A Word of Warning to Young and Sensitive Readers:
This story acknowledges the fact that in times of old, dragons used to have human beings for lunch, dinner, and sometimes breakfast if there was enough left over for the following morning. While there are few dragons left in our day and age, the young reader should not be concerned for their welfare in the event of running into such a creature. Dragons have long renounced people as part of their diet, as man’s habit of eating too many processed foods has made its meat less palatable and prone to cause indigestion.
The Dragon Hatchling
This story happened long, long ago in human years, but not quite so long ago in The Grand Scheme of Things, and it starts deep in a cozy cave situated on the western side of a long mountain range, where it was far too high for any human soul to dare venture. In it lived a dragon husband and wife with a little dragon hatchling, and the hatchling’s name was Horus.
Horus belonged to a race of knotted-horn dragons. He had a stubby red horn in the center of his forehead, which was wound up in a single tight knot. It was a soft, blunt-tipped horn, because Horus was still so young. It would grow longer and wind up into more knots as he grew older.
Knotted-horn dragons had instead of scales a very thick leathery hide which was very coveted for its strength and beauty, and which few weapons could pierce, or even scratch for that matter. This hide was sometimes spotted, sometimes plain, but most commonly striped, not unlike a tiger’s. Horus’s own hide was cobalt blue, and streaked with blood-red stripes which gave him a rather gruesome appearance when the light hit him in the right way.
But Horus’s hide did not often see daylight. He was always in his parents’ cave, always asleep on his nest, wrapped in a snug bearskin blanket.
Horus wasn't the only young dragon living on that mountain range with his Momma and Pop. Those were ancient dragon nesting grounds, so Horus lived in a sort of dragon neighborhood. The mountains were peppered with caves, caverns and grottoes that made good lairs for dragons to lay their eggs in, and every hundred and fifty years or so, they came in droves to do precisely that. Every hatching season the mountain range became noisy and busy with the happy squeals and growls of the baby dragons that played in and out of the depths of every warm lair, under the watchful eye of their parents.
But Horus did not care to play with them. He would cover his head with his bearskin blanket and go right on sleeping.
This was a good era for dragons in that particular country, for there were few humans about in that world and not very many had gotten up to being knights just yet (only knights ever dared to hunt dragons, and those who did generally didn't live long lives. One has to wonder why.) Generally, the most dragons had to fear was other dragons stealing their hoards of gold and jewels.
A little dragon, however, would have plenty to worry about if it had left its nest all by itself. Young dragons had no treasures that could be stolen from them, but on the eastern side of the mountain range roamed Ogres, and if you were to climb all the way to the top of the tallest mountain you might find your way to the King's giant castle (the King was a giant, so that was a perilous place for motives of scale alone) and at the forest that went all around the foot of the mountains lived Cyclopes, and Very Big Bears, and all of these creatures might catch and kill a little baby dragon for its meat, its hide or its horns, if it were brave or stupid enough to risk the terrible wrath of the hatchling's mother and father. And, well, if one ventured to the King's castle, one might get sat on or stepped on, especially a little dragon.
Because of these dangers, all dragons made sure that their offspring were well warned to stay inside their lairs and not go wandering the mountainside or the woods while their parents were out hunting or checking on their year-round dwellings, where the stores of precious metals and stones were left, unguarded, during the breeding season.
But Horus’ Momma and Pop never had to worry about their son running off in search of adventure.
“We're lucky that we needn't watch our good little Horus all the time,” Horus' Pop would sometimes say to his wife complacently, “he is such a good little boy, always sleeping the hours away.”
“Yes, I suppose we are,” his wife would sigh in response, with a glance at her round, plump baby, sleeping belly-up on the nest and snoring mightily with his mouth wide open. A little cloud of gray smoke came regularly from somewhere deep within his throat with each breath he let out.
“And we’re lucky that he isn’t flying all over the place knocking all the books and candles off the shelves with his tail,” said Pop, who like many dragons enjoyed a good read, and heard many horror stories from his older acquaintances about little dragons wreaking havoc in their homes the moment they began to get about on their own.
“Why, we’re lucky that he isn’t spitting fire on the curtains and setting them ablaze, too,” added Pop after a moment’s contemplation (though he was really thinking about his books and not the curtains.)
“Oh, you’re only thinking about your books,” said his wife with some irritation, “I frankly wish he would fly about, and knock everything off the shelves, and make a bonfire of your library.”
“Mercy, my dear!”
“Well, look at him! Here, just look at him!”
Momma was dangling Horus by his short, thick tail, and swaying him back and forth like a pendulum, which elicited no reaction whatsoever from the sleeping hatchling.
“All babies spend a great deal of time sleeping, my little gecko,” said Pop, while giving his wife’s back a reassuring caress with his tail, “Don’t worry about it. He’ll wake up and start wreaking havoc too soon, you’ll see.”
Horus was put back into his nest and lovingly tucked in by his mother, who I must tell you loved him very much indeed, and was proud of him, even though he did nothing but sleep and eat, and sometimes eat in his sleep, somehow.
“How can I not worry,” she said, “when the my baby’s horn already has one complete knot, and yet he doesn’t crawl, let alone walk, and his little stubs of wings always hang limp? How will I ever teach him to hunt so he can bring home dinner for his own brood one day, or go out and get a treasure of his very own to sit on? He only wakes up when he’s hungry, and then screeches like a banshee.”
And Pop was quiet, because sometime he worried about these things, too.
“My dearest husband, I am sorry to say this, but as much as I love our son, you have to admit that he is a fat, lazy hatchling for his age, who may never grow up to be a Proper Dragon who can take care of himself. I fear he will never be a dragon that is Fierce and Feared and Respected. I simply don’t know what to do with him.”
Horus’s Pop was quiet and thoughtful, and both dragons embraced each other with their tails as they watched their beloved (but fat and lazy) little dragon sleep, feeling much helpless and concerned about what should become of him. They had no way of knowing that their baby would have a very rude awakening the following morning, and they would not see him again for many a day to come.
What Happened The Next Morning
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 a pencil-thin human child, of about ten or eleven years old. A reddish-brown head of hair grazed their shoulders and framed their pale face, which was full of freckles. The child’s arms and legs were long and scrawny, as was the rest of them. All in rags and sporting only one shoe, the young human 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 child, a young girl, 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 human child 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.
The Dragg'n Catchin' Pit
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 ungentle, pokes.
“Wake up already,” he said to Nib, “I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” said Nib after a pleasant stretch. She was accustomed to sleeping rough, and was well rested. “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 with unsettling cheerfulness. “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’d been trudging along for a while, with Horus apparently leading the way, Nib said, “You seem quite sure of which road to take. Exactly 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 ground, and would have thrown a tantrum out of habit. But then he remembered the human child standing behind him, and he 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 shoulder.
“You know,” she said, “If you can at least 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 small, rusty dagger from a little pouch on the side of her remaining 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 whooping 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 look 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. He 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. Cyclopes were very intelligent, speaking the language of multiple other creatures in the Deep Dark Woods. Even this little one could speak well enough in the Common Tongue, if a little brokenly still.
“We can’t,” answered Nib, who had understood the last request, at least. “Isn’t that the point of a trap?”
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.
Upon emerging from the hole, they saw 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 loincloth 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 and around his neck. There was even one going through his nose. All around, he looked extraordinarily fierce for such a small creature.
“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 freak’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 so 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. He tried to hide the faintest hint of a smile.
“Not really. Cyclopes hunt anythin’. ‘Fraid of nuttin’.”
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 and raised to stay fearless —or so it was said.
“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 can 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.
“I’m notta ‘fraid,” he said darkly, 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.”
“I’m li’l, too, but notta chick’n,” 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 get 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 down 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 with you. 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 paw, 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 down, 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!”
“Notta 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.