someone will take care of you there.” He sat down and milked her until he held three buckets full.

            The door creaked open. Crispin and Gretel stood there staring.

            Marti looked at them. “Are you going to gawk at me all day or help carry the buckets inside?”

Crispin and Gretel each grabbed one. As before, the milk sloshed out onto their clothes. “Marti, I’m still wearing the same clothes. They’ve got a lot of dirty stains. My mother will be...oh, that’s right, she’s not my mother. My mother is dead.” Gretel's once happy face turned to sadness. They put the buckets of milk on the floor inside the cottage.

            Marti held Gretel against him.

            “They killed my mother and father, Marti and now I find out the only parents I ever knew, are really dragonslayers.” She sobbed into his shirt.

            “So, Darmantha told you. What a vile man he is.” Marti’s anger grew.

After a few minutes, Quirin went over to Gretel. He knelt down on the floor next to her. “Hello, Gretel. I’m Quirin. We’ve not been formally introduced. Your parents were good friends of mine and they were very brave. I knew them well. I am a dragonkeeper too, along with being a wizard and I miss them very much. I know this won’t take away the sadness in your heart, but when you were born your father and mother were delighted. You were sunshine in their souls.”

            “Thank you.” Gretel sniffled.

Quirin saw tears puddling in her eyes and sensed more flowing tears weren’t too far behind. He continued, hoping his words might offer comfort. “Your father, Astrid, was so proud of you. He held you and rocked you to sleep every night. No other father could love his child as Astrid loved you. Reyka, your mother, loved both you and your father more than words can say. Do you want to know something?”

            Gretel nodded her head.

            “You look just like her. When I see you, I see her. You’ve got the same hair, the same eyes…” His voice trailed off and he wiped the tears spilling down his cheek.

Gretel slipped her arms around Quirin’s neck, nearly knocking his hat off.  “Thank you for telling me that, Quirin. I miss them, but more than anything, I want to do the things they would have wanted me to do. Were they wizards too?”

            “No, they weren’t wizards. Only Gordinth and I are wizards. Your parents had powers though,” Quirin said, “as do Marti’s parents.”

“Gretel doesn’t know about the other dragons.” Crispin sighed a deep breath.   Quirin looked at him.

Getting the message, he removed the wizard's hat and gave it back to Quirin.” Sorry. I wanted to see if it fit.”

“What happened to the other dragons? Aren’t they down in the cave?” Gretel ran to open the door.

“Stop, Gretel. The dragons are gone. Jorna and Provan took them. All we have left are Venec and Cardew here. Somewhere out there, not too far away, Jago and Rosenwyn are in hiding, but for now, I feel they are better off where they are.” Marti told Gretel the whole story. They nibbled on cheese fondue. Marti ripped pieces of bread into bite-sized bits, stuck them on the ends of wooden toothpicks and dipped them into the runny cheese mixture.

“The dragons are in a place called Arbutel?” Gretel couldn’t believe it. “I’ll bet when Darmantha woke up and didn’t see me, he got really mad. I’ll bet he’s gone there too, with Provan and Jorna. He thinks they’re his slaves. Darmantha is a cruel bully who doesn’t know how to be nice to anyone.”

“I would say you’re probably correct. The only way we’re ever going to find the three of them and the dragons is to go to Arbutel ourselves to search.” Quirin stood up from the table and walked to the window. “It’s time Gretel took her place as dragonkeeper, in her parent’s stead; you too, Marti. Your parents, Sindri, Claring, along with Gordinth and the dragons are waiting for us at Arbutel. They’re expecting us to return with forty-four dragons. Instead, they’ll get two.”

The group looked at Venec and Cardew, curled up on Marti’s down pillow, sleeping with soft snoring lullabies.

“How do we get to Arbutel? Is it a long walk?” Once again Crispin’s curiosity prevailed. “Can we go to Tritem too and see if we can figure out what killed all the dragons?”

“Crispin, maybe some day we can go there, but not this time. There’s a place, a cave, up on the mountain.” Quirin pointed to one of the taller mountains. “Once we get there, I can transport us, plus the two dragons, to Arbutel.” He looked out the window. “ I think we should get a good night’s sleep. It might be the last one for a while. We’ll have a hearty supper and breakfast and then head for the mountain. Hopefully the snow will stop soon.” He looked at Crispin. “I know what you’re thinking, young boy. Why don’t I just use my wand and take us to the mountain? I don’t want to drain my powers for that. I need the added energy of the mountain cave to get us all to Arbutel. Sorry, my friend.”

“Quirin, there is one thing that is bothering me. I think Crispin should stay here. His parents will worry sick.” Marti glanced at the boy. “Don’t give me that look. You well know that your parents sooner or later will realize you’re not there.”

“I’ll go home right now and talk to them. I’ll tell them I’m going on a trip with Marti, so he can teach me a craft. They’ll be more than happy to have me learn something to help earn money and they’ll not complain about having one less mouth to feed.” Crispin pleaded. “If they say I can come, will you let me? I want to help find the dragons too and besides that, Gretel needs me, don’t you Gretel?”

She knew Crispin wanted to come. “Yes, I need you, Crispin.”

“Run along home then and see what your parents say. If they give you permission, be back here by sunrise.” Marti opened the door and Crispin ran off.

                                                #  #  #

After a few minutes of silence, Gretel said, “We’re not taking him, are we, Quirin?” She knew the answer before she asked.

            “I’m sorry, Gretel. It is far too dangerous for him. I hesitate taking the both of you, but you’re much better prepared for this than Crispin. I say we eat our supper and then leave.”

“I’m not hungry,” Gretel said.

Neither she nor Marti felt much like eating until Quirin raised his wand and chanted, “Sapa Techios Kefray”. Amid a thousand sparkles of color and in the blink of an eye, the bare wooden table no longer stood empty. “Here you are…a feast for the eyes and your taste buds too. Eat up. It will be a while before you get anything else to eat.”

Gretel, delighted to see the magic, noticed a variety of beef, chicken, and pork dishes, dripping with savory juices and roasted to a golden brown. Mashed potatoes, creamy and buttery, and whipped to perfection, sat in the center of a willow-patterned plate. A matching gravy goblet filled to the rim with rich, brown gravy to pour over the potatoes, made Gretel’s mouth water. “Well, I suppose I can force myself to eat a little.” She giggled with delight.

“And you, Marti? Are you hungry yet?” Quirin winked at the man.

“I’ve not seen food like this since I went to a Christmas party in Nuremberg, Germany. When I was a young boy I went with my mother to the Christmas Market. We went to one of their feasts. It was something like this.” His eyes twinkled with remembrance.

Crystal dishes, etched with a design of pine trees and pine cones, lay around the platters of meat. Each was stacked to the top with asparagus in hollandaise sauce, artichokes bursting open like a morning flower, pebble-sized baby onions, buttery mushroom caps, tiny carrots, and dark green broccoli.

Dozens of varieties of pastas surrounded the plate of potatoes. Layers of cheese, meat and tomatoes separated the thick lasagna noodles. Spaghetti with a rich meaty sauce, sprinkled and with oregano and Parmesan, sat next to a platter of fettuccini and clam sauce. Garlic cheese bread, flaky, buttery croissants, and breadsticks coated with garlic butter, stacked high on a plate, tempted even the strongest-willed person.

Mountains of pastries, better looking than the ones sold in the village bakery, hypnotized Gretel with their sugary aroma. Chocolate éclairs filled with whipped cream, toffees coated with crushed pecans, caramel sauces dripping over the edge of cakes and donuts, peach cobblers dusted with powdered sugar, honey-coated baklava, full of chopped walnuts and sticky syrup, and crusty cherry pies, oozing and bubbling their juices over the rim, all waited to be devoured with a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream.

“Wow! Look at all this food! If we eat even a tiny bit of it, we’ll be full for a year!” Gretel reached her hand and grabbed a chicken leg. Its golden brown, pecan-crusted skin dripped greasy juices on the front of her dress when she took a bite. “It’s all so delicious! You’re a good cook, Quirin.”

“Help yourselves. Don’t worry about the mess on your clothes, Gretel. I’ll give you some new things before we leave. Marti, eat up.” Quirin roared with laughter.

            Marti and Gretel soon forgot about Crispin as they ate their fill of delectable foods.

They spent the next few hours talking. Quirin told Marti more about his parents and Arbutel. “It’s time to go,” he said, seeing the darkening sky outside.  “The snow has stopped now.” He whirled his wand around a few times and both Marti’s and Gretel’s dirty clothes disappeared. New ones replaced them.

“Wow again! Look at me!” Gretel saw her reflection in the windowpane. “I love these blue denim pants, Quirin. They’ll keep me warm, and look at my new boots. My feet will never get cold now. Thank you for the gray jumper. It’s made of wool, like the ones in the shop windows in our village. Thank you.” She gave him a big hug.

Marti examined himself. His dark brown corduroy pants and sturdy boots matched his lighter, cream-colored jumper. On the bed lay two coats, one for him and one for Gretel. Both of them found warm leather gloves with fur lining in the pockets.

            “Now that you’re both set, I suggest we leave. Put the dragons in here.” Quirin gave Marti two boxes with handles on top. “They are special carriers. Both are lined with fur to keep the dragons warm.”

            Gretel picked up the dragons and with Marti’s help, put them into the boxes.     Quirin added, “Throw a few pieces of cheese in there for them, oh, and some of those chocolate cake things too.”

            Gretel filled the boxes with the food and closed the lids.

            “Pack some of that leftover food away in your pack while you’re at it.”

“I want to leave a note for Crispin. He’s going to be upset when he comes back and finds we went without him.” Marti sat down and wrote a letter to the boy, asking him to take care of Heidi and apologizing for leaving him behind. He set it on the table next to the block of cheese. When he turned his back, Gretel slipped the pencil and paper into her pocket.

            Quirin opened the door and the two followed him out.

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