Shadrac the Dragon is stolen.Elderly dragons fight to save him.But is there more behind it
| Dragon of Slapp: The Dragon Thief (Nearly finished)
Two men crouched in the hedge by the eel pond, trying to peer into the dragon's cave. The midnight darkness was lit by an intermittent glow. Steam rolled out of the cave as hot dragon's breath met the chill October air.
"Think he's awake, Harry?" said Claude to his brother. The two men were Henchmen (surname and profession), hired by the duke of Glede, a kingdom that lay ten leagues to the west of this particular cave.
"Nah, he's snoring like a baby."
"Does that mean the babies you know snore like dragons?" asked Claude.
Harry the Henchman glared at his brother, then pulled the muzzle from the sack, and hefted it. He liked the solid feel of it, the leather braiding, the iron nostril-guards clad in silk to keep them from clanking. He knew success in this job depended on stealth.
"Only... do you think if he wakes up he would broil us?" said Claude, the more timid of the brothers.
"Nah. He's real tame. Lets the kiddies slide down his back and all. Stop stalling." Harry led the way.
In the cave they found the dragon curled up on a pile of asbestos cushions, his glittering green scales eerily lit from flickering flames issuing from the dragon's nostrils on the exhale. Even in sleep, he clutched his stuffed toy lizard, Mr. Scaley. It is hard to equate dragon years to that of humans. Shadrac the Dragon of Slapp was one hundred and thirty two years old - in dragon terms not quite mature. He was at that awkward age when he was embarrassed to be seen with Mr. Scaley but still could not sleep without it nestled in the scaleless spot under his forearm.
Working fast - the two men had practiced until their moves were perfect - they had Shadrac the dragon muzzled and a leashed collar studded with inward-facing spikes around his neck before he'd woken up. The dragon stirred, and cracked an eyelid open, revealing a slit of emerald eyeball.
"Listen up," Claude hissed into the dragon's ear. "You are gonna come with us, understand? And any trouble you are gonna get this." He gave the leash a vicious tug. Iron spikes dug into the dragon's sensitive neck skin. Shadrac yelped. "And, what's more, them two kids - the ones that are your keepers? Them little innocents asleep in the next cave that are easy targets for my knife? They're gonna be sorry they were ever born if you make one - little - peep."
Shadrac snarled something best not translated from the original dragon. He started to form a flame in his nostrils but the nostril-guards sent the flame back onto his muzzle.
A smell like burning tin, the smell dragon scales make when they're scorched, hung in the air and the dragon's eyes watered with pain. Harry laughed. "I don't think he's going to do that again," he told his brother.
The two men hauled on the leash, forcing the dragon to choose between coming with them or be impaled by the collar spikes. Whenever the dragon struggled they pulled the collar tighter. They dragged the dragon down the hillside to the westward road. A large wagon was waiting, iron-girded to take the four-ton weight of the dragon. Faunching in the harness stood a team of eight wild-eyed horses. Horses don't much like dragons. They'd heard stories.
Other men were waiting with hooks and nets to manage the dragon's thrashing tail and heaving, roiling body. Shadrac was tethered by neck, legs and tail to the wagon's bed. A man threw a bundle in beside Dragon. He caught the scent of the boy. Harry the Henchman leaned over the rail.
"That's, right, dragon. We got your little pal. One wrong move from you and fffft - the kid gets it." Men threw a tarp over the dragon and with a lurch they started down the road through The Great Plain toward the kingdom of Glede.
The journey was painful to Shadrac and Wilmot. They were jostled and bumped unmercifully as the wagon driver urged the horses to greater speed on the rough road. The dragon lifted his head as far as he could against the tether and uttered a wail from deep in his throat. Each dragon has such a cry. Just as the hump backed whale has a call of 2000 decibels that goes out hundreds of miles to other whales, dragons have the same thing only in dragon decibels, inaudible to the human ear, and unique to each dragon so that his relatives can recognize it.
Harry yanked on the leash. "Get down, you cur. Behave!" he barked. He had not heard the call - he thought the dragon was merely stretching. But he was a petty man who was jealous of dragons. "Think you're so smart with your thousand year hoity-toity life spans and your wings and your fire breathing. But I'm your boss now, see. Stay down or I'll stick holes in ya!" And with that Harry tightened the muzzle and bonds until Shadrac was even more miserable than before.
But the call had gone out, and had reached even to the Sawteeth Mountains, the range of peaks and bluffs that jutted in a funny way. In fact, they were hill areas. On the north side of the mountains were The Wilds, a territory of vast forests where few people lived. On the south side lay the kingdoms of Ohcrud, Glede, Slapp and Thallow. To this mountain range, even to the highest mountain, Shadrac's wail echoed for only a dragon's ear to hear.
* * *
On top of the highest peak among the Sawteeth Mountains is a huge rock-bordered eyrie. Seven venerable dragons lay in fitful sleep: Batwing the Terrible, with his blue-black wings twitching as he dreamed of flights of his youth, Morphew, once called Morphew the Ghastly but he had recently dropped 'the Ghastly' due to personal reasons. Flicker-Flame, plump and golden, whose infirmity was of mind rather than body, lay in the middle, guarded by her companions from sharp rocks and sudden drop-offs. Life-mates Gladys and Bare Faced Fingal curled up together snout-to-tail as they always slept. Scritcher the Clawed whose silvery talons were curved like scimitars. And Nanna, pearly green dragon dame, grandmother of Shadrac the Dragon of Slapp.
Dragons tend to be wakeful when they are old and feel the cold of night, the ache of joints. Nanna, stirred, then awoke with a start. A vibration carried on the breeze made her neck-ruff stand on end. "Hsst!" she hissed to the dragon across from her, "Batwing! Are you awake?"
The dark blue dragon snorted and lifted his head. "I am now. What is it?"
"I just heard the distress call of my son's son. I've got to find out what's happened. I must leave. Now." She was distressed, turning around and round, looking for her purse. A dragon dame never goes anywhere without her purse. They always have quite a bit of stuff to carry with them. Claw-trimmers, loose coinage, peppermints and sundries. The average dragon-purse weighs about 30 pounds and can be used as a weapon in a pinch.
"Just a moment," said the dark dragon. He got ponderously to his feet. At one time he was known as Batwing the Vast and had been fearsome and mighty, with the girth of three elephants. Now his belly skin hung loosely to his feet and he walked with a bow-legged shuffle. He lead Nanna down stone slabs that formed a sort of stairway. He paused as they reached the entrance to the Passage Under The Mountain. Nanna shouldered past him and heaved her bulk through the entryway. As her haunches lurched in front of him Batwing sighed appreciatively. "To the right," he said, "right past the eels."
They traversed the tunnels, worn smooth by time and frequent use. One tunnel lead to The Lake Of Eels which was their larder. Batwing and Nanna took a side tunnel that lead to Batwing's laboratory. He had been a bit of a scientist before his retirement.
He'd spent some centuries diving under the oceans, lakes, and ponds, observing all the creatures that lived under the surface. He studied everything from bog-crocodiles to nemo-toads until he knew more about every reptile species on the continent of Potheria than anyone else. Then he applied for a teaching position at Ohcrud University. He was turned down. In his mind it was a clear case of racism, giving the job to someone of the human race, rather than to a more qualified creature of dragon kind. He threatened to devour the opposition. He was accepted. He had spent nearly a century as Professor of Reptile Studies at OU.
Now in retirement he had become an inventor, and a grotto within the cave was where he puttered with an array of gadgets to make the aged dragons' lives easier. Wing enhancers, fang implants, all sorts of things. He rummaged around with a front talon, feeling about the shelves. He pulled out an object. "No, that's an eel broth strainer," he muttered and threw aside an item that looked like a fireplace grate.
"Ah ha! Here we are." He drew out several large sea shells, each sealed with bitumen. "I have filled these with hydrogen-plus. H2#, I call it. Dragons' bodies produce this substance naturally, but as we age..." he folded his fore-arms and leaned back, ready to launch into a scientific dissertation. He did tend toward professorial poses. "As we age our bodies produce less of H2#, thus impeding our ability to fly and dampening our flame --"
"Um. I'm in a hurry, Batwing," said Nanna nervously, "I don't know what could be happening this minute to my little Shadrac."
"Of course, of course." He proffered a bag of the shells to her. "You'd better take these, old girl. And may I escort you?" He slung a leather bag of shells over his neck.
As she stuffed the H2# shells into her purse she said "Oh, you have your own purse."
"It's a man-bag," he said quickly. "Or a drake-bag, if you prefer. Definitely a masculine type of thing." He puffed out his withered chest. He was a little bit sweet on Nanna.
She regarded him with gratitude shining in her faded green eyes. "Anyhow, thank you for these and for coming with me. You're a real gentle-dragon. No matter what others may say."
* * *
Jolene awoke with the feeling something was wrong. She removed her ear-muffs, followed by the special dragon-snore-proof earplugs. Silence.
"Wilmot! Dragon!" she called. Nothing. The caves were empty. Outside by the eel pond she found water splashed around. An eel lay wriggling on the stoney ground. She took a stick and twitched it back into the water. She followed a trail of wet footsteps to the base of the mountain.
When she saw evidence of a struggle - broken trees, stones scored with dragon claw marks - she knew something was wrong. And when she saw the wagon wheel ruts she knew something was terribly terribly wrong. And when she saw Mr. Scaley lying trampled on the slushy ground she knew it was beyond terrible - it was - what was the word? Oh yes. Calamity.
She borrowed a horse from the woodcutters who lived nearby and rode to the castle to give the alarm. Dragon was gone!
* * *
It was early in the morning and the whole castle was awake. King Weezen made sure everyone was in the same state of agitation as he was. He stood in the main courtyard with Jolene and his wife, Queen Mothilde. The queen was a large lady, mother of the six royal children, and possessor of a forceful personality.
The king paced the flagstone yard. Shadrac had never been missing before. Someone pointed to the sky. "Dragon!" came the cry from the royal herald. The king was flooded with relief. The herald looked again,"and, er... he's brought a friend," and as the two dragons in the sky flew closer, "and er... changed color? And become sort of wrinkled?" It was apparent now that neither of the two dragons were Slapp's dragon.
The two dragons landed, and waddled toward the royals. The herald, whose job it was to announce visitors, intercepted them hurriedly. "Um. What name should I say?"
Nanna snorted. She was usually gracious but worry over her grandson made her snappish. "Well! Of all the nerve, you nit-wit. The time was, when I brought my baby grandson here, I was welcome."
Realization dawned on the herald. Clearing his throat importantly he announced "The Draaaagon's Graaaandmothah!"
"Oh, is my mother-in-law here?" chortled the king. The queen glared at him. "Just a little joke, my love. Heh heh heh..." he subsided into silence.
Meanwhile the herald, after a whispered consultation with the dark blue dragon announced: "Aaaand Baaaatwing The Terrrrible!"
The two elderly dragons approached the king. "My grandson has been abducted," said the pearly-green dragon dame. "Fetch him back at once! Oh, the horror of it." Her eyes were brimming with sulfurous tears. A servant was doing his best to unobtrusively place a bucket under Nanna's head. "Who knows what kind of villain has got their hands on Shadrac. And he's so young - and impressionable." Her eyes stared out as she pictured horrors in her mind. A few tears missed the bucket and smoked as they splashed onto the flagstones.
"We will do our best, er - madam -"
"Call me Nanna. Everyone does."
"We will do our best, madam - er Nanna. But we don't know where he is."
* * *
The wagon stopped and the tarp was thrown off. Dragon found himself in a landscape choked with smoke and steam. Geysers spouted forth plumes of steaming water and cracked earth showed the glow of magma deep within. But the greater part of the fog came from man-made sources. The sound of metal pounding on metal rang out as blacksmiths hammered out weapons in smoking forges. A gigantic fountain lay before them. Cold water gushed from the mouth of a stone sea serpent twined around a stone dragon that belched forth hot water into a vast shallow pool. Steam rose from it, pouring out clouds of vapor. The air reeked of sulfur with an undertone of reptile-house.
A many turreted, black stone castle loomed just beyond them, wreathed in mist. He had seen this place from the air on some of his more far-ranging flights, and knew it to be the kingdom of Glede. The place had a bad reputation.
A thin man wearing a black velvet cloak bedecked with silver chains and a narrow crown of silver approached the dragon. He had a black mustache of about twelve long hairs on each side which he constantly twirled with his fingers. To the dragon's mind there was something off about the man's appearance. A rabbit decked out in black leather and chains would still be just a rabbit. The same sort of principal applies to a twit.
The man tilted his head, regarding the dragon with eyes like two shiny black pebbles rimmed in pink. "Ah, Dragon of Slapp," said the man, "welcome to my kingdom. I am Treve, Grand Duke of Glede."
"I've hud of oo." said the dragon.
The duke snapped his fingers and Harry removed the muzzle.
"I've heard of you," said the dragon.
"What do they call me over in Slapp?" asked Treve, leaning forward eagerly. "The Mad Duke? The Dark Prince?" He struck a noble pose.
"Generally 'that twit over in Glede'."
Treve was silent a moment. An expression crawled over his face of suppressed rage. It was fascinating to see face muscles that wanted to sneer war with face muscles that wanted to look genial. The sneer won. He snapped his fingers and henchman hurried over to him. "Take the children to the dungeon!" he snapped.
"Uh. We only got one. The boy." said Claude.
"What? You imbeciles! You were supposed to get the girl too!"
"Uh, we forgot," said Claude, "and besides, it ain't nice to kidnap girls. Henchman could get a bad reputation doing things like that."
Treve was furious for a moment, and seemed about to lash out. He glanced at the dragon, then he shrugged and turned to the Henchmen. "Oh well. Take the boy anyway- I presume it is the boy Wilmot that you've got and not some stray urchin, you bumbling idiots?"
Claude lifted the bundle out of the wagon. Undoing the sacking, a thin, russet haired boy of eight was revealed, trussed up. He was white faced. "Just you wait!" said the boy Wilmot "Just you wait 'til my dad finds out about this! And my sister Jolene. When she finds out you've stolen me and Shadrac. She'll make you pay!" To Wilmot, his fifteen year old sister Jolene was the ultimate threat.
Treve ignored the boy and addressed Shadrac as Henchman dealt with the struggling boy. "Please remember, lizard, that you are a guest here." He snapped his fingers. Lackeys removed the shackles tethering Shadrac to the wagon bed.
The dragon stretched, and lumbered off the wagon. His eyes flashed. How he would love to fricassee the horrid little duke but dare not while the boy was held hostage. "Guest! More like prisoner!" growled Shadrac.
"Not at all, lizard, not at all," oiled Treve. "You are free to leave any time you like. If you don't mind leaving the boy to our - ah - tender mercies. Heh heh"
Something slithered by Shadrac's feet. He stepped back, startled.
"Ah, you've found my pet. That is Fang. Fang is a tyrant cobra," (tyrant cobras are like king cobras only meaner). "There are other snakes around here of course, but none so big as Fang. I hope you don't find him too scarey."
"Actually," muttered Dragon, "I thought it was some kind of land eel. I thought he looked delicious."
"You'd better treat me with respect," growled Treve, "soon I will be Emperor Over All. You'll want to be on the winning side."
He's mad, thought the dragon, he wants to be Emperor Overalls. "You're trying to win me over to your side?" said the dragon, "and you kidnap me, tie me to a cart and imprison my friend? Why didn't you just bribe me with eels or something?"
Treve hesitated. "Uhh - would that have worked?"
"'Course not. My grandmother always taught me not to take eels from strangers."
"Let me show you something," said Treve. He ushered the dragon to the edge of the plaza where, on a field below, soldiers were mustered in square formations. "Behold!" cried Treve. Twenty legions of fighting men, all at my command!"
"I thought a legion was 3,000 men."
"Well... a Roman legion, yes. But a Gledian legion is ten men."
The two hundred soldiers stood at attention, each with a spear and shield, and wearing shin guards that went clear up to the waist because of all the cobras. Shadrac looked soberly on the soldiers. They might not be a large fighting force, but they looked tough and well trained. And they vastly outnumbered what Slapp had. Two toothless old men who played checkers in front of the tavern on Sundays, veterans of the Coastal Pirate War fought sixty ago, were the entire Slapp army.
Treve walked Shadrac along the plaza toward the castle. "See, oh Reptile of Slapp, behold my mighty fortress."
"Dragon of Slapp," murmered Shadrac patiently.
They stood before a large outbuilding, "And this is your quarters, mighty reptile. Specially built for you. Not like that damp old cave Weezen forces you to live in."
The dragon ducked his head inside and looked around,, "Who do you think your kidding? This is just stables with rugs put in. There isn't even an eel pond."
Treve acted as if Shadrac hadn't spoken. He strode to the steps leading up to the castle's main entrance, the dragon lumbering beside him. To the side of the staircase was a square pit sunk into the courtyard. In the pit dozens of cobras coiled and hissed and sinuously rose at the Duke of Glede's presence.
"These are my pets," said Treve, "everyone of them specially trained by me."
All Shadrac could think of was how much they looked like eels. Long, fat, delicious eels. His stomach growled. He hadn't eaten since yesterday. Is he offering me lunch? The dragon was unsure. While the duke was looking over the battlements, rattling on about his plans for world dominion, Shadrac darted his head down into the pit and gripped a serpent in his jaws and devoured it whole, dragon-fashion. The poison from the snake did not hurt Shadrac. A gullet that often has 1,000 degree flames coursing through it isn't bothered by a little venom.
Had Treve noticed? No, he was yammering on. Shadrac had only intended to eat one snake but it was so good he ate three. He barely had time to slurp the tail of the last snake past his mouth before Treve swung toward him. Was that a glint of suspicion in the duke's eyes?
"I have my soldiers," said Treve. "I have my trained snakes. And soon," he stared at the dragon, "when I have brought you around to my way of thinking, and we have joined together in conquering the land - mwah hah hah... I will have you! Shadrac the Reptile of Glede! Soon, all of Potheria will be at my - er - our feet."
Treve leaned in closer and put a beringed hand on Shadrac's shoulder. "Listen, dragon, I like you. That's why I'm letting you in on the ground floor. I will bring order - culture - to this God-forsaken land. Do you think the people of Slapp like being backward rubes?"
"Uh, I never thought about it," said Shadrac.
"And there is one more thing. I happen to know that you were abandoned as a baby by your parents."
Shadrac was silent.
"I know," said Treve, looking disgustingly smug, "where they went. And why they went there. I bet old Weezen never told you the truth. Or your grandmother. Maybe if you join me you might get a chance to find Mummy and Daddy." He leaned in close to the dragon, so close that Shadrac could see the bloodshot vessels of the man's eyes and smell his rather curry-laden breath. "I have two words for you: Dragon Isle."
Shadrac rolled his eyes. "That's just a mythical place."
"Really?" leered Treve. "Then why do I have a map?" He hissed into Shadrac's ear; "You're better off trusting me than those yokels in Slapp. In the end, when I have - when we have conquered the four kingdoms - tamed them, given them stability, order. Brought them to what I call 'A State Of Treve', they will thank us." He lead the way to the dragon stable. He paused at the entrance. "And remember. I have the map of Dragon Isle. Goodnight, dragon. I'll leave you to sleep on it."
* * *
Nanna paced back and forth in the courtyard of Slapp, now and then sitting on her haunches and wringing her front claws. "You don't understand!" she wailed, "Dragon is very young - and impressionable. Who know what lies that villain is telling him - and he might just come to believe them."
"What would you have us do, madam - Nanna?" said the king. "Invade Glede? At this moment? I'm afraid our army - both men - are not up to it."
"There's nothing for it but for me to go," said Nanna. "I think I can get into the city unseen. I'll be able to use the fog that weasel of a duke generates as cover."
"I'll go with you," said Jolene. A saddle was rigged up on Batwing. Nanna, even with the fortifying effect of the H2#, was too delicate to carry a rider. Nanna, Batwing, and Jolene set off for Glede.
They reached the dark castle of Glede at dusk. All about them was wreathed in fog, as Nanna thought, but so thick they had a hard time finding Shadrac. Nanna uttered a dragon-wail pitched for Shadrac's ears but got no reply. Finally, after stumbling around in the gloom, and Nanna stubbing a toe on a fountain base, they came to the stables. Shadrac was sitting outside on his haunches, head hanging down.
"Draccy! Don't you know your old grandmother?" cried Nanna. "Why didn't you answer me?"
"I'm beginning to wonder if I do know you," said Shadrac sullenly.
"What ever do you mean?"
"Dragon Isle," said Shadrac, "ring a bell?"
"Oh, Draccy!" Nanna covered her face with her fore claw. "I always intended to tell you. When you were old enough. I didn't want you to go off in search of your parents and never come back - like Gorfang and your mother." Gorfang was Nanna's son and her eyes were bright with tears as she spoke of him.
Shadrac rolled accusing emerald eyes toward Batwing. "Did you know where my parents had gone?"
"Young dragon!" said Batwing in the tone of voice he used on delinquent students in is university days, "stop this nonsense! Treve is distracting you. It is he who is stirring up trouble. Our first priority is to get you and Wilmot back without letting Treve make headway in his mad plans."
To this Shadrac grudgingly agreed. He could not stay mad at Nanna for long. From the time his parents had left he had been raised by Nanna until she had entrusted him to the royal family of Slapp until she had become to frail to safeguard him. Which reminded him that the last time they had met Nanna had been barely able to fly.
"How did you get here?" asked Shadrac.
"I flew. Batwing has invented a way for us to replenish our H2." She explained about the H2# shells.
"But ssst! There isn't much time. Although we have many things to discuss." said Shadrac. He told them about Treve's soldiers and the mad plans to conquer Potheria and about Wilmot being held captive in the dungeons. Jolene was adamant that she stayed behind to help Wilmot.
The two elderly dragons took off from the stable roof, scattering fog as they flapped their enormous wings. "Well, what do you think the chances are we wont all make fools of ourselves before this is done?" asked Batwing, as he and Nanna flew back to Slapp to report the situation to the king.
"Very low, I suppose," said Nanna. Dragons don't like to be made fools of, but understand it's a hazard of hanging around with humans.
In Slapp they found crowds of people assembled - fisherman with gaff hooks, farmers carrying scythes and pitchforks - all sorts of people armed with whatever they could find. Word had gone out about the kidnapping of Shadrac the Dragon and Wilmot.
Queen Mothilde had worked up the crowd to a state of hysteria. She stood on a soap box in the town square. "Are we going to let those louts in Glede steal our dragon?" she cried shaking her fist. Her strawberry blond hair bushed out beneath an iron helmet.
"We're with you, your majesty!" shouted an old soldier standing at the front of the crowd with his wife. "Let's get our dragon back!"
"You were saying only last week," said his wife, "how the dragon was a drain on our resources and how you couldn't understand why good tax dollars should go to keep it in a luxury cave while -"
"Yeah, well that was before he was stolen from us by those Glede scum. Yeah. Slapp Forever!"
The crowd cheered.
"Old man, what is your name?" inquired the queen.
"Felix, saving your grace's presence."
"Ah, yes, Felix, the hero of the Coastal War. Good to see you're enthused." said Mothilde crisply.
"Yes marm, Er your ladyship. Hail to the Chief!" Felix was not used to talking with royalty and in the confusion of the moment threw out randomly every phrase he knew that might apply.
"Consider yourself promoted." said the queen. I name you Sir Felix." she knighted him with a battle ax since she didn't have a sword. The old man nearly fainted with joy and pride.
Queen Mothilde put Felix and his friend Founder, the only war veterans in Slapp, in charge of organizing the troops as best they could. Among the volunteers were Joe and Megrain, Wilmot's father and mother who were understandably eager to save Wilmot.
The only voice of dissent was from Billup the jester. He said wasn't there something odd about the whole thing and, I mean, an army of two hundred? Does that sound like Mad Duke Treve? By tradition the court jester was the voice of reason to the madness of kings, but there isn't much they can do about the madness of mobs.
Queen Mothilde rode among them on a white charger. She had a military sort of mind - her room was decorated with portraits of Queen Boadicea (who was a distant cousin of hers). Oh, she was going to enjoy this alright.
Nanna told King Weezer of the situation in Glede as they had heard it from Shadrac. Nanna and Batwing then promised to bring whatever dragon support they could muster from the elderly dragons and flew off towards The Eyrie.
The next day at dawn the king and queen and all the people who had joined the make-shift army, three hundred and twelve people, set off for the twelve league march to Glede with cries of "Slapp Forever!" and "Save Our Dragon!" ringing in the air, at least for the first few miles, before their voices got tired. But they kept on and, before nightfall of the third day since they started, the Peasant Army of Slapp (as it came to be known in songs sung about the occasion in after-years despite the queen's campaign to call it 'Mothilde's Militia') camped on a knoll overlooking the perpetual fog-shrouded kingdom of Glede.
* * *
"So alright," said Jolene. She unrolled the plans of the castle she'd purchased from a passing architect. "Wilmot is here," she jabbed her finger at a block of dungeon cells, "The cellars are here," these were parallel lines indicating tunnels, with an entrance marked at a point near the stables.
"Um," said the dragon. "I'm sure you're clever but... don't you think it's odd that you got a map of the dungeons so easy? And that an architect carrying that map was the first person you met when you stepped outside to get a look?"
Jolene shrugged. "Coincidence." She was not an introspective type.
Under the cover of darkness they headed for the trap door leading to the cellars, Jolene with her head held high and her fists clenched, ready to fight anyone who might try to stop them. Dragon slunk. He had a feeling this was going to end badly.
Set in the ground behind the stables was an iron-bound wooden door. Jolene lifted it by a large ring-shaped handle, revealing a black square hole. Jolene climbed down a wood ladder, than kicked it aside so the dragon could shove himself through the hole and then flop down to the stone floor. He had to keep his head down in the passageway until, about twenty yards on, the height increased slightly. Torches flickered in sconces on the wall, revealing rough-hewn gray stone, and a hook holding a ring of large keys.
"Hmm," said the dragon "All that's missing is a "'Dungeon - This Way' sign with an arrow." He would have turned back except he couldn't turn around in the (to him) narrow tunnel. He had no choice but to go forward. There was a murmur of voices.
"I think I hear Wilmot!" whispered Jolene excitedly. She hurried forward and Shadrac, despite his misgivings, followed her. They were almost to the ring of keys when shhhhk! There was the sound of stone sliding on stone. The ceiling disappeared, the walls moved apart, steel bars clanged down around the dragon. His head was forced through the bars like a cow in a stanchion. Harry and Claude were there, slipping a muzzle on him before he had time to react. Harry grinned evilly. "Hoy, there dragon, what you think you're doing down here? You wouldn't be trying to betray our duke, would you?"
Shadrac sighed (Carefully because of the nostril-guards), "oh, no nod iss again." And then, to make matters worse, Harry attached a bit and a rope to the muzzle and used it to force Shadrac's head back. Then he and Claude tipped a jug full of noxious smelling green liquid down the dragon's throat. It was dragon-bane. The world went black for Shadrac.
* * *
Back at the Eyrie for Aged Dragons, Nanna and Batwing surveyed their fellow senior reptiles indignantly. "Do you mean to tell me," Batwing said, "that you lot would rather stay up here - decaying, until your bones turn to stone, than come with us for One Last Battle?" he gave the last three words a theatrical spin. "You, Bare-faced Fingal - do you mean to tell me you wont come?" he fixed his eyes on the pale, freckled old drake. A blush crept over his blotchy hide and he averted his eyes. "And you - Scritcher the Clawed, and Morphew, and Gladys - I thought you all had more guts than this."
"Emm, I'll go," said one hazy looking hen dragon with golden scales, "ehh... where are we going?"
"Never mind, Flicker-Flame," Nanna told her, patting her fore-leg. "You can stay here." Flicker-Flame had become too vague and unreliable to bring to a fight.
Bare-Faced Fingal waddled forth, defiance bristling his neck-ruff. "You know I would fight for Shadrac if I could - poor little blighter," in the mind of the aged dragon, Shadrac was still a hatchling. All the old dragons knew Shadrac well from his frequent visits to their eyrie. "But - well... even if I could make it to Glede - and it would have to be on an updraft all the way - well... what good would I be in a battle?"
Batwing's face cleared. "Oh. I forgot to tell you. I've invented hydrogen-plus supplements." Once Batwing explained the sea-shell H2 pills to the other dragons they were eager to go.
"Adventure at last," breathed Scritcher the Clawed. "But what shall we do with, um, you-know-who?" He cast a glance at Flicker-Flame.
That was a problem. Flicker-Flame had dementia too bad to leave her alone, yet none of the other dragons wanted to stay behind with her and miss out on the action.
"There is no time to argue," said Nanna. "We barely have time to get there before the battle starts. She'll just have to come with us." Nanna put her foot down and refused to hear any argument.
All seven dragons were given H2# shells to swallow, plus extras to carry in their purses and drake-bags. They flew in formation, with a dragon on each side of Flicker-Flame to keep her from wandering. They soared over the snowy mountains, heading southeast toward the thick forest of fir trees that stretched from the lower mountain sides, then several miles to flat land. The trees thinned out as they reached the Great Plain.
* * *
Seven fearsome forms glided over the plains, boding destruction for their foes. Their dark shadows fell over the land as they passed. A herd of yaks grazing by the Great River flicked their ears as large shapes hid the sun and were gone. Then returned, landing nearby.
"For pete's sake," said Batwing, "I wish you thought of it before we left. Or just do it in the air."
"I'm sorry, I can't go in flight." Scritcher the Clawed waddled to some bushes and was among them a few minutes.
Then the dragons lifted off and were gone like the wind, leaving the yaks to wonder what was that smell.
The dragons managed the flight in a few days. They wanted to take plenty of rest stops and explore each lake they passed for eels but Nanna pushed them to hurry. At times Flicker-Flame would absent-mindedly flame out, scorching the tail of whichever dragon was in front of her, or careen into a dragon positioned at her side. The herd did their best to rotate who flew in front and beside her, and finally, scorched and tired, they came in sight of Glede castle.
Nanna, who was in point position, lead the group. She circled around Glede, hoping to spy out Treve's battle plans, but she could see very little through the permanent fog that wreathed the place from the steaming fountain and smoking battle forges.
To the east she saw King Weezen and Queen Mothilde with their peasant's army (and two soldiers). The herd of dragons spiraled down and landed on the hilltop. Batwing waddled forth, Nanna at his side.
"Well," said Nanna to King Weezen, "here we all are."
* * *
The dawn light was diffuse in Glede. Shadrac wondered where he was for a minute, then, as he felt the hard iron muzzle and shackles, memory rushed in on him. Around him soldiers and messengers, all in the iron breastplates and waist-high shin guards of Glede, bustled about. There were quite a lot of them.
"Ah, you're awake at last," an oily voice at his left ear.
Dragon found he could not move his head. He rolled his eyes to the side. There was Treve, smirking.
"Ut oo oo ont, utt ace?" dragon managed.
"I don't know what you're saying," said Treve. "No matter. I just came to gloat. I just want you to know that this is all your fault, you snake-eating cretin. Remember when I showed you my army of 200? Ha! That was just so you would report that to old Weezen. I've actually got 1,000 men. That's right. This is a trap. Weezen will come against me and SNAP! Be caught in my trap. I will defeat him, make his army work for me - then I will defeat Ohcrud - then Thallow - then - THE WORLD! Mwah hah hah!" His laughter must have sounded mad even to his own ears for Treve calmed down. "In short, dragon," he leaned in and leered into Shadrac's face, "I have outsmarted you. So take that! Come Fang!" the giant cobra slithered to his side. "Oh by the way," Treve said casually over his shoulder as he walked away, "Those two little brats? Your 'creepers' - or is it 'keepers'? They are in a cage suspended over a pit of hot lava. Claude here," he nodded at Claude who was standing at attention by the cage, trying to look intelligent, "Claude will be your guard in case you try to break out. Have a nice day." Treve walked off to oversee his army.
Shadrac felt his muscles cramped and aching from being held by the shackles in one position. He tried shifting. He could flex his wings slightly and shuffle his feet a few inches. It was a start. He lifted his feet. Left side. Right side.
"Here, stop that!" shouted Claude.
Shadrac ignored him. Left. Clank. Right. Clank. He could feel a bolt start to give. Left. Clank. Right. Clank. Left. Pop!
He had a little more freedom - he shifted his weight now. Four tons of dragon rocked the cage. Pop pop pop! More bolts burst and his powerful tail was free. Now he rolled the cage -wildly. Claude had to run out of the way.
Shadrac paused for a minute, panting.
From beyond the city the rallying cry of Slapp rang out, a ragged cry of "Slapp forever!"The elderly dragons let out a high pitched battle wail. From among them Shadrac could pick out his grandmother's voice. All around him the Glede soldiers were positioning themselves. Shadrac got a talon free and removed the muzzle. "It's a trap! Get back!" he shouted, but his voice was lost in the cacophony and he knew it didn't reach his friends. The Glede soldiers beat their swords on their shields, jeering at the opposition. Battle was imminent.
* * *
Nanna watched as the line of Gledian soldiers advanced just beyond the city, fog at their back, tendrils of mist twining about them giving them a sinister look. They beat their shields and jeered. "We got your dragon. Ha Ha Ha. Shadrac the Dragon of Glede now! Loosers! Don't even have a dragon."
Queen Mothilde was mustering the right arm of Slapp's peasant army, King Weezen lined up the left. The king and queen, astride their horses, rattled their sabers. They were at a fever pitch, working up to the charge.
Nanna was worried. The dragons had used all the H2# they had carried and now had little left in reserve for the battle. Also Flicker-Flame was battier than ever. "All right, dear." Nanna said to her as Flicker Flame looked about in a lost manner, "Now what are you going to do?"
"Ummm," said the senile dragon, "I... stay right here."
"That's right dear," said Nanna. She hoped Flicker-Flame would remember. They had been over and over this. Nanna squared her shoulders. The Slapp humans were marching toward the duke's men. Already archers on both sides were letting arrows fly. She looked back at the elderly dragons. They looked worn out. Too late to turn back. She waggled her haunches like a cat ready to pounce. "Dragons - Hooooooe!"
The herd launched themselves into the fray. As the Slappians and the dragons came on the Gledians retreated, back into the mist. For a moment Nanna was elated. The enemy was scared! Then she saw them - hundreds of Gledian soldiers leaping from trenches and shelters, wheeling catapults and twelve-arrow siege bows. They had been drawn into a trap like so many eels. Drat!
The Duke of Glede stood on the balcony of his castle, shouting mocking insults at Weezen. Where was Shadrac? Nanna called to him but no answer. Slapp was outnumbered by trained soldiers, and the herd of dragons were less help than Nanna hoped - they were all tired and could manage barely a small amount of flame. All seemed lost.
Just then Flicker-Flame wandered into the battle. She turned her head side to side and smiled vaguely. "Is this a game? What are we playing?" All the combatants paused for a moment. Even the Gledians were surprised at the appearance of a great golden dragon who clearly did not belong there. But Harry the Henchman, hefting a great battle spear, and half mad with the thought of gaining fame as a dragon slayer - something that no human had done in generations - thought I'll show them. He easily spotted a weak place in the golden dragon's scales - she made no attempt to hide it. He hurled the spear at Flicker-Flame. The spear rattled off her hide with a small 'chink!' sound(for even the bare hide of a dragon is tougher than iron). Flicker-Flame looked surprised for one moment, clutched her breast with her right talon, then collapsed as her heart failed.
The remaining dragons froze. All was silent for a dozen heartbeats.
Than, with one voice, they keened their grief over their fallen friend. The keening grew loud, filling the air, filling the senses of all who heard it so that all the humans frozen where they stood. Adrenalin coursed through the dragons, triggering a natural surge of hydrogen. What Batwing had given them supplements for they now produced themselves in great quantity.
Nanna felt her withered skin fill up, expanding, and knew the same was happening to the rest of the dragons. Shouldering her purse, she waxed wroth. Hot flame barely kept in check, she stormed over the city. She flew toward a catapult crew who gaped up at her in fear. She seized the great machine in powerful talons and pitched it into the steam fountain. The bowl of the fountain broke with a crash. Water gushed from it, running all over. It hissed over the magma cracks, it washed soldiers off their feet. For a while the air was scalding hot, the fog was thicker than ever. Then it began to clear. It revealed a flooded, broken city. The herd of dragons with their full flame capability were too much for the army of Glede and they surrendered without consulting Duke Treve, who, at any rate, had disappeared.
For a time Nanna wandered the sodden battlefield. At last she could see Shadrac. He was carrying a cage in his jaws. Within were Jolene and Wilmot, the two children who were his keepers. They hunted down Claude, and got the key to the cage from him. Claude sat down, face in hands as he resigned himself to whatever fate awaited him. Life is unkind to Henchmen who are on the loosing side. A huge dragon headed toward him, its silvery-white extra-long talons scraping on the paving as it waddled up to him.
"Hey, I hear your name is Clawed," said the dragon.
"My name is Claude," said Claude.
"Yeah. That's my name too. I'm Scritcher the Clawed," said Scritcher the Clawed. "That is some coincidence. I didn't know humans could have decent names. You know," Scritcher-the-Clawed sat a massive rump down by Claude, much to the human's discomfort, and leaned forward in a friendly fashion, "you know, I feel a kind of kinship with you. Have you ever considered a career in the elderly-dragon-care profession?"
Claude considered it a moment. "Well, couldn't be any worse than my life so far."
Water had flooded the snake pit, and cobras were doing their version of the side-stroke on the water's surface, looking for dry places to rest on. Morphew discovered them. He slurped a cobra down. "Hey!" he called out to his companions. "These hooded eels are delicious!" The elderly dragons wandered around, gobbling up the tyrant cobras that Treve had carefully bred and trained.
Shadrac was about to join them when he notice a cloaked figure hurrying from the castle. He bounded up to the man, Jolene close at his heels. "Ho there!" he said, "What is your game?"
"I - I'm just a poor traveling uh uh... snake charmer. That's it. Snake charmer. Just minding my own business. Just looking for uh snakes." An expression could be seen under the hood of someone who knows they have badly botched an unbelievable lie but has decided to brazen it out.
"In a hood and cloak? When it's hot as blazes here and the humidity is about 90%?" asked Shadrac. The hot water and magma were making the climate very tropical.
"Um." The figure shifted uneasily. Just a moment too late he pulled his sleeve down to hide something.
Jolene grabbed his arm. "Ah ha!" she cried, pulling the sleeve back. His fingers were clad in silver snake rings. "Treve! You nasty low down pig - hanging is too good for you - why, I oughta get Shadrac to roast your toes ...." Jolene kept haranguing the captured duke as a crowd gathered around.
Batwing ate Fang, the largest and most venomous of the cobras, from which he had the jitters for three days. It was soon discovered (through Batwing's research which involved a lot of cobra-tasting) that cobra venom has a caffeine like stimulant effect of dragons.
The battle between Glede and Slapp had lasted only a few minutes (much to Queen Mothilde's chagrin). The casualties were few. Flicker-Flame, however was dead of a heart attack. The captured Duke of Glede and Harry Henchmen were dragged before the six remaining elderly dragons.
"There crimes were most of all against you," said King Weezen to Nanna. "It is only fitting that you decide the fate of these two."
Nanna walked thoughtfully around the prisoners. She laid a talon on Harry's chest. "As slayer - in spirit if not in deed - of dear Flicker-Flame you deserve death." Harry turned a sickly pale color.
"However," she went on, "We dragons have a saying: 'There's a good use for everyone.' Therefor, we will permit you to be a dragon groomer and work off your debt to dragon kind. For I will have it be known," here she raised her voice and looked about her at the gathered crowd, "that from henceforth GLEDE shall become the winter eyrie for all aged dragons!"
A murmur ran through the crowd, then a ragged cheer broke out from the people of Slapp. Nanna was nominated the new Duchess of Glede, and she graciously accepted.
That night a grand banquet was held to celebrate. Dragon-sized tents were set up on the plaza in front of the castle, since seven dragons trying to fit in the inside banquet hall would have wrecked the masonry.
Flickering torches lit tables laden with choice foods raided from Treve's pantry. King Weezen and Queen Mothilde shared a table with Wilmot and Jolene. The seven dragons had no table but instead crouched on the flagstones waiting to be served. Treve, Harry and Claude had been pressed into being servants for the dragons. Only Claude was cheerful about it.