The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Chapter 7: A Fool in Someone Else's Fable

The old musician tucked the girl in her bed of straw, pulled to her chin a downy-soft skin of fur and feathers, that was either a true griffin’s hide, or a fabulous novelty fused by a weaver or magician, then sat beside her to play “The Market of Vendela” on his pipes, all the while gazing nervously at it. The quiet but active melody soon stopped the little girl’s whimpering, and it fell asleep shortly thereafter, its cracked, scaly hide swelling and creaking like a ship’s sails. The old musician played “The Market of Vendela” through the last stanza, then sat, waited, and waited some more, before stepping as lightly as he could, one single step, then another step, until he risked strolling boldly in the dragon’s lair.

Despite the legends, the dragon’s lair wasn’t a flood of treasure, but a more unedited hoard, the kind human hoarders have, only on a draconian scale. Though there was lots of gold, there were even more bones; though there were silver, silverware, statues, harps, swords, and armor, there were also rotten food, broken guitars, cornicestones saved to please the dragon’s eye for architecture, empty wine casts, and half-empty wine casks, as well as a variety of ephemera that was somewhere in between in the scale of trash and treasure, such as theater posters, news sheets, chapbooks, wheels of cheese, wine bottles so ancient they certainly now only had historical value, and game boards with and without playing pieces. Though some of the games were complete, dragons are sore losers, and many were scattered in the hoard.

While Senek had his eye on half a dozen priceless items, none of them were worth the risk of losing his life. Though many of his former lovers and lifelong rivals had told him that was worthless, to him his long life was a wealth that he had long labored to accumulate; moreover, there was Iola to consider, though he had no illusions of being a hero. Though he did not know the child, or even know of her, it was hard to consider her situation and not think it tragic, which is a short step from lyrical, when you have the soul of a poet and the skills of a musician. Though he had already composed half-a-dozen songs, none were yet good-enough to stake his reputation on.

Though having the harp or even a broken guitar might improve his composition, what stopped him from playing them were fears of explaining himself to a dragon whose appetites may only be literal, and not aesthetic. While Urgu listened to everything the musician said, and, it turned out, understood Cjantoskan, the dragon had not yet uttered a word; moreover, if the beast had no ear for music, it might be more predisposed toward devouring the artist rather than a piece by piece criticism.

Though Senek couldn’t be certain, it seemed a month or more since the dragon brought them to its lair. After they fell with the descending dragon through a gaping hollow high up on a ridge. it set them down gently on a pile of tattered flags and scorched tapestries, curled through its hoard, then slumbered for days. Though Iola cried off and on for her mother and father, Urgu remained senseless to her grief, and didn’t rouse until a week later, looking rested and alert but paying them little notice.

For food that first week, they picked at the tatters of a pair of charred goats, and for water they used helmets to drink from the pool at the rearmost cave wall. Though Senek was fairly certain the dragon wouldn’t foul the only waters in the lair like he did the hills outside, he wasn’t as confident in picking a place for them to do their own business, so more than anything else, necessity and discretion factored into his choice of the wall adjacent to the pool side.

Senek, who missed the feeling of singing his hat full of silver almost as much as he longed to spend his earnings on wine and women, felt like crying every time he had to bury their leavings in cave dirt next to glittering piles of gold, but when it seemed Urgu understood his words, he learned to complain politely. After a week of sleeping on the tattered fabrics made them more ragged, Iola was unable to sleep on the coins and cave floor that poked through, and after a restless night serving as Iola’s couch, which made the hoard doubly sharp, Senek asked Urgu, “Great One, do not mock the meek, but we tender-skinned weaklings sleep on soft beds.”

When Urgu’s eyes widened and its pupils shook, as if it was enraged or amused at the musician’s effrontery, Senek said, “forgive me, Great One,” but before the musician could take two steps back, the dragon treaded forward with a grace that belied its size and vast wingspan, then leaped through the cave mouth into the starry blue.

The lair dimmed as dark as night in Urgu’s departure, for the dragon’s flaring breath was their sole source of illumination, and Senek had to stroke Iola’s hair to comfort the cold, crying child. After an unknown abyss of time in the cavernous shadows of Urgu’s heaped lair, the dragon returned with two bales of straw.

Then, looking for a few moments like a dog turning around to go to sleep, the dragon raked through the piled treasure, tearing aside waves of gold and bric-a-brac, so that Senek and Iola had to keep moving in a circle behind it or be caught in the floods of wealth. For several minutes, Iola alternated between hysterical laughing and crying, and Senek, who had passed his prime thirty years ago, panted from overexertion. At last, the dragon pinched a golden hide topped with red, green, and indigo feathers, smelled it with one long snort that caused a spark to leap to the skin, beat it against the wall until the flickering stopped, then tossed the warm pelt to Senek.

The next morning, when Iola’s nonstop keening from hunger became a piercing whine, so that it exceeded the musician’s meager stores of pity and attacked his vast capacity for annoyance, Senek lodged another complaint. It wasn’t that they weren’t being fed from Urgu’s kills, but the dragon dropped only the head, paws, offal and tripe, all of which was an unappetizing mess even after being charred by dragon flame. As Iola gagged just looking at it, and even Senek, who had known hardship, could manage no more than a few mouthfuls, the girl was starved and the musician famished.

“Great One? The child requires not only better cuts of meat, but fruits, vegetables, breads, and milk.” Though Senek was placing a grocery order with a dragon, and dragon claws are not suitable for menial work, the musician expected this task to take longer, or to be completed in small stages.

Though Urgu’s departure was no less brusque than before, when it returned, it descended more gingerly, gripping the sides of a merchant’s wagon in its claws. When it released the overstuffed wagon, though it only had a few inches left to fall, its left axle broke, spilling bushels of apples and peppers, so that sacks of potatoes, onions, apples, corn, wheat, rye, and sugar slid forward, as well as enough gold and silver to make the musician a rich man—if only a village would tumble out of the wagon next, so that he could spend it. While there wasn’t a village, the musician found small amounts of honey, eggs, parsley, ham, and three things that gladdened Senek more than any buried treasure: two tins, one of fragrant jasmine tea, and another of rich ground coffee; and, a bottle of port wine, which he immediately broke open on the side of the wagon, then poured into one of their drinking helmets.

While Senek was overjoyed to see this abundance, and tipsy for the first time in weeks, he nonetheless arrived at a sobering thought: much of the grain was useless without fire, and though the largest fire in miles was in the beast’s belly, the musician had none of his own. First he chopped the ruined wagon wheel into a pile with a tarnished blade, then spoke: “Thank you, Great One. Could we trouble you for a small fire?” When the tiniest tendril of fire licked out to ignite the wagon wheel, Senek not only marveled at the fairy tale prehensility of the dragon’s flame, but there could no longer be any doubt that the dragon not only understood Cjantoskan, but was moreover a reasonable creature with a human-like grasp of detail, such that understood the difference between a raging town-destroying flame and a tiny match-light to start a campfire.

Though that haul could have lasted for months, the dragon pillaged wagons weekly, and their stores and refuse grew so quickly that the dragon took away what had spoiled when it went plundering. Though feeding its charges had become like work, it practiced looting pridefuly and dutifully like one resuming a long forgotten vocation.

Senek ate like a musician accustomed to meager living, which is to say he ate like a gluttonous gourmand that wanted some of everything, and soon had a pot belly to show for it. If the straw mattress was more restful, his heart was immune to pitying Iola, and he had reading light and a few books not written in dead languages, he could almost enjoy his new life. Though here he had not the recognition and admiration of Cjantosk, he had a dragon to do his bidding. Though it was an indifferent master and a reluctant servant, and he was fearful of crossing a line of dragon etiquette, the novelty would take years to wear off, even if his heart was in his mouth the whole time. Though all he knew of dragons came from the destruction of Cjantosk and the ballad Ilspeth and Jorgund, that was the first song he committed to memory, so in the war between the horrors of recent memory and his enthusiasm for Ilspeth and Jorgund, literary devotion won out. Though he couldn’t ask for more inspiration and better song material than captivity in a dragon’s lair, and he could no doubt spin fame and fourtune playinf for the King, the Prince, the Dukes, the Duchesses, and the Great Mother, Iola’s grief would not abate, and she ate so little that they must escape sooner rather than later.

If it was not for the necessity of saving the girl, it would be reasonable to submit to the dragon, who was more warden than watchdog, not only larger and quicker, but saw farther, heard more, and understood their every word. Not only was putting together any kind of plan near impossible for the hedonist musician without self-interest or the consolation of common sense, but Iola’s constant moping and whining drove Senek to distraction, so his first step was to make Iola comfortable with captivity, or make Iola’s captivity comfortable, at least until he devised a scheme.

“Great one,” the musician beseeched, “Iola wants more companionship and compassion than I can provide. Not only am I old and weak, but troubles drive humans mad without something to care for of their own.”

This time, the dragon seemed less resentful when it departed—though not yet to the point of being ‘happy to be asked,’ thought Senek—and returned that moonlit night with a scruffy looking lamb. Though Iola was fascinated, and would not stop rubbing its wooly sides and fleecy ears, the animal was even more bereaved than Iola, bleating into the wee hours,while Urgo paced and glared, which only made the lamb even more fearful, so that it droned like a horn, and it took all of Iola’s attentions to calm it.

When the lamb fell asleep next to Iola, she fell asleep with a little smile on her face. Though Senek was exhausted the next day, Iola followed her new pet, Moonbeam, through the lower cave mouth into the daylight, and the dragon did not seem to care. The old musician reasoned that it felt confident they could go nowhere it could not reach.

Though the uneven ground was peppered with stones and salted with the bones of Urgu’s kills, Moonbeam munched on one clump of grass after another until it bleated plaintively for more long, mournful minutes, then toddled back to Iola and rubbed against her.

Though the jaded musician despised pastoral scenes, rustic lyrics, and saccharine moments, Senek was delighted to see Iola frolicking with the lamb, for in caring for Moonbeam, the girl would care for herself. After a few days of this, Iola’s growing self-reliance left Senek not only undistracted but with a renewed focus on escape, for he had realized that his recent request could backfire if the dragon realized his needlessness

Though the dragon’s lair was not impregnable, having two yawning hollows by which he could walk or climb outside, Urgu itself did not seem escapable, for Senek could not think of any vulnerabilities to exploit. Though the dragon slept for days, it awoke in an instant at any out of place motions or sounds that were more rapid than breathing or louder than whispers. And while all dragons were rumored to have weak spots, even if Senek knew where Urgu’s was, the musician had trouble putting a fork in a potato, let alone scraping a sword between two unyielding plates to pierce a supposedly soft under-hide that was actually tougher than shoe-leather. Due to the insolubility of the puzzle, at first Senek’s escape plans amounted to procrastination and waiting on an opportunity that would never arrive.

As days turned into weeks, Senek, Iola, and Moonbeam spent more and more time outside, and the musician suspected Urgu might be filling the silence left by their absence with a sweet repose. When Senek sneaked back through the lower cave mouth, stopping at the end of the craggy wall, Urgu lazily stared back at him, seeming, in fact, to stare through him, as if the beast was only half-stirred.

Backpedaling over the pebbly cave path into the daylight, he slipped, then stumbled, then fell in the muddy ground in the shade of the cave mouth. It was only after he lay there for several moments, his head reeling, that he heard the jarring silence. Though waiting for an escape opportunity had become second nature for him, the sudden subtraction of Iola’s squeal and Moonbeam’s bleats chilled him and awoke primal fears he had forgotten. Senek sired a boy many years ago, though he only remembered him when singing “The Dead Do Not Weep.” Though the boy had brought him nothing but annoyance, resentment, woe, worry, and grief, in dying he had left the song which made Senek famous. That he now only played “The Dead Do Not Weep” on request, and with pained reluctance, he attributed to the sentimental weakness of old age, but when he broke into an aching, limping trot around the dragon’s lair, the song’s stanzas began to waft up from his dead memories. When the grounds were starkly desolate, and he raced through the beveled paths surrounding the lair, anxious weeping flowed as well.

After wandering as far as he dared, he went farther, until he doubled over, panting and hacking. It was like he had hit his age like a wall. When Urgu’s shadow covered him, the mud boiled, sprouting tendrils of steam and flame, and when the dragon landed, its yellow eyes bulged with menace. Senek was not frightened, but frustrated and angry, for Urgu had become as commonplace as a dragon could become.

“Iola is gone.” The dragon glowered. “You know—the girl. Since your lair’s well-known, it’s less likely she escaped on her own; than that she’s the prey of another opportunistic monster. Maybe human, maybe not. You know how hateful humans can be, don’t you, dragon?”

When Urgu’s eyelids narrowed and its nostrils seethed with steam, Senek didn’t know whether the dragon was furious or laughing. When it vaulted into the air, the ground shook, and its wings billowed dusty wind that made Senek cough some more and shield his eyes.

When Urgu circled its lair twice, then flew toward Cjantosk. Senek saw his opportunity: he could flee in a different direction, under cover of treetops or mountain crannies, that would hopefully not only foil the sharp-sighted dragon, but blanket him from Urgu’s keen scent. On the other hand, it would be slow going, and he couldn’t carry enough food or drink. Several minutes later, he had packed an empty flour sack with food for the journey, and having re-exited Urgu’s lair, was about to head south for Tzajara, when Moonbeam scampered towards him.

“Senek,” shouted Iola, “help-” but the rest was muffled when a green-clad man seized her under the arms and pulled the kicking girl through a fissure in the rock wall. After they vanished, Iola’s muted cries echoed, drawing Senek near until an arrow launched from the hidden crevice to strike between his feet.

Senek stopped. Though the missile would have pierced him if he was one step ahead, that thought did not give him pause; he had less cause to be frightened than wary of killers that gave warning shots. Not that it mattered. Though human monsters had more vulnerabilities than dragons, the musician only had one weapon anyway, and, like as not, they would fall to it too.

“I’m a prisoner too,” he called out, “if you’re here for the girl, take me as well.”

“We’ve been watching, old man. You act like her jailer. What did the dragon promise you?”

“Jailer? Promise? It was an implication that I’d be on the menu if I didn’t care for Iola.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Care for the waif.”

“Only if she lives or dies. She needs her family.”

“I admire your point of view. Though you don’t want to babysit her, you’re man enough to do the right thing. I want to help you out. We just need the gold.”

“The what?”

“Gold. Once we have all we can carry, we’ll take you with us.”

Though these treasure-hunters were hungry for dragon gold, no doubt they would squeeze anyone for some extra money, and Iola and he would likely be ransomed once clear of the dragon. Since he wouldn’t have to pay it, who was he to dicker about the ticket? Unless the bandits planned to exact another price. Bodies were also ransomed to grieving families. Were these those kinds of bandits? It was a risk he would take on most days. “OK,” Senek said, “don’t leave without me!”

When the old musician trotted towards the lair, the voice in the cranny hissed, “be quick!”

Senek leaned against the cave wall and panted. His old legs had run back, forth and around Urgu’s lair too many times. Having recovered his breath, he stuffed assorted coins in an old leather saddlebag, then filled a burlap sack with a hole that he pinned shut with an antique silver clasp. He lumbered toward the crevice with eight bags of coin, though it was more than he should be carrying: his face twisted, his arms trembled, his legs shook, and his back cracked, under the strain. Loot was heaped all over him—four bags slung over shoulder and hip, two under his arms, and one in each hand. Other than the weight, the only other thing on the musician’s mind was a fervent hope that Urgu went all the way to Cjantosk and back. Senek didn’t want to know the dragon’s feelings on theft for noble reasons.

Senek teetered when he reached the crevassed wall. When the voice said, “Stop!” he did so gladly. “Did Urgu see you?” Perhaps because of his laborious panting, this time the musician was sensitive to a fetid odor that clung to this stony niche.

“Would I be standing here? Let me in. These bags are heavy.”

“Come in then.” When the stones folded on subtle hinges just a shade grayer than the surrounding rock, Senek sucked a shallow breath into his stress-tightened chest. and walked in, to see Iola and the sheep unhappy, frightened, and behind three in dark green uniforms, but no worse for wear. When the vaguely unpleasant smell became the distinctly malodorous stench of dung and foul water, Senek knew by what path they sneaked into Urgu’s lair. Though one end of the stream passing through the dragon’s home was likely an underground tributary of the Peachwine, the other end floated waste out of Cjantosk.

On the short, burdensome walk to the crevassed wall, Senek had been reminded of when he committed to memory twelve lines of a local folk song in the few steps between a festival’s back and main stages. Though that had only taken one read-through, he had mentally rehearsed his next movements at least a dozen times, and as he looked over the bandits, he mentally staged it one more time. Then he handed each bag, one by one, over to the bandits, and when the greedily eager bandits’ hands were full of loot, he seized Iola’s hand and dashed out of the cranny. Moonbeam sprinted behind them, then past them, galloping to the lair without looking back. Though the bandits were caught flatfooted, Senek was already winded, and when they passed the half-way mark, an arrow pierced his rear thigh.

“What?” said Iola. “I don’t know that word.”

“Forget I said that,” replied Senek, gasping less from the pain than from the sharp pangs of being winded. He limped forward. “Run. Follow Moonbeam.”

“There’s something in your leg. I’ll pull it out!”

“No! Go to the lair...” he said, then fell, blood pooling in the dirt. At their whooping and the hard tread of their boots, he yelled, “get inside!” But when Iola and Moonbeam reached the mouth of Urgu’s lair, the lamb turned to sprint up the beveled path, and the girl went after her.

As one of the bandits followed Iola, two stood over Sene. When Senek screamed, “leave her,” a boot rattled his jaw and he blacked out. It wasn’t the stabbing pain in his side that half-woke him, but the puke that battered its way out of his mouth. Through the dizziness, nausea, and his darkened eyesight, he rolled through his vomit as they kicked him. When it stopped, and their shouts and clomping tread tapered off, he lay for a few long minutes, dazed and tasting blood, vomit, and worst of all, the taste of fear, that made him want to quail and never stand up again. When waves of hot air soaked him in fetid sweat, and the mingled stench of sulfurous dragon breath and his puke baking in the heat, he knew Urgu loomed over him.

“Iola,” said Senek. The dragon did not move. “They’ll kill her.”

When his eyes started knitting colors and shapes, first he saw blurry grays and whites like jumbled rubble, then a fuzzy green rhombus with a red beard. As his sight cleared, he realized he had mistaken Urgu’s rasping dragon fire, which darted several inches from his maw, for chin fur.

When Urgu bent its neck to snap Senek up, he flopped in its mouth like a kitten--a loud-mouthed kitten, that hollered as the ground dwindled when the dragon leaped into the air.

Not that he was as frightened of the great height, or the tremendous velocity of the hurtling dragon, as he was of the thought that he was in a dragon’s mouth. If Urgu did not intend to eat him, how long did it plan to hold its breath? Even at rest, a dragon’s exhalations are jets of flame several inches long. If it accidentally breathed on Senek, his roasting flesh might tempt its monstrous taste.

“Why...what are you doing!” sputtered Senek. “No, don’t answer! Not even a sigh!” When it scowled, and its mouth frowned, the dragon’s mouth tightened on him. “Urgu! Why do you hate me? I could have escaped, but I saved her!”

Though it was a mild, breezy day, and the dragon flew only a few minutes through the cooler upper reaches of the sky, the musician’s arms and legs began to numb from Urgu’s clenched mouth. When it plummeted, followed by a sudden, wrenching stop, it didn’t seem to land so much as brutally seize the ground. Senek’s teeth were already chattering before he was spit to the ground, where he tumbled several yards before rolling onto a patch of dry grass. The shaking musician first felt his limbs tingle as feeling was restored to them, then he shivered from the cooling dragon drool that streaked his jacket, then, as his mind pieced together his harrowing two-minute journey in a dragon’s mouth, he felt all at once the nausea, vertigo, dizziness, and excitement.

Urgu rumbled, “Then save her.”

His stomach swimming and his eyes spinning, Senek rolled over onto his hands and knees to see, only a few steps away, the bandits’ boots. Fear of more kicks hastened him to stand, woozily, but when he backpedaled, nearly swaying to the ground as he did so, he saw that they only had eyes for Urgu.

Having lived with a dragon—which is to say sixty feet of deadly whim—Senek understood the fatal fantasy that Urgu represented, and felt a wave of sympathy for their abject terror. These despicable men were once children, whose whore mothers were occasionally sober enough to read fairy tales of dragons that ate or charred the wicked. To discover that they were destined not for their heart’s desire, but to prop up a moral in someone else’s fable, to discover that the world was not their movable feast, but that they were the fodder of a vast, vicious monster--that moment of existential agony was too great for their avaricious minds.

When they ran, two were swept back by the dragon’s capacious wings, to stare, slack-jawed at the tongues of flame jetting from Urgu’s nostrils and mouth, but the third shimmied through before the wingtips touched. “Didn’t you hear me?” Urgu roared, fixing Senek with his massive yellow eyes.

What could the dragon want, thought Senek. Though it would be an overstatement and a misnomer to call the bandits’ impending extermination a rescue, it was clear that Iola was no longer in danger. Senek might be, though, if Urgu really intended the musician to satisfy his whim for grim amusement. As far as cockfights went, it wouldn’t be much of a show to pit a much larger, younger, and stronger rooster against an old, beakless one.

When Senek stooped to pick up two flat stones, the bandits paid no attention to him, continuing to stare at Urgu like moths drawn to armageddon.

Though he charged, rocks in hand, the cold, violent men were cow eyed with fear until he split one’s head. When the other drew his sword and half-turned, keeping one eye on Urgu, Senek’s heart sank though he only faced half a swordsman. As the futility welled up in him, he threw one rock, then the other, at the bandit. Sidestepping the first missile put the bandit in the path of the second, and when it cracked into his elbow, he dropped his sword. Though the odds were still nowhere near even—a tall, muscular, professional criminal with a hurt elbow faced an old man who had only cultivated music and a craving to drink himself unconscious every night—Senek allowed despair and the dragon at his back to inspire him. In going for broke, he wound up flat on his back with another broken tooth, and the bandit fled after his friend.

Urgu took two steps. The first carried him forward nearly thirty feet, where it put down one piercing claw, pinning the closer bandit to the ground; as the second step vaulted Urgu into the sky, the sudden upward thrust pulled against the bandit’s impalement and rent him apart. Senek watched as the dragon pursued the last bandit.

“Are you OK?” said Iola. As he regained his breath and tried to calm his pounding heart, Iola continued. “Where’s Moonbeam? Can you take me home?”

When he took Iola’s hand, they toddled together, as if she led him by the hand.

“Your hands are shaking. Are you alright?”

“Yes. No,” said Senek. “I can’t take you home, Iola.”

“I know that. I mean the dragon’s nest. And Moonbeam.”

“Let’s go find her,” he said.

When they walked the grasses and beveled paths that circled the craggy hilltop, the lamb was nowhere to be found. The day died in dark red skies.

“Iola, we can’t be out at dark,” said Senek. “There could be more of them. Moonbeam ate too much. We’ll find her tomorrow, after she’s slept off her stomachache.”

“No she didn’t. No we won’t. You’re lying. It’s never that easy.”

Iola cried noiselessly at first, then keened in a wail that was painful to hear, then screamed and kicked Senek when he carried her back to the lair.

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