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The 44 Dragons
by Margo Fallis
Part One - The Dragonslayers - Chapter 9

            Back at the cottage, they warmed themselves in front of the fireplace, but only after taking the dragons down to the cave and putting them with the others.

            As they walked up the steps, Crispin said, “They act like they’re glad to see each other. Do you think the dragons know that some of them are still missing?” He turned and looked down into the cave. “They seem happier now.”

            “I know they do. The dragons communicate with each other. They can read each others thoughts. They can communicate with us too, if we open our minds to it.”

            “How do you know that?” Gretel didn’t believe him.

            “My father and mother used to talk to the dragons all the time. They called them by name, in their minds, and the dragons would come. I can talk to the dragons too, as long as my mind is clear and not full of worry and other nonsense. Right now, it’s full to the brim with worry.” Shutting the door behind him he walked over to the bed. At the bottom stood a large wooden chest. He lifted the lid and pulled out some hand-knitted scarves and gloves. “You’d better put these on. There’s a cold wind blowing and it’s bringing something bad with it.”

            “What do you mean by that? What’s bad?” Gretel’s fears escalated.

            “I’m not sure what I mean, but I sense something wrong, something evil, something that wants to hurt the dragons.” Marti turned and looked at the door. “They should be safe. It’s the others I’m not sure about.”

            “What about the others? Are they going to die?” Gretel shook.

Marti opened his arms and the children ran into them. “We’ll find them. I’ve spent seventy years with those dragons and I’m quite attached to those little ones myself and I’m not going to let anyone harm them. Now, wrap yourselves up tight.” He slipped on his gloves and tossed the woolen scarf around his neck, pulling it secure before taking off his felt hat and putting it on the table. When he opened the door, an icy wind blew snowflakes inside the cottage. They swirled in all directions, like a magic wand casting fairy dust. “Ready?”

            Gretel and Crispin nodded.

            “Then let’s go find those last four dragons.” Marti grabbed his wooden cane. “It’s getting slippery out there and I’m an old man.”

            The children held onto Marti’s sheepskin coat, bending their heads to keep the cold off their faces.  The snow blew, its icy fingers snaking their way down every crack and opening of their clothing. His cane sank into the mud with each step. “I think we’ll find them in the mountains. There are plenty of rocks and trees to hide behind. I’m sure the little ones are trying to stay warm.”

            Climbing the trail leading up the mountainside, Crispin noticed several furry creatures scurrying by. “At least the marmots know to stay near their burrows, where it’s warm.”

            “A lot of animals go out in the snow, even in a blizzard like this,” Marti said.

“It hurts my face when the snow pelts it.” Gretel pulled her scarf over her mouth.

            “Listen. I hear something.” Crispin stopped. “I hear a dog.” Loud barks echoed through the falling snow, moving closer to them.

            Two forms appeared. “Ah, Karl. What are you doing out on a night like this?” Marti waved at the approaching man. “I see you’ve got Bernard with you.” He petted the huge dog.

            “Perhaps it is I who should ask what you and the children are doing out on a night like this. Haven’t you noticed there’s a blizzard out here? Bernard and I are doing our rounds, making sure nobody’s lost in this mess. You know we go out during storms, but I’m afraid of this one. It’s no ordinary storm. It carries with it, something different, like change, or fear.” He looked at Marti. “I hope Bernard and I don’t have to come out later to search for you.”

           Gretel petted the St. Bernard. She saw the small wooden cask around its neck. “Hello, Bernard. Are you saving lots of people?” The dog barked and licked her gloved hand. “What’s in his cask anyway, Mr. Muller?”

            “Brandy. It warms up even the coldest of people.”

            “Can I have some? I’m very cold right now.” Crispin jumped up and down, rubbing his hands together.

            “I hope you won’t need any. You’d better get these children home, Marti, and soon. There’s nothing so important that it can’t wait.” Karl stroked the top of Bernard's head.

            “We’re just taking a stroll,” Marti said.

            “This isn’t a good night for a stroll. I suggest the three of you head back to your cottage and warm up with a cup of hot soup. There’s a bad wind blowing tonight.” Karl held Bernard’s leash. The dog didn’t want to stand still and kept trying to run on. “I’d better get moving, or Bernard might make a run for it and pull me along with him.” Karl laughed and waved goodbye. “Go home!” He shouted from a distance.

            “He’s right. We can’t stay out long. A few more minutes and then we’ll head back.” Marti brushed the snow off his coat sleeves.

            “But what about the dragon babies? They’ll freeze to death out here,” Gretel said.

            “We’ll have to take that chance. There’s no use in all of us dying.” Marti watched the snowflakes land on Gretel's hair.

            “Yeah, Gretel. Who’ll take care of the other dragons if we don’t? Right, Marti?” Crispin looked to Marti for comfort and reassurance.

            “Right. Let’s go up this path over here and if we don’t see anything in a few minutes, we’ll turn back,” Marti said.

            They hiked another hundred yards up the trail. The snow fell harder, with larger flakes. The wind died down a bit when they stood in the protection of the pines. Marti was about to speak when Gretel interrupted, seeming to read his mind. “No, Marti. We can’t quit. One more minute, please?”

            Crispin heard a noise and ran over to a tall pine. “Look, Marti. Come and see. It’s the dragons. There are two boy dragons up in this tree; they’re way, way, way up there.”

            “I see them too. They’re shivering and whimpering. Fly down here, dragons. Come and see Gretel.” She called to the frightened dragons, but they stayed where they were, clinging to the swaying branches.

            “They’re going to fall. What can we do? They’re so high up.” Crispin looked at the lower branches. “I think I can climb it. The branches are thick enough to hold my weight.” He grabbed hold of the lowest branch and pulled himself up. “I’m a good tree climber, don’t worry.”

            Marti reached for him, but stopped. “Go slow, boy. That tree must be sixty feet tall. I’m not sure which dragons those are, but they’re obviously not Jago or Rosenwyn.”

            Crispin went from branch to branch. The higher he climbed, the more the wind howled through the pine needles, blowing the tree from side to side. He heard the dragons squealing. “I see them. There’s a blue dragon and a brown one. I'll only be able to get one at a time. Which one should I get first?”

            Marti called up to him. “It doesn’t matter. Grab the blue one.” Pinecones and small pieces of broken branches dropped, landing near his feet.

Crispin stood on the branch below the frightened dragons. He reached up and stroked the blue one, talking soothing words. His claws dug deeper into the tree. “Don’t be scared. I’m going to take you back to Marti. Come on.” With nearly frozen fingers, he pulled and tugged the squealing dragon’s legs until it let go of the branch and he had a firm grasp on its tail. Slipping the dragon inside his coat and buttoning it up, Crispin made a warm pocket. “I’ve got the blue one. I’m bringing him down.”

             He climbed down one branch at a time. The dragon shivered with a mixture of cold and fear, clawing at Crispin’s chest. When he reached the lowest branch, he opened his coat, pulled out the dragon and handed it to Marti, who put it inside a bag. “I'm all scratched up and my hands are covered with pine tree sap.” Crispin wiped them on his pants and then climbed back up the tree. Within a few minutes he’d successfully coaxed the second dragon into the warmth of his coat. The dragon relaxed. “You don’t want to be alone, do you?” Crispin climbed back down. At the bottom, he handed Marti the second dragon and he put it in the bag with the other.

            “I’m so glad they’re safe. Thank you, Crispin, for climbing the tree.” Gretel pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.

            “The dragons were freezing. I don’t think they like snow.” Crispin rubbed his cold hands together.

            Marti picked up the bag and tossed it over his shoulder. “Somehow I didn’t think they would. Let’s take these little ones back to the cottage. We’ll have some hot cocoa made with Heidi’s fresh milk.”

            Using his cane for balance, Marti and the others headed down the mountain, slipping and sliding in the frozen snow. After dodging trees and mounds of ice, they spotted a boulder sitting in the middle of the path. As they tried to maneuver around it, a dark form stepped out from behind it, blocking their way and challenging them.

            Gretel looked up. “It’s the stranger.” She gulped with fear.

            “That’s him! That’s the dragon man. Look at his black cape and the breastplate!” Crispin shouted.

            Marti and Gretel’s gaze followed his.

            Marti stepped between the man and the children. “What do you want with us? Why are you following us around?”

            He stood just under seven feet tall, with long, straight, black hair hanging down to his shoulders. The wind whipped it around his face. It looked like hundreds of snakes dangling from his head. His eyes, dark and violet, showed no luster or sparkle of life. A black hooded cloak draped his body. He wore dark gray pants and a long-sleeved white shirt under the metal breastplate.

            “What’s the meaning of this? Are you going to rob us?  I have little money.” Marti pulled the children closer to him.

            “Stop your rambling old man and give me the dragons.” Darmantha snarled without feeling.

            “What dragons?” Marti glanced at Crispin.

            “I’m no fool, old man. You know what dragons, the two in the bag. I watched the boy climb the tree and hand them to you. You put them in there. Give it to me now.” Darmantha stared at the bag and then at Marti; defiance glared from his eyes.

            “Don’t let him have them, Marti. He’ll kill them. He’s a dragon killer. Look at the picture on his breastplate. There’s a sword in its neck, just like Crispin said.” Gretel turned her gaze from Marti to the man. “Go away and leave us all alone. You’re a dragonslayer, aren’t you? Well, you can’t have ours.”

            “You’re right. I am a dragonslayer and I’ve got the sword to prove it.” He pulled a dagger from its sheath. “The bag, now!”

With Gretel sobbing and Crispin reaching to grab it back, Marti handed it to Darmantha.

“I know there are more than these two dragons. There must be.”

            Crispin opened his mouth to say something, but caught Marti’s eye. He mouthed for him to be quiet. Crispin kept silent.

            Darmantha grabbed Gretel by the shoulder and pulled her to him. “I think I’ll take this girl with me. I suggest you find Quirin and the rest of the dragon babies. Until then, the girl stays with me.” He whipped his black cloak into the air. Snow swirled around them, cocooning them in a white powdery mist. Before Marti or Crispin could utter a word of protest, Darmantha and Gretel disappeared.

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