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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part Two - Arbutel - Chapter 17

            Gretel reached into her pocket and pulled out the slices of bread. I’m glad I grabbed this before we left. She glanced at Marti and Quirin, walking ahead of her, talking to each other. With chilled hands she broke the bread into little bits and stuffed them back into her pocket. Every few yards she dropped a piece on the ground. I know Crispin will try to find us and I want him to.  A glance behind her now and then brought a smile of satisfaction as she walked on, catching up with Marti and Quirin. “I feel so bad leaving Crispin behind. He’s going to be mad, or hurt, or both.” Gretel sighed, thinking of her friend and how he’d react when he read the note. “Did we really have to leave him behind?” She looked at the wizard.

            “Gretel, you know we’d only be putting him in danger. Whether he believes it or not, his family does care about him. This is something we needed to do, you and Marti, and myself, so let’s not discuss it any further. We did what had to be done and that’s that.” The wizard plodded on through the ankle deep snow. “Gretel has decided to accept that we’ve done the right thing,” Quirin whispered to Marti. Both he and Marti each carried one of the dragons, stopping now and then to check. “How’s Venec’s bruise?”

            Marti glanced inside the box. Venec snored like a baby. “He’s doing fine.”

            Quirin checked Cardew. “He’s asleep too.”

            When the sun came over the horizon, Gretel and Marti stopped to feel its warming rays on their chilled skin. “Oh boy. That feels so good. I never thought I’d enjoy the sun as much as I do right now.” She rubbed her arms and stomped her feet. “My feet are so… What’s this? It looks like a bone.”

            Quirin bent over and lifted it. He sniffed it and sighed. “It is a bone, Gretel. It’s a dragon bone. I’m sure there are many more around here. The closer we come to the cave, the more we’re going to see.” Her eyes filled with sadness.

            “Come on, Gretel. Don’t dwell on this.” Marti took her hand. After a few more steps, he said, “I have to agree with you, Gretel. The sun does feel great.” He faced the sun and closed his eyes. A smile spread across his face. “Now this is much nicer than earlier.”

             “How much longer till we reach the cave? We’ve been walking all night and I’m not only freezing to death, I’m tired.” Gretel yawned. When she put her hand over her mouth to cover her yawn, she dropped another piece of bread. I hope no birds eat this.

            “We’re near the cave. It’s about another five hundred yards over to our right. Do you see that cluster of pines?” Quirin pointed in the direction of the cave. “The cave is in there. It’s well hidden, and for a good reason.”

            Marti wiped his brow. “Once more I have to agree with the girl. I’m quite tired myself,” he hesitated, “ and I can hardly feel my feet. They’re nearly frozen.”

            Stopping for a moment, Gretel turned and looked at Marti’s feet. “Wiggle your toes, Marti, or jump up and down. I wish we had some of Bernard’s brandy that he keeps in the cask around his neck. That would warm us right up.”

            He laughed. “It would at that, Gretel. Come on. I’ll be fine. The quicker we get there, the better.”

            Quirin marched onward. “All right then, that’s settled. Onward, to the cave.” He lifted his staff, which neither Gretel nor Marti had noticed before, and pointed it upward.

            “Where did you get that staff, Quirin? Have you kept it hidden this whole time?” Gretel wondered. “Why haven’t I noticed it before? Is it a magic staff?”

            “You ask as many questions as Crispin!” The wizard shook his head and turned to face her, holding the staff in front of him. “Let’s just say my staff has a few magical qualities. I’ve kept it hidden because I’ve not needed it until now. In case you’ve not noticed, I’m an old man and I need this staff to help me walk. In fact, Marti, how have you made it this far without a walking stick?”

            “It’s been a struggle, but I’m too worried about the dragons to care about the pain in my legs.”

            Quirin held up his staff. He aimed it at the closest tree. A ray of aqua blue light burst from the tip and zipped through the air, hitting one of the branches. It broke off and floated toward the amazed Marti. Quirin reached up and grabbed it. “Here you go, Marti. Use it well.”

            Marti held it up.

             “Wow! Look at the carvings!” Gretel shouted, before Marti uttered a word. “It’s got a dragon tail carved all the way around it. How did you do that?”

            “It's my secret.” Quirin winked.

            “It is quite nice, Quirin. Thank you.” Marti put it on the ground and walked forward, leaning on it with each step. “I think this will work well.”

            An hour later they reached the pine trees. “We’re almost there.” Quirin’s words comforted a weary Marti and Gretel. “We should be thankful it didn’t snow during our journey. The wind stayed gentle during the night.” Ten minutes later, Quirin said, with great relief, “Ah! Here we are.”

            Marti gazed at the cave’s entrance. “It’s hardly big enough for the girl to fit through, never mind a fully grown man. How do you expect us to get inside?”

            “Are you sure there’s a cave in there?” Gretel ran up and stuck her head inside. “Wow! It looks small from the outside, but it’s huge inside. Come and look, Marti.”

            She climbed through the hole, followed by the men and the two dragons in their boxes. Marti and Quirin found it a much tighter squeeze. The cave, not quite the same size as Marti’s, hollowed out the inside of a mountain. The walls, dry and clean, caught the sound of Gretel’s voice. “Hey! My voice echoes in here…in here…in here.”

Once inside, Quirin pointed, “You two go over there and wait. I’ve got to look for something.”

Marti saw no stalagmites or stalactites. The emptiness of the cave caused chills to go up his spine. Distracting himself, he asked, “What are you looking for? Can we help?”

            “If you want to help, look for a stone. Its emerald green and about the size of your fist. In fact, it is an emerald, a very special one.” Quirin and Marti searched the cave. “I’ve found it. Now we take the stone and put it in this hole here. After I say the spell, we’re on our way. Take the dragons out of their boxes and put them right here next to me. Come, Gretel. We’ve got to go.”

            “That a real emerald?” Marti couldn’t take his eyes of the huge stone. He took the babies out of the boxes and tossed them to the back of the cave.

            “It is, but I simply call it a stone. In Arbutel, these lay on the ground like grains of sand. I’m afraid I’ve lost my excitement for them. To me, they’re simply stones.”

Gretel didn’t pay much attention to what Quirin said. I’ve got an idea. I’ll leave Crispin a note.  She needed some privacy. “What’s the spell, Quirin?” She needed to know.

            “The spell? Why do you ask?”

“I’m just curious,” Gretel said.

“Curios? That’s another of Crispin’s traits. It’s not a difficult spell. I simply say, ‘Opinus Carballus’.”

“Opinus Carballus?” She repeated it several times over. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” Gretel ran outside.

“Wait! Gretel, we must leave now!” Quirin shouted after her. “Now…now…now,” echoed through the cave.

She took the pencil and paper out of her pocket and quickly scribbled instructions to Crispin concerning the green stone, the hole, and the spell. She laid it under a rock next to the cave entrance. “I hope he sees this.”

“Come on, Gretel. We must be off.” Quirin sounded impatient with her.

“I’m coming.” Climbing through the hole again, Gretel ran over to the others.

Quirin gave her a scowl. “Very well, if we’re all ready. Opinus Carballus!”

The room filled with aqua lights and golden sparkles that darted from wall to wall. The dragons started to screech with fear. “Hold on.” Quirin smiled at Gretel. He uttered the words to the spell once more and the room started to spin. When it stopped, the three of them and the two dragons stood on a white sandy beach. A small, warm wave rushed in around their feet.

“Where are we?” Gretel asked, looking out to sea.

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