In a deep dark cave, a small dragonet toddled up to her father and nuzzled his chin. He was a big reptile, wingless, serpentine, in royal blue and gold. The dragonet was purple and pink, with the sweetest pair of frail, translucent wings.
“Drada, why are you looking so sad?” asked the dragonet.
“Well, my darling eggling, daddy can hear the clatter of two heavily-laden horses making their way up the side of the mountain. Can you hear them?”
“Oh yes. They sound like cow bells, and the horses are blowing hard. They must be carrying big loads. They are singing as well. It is a jolly tune! Are they shepherds?”
“No. The clanging is cause by swords and scabbards hitting against armour. Only knights wear metallic armour, which is very heavy, even for a strong horse. This means they are very brave or very stupid knights, because they are taking no trouble to hide their approach. Or – worse – because we can hear singing, they are most likely to be battle poets.”
“Are you scared?”
“Yes. We are far away from any human dwelling, and so they can be only coming here to fight with me. Even when daddy is very careful, there is always the risk he might get hurt. And then, Tanith, who would take care of his scaly little eggling?”
“Can’t we run away and hide? Pull some rocks in front of the mouth of the cave?” asked the dragonet, and flexed her pearly talons with nervousness.
“They are too close, sweetie. They will see me pull the rocks in front the cave and might be prepared to wait us out. We can’t live in here forever; we will run out of food. If we run away, they will see you. I don’t want anyone to know about you until your scales are hard enough to withstand swords and pikes.”
“I wish Mumma and Porfirio were still here,” said the little dragon. She snuggled up under her father’s chin, growing afraid.
“Me too, my eggling, me too,” said the big dragon. “But we both felt it was safest if she took your brother and hid somewhere else. When you and your brother are bigger and able to defend yourselves, we will all be together again.”
Drake missed his wife, Lind, very much. Little Tanith was a delicate miniature of her mother, and he took comfort from that. He wondered if she was safe, and how their son was growing. He wondered if he would ever see them again. He looked down at Tanith, and sighed. Clouds of smoke puffed from his nostrils.
The cave filled with the scent of burning pine needles. When Drake was unhappy or frightened, he always breathed out woodsy smells. His happy moods tended to be accompanied by peppermint breath and when he was angry his smoke went sulphurous and tobacco-flavoured. Tanith was yet to develop the ability to breathe smoke and fire, but she could recognise these signs of her father’s worry.
“Drada, these are deep caves. Why don’t we just hide? There must be places too difficult for a human to reach, but where we can go.”
“We can try,” agreed her father. He scooped her up with his forelegs and slithered down the passage into the deepest reaches under the mountain. He chose a cavern with a deep chasm at its mouth. He coiled himself around the stalagmites, hoping to blend in with the curvature of the floor. He tucked Tanith in the middle of his coils. Like a good little reptile, she knew how to remain still and silent for hours.
He tried not to fret, but the cavern grew sooty with tarry smoke.
Moyna and Aileas toiled up the mountainside and had no more breath for singing. They were leading their mounts now, because the way was too uncertain to risk riding; a fall here would smash their bones, their armour, or injure their beloved horses. Finding horses that support the weight of twin semi-giantesses and all their gear had been an adventure in its own right.
The sisters could see the mouth of the cave. It looked innocuous, without any smoke boiling out or bones strewn around the entrance.
“Do you think we’ve come to the wrong place?” asked Moyna. She was a fraction taller than her sister, though she was younger by twenty minutes.
“No. Can’t you sense it? There is a dragon around here somewhere,” said Aileas. “Maybe more than one.”
“But surely a dragon would have rushed us by now? Where are the remains of its meals? Or other treasure hunters?”
“Maybe it’s a tidy eater,” suggested Aileas, though she was beginning to feel a sinking in her stomach. Had someone else beaten them to the dragon and its hoard?
Like many identical twins, they often knew what their sibling was thinking. So Aileas found it unsurprising when Moyna said, “This cave is so far away from anywhere. It’s unlikely anyone – other than us – would be mad or desperate enough to risk this venture.”
They reached the top of the slope leading up to the cavern’s mouth. There were still no indications that anyone was in residence. The shadows clustered at the throat of the cave, and they gathered and darkened in the gullet. There were no eyes gleaming in the depths of the cave, no glints of light reflecting off scales, teeth, or talons. However, something had scratched deep grooves into the stone floor of cave, and there was the lingering, musky smell of dragon.
“I wish dragons didn’t bury their faeces like cats,” said Moyna. “A few fresh scats around the place would be encouraging about now.”
“Be careful of what you wish for,” replied her sister. Aileas dismounted and started unpacking her saddlebags. She took out several lanterns, checking to see that they were ready to use. She then unsaddled her horse and gave it a drink and a nosebag of oats. Moyna followed suit.
They made certain all their weapons were battle ready, including the bagpipes and the drum.
“Drada, I itch,” whispered Tanith, “I think I am starting another moult.” Like snakes, dragons moult their skins all at once. A dragonet hatches with a fixed number of scales and the scales grow larger in size and complexity with each moult. Drake moulted only once a decade, but Tanith was moulting on a monthly basis.
When a dragonet is moulting, they need extra nutrition, especially foods that will help them develop healthy scales. There was no food in their hiding place.
Drake knew true despair for a moment. He was in a no-win situation. If he went and fetched food, the knights might find either him or his defenceless Tanith. However, without food, poor Tanith would suffer and her moult might be disastrous. She might never develop proper wings.
He had no options.
He had to fetch his darling some food.
The bagpipes echoed strangely through the cave system. Moyna was playing, while Aileas walked and watched beside her. They had decided the drums would be less effective inside the mountain, and might possibly call Knockers to them. They didn’t want to cause a cave-in.
It was hard enough avoiding bumping their heads on stalactites.
Aileas marked their trail with chalk arrows. Traditionally, you walked into a labyrinth with a spool of thread, but the sisters had discovered that thread was hard to see, and the spool might run out before the tunnels did. A sack of chalk pieces did a much better job and was easier to follow if you were in a rush to leave.
Instead of a march, Moyna was playing a lullaby; there are such tunes composed to play on the pipes. The sisters’ music always responded to the situation. It was part of their battle magic. Aileas was humming along, adding to the resonating vibrations bounced around by the acoustics of the caves and tunnels. They could feel the rightness of the music in their magical bones, inherited from their ice-giant ancestors.
The music made Drake’s teeth ache unbearably. He was slithering through the veins and arteries of his mountain as quietly as an earthworm. At least he knew exactly where the knights were, thanks to their cacophony. He was hoping to sneak past them to their horses. Even if they didn’t have any useable rations with them, maybe he could slaughter one of their horses for food if he had to, though the dinner music left a lot to be desired.
Making the knights walk home would serve them right.
People wonder why dragon scales are brightly coloured. Their colours work in the same way as the Scots use tartan for hunting costumes, or dramatic stripes hide a tiger in the jungle; their bright scales are camouflage in the shifting shadows of a cave. Drake managed to crawl past the twins undetected, even though dapples of torchlight did manage to reach him as he passed by them.
What he couldn’t disguise was his musk. He was exhaling a pungent mixture of pine, sandalwood, eucalyptus, with just a hint of tobacco and the tang of citrus.
The women walked into his freshly-laid scent trail. His odour filled their noses, throats, and lungs, and it caused them to cough and choke. The pipes trailed off as Moyna struggled for air. Even their lanterns glowed dimmer and greener.
“By my knife, what a stink,” exclaimed Aileas. She was holding her wrist up to block her nose, as her eyes watered.
“Well, we have confirmation we’ve found the right place,” said Moyna, flapping her hand in front of her face in an attempt to dispel the smell. It wasn’t working.
“Indeed. This shouldn’t be too difficult to follow further in. No breeze to blow it away.”
Alas. It was true. Unwittingly, Drake had left a clear path back to Tanith. It never occurred to him that humans could follow a scent trail. He had been told that humans needed specially trained dogs to follow a scent. He had taken no precautions to hide or disguise his musk.
The still air grew warmer and more humid as Aileas and Moyna climbed further down into the cave system. The stone dripped with moisture, growing slimy and slippery. Moyna needed her hands to grip and her breath for exertion, and so the bagpipes no longer moaned through the great calliope of the mountain. Instead, the echoes were full of the creak of their boots, the tap of their heels, and the hiss of the lamps. And still they followed the fading scent of dragon musk.
They had been climbing into the mountain for nearly half a day when, out of the darkness, called a soft, girlish voice, “Drada? Is that you? I can see some light.”
The knights froze, then stared at each other, horrified.
“No, sweetheart,” Moyna called out. “But we are friends.”
Aileas whispered to her sister, “Have we just stumbled into the dragon’s larder?”
“Hush,” said Moyna, softly. “The child might hear you. Sound travels strangely in caves.”
“Did my Drada or Mumma send you?” asked the voice. It belonged to a very young child.
“No. But that doesn’t mean we won’t help you,” answered Moyna, in her normal loud voice.
“I’m scared. You don’t smell right,” said the little girl.
“No. You smell of iron and salt and burnt hair. Have you seen my Drada? He told me to hide.”
The twin knights went into a huddle, whispering in each other’s ear.
“Her father must be trying to find a way to escape,” said Moyna in hushed tones. “He might be lost down here.”
Aileas shook her head. “We saw no evidence of anyone else. What are the chances he hid the child and then the dragon found him?”
“Well, he wouldn’t be a treasure seeker with his little girl tagging along. The dragon must have snatched them for its supper.”
“Oh my,” sighed Aileas. The poor thing, all alone in the dark, waiting for her brave father to return. Maybe to wait forever. The very thought made her shudder. And very, very angry.
“We need to rescue this child before we can even think about the treasure,” said Moyna softly, yet firmly.
“Of course. You won’t get any argument from me. Though I can’t promise I won’t try to kill the dragon if we run into it.”
Moyna’s lips were folded into a grim line. “Not that I’m arguing against killing the dragon, but we have to rescue the girl first. Then we kill the dragon. With the treasure, we can give her a good start in life and we should still have enough to keep us in armour oil and gin.”
“A dead dragon would make her easier to rescue. Less risky.”
“But if we get killed, she’s left to be a sweet snack next times it’s hungry.”
“Point taken. So, let’s do this.”
The women broke apart. Moyna called out, “Sweetie. Can you tell us where you are?”
“Um. No?” replied the little voice. “If you are the ones carrying lights, I can see them reflecting off the ceiling. Does that help?”
“That tells us that you are close to us,” said Moyna. “That is a big help. Can you walk towards the light?”
“No. There is a big hole in the ground in the way.”
“Don’t fret. How about you sing a little song, and we will walk towards the sound,” said Moyna.
“I will do my best.”
It was a strange little song that the child sang:
“I clean my teeth with pearl dust,
And sharpen my nails ‘til they sting.
My scales can withstand a sword thrust.
Or I fly away on silken wing.”
Her voice chimed like crystal bells. They filled the caves with a fairy chorus.
Under her breath, Aileas muttered to Moyna, “Are we walking into a cunning trap?”
“I hope not,” whispered Moyna. Her gut told her that they weren’t walking into danger, but her brain disagreed.
They found the chasm. It was impressive. Intimidating. Holding their lanterns out, they couldn’t see the bottom of the crevasse. Aileas dropped a pebble, and they never heard it land.
“Maybe it hit a sandy bottom?” she suggested.
Moyna knew her sister was trying to be optimistic and suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
The light glimmered on the rocks on the other side of the chasm. There appeared to be plenty of places that would catch and hold their climbing hooks and the rope ladder.
“There’s no sign of the little girl,” said Aileas.
“We can only hope that is because she has sensibly walked away from the edge of that bloody great hole, which she might fall down in the darkness,” said Moyna.
“No need to bite my head off.”
Moyna hissed, “Really? You think that is appropriate in these circumstances?”
Aileas tossed her head, shaking away her sister’s sarcasm. She knew that half a day underground was making them both jumpy, and now they had to cross a dark pit. Twice. The second time loaded up with a distressed damsel. Even a woman as brave as Moyna would be feeling tense.
“Are you there, child?” called Moyna. “Do we sound closer? Have we come to the right spot?”
There was a scrabbling sound, and tiny dragon scrambled into the light of the lanterns. It was hard to say who was the most shocked as Aileas and Moyna caught sight of Tanith and as Tanith caught sight of them.
This is what the twins saw: a bewinged dragonet the size of a Labrador puppy, as tiny and perfect as an enamelled jewel. This is what Tanith saw: two big animals, as tall as her Drada, and they were carrying lots of scary items like spears and swords.
Tanith squealed with fright, turned and ran.
Far away, at the mouth of the caverns, Drake heard the faint echoes of his daughter’s scream and thought his heart would stop. He dropped the two dead goats he was bringing to her and plunged into the black mouth of the cave.
“I’m coming,” he roared.
In the depths of the mountain, the roar became the crashing waves heard in a seashell when it is held to your ear. Still, Tanith heard it.
“Drada,” she shrieked, relief in her voice. She turned around and shouted defiantly, “My daddy is coming. You’d better not be here when he arrives.”
“Well, this is an interesting development,” remarked Aileas.
“Indeed,” said Moyna. “Any ideas on how we handle an angry father dragon when we are standing between him and his baby?”
“Yes. We are in the position of power. We can hold his baby for ransom. He will have to part with his treasure of he wants to be reunited with her,” said Aileas.
“Oh. I like that,” replied Moyna. “Any ideas how we can manage that and still come out of this alive?”
“Same plan as before. Kill the dragon and steal the treasure.”
“And what about the orphaned dragonet? Are we going to kill her too? Or just leave her here to die of thirst and starvation?”
“So, what’s your alternative?”
“Why don’t we make friends with the baby before her daddy gets here?” suggested Moyna.
Drake took forty minutes to make his way back to Tanith, even though he took physical risks to speed to her side. There was no sign of the knights when he reached the chasm. He leapt it easily, for – even though, as a male dragon, he had no wings – he was a magnificent athlete.
Once on the other side, he called to his child. “Tanith? My darling eggling, where are you?”
“Here I am, Drada. I’ve made some friends.”
His darling sounded happy, even a little sleepy, but her words made Drake feel like he had been caught under an avalanche of snow. He asked, “What friends, eggling?”
“Two nice humans. They have been kind and given me something to eat and drink,” said Tanith.
He could see a flood of light and crawled up to the edges. Inside a square of four lanterns were two women wearing tough leather clothing and light chainmail. To one side was a stack of swords and pikes and spears, and a bagpipe threw a spidering shadow onto the rocks behind it. The women were sitting down, with Tanith laying across their knees. They were scratching her, and she was rolling luxuriously as they loosened her shedding scales and skin.
On the ground in front of them was the remains of a meal of journey cake and dried fruit.
As Drake’s musk rolled along the ground, the lanterns dimmed, and the yellow light turned chartreuse. The twins were expecting the smell this time, so it didn’t catch them by surprise. What did surprise them was how the smell had changed, for now Drake was angry as well as frightened, and his musk resembled the smothering smoke from a burning forest, thick with acrid resinous vapours and the added tang of cigar smoke.
“Drada?” called Tanith. She rolled off the women and scampered over to her father. He edged further into the light, but the women only had a few moments to study him before he embraced Tanith with his front legs.
What they saw was how much he loved his daughter. He checked her over carefully, while she nuzzled him with delight.
Drake noticed that the knights made no move towards their weapons, including the bagpipes, for which he was grateful. He kept a cautious eye on them as he reunited with his child. Tanith was completely unharmed; indeed, she seemed healthy and contented. He relaxed, and the smell of cigars started to fade away.
However, he remained alert. After all, the women were obviously knights and his natural enemies.
“Greetings,” said one of the knights. She didn’t get up from her seated position. “It is lovely to make your acquaintance. Your daughter has told us all about you.”
“She did?” Drake rolled his eyes and sighed. “Of course, she did.”
“We have a business proposition to make to you,” said the knight – it was Moyna.
Drake turned his head to one side, as he considered his position. “Normally, I would be inclined to say ‘no’, because you are obviously professional treasure hunters and monster killers. And yet you have left my eggling alive and are yet to attack me. So, make you proposal. I won’t promise to agree to it, but I will listen with an open mind.”
“That is better than we had hoped for, to be honest,” said Moyna.
It was Aileas’s turn to roll her eyes. She said, “It is kind of you to hear us out. Thank you.”
Moyna knew her sister was mentally adding, “And we’re grateful to you for not killing us outright.”
Drake draped his serpentine body over the rocks, so that his gold scales looked like a necklace looped over sequined blue cushions. Tanith snuggled into one of the loops, using it like a hammock, and went to sleep; an enamelled brooch spangled with amethysts and pink rubies. It didn’t take much imagination to see why dragons were associated with treasure.
Moyna went on to explain. “We came here looking for fame, adventure, and riches. We were told that there was a dragon hoard in these caves, and we wanted it. We weren’t expecting to discover a dragonet still in need of its parent. My sister and I refuse to make little Tanith an orphan.”
“Did you think dragons grew out of the ground, like trees?” Drake was amused. The smell of peppermint began to overwhelm the stench of smoke and ashes.
“Truthfully, it wasn’t something we ever considered. However, we can see you have something of a dilemma. Heroes and adventurers – and battle poets looking for a cash payoff – are going to keep traipsing to this cave, looking for your treasure. As today proves, you can’t look after Tanith properly while having to fight off threats to your security.”
“And?” asked Drake. “Get to the point.”
“Why not hire us to protect you? That way, we get our hands on some of your hoard, you get to look after Miss Tanith without having to worry about her safety, and no one has to die today,” said Moyna. She was hoping her last comment was the truth.
“I like that last part,” said Drake, as if he had read her mind.
“Me too,” said Aileas.
“But that isn’t all,” Moyna hurried to add. “We can also help care for Tanith. We can scratch her itches when she is moulting. We can help hunt for food or go buy supplies if necessary. We can babysit her if you have business elsewhere.”
Drake scratched his chin with one talon, thinking over the proposition. He could see the benefits for both parties. Maybe his wife and son could even return, because they could always hire more guards. It had never occurred to him that humans would be open to this sort of business situation.
“Could you teach Tanith how to protect herself from knights?”
“If you like, I can even teach her to be a battle poet!”
The smell of peppermint wafted around the cavern.
“You have a deal.”