All night long the little dragon tossed and turned, and time and time again a snapping branch or far-off growl caused him to start whenever sheer exhaustion overcame him.
Shortly before daybreak Horus all but gave up on trying to sleep. He was sore, worn out, profoundly irritated and, most of all, ravenous.
Finding a stick lying on the ground nearby, Horus picked it up and gave the sleeping human child a few tentative, if rather rough pokes.
“Wake up already,” he said to Nib, “I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” said Nib after a pleasant stretch. She had slept very well. “Let’s start walking, then, and maybe we’ll find something on the way, if we’re lucky.”
“Maybe?” Horus repeated dismally.
“Or maybe something will find us,” said Nib. “You never know.”
“Something? Like my parents?”
“Maybe your parents. Or maybe a bear. A lot of things are hungry in the morning and looking for breakfast just as we are.”
Horus walked faster.
After they had been trudging along for a while with Horus apparently leading the way, Nib said, “You seem quite sure of which road to take. Where do you live?”
“In the mountains,” replied Horus, who knew that much.
“That’s all very well,” said Nib dubiously, “but where in the mountains? They go on and on and on, you know. Just like this forest.”
This information unsettled Horus. But he could see part of the mountain range ahead of them, through the tree-tops.
“There,” he said, pointing his fat little finger in its direction, “I live over there.”
Nib squinted her eyes.
“There! Right there! Are you blind? It doesn’t matter anyway—all you have to do is follow me. So don’t be a pest. Remember, I haven’t had my breakfast yet!”
“Neither have I,” said Nib mildly, “and I didn’t have any dinner last night, either.”
She did not say it in a whiny or complaining tone, but it irked Horus nonetheless. Humans were such a hindrance!
Noon came. Horus was so hungry that he was letting out little frustrated sobs without even realizing it. These got more pronounced until he sat down on the floor, and would have thrown a tantrum out of habit. But then he remembered the human child standing behind him, and covered his face with his paws. He could not, however, stifle his whimpers completely.
Nib knelt by the hatchling’s side and put a hand on his shaking shoulder.
“You know,” she said, “If you can tell me what the outside of your lair looks like, maybe I could help you get home.”
“No, you couldn’t,” said Horus. “You have been lost here your whole life and I will be, too!”
“I have not been lost here my whole life,” said Nib, just a little bit defensively, “But I have been lost for a few months at a time. I always find my way home eventually.”
“You won’t lose anything by telling me,” Nib encouraged him.
“I can’t,” Horus murmured, ashamed. “I don’t know what it looks like. I’ve never even been outside before. I don’t know how I came to be outside. I woke up and I was in the woods. I don’t know what happened.”
“Listen,” said Nib, “Don’t cry.”
“But I’m hungry!”
“Crying won’t fix that.”
“It always does for me,” mumbled Horus. He was beginning to regret his outburst. Now the bothersome little human knew that he didn’t actually hunt dinner for his parents every night, and would fear him even less.
“Well, it won’t do you any good here,” retorted Nib pulling Horus up as she, too, got on her feet. “We’d better keep walking toward the mountains and hope we find something to eat. Your parents are probably looking for you, and will spot you from above or smell you out soon enough.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Probably,” answered Nib, “although I don’t know that it will bode very well for me if they do.”
“They might assume I’m the one who took you away, and—hello, what’s this?”
Nib had stopped walking, and was looking down at the ground.
“Tracks,” said the girl, pointing down at the dirt, “Look.”
Horus sniffed the small footprints, and Nib knelt down to study them more closely.
“Three toes,” Nib observed, “That’s a cyclops."
“Oh,” said Horus faintly. Cyclopes liked to hunt dragons. A horde of them would even dare attack an adult dragon, especially one that had been grounded by some accident or misfortune. And Horus was only a baby. What would a cyclops to do him?
With growing dread the hatchling imagined his small bones being sucked clean by a foul-smelling, hairy brute with a single glowering eye. He saw his own small, red knotted horn hanging from a string tied around the cyclops’ fat neck as a makeshift pendant, and his blue, red-stripped hide stretched on a rack to dry—oh! Horus let out a pitiful whimper at the thought of these ghastly possibilities.
“It’s okay," Nib reassured him. She had taken a flimsy, rusty dagger from a little pouch on the side of her only boot. “I’ll take care of it. I'm not scared of any cyclopes —and it looks like this is only a little one, by the size of its tracks.”
“Aren’t even little cyclopes dangerous?” asked Horus. He was trailing behind Nib now, meekly.
“Well, yes,” answered Nib, but I’m going to be a squire one day, and later on a knight, and knights can't ever be cowards."
“I’ve eaten knights," Horus observed after a thoughtful pause.
“And cyclopes eat little dragons," said Nib, just as thoughtfully, “That’s how the world goes."
Horus did not bring up the subject of eating knights any more that day.
Not far from where they had first come upon the cyclops’ footprints, the trail came to an abrupt end. This made Nib uneasy.
“Watch where you step,” she warned Horus, “Cyclopes are known to dig—"
Then there was a swish, and Nib disappeared. Horus froze on the spot, terrified by how suddenly he found himself alone again, and certain that a tribe of whopping cyclopes would descend upon him at any moment. He dared not move a muscle, or blink, or breathe.
Down in the pit just a few steps ahead of Horus, Nib was quiet as a mouse, too. Watchful as she knew herself to be, she had missed the trap, even as she was warning the hatchling to watch out for them. The hole was deep, but the same brush and twigs that had hidden the pit from her view had provided her with a relatively soft landing, so Nib was only a little bruised. Now she lay as she had fallen, careful not to move and wondering what she should do next.
Above, Horus was wondering the same thing. Since nothing awful had immediately happened, he was breathing again, and had begun to inch forward ever so slightly in the direction of the spot where his human companion had disappeared, when something sharp poked him in the back and a voice cried all in one breath, “Whoyou?”
Well, Horus gave a magnificent jump accompanied by a fittingly shrill shriek of terror, and in his fright he managed to trip and fall into the same pit where Nib was trapped (to Nib’s great discomfort).
Now a small head was looking down at them from above the hole. It had one enormous copper-colored eye that stared at them without blinking. A short blunt horn poked out of its forehead among a few tufts of straw-like yellow hair, and a single tooth protruded over its lower lip.
“Whoyou?” he demanded. His face was expressionless, but there was a clear note of annoyance in the question, which became more pronounced when he proceeded to answer it for them. “Mizz'rubul lookin’, no-good prey. You ruin Saffron’s good dragg’n catchin’ pit. Get out of it.”
He spoke clumsily, but quickly.
“We can’t,” answered Nib, who had understood the last request, at least.
The little cyclops looked at her hard, frowned with his single eye, and disappeared from view, though he could be heard grumbling to himself.
It was not long before a vine was thrown into the pit. Horus followed Nib’s instruction to take hold of it, since he was the stronger and heavier of the two, and, after losing his grip and falling back into the pit twice, he finally surfaced with his bruised human companion clinging to his back.
They saw upon emerging from the hole that the other end of the vine had been tied to the thick trunk of a nearby tree, and a very small, harassed-looking cyclops stood beside it, spear in hand, waiting for them. He wore a sort of diaper made of some animal’s furry pelt as his only garment, and there were little bones as well as colorful beads and feathers hanging from the handle of his weapon.
“We’re, um… Sorry we ruined your trap,” ventured Nib.
“Sorry!” cried an outraged Horus, “Maybe you are! I am all black and blue, was frightened out of my wits, and got my back nearly torn open by this… This little one-eyed midget’s stick, and for no reason at all! Sorry! I like that!”
“Hush!” Nib hissed. She spoke again to the cyclops as politely as she knew how. “Please don’t listen to him, um, um…,” she struggled to remember the creature’s name.
“Saffron,” said the little cyclops, giving himself a firm thump on the chest with his fist.
“Right. Are you all alone here in the woods, Saffron?”
“Nevva alone in The Woods,” was the sober reply, “Prey all ‘round. Big things out huntin’ all day ’n all night long.”
“That’s true enough,” said Nib uncomfortably.
“Me too. Imma huntin’,” added Saffron. “My first dragg’n hunt."
Horus felt the his heart sink to his feet, despite the fact that Saffron was slightly shorter than himself. He shot Nib a desperate look, which did not escape the young cyclops’ eye.
“Notta worry,” he said to Nib, “This dragg'n too little. Baby. Tribe laff at me. Li'l dragg'n no good for first hunt. Is “ha-ha” prey. Not “whoa-lookit-that” prey. You, same thing. Stringy and puny like worm. Not worth my time.”
“Ha-ha prey?!” shouted Horus, whose vanity and lack of courage were in such equal measure as to overlap regularly.
“Will you be quiet!” Nib scolded him in a whisper. Then she asked Saffron, “You must be very brave, to be out hunting for dragons all by yourself.”
To her surprise, the little cyclops gave the dirt a kick and seemed embarrassed.
“Not really. Cyclopes hunt anythin’. ‘Fraid of nothing.”
It was true. The Cyclops tribes were feared especially because they would hunt and eat anything and everything except for their own kind. They were known for wasting nothing and running away from no prey regardless of the odds of becoming prey themselves. It was their nature, rather than bravery. They were born fearless.
“I’m not ha-ha prey,” Horus mumbled bitterly.
He was pouting. Nib gave him a black look.
“Anyone ought to be proud of hunting down a rare beast like me, with so fine a hide and such a bright red knotted horn!”
The little cyclops scratched an itch behind his ear with the tip of his spear. He looked puzzled.
“I kill’n roast baby dragg’n, if he wants me to,” he offered helpfully.
“He doesn’t!” Nib hurried to assure him. But now Saffron was eyeing Horus more carefully.
“Is nice ’n fat. I make good breakfast of him. Give you a leg.”
Nib politely declined, and the little cyclops shrugged. But then all of a sudden his face lighted up, and he exclaimed, “I hassa better idea! Little baby dragg’n makes good bait for great big dragg’n. Maybe even two come for him!”
He clapped his hands and danced around a little, very pleased with himself.
“I should like to see you try to poke my Momma with that stick,” said Horus indignantly. “She’ll use it to pick your fat off her teeth when she’s done with you!”
The little cyclops became sober at once and glared at Horus with his intense yellow eye.
“Imma not afraid,” he said as he began to walk toward the hatchling, spear at the ready. “Call your momma.”
Horus felt sick with fear to see the pointed weapon so close to his soft belly, but for once he was ashamed to cry for his mother, who was unlikely to hear him anyway.
“I’m… I’m… I’m not afraid, either!”
Nib came between them.
“He is too afraid,” she said to Saffron, “Do spare him, please—he is so little.”
“Imma little, too, but Imma no chicken,” was Saffron’s ruthless answer. “Call your momma,” he said again to Horus, this time punctuating the command with a sharp poke of the spear. Horus let out a squeal and broke down in tears, all pretense of bravery gone.
“Whatta chick’n,” scoffed the little cyclops, “I thought all dragg’ns brave, even li’l ones. If cyclops is chick’n, he get kicked outta tribe. You getta kicked out, li’l dragg’n?”
Horus felt his heart drop. He had never considered this. Could his Momma and Poppa have kicked him out of the nest for being so lazy and eating all of their food?
Nib was glancing at him sideways. Horus swallowed, feeling his face grow hot.
“No,” he quavered, “No—I… I don’t know…”
The idea that his parents may not be out looking for him, may not even want him back home, was more frightening than anything Horus had experienced so far. He forgot all about Nib and the cyclops, and about being hungry, or tired, or bruised. He stood still and stared at his talons.
He made such a pitiful picture that, although cyclopes were renowned for their seeming inability to feel compassion for anything which could be considered viable prey, this one lowered his spear with a gesture of confusion and appeared very uncomfortable.
“Go,” he said to Nib with a shrug, “Take li’l dragg’n away too. He too salty from boohoo’ing to eat now, anyway.”
Nib did not wait to be told twice. She thanked Saffron profusely and grabbed Horus by the hand, hurriedly pulling him along the path.
She had not gone far, however, when a thought occurred to her.
“Wait here,” she said to Horus before running back to where the young cyclops still stood watching them. But Horus was too sad and stunned to pay any attention to her.
“Do you know,” Nib asked Saffron once she had reached him, “the way to the dragon nesting grounds?”
“Uppa mountain,” said Saffron, pointing in said direction with his spear.
“Yes, but do you know how to get there?”
The little cyclops nodded.
“Could you… Well, could you guide us there? Please? If you are hunting for dragons, you’re probably going that way anyhow, aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” said Saffron. “What you gimme?”
“Oh,” said Nib, taken aback, “I—well, I have this knife.”
And she presented her little dagger, which she treasured. But the little cyclops shook his head.
“Blunt ’n puny, like you. No good,” he said, not unkindly, but decidedly.
“I don’t have anything else,” said Nib.
Suddenly Horus, who had been listening, spoke up. “I’ll give you my bearskin,” he said in a strangled voice.
“It’s in my lair,” said Horus. “On my bed. My Momma hunted the bear and my Poppa skinned it. They used it to wrap the egg I was inside of. I’ve had it since the day I was hatched.”
He thought of his nest, and how good the blanket smelled, of fur and of home.
“It’s… It’s very warm and thick,” he added softly. “It’s a good bearskin blanket.”
The little cyclops considered the offer. The bears that lived in the Deep Dark Woods were very big, bigger than any bear you’ve ever seen or heard of. The pelt from one of them was a good, useful thing to have.
“The bearskin,” he said, “and your horn.”
Horus’ hands flew up to the aforementioned appendage.
“Your knotta-horn. Makes good drinkin’ cup.”
“But—but—it’s stuck to my head!”
“I chop it off.”
“Won’t that hurt a lot?”
“Dunno. Maybe,” was the phlegmatic reply.
“Oh, oh,” moaned Horus, with his hands still protectively over his horn. “What kind of knotted-horn dragon will I be, with no knotted horn on my head?”
Both Nib and Saffron were looking intently at him, waiting. Nib seemed concerned, but she did not say anything that helped Horus. The poor hatchling heaved one deep, shuddering sigh, and grimly nodded his head.
“Horus, are you sure?” said Nib.
“I will give you my knotted-horn, and my bearskin blanket too,” said Horus to the little cyclops, “but you won’t get my horn until after you get me home!”
“No worry,” Saffron assured him cheerfully, “I no chop off horn until then. You havva deal.”
He held out his grubby, callused little hand for Horus to shake. And Horus did.