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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 3

 Marti stood next to Heidi, patting her back. The river rushed by, lapping against its reeded banks. “Come home when you’re ready, girl.” As he turned and headed up the path, a gust of wind blew the green felt hat off his head. Bending over to pick it up, he adjusted the feather and put the hat back on. An old Swiss folk tune whistled from his lips. The old-fashioned pine green lederhosen rubbed against his bare legs as he trudged up the path.  Half way home he heard a faint sound coming from the distance and scanned the sky. Afraid of what he might find, he hurried on his way. “It sounds like a flock of birds.” The noise grew louder and louder. Forty-four dragons came swooping down from behind the trees, flying over his head and disappearing into the forest. Marti ducked. “The dragons!” His throat went dry. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and he swayed with panic and dizziness. “I must get home.”

Gretel and Crispin sat cross-legged on the grass near the cabin. When Gretel saw Marti, she waved. “Hello, Mr. Marchand.”

  Marti stood with his arms crossed, waiting an explanation.

“Since you already seem to know, I might as well tell you. We opened the door and let the dragons out.” Gretel sighed.

            He didn’t say a word.

            A guilty Crispin knew it was his fault. “It was my idea, Marti. I wanted to find your secret.”

            “Crispin, his name is Mr. Marchand, not Marti. That’s rude.” Gretel elbowed him in the ribs.

            “And who said I had a secret?” Marti stood with his hands on his hips.

            “My mom and some of the other villagers. I was curious.” Crispin hung his head in shame.

            “Didn’t your mother teach you that it’s not polite to break into other people’s homes and go snooping?”

            “Yes, she did, but I couldn’t help it I wanted to see for myself.” Crispin kicked at a clump of grass.

            “Crispin thought you had zombies in your cottage, or monsters.” Gretel scoffed at the thought.

            Marti shook his head back and forth in disgust. “I think we should go and talk to your parents.”

            Gretel didn’t want her mother to find out. She wouldn’t let her play with Crispin again.   “Please don’t tell our parents, Mr. Marchand. We’ll never do it again. We promise. Can’t you make us do some work instead of telling?”

            “I’ll do work for you too. We can take Heidi for walks, or we can sweep the floor of the cottage, or dig weeds in your garden.” Crispin wrung his hands together in shame.

“What’s done is done. There’s not much we can do right now, at least not until they’ve landed. I know these dragons. Now that they’ve tasted freedom, they’ll fly around for hours. You can call me Marti if you want. Mr. Marchand makes me feel old. Come with me. I might as well put you to work. You can help me carry the milk cans inside. After that, Gretel can do the dishes and Crispin, you can sweep the floor, and then we need to have a little talk.” Marti opened the door to Heidi’s shed and handed a full milk can to Crispin. “Here. You carry this one. Gretel, these are heavy. Do you think you can carry one?”

            “I can carry as much as Crispin.” Gretel grasped the handles and carried it into the house. Milk sloshed onto her dress, but she ignored it.

            Crispin spilled some on his shoes.

            “Put them down near the table. Do you want to stay and help me make some butter?” Marti saw the mess. “I see. It looks like you’ve already helped yourself to my bread and butter and cheese. You break into my house, eat my food and let all my dragons go. Any more surprises?”

            “Crispin did it, not me.” Gretel pointed at her friend.

“I only made some of the mess; the dragons did the rest. They sure gobbled down the cheese.” Crispin tried to switch the attention and blame from himself to the dragons.

“I’ll help you make more butter.” Gretel brushed the crumbs into her hand and then tossed them out the window for the birds.

“Me too.” Crispin grumbled.

Marti poured some of the fresh milk into the butter churn. He pulled the stick up and then pushed it back down, over and over again. Gretel and Crispin each took a turn.

“It is hard work. Keep churning.” Marti wiped his hands on a clean dishtowel. Turning his back on the children, he secretly smiled at their struggling.

            “Marti, where did the dragons come from and why do you keep them in that room?” Gretel leaned over and looked inside the churn. Clotted cream clung to the sides of the tight fitting wooden slats. She scooped some off with her finger and licked it. “How do you fit them all in your closet? Isn’t it too crowded? There must be a hundred of them.”

            “There are forty-four dragons and I don’t think it’s any of your business why I have them here. Stop licking the cream and keep churning.”

            “There are no such thing as dragons, Marti, but we found some today in your closet.” Leaving Gretel to finish the work, Crispin ran to the door and opened it. “It’s dark in there.”

            “Shut that door, boy. That’s what caused all the trouble in the first place! If only you’d left them alone. Now I’ve got to search all over the village and mountains for them. What if a villager sees one? Have you thought of that? Someone might hurt them. They’re only babies.”

            Gretel tugged at Marti's hand. “We didn’t mean to do this. We had no idea there were dragons in there. Are they real baby dragons?”

            “Of course they’re real, but they’re rare and nobody knows about them. I want it kept that way and I was doing fine until you two came along,” Marti pulled the stick out of the churn and scooped the butter onto a plate. He glanced at the children. Both wore pathetic frowns. “Since you’ve seen the dragons, I might as well tell you the whole story, but you must promise not to tell another soul, never.”

            “We promise,” Gretel said, “don’t we, Crispin.”

“Yes, I promise. I won’t tell anyone for as long as I live.”

Marti wiped the rest of the butter off his hands and sat on the bench at the table. “If I wasn’t so old, I’d deal with this in another way, but I’m too tired to do this anymore. A long time ago, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of years back, many dragons lived in this area. The cool mountain air kept them healthy, the water was pure and clear and there was plenty to eat. They lived in peace with the people until a handful of new settlers moved up here into the mountains. Out of fear and greed, they started killing the dragons. The old timers could do nothing to stop them, so they contacted Quirin, a wizard, who was sort of ‘in charge’ of the dragons. He visited the area now and then and made friends with a few of the villagers. Quirin watched in dismay and knew the future looked bleak for the creatures. Seeing that he couldn’t stop them by himself, he left and came back later with helpers. They gathered the dragon eggs and took them to a secret cavern, to protect them and keep them safe from those who wanted to destroy them. It’s a good thing he did that because after a few more years, every dragon lay dead or dying. Their bodies were scattered on the mountainside. You can still find some of their bones if you look hard enough. The villagers used the dragon meat to feed their cattle and even ate it themselves. Thanks to Quirin, at least the eggs survived.”

           “Who told you this? I don’t believe it.” Gretel sat next to Marti. “There’s no such thing as a wizard either.”

           “Did the wizard dress in a cape with a pointed hat and magic wand?” Crispin giggled at the thought.

“It’s true. My father and mother moved here and built this cottage. The wizard, Quirin, showed up one day, worried because this cottage sat right on top of a secret cave. Yes, the cave is where he hid the eggs. He was afraid my father and mother would disturb them. After spending time with my parents, he realized they were kind, good people. Taking them into his trust, like I am doing you, he told them about the cave and the dragons. He conjured up an opening behind the door over there.” Marti pointed. “It was the only way they could go down and care for them. During one of his visits, he told them the eggs had been lying there for fifty years and it was nearly time for them to hatch. That door leads to the cave. Quirin told my father he’d come back after he found a safe place for the dragons to live and then he left. That was seventy years ago and he still has not returned.”

            “He’s been searching for a long time.” Crispin flipped his reddish-brown hair off his face. “Why would he just leave the eggs with them and not stay around to watch them hatch?”

“He’s been gone since I was a young boy. I wonder now if he’s ever going to show up. I hope something didn’t happen to him because I’m getting old and tired.  I worry about what will become of the little ones after I am gone.” Marti rubbed his forehead.

“Do you have a headache?” Gretel frowned with concern.

            “To be honest with you, I do have a mild headache. I’m stressed thinking about having to search for the babies. Let me finish the story. The dragon eggs hatched a few years after I was born. I remember the first time my father took me down into the cave. There sat forty-four dragons in half-cracked shells.”

“Dragons come from eggs?” Crispin picked up another handful of berries. “Are the eggs white, like a chicken’s egg?” He dropped them into his mouth.

            “Some chicken’s eggs are brown, Crispin,” Gretel reminded him.

            “Yes, dragons come from eggs, but no, the shells weren’t like a chicken’s. They weren’t white, or brown; they were shiny like glass and there were several different beautiful, glossy colors. Each one of the new babies fit in the palm of my hand. For months my father and mother fed them milk from a baby bottle. Quirin had left them a recipe. If they mixed certain herbs and things with the milk, the babies wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between it and real dragon’s milk. Every morning and every night they went down to the cave, held the dragons one at a time and fed them, like they were real babies. Mother always looked so tired and weary, but not once did she complain. They both loved those dragons. By the time I was old enough to help, they were all ‘off the bottle’.

“When I turned five, it became my job to take them their food each day. At first we didn’t know what to feed them. My mother was a great cook. She made the best buttermilk biscuits and cheese fondue with just the right amount of nutmeg.  The dragons wouldn’t touch it. She suggested we try cow’s milk and even goat’s milk, and lots of different types of cheeses and butters, since that’s what we had a lot of around here. They didn’t like any of it either.”

            “Not even Swiss cheese?” Gretel couldn’t believe they didn’t like that. “I love Swiss cheese. Do you know how they get holes in it, Marti? When I asked my mom she told me not to ask such stupid questions.”

            “They like cheese now. They ate your cheese and bread,” Crispin said.

“They didn’t like Swiss cheese, but now they do. And no, I have no idea how the holes get in it. Even if I did, I don’t have time to explain it to you right now. May I continue?” Marti looked at Gretel. She nodded yes. “Eventually we discovered that they loved sausage. Every Saturday I went to the village butcher to get fresh sausages. I’ve fed them that since.”

“That’s why you went to town and bought sausages. My mother wondered why you did. I love sausages too, but I wouldn’t want to eat them every day.” Crispin made a face of disgust.

“Your mother is a busy-body, Crispin. It’s none of her business. Nowadays I give them chocolate once or twice a week for a treat. Mother and Father died in an accident twenty years ago and I’ve had to take care of the dragons by myself. I’ll probably regret asking this, but would you like to see the cave? I’ll show it to you, but it’s still very important that you do not say a word of this to anyone else.”

            “We already promised we wouldn’t. I won’t say a word.” Crispin ran to the closet door.

            “I won’t either and yes, we want to see the cave.” Gretel followed Marti. He opened the door and turned on the electric lights. They started down the long flight of stone steps. “Be careful not to put your hands on the walls. They’re covered with some sort of slippery stuff. I’ve never quite figured out what it is.” Marti chuckled to himself when he saw the children pull their hands closer to their sides.

            “Wow! This is cool!” Gretel looked around. The damp cavern smelled of mold and stale sausages. The slime-covered granite walls shone with a dull phosphorescent green. They sparkled and glittered with what looked like millions of tiny pieces of colored glass. “Wow! Look at the diamonds and rubies and emeralds!” Gretel’s eyes lit up. “Where did these jewels come from? Did you put lights in the cave? That must have been a lot of work.”

            Marti glanced up at the switches. “My father wired this cave electrically many years ago.” He paused for a moment. “And those aren’t diamonds. When Quirin brought the dragon eggs here, he covered the walls with some sort of dust, or the sparkles you see. It protects the eggs from being detected by dragon hunters and others on the outside. It’s some sort of magic. Do you want to know what I think? I think he ground up some old dragon’s egg shells.” Marti marveled at the beauty of the cave.

“What did you do with the egg shells from the babies once they hatched here in the cave?” Crispin looked around and didn’t see anything resembling glass eggs.

“Mother and Father put them somewhere. I don’t remember. I was too young. Do you want to see something better than this?”

            “Yes!” They both shouted.

            Marti turned another switch. Three glass balls lit up, shooting rays of color across the cavern.

“Wow! It looks like a rainbow in here!” Crispin walked under one of the balls.

            “Actually there’s a real rainbow inside each ball. They’re called Rainbow Lights.”

            Gretel scoffed. “A real rainbow? That’s impossible.”

“It’s true. Those are real rainbows. The glass balls are crystal and hand blown. Only a few are still in existence, according to Quirin. An ancient wizard, I forget his name, Amtith, or something like that, etched them and then used his magic to put a real rainbow light inside each one.”

            “It does look like a real rainbow. It makes the sparkly things even more sparkly.” Looking up, Gretel put her hand above her eye.

            “For some reason, the affect of the rainbows seems to calm the dragons.” Marti examined them closer.

            “What’s etched on them?” Crispin struggled to see, but they were too high up.

            “I’ve never been close enough to see, but I remember my mother telling me there were moons, stars, and suns carved into the glass.”

            “Wow! This is so cool.” Crispin watched the colored lights dance on the cave walls.

            “There’s more. I think you’ll like this.” Marti moved toward the back of the cave.

            “What is that?” Gretel pointed at a huge monster lying down with its eyes shut.

            “That, my dear Gretel, is Zara.”

            “Is Zara alive?” Crispin slid behind Marti, in case the dragon moved.

            “No. There’s nothing to fear. Zara is a life-size dragon. Quirin brought her here before he left, hoping she would comfort the babies once they hatched.  He left a few other things for them too.”

            Crispin and Gretel ran to Zara and touched her. “She’s rubbery and soft and squishy. What is she made of?” Gretel rubbed her hand along Zara’s scales. “They’re shiny, like a real dragon.”

            “I don’t know what she’s made of. Nothing from this part of the world, I’m sure. Quirin made her look authentic, didn’t he?”

            “Her horns are big and spirally. Will the babies end up looking like her and be this big?” Crispin thought about climbing on the dragon to touch them, but changed his mind.

            “Sometimes I come down here and all forty-four dragons will be curled up against her, snoring softly and looking so peaceful.”

            “You love the dragons, don’t you, Marti.” Gretel took Marti's hand and squeezed it.

 “I do love them. All the babies will some day grow this big. The females will have horns just like Zara’s.”

            “What else is down here? What else did Quirin bring?” Crispin lost interest with Zara and explored the rest of the cavern. He ran behind a huge stalagmite. “Whoa! This is great.”

            Gretel jumped down off the low shelf of rock where Zara lay. She ran to Crispin’s side. “Balls; lots and lots of colored balls. Oh look! Each of them has a dragon picture on it.” She reached into the pit and picked one up. “This dragon looks like the red one that landed on Marti’s bed.”

            “My bed? When was a dragon on my bed?”

            Gretel tried to change the subject. “Oh never mind that, Marti. Tell us who dug this pit.”

            “Was it Quirin?” Crispin knew the answer and smiled.

            “Quirin did all of this.” Marti gazed at the pit. “The dragons love to play in the balls, especially Lanyon and Penrose. Those two stay in the pit for hours, hitting the balls with their tails and rolling them to each other.” Marti smiled with his heart.

            Crispin picked up a sea green ball. “What are they made of? They sort of feel like plastic, but they also feel like satin.”

            “Again, I have no idea. I hope to find out some day. I’ve never seen these colors before. They are bright, like sunshine, but very unusual shades.” Marti picked two of them up. “See this. It looks like a tropical ocean, yet, if I turn it this way,” he twisted the ball on its side, “it looks like a ripe plum. You know, this cavern used to have a huge river flowing through it. That’s how it was formed.”

            Gretel and Crispin didn’t seem interested and continued playing with a few of the balls. Crispin shouted. “What are those three hoop things hanging down from the ceiling?”

            “They’re just hoops. The dragons practice flying through them.” Marti waved his hand through the air, directing their gaze from one to the other.

            Crispin changed the subject again. “You said dragon hunters earlier? Are they the ones who tried to kill them for food?”

            “Yes. The dragonslayers would stop at nothing to destroy the eggs.” Marti’s brow arched with anger.

            Not listening to Marti and Crispin, Gretel ran further into the cave. “I think the walls are pretty and colorful.” She laughed and danced around with her arms out to the side. “Imagine how much they’d sparkle in the sunlight!”

Crispin put his fingers to his nose. “I think it sort of stinks down here, but the stalactites and stalagmites are cool. Some of them are as big as my cottage! Did the dragons really live down here for 120 years?”

            “No, Crispin. The eggs were down here for fifty years. The dragons hatched only seventy years ago. It takes a long time for a dragon egg to hatch and even longer for them to grow to adulthood. They only learned how to fly ten years ago.”

“Did you teach them to fly, Marti?” Crispin zoomed around the cave, pretending to be a dragon.

Gretel heard his noises and ran to join him.

Marti looked around and sighed. “The dragons taught themselves to fly. We’ve got to get them back. If forty-four dragons start flying around the village, people may start killing them, just like in the old days. At the very least there will be wide spread panic and terror.”

            “Panic and terror? Who’d be afraid of baby dragons?” Crispin didn’t believe anyone could hurt them or be afraid.

“People are strange, Crispin. They won’t see them as baby dragons. Instead they will only see the adult dragons they will become in the future. You two will have to come and help me. I am much too old to do this by myself. It’s the least you can do after letting them out.”  Marti reached under one of the stairs and picked up several burlap bags. “We’ll catch them and bring them home in these bags.” After climbing the steep steps, He locked the door behind them. “Come on, you two. Let’s find some dragons.”

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