Baby dragons were never left home alone. Their parents knew better: it would have been unwise to the safety of the family’s dwelling, given an energetic hatchling’s destructive tendencies, and certainly unwise to the safety of the hatchling itself, since most baby dragons could hardly wait to go out into the world to wreak some havoc. And the world, as you may suspect, does not always take kindly to little dragons wreaking havoc upon it.
Had Horus been a normal, havoc-wreaking dragon hatchling, he would not have been left home alone that morning, and he would not have rolled out of his nest and down the mountainside in his sleep. His father would have caught him in time and tucked him in again, all safe and snug in his bearskin blanket as if nothing had happened, and there would be no story to tell.
But Horus’ father had no fear of his hatchling going meandering into the woods or setting the family lair on fire. So when Horus did roll out of his nest in his sleep and go bumpety-bump down the rocky mountain, there was no one there to stop it from happening.
The morning after our story began, Pop was left home alone with his napping son. His wife had flown off in a fury to hunt a young squire who, after accidentally stumbling upon her hidden treasure, had made off with her favorite golden goblet.
Horus’s father looked in the larder for something to fix his breakfast with, but found no leftovers of the smoked-leg-of-knight they had had for dinner the night before. No matter; he told himself, it was too dry anyhow. So he checked the attic, hoping to find some pickled sheep or rams there, but these were all gone too. There was not a single crumb or morsel of food to be found anywhere in the dragons’ lair.
Pop looked at his snoring hatchling, and thought there could be no harm in flying off for just a little while to catch a wayward goat or two, or perhaps even a tender young goatherd if he got lucky. He knew his wife would not approve of leaving the baby alone, but given the fact that Horus would soon wake up and start wailing for his breakfast, he felt the short excursion would be justified. Besides, after having thought of it, he’d begun to really crave some goatherd. So off he flew, and little Horus was left all by himself.
Now, not many things can wake a dragon that is very deeply asleep, especially a dragon hatchling such as Horus, but even he would have been awoken by a violent descent down the mountain. And yet, as you will see, he did not wake up, and that is because he had done a very naughty thing the night before.
While his Momma and Pop were soundly asleep themselves, Horus had gotten out of his nest, climbed on top of his mother’s head, and then clambered laboriously all the way up her long neck up to the tallest spike on her spiked back. From this elevated position he hopped inside the larder, which had been left open. Then he ate every bit of leftover smoked-leg-of-knight that he found there, and when he was done, he slid back down his mother’s back and tail, and went back to sleep in his nest.
So this is the reason why the next morning Horus was so very deeply asleep and in no kind of hurry to eat breakfast. In fact, as a result of his midnight snack, he now felt such painful pangs in his round little belly that he tried to roll over on his tummy as he slept (something you’ve probably done too when you’ve had a bellyache.) This, alas, would not make him more comfortable, at least not in the short term, but would rather have the opposite effect:
Horus slid off his nest with a swish of straw and a squishy bump on the lair’s rocky floor, and because the level of the ground was on a descending angle in that part of the mountain and also owing to the fact that Horus was so round,
and rolled some more,
and bumped and and bounced all the way down the rocky, thorny, hard mountainside, and he did not stop bumping and bouncing and rolling until he reached the foot of the mountain, and from there he went right on rolling until he was well into the Deep Dark Woods, the same woods that were home to Very Big Bears, and Cyclopes, and Other Creatures of a Generally Unpleasant Nature. And there, on a little glade, he finally came to a stop, but so profound was his slumber that even this bruising trip down the mountain had not been enough to rouse him.
It was not until twilight that Horus’ protesting belly finally caused him to stir. He found upon awakening that he no longer had a bellyache; however, he was bruised from head to tail and had a big, nasty bump on the tip of his snout. Such disagreeables discoveries, in addition to a very empty stomach and the fact that he found himself in a dark, cold place which he did not recognize in the least, prompted Horus to do the one thing that invariably resulted in the removal or correction of any unpleasantness present: he broke out in ear-splitting screeches.
Horus howled and wailed and bawled for the better part of an hour. He threw a full tantrum, with much sobbing and kicking and pounding of the mossy ground with his little fists and tail. When he finally stopped to catch his breath, night had fallen, and the dark woods had grown even darker than before.
One would think Horus to be used to darkness, what with spending most of the time asleep beneath his thick bearskin blanket, but there is a marked difference between the darkness of your own warm, safe lair, and the darkness of the Deep Dark Woods, especially if you had never been in them before and you suddenly found yourself in them all by yourself.
So now Horus was frightened in addition to hungry and bruised. He took a deep breath in preparation to a louder howling fit that he hoped his parents would hear, when a twig cracked in the brush ahead.
The little dragon froze, his breath held all up inside of his chest, because he was afraid to let it out and make a sound that could betray his presence to something Big and Hungry. It was of course too late to worry about that, after his earlier outburst. But luckily for Horus, he was not to meet any such danger just yet.
Instead, from among the bushes appeared what looked to Horus like a pencil-thin boy of about ten or eleven years old. He had a reddish-brown head of hair that grazed his shoulders and a pale face full of freckles. His arms and legs were long and scrawny, as was the rest of him. He was all in rags and had only one shoe. In short, he looked anything but threatening.
However, Horus had never before seen a human that his father or mother hadn’t already hunted and roasted or baked for his dinner, and he knew that the right kind of human could be very dangerous to a baby dragon who met such a creature all alone.
As for the boy, it must first be clarified that she was, despite all appearances, a girl. In addition, she was no coward, but had more to fear from such an encounter than Horus did. So it is not surprising that her face should become the very picture of dismay and consternation the moment her eyes fell upon the dragon hatchling.
“Oh, no," she moaned under her breath, “Oh, what rotten luck.”
Having looked quickly up to the darkening skies for any sign of the hatchling’s parents, she took a careful step back, and then another, keeping a watchful eye on Horus (who had by now been holding his breath for so long that even the blood-red stripes on his cheeks were beginning to turn blue.)
“It’s alright,” coaxed the girl, as she cautiously made her way back to the bushes, “It’s okay. I’m going away, see? No need to call your mama, I won’t hurt you.”
And she would have continued to step backward into the brush had she not happened to step on a sharp little pebble with the heel of her naked foot. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you just how much stepping on a sharp little pebble can hurt, even if you’re wearing socks, and particularly if you step on it with the heel of your naked foot. Which explains why our freckled, pencil-thin gangly girl gave a yell of a pitch that could easily have rivaled Horus’ own banshee-like howls, and then proceeded to hop about on her healthy foot, putting on such an alarming display that Horus forgot all about holding his breath anymore.
“Help! Oh, help!” wailed the terrified hatchling, “Oh, Momma! Poppa! Help me! Save me!”
He ran back and forth in no particular direction, changing course whenever he tripped or bumped into the occasional boulder or thorny bush, and so did not get very far at all.
Meanwhile, Horus’ loud outburst made the girl forget all about her sore foot, prompting her to run off into the thicket at top speed, for she was sure the hatchling’s furious parents must not be far away, and would be hot on her heels at any given moment (she was courageous, but prudent.) However, when no such fearsome beasts appeared and the baby’s wails continued loud and sorrowful, the girl slackened her pace, and waited a little (just to be sure) before walking back to the glade.
There sat Horus, hiccuping and exhausted. He scrambled to his feet in alarm when he saw the girl who looked like a boy reenter the glade, but stood frozen on the spot, too frightened to run.
“Easy there,” said the girl in a friendly manner while she approached the little dragon with as much caution as she had earlier endeavored to distance herself from it. “You have nothing to fear from me. Don’t be scared.”
But while Horus had stopped crying, he was not at all reassured. He stood trembling on the spot with his large red eyes fixed on the young human. His chest heaved rapidly up and down.
“Are you alone?” ventured the girl.
Horus bristled defensively at the question. He curled his lips in a tiny snarl despite his fear.
“I don’t have to tell you!” he growled, “Go away and leave me be, or I’ll... I’ll eat you!”
To mark this threatening little speech Horus took a brave step forward and bared his teeth even further. He was greatly surprised when the girl jumped back, showing genuine alarm.
“I-it’s alright, really!” she entreated, “I’m alone too. You’re lost, aren’t you? So am I, you see—”
“Be quiet!” Horus barked. He was feeling bolder. If the small human showed fear, that meant it was weak enough to be his prey. And Horus was very, very hungry.
“I’m Nib,” said the girl, “What’s your name?”
“I don’t have to tell you,” Horus answered gruffly. But he conceded to add, “I’m Horus.”
“Nice to meet you,” ventured Nib.
Horus didn’t want to make friends with this human. It is a known fact that if you get too chummy with your dinner, you will most likely end up not eating it, or else feeling guilty while you do it, which can result in an upset stomach.
Horus’ belly growled a long, gurgling growl.
“Are you hungry?” asked Nib.
“That’s right,” answered the hatchling, “and it’s you I’m going to eat.”
“Oh,” faltered Nib. And for a short, uncomfortable moment neither of them spoke or moved.
Horus knew he had to do something. He was the predator, the dragon, the hunter. He was supposed to make the first move. But he was too young to ever have accompanied his parents on a hunt, and had never been particularly interested in learning more about it by asking them directly. He needed to catch and kill the boy before he could eat it, and he had no idea how to accomplish this.
As if reading his thoughts, Nib asked, “Have you ever hunted your own food before?”
“Of course I have!” Horus retorted. “Lots ‘n lots of times! Sometimes, I hunt enough for me and my Poppa and Momma to eat for days. S-sometimes.”
It seemed to Horus that a wave of relief flickered the young human’s pale, freckled face for a moment.
“You know,” said Nib, “I have a pouch full of berries right here, and they won’t keep. Wouldn’t you rather eat my berries for now, and save me for later? I’ll keep just fine, and perhaps I can help you find your way back, in the meantime.”
“I can get home very well by myself!” Horus said defensively. And he really thought he could. He did not know how lost he was.
“Well then, if you can find your way out of the woods so easily, mind if I tag along anyway?” said Nib, “I’ve been lost for an awful long time, myself. Not that it’s anything out of the ordinary for me,” she added with a shrug, “Seems I spend most of the year lost in these woods.”
“Then you must be a perfect blockhead,” said Horus pitilessly. “If you’ve been here so many times, how can you not know your way around?”
“It’s a very big forest,” explained Nib, “It looks the same all over, and yet it’s always changing.”
They could not travel at night, Nib said. They could not see where they were going and the night was pitch black, with no stars to guide them. She suggested that she and Horus camp under the curling roots of an enormous tree. It was a little damp there, but the moss was soft and the evening air was warm and pleasant. It was a beautiful spring night.
Horus ate the berries Nib gave him in one big bite, swallowing a chunk of the leather pouch along with them. Nib didn’t eat anything—as there was nothing else to eat—but she did not complain. She seemed glad enough not to be part of Horus’ dinner.
After this, they settled down to sleep. Nib slept soundly, for she was used to the forest and its noises, and knew which ones were dangerous and which ones one need not worry about.
But Horus didn’t know these things and for the first time in his life the little dragon experienced a sleepless night.