Chapter 8: The Dragonknappers
Two men walked down Mulberry Avenue. They wore gray shawls over white shirts and black pants. Partially hidden by their other clothes were scaly brown boots that might have been made of rattlesnakes’ skins and belts that matched exactly. Tucked in the sheaths and bands of the belts were swords, daggers, and knives, whose blades appeared to be made of diamond, as well as some strange tools and more familiar ones, such as small pickaxes, hammers, and even the occasional feather duster.
Clock. Clock. Clock. Their boots hit the cobblestone in perfect sync. Their hair was styled into high top fades, barely stirred by the strong breezes that constantly ruffled their coats and chilled their pale, unmarked skin. They buttoned their shawls, completely covering their heavily-stocked belts… not because they were cold, but because they didn’t want the inhabitants of Irkhenbauk to see their weapons.
Just then, a horse-drawn carriage came thundering down the street. The tallest of the two men, whose hair was brownish-blonde, gave a high-pitched whistle and stuck out a fistful of money. The driver pulled back hard on the reins and the pair of horses (one a dappled dark gray, the other a dark bay) reared, whinnying.
The driver yelled, “Whoa!” When the horses did not cooperate, he yanked back on their bits until they returned to all fours.
The driver looked satisfied then. He jumped down from his perch, entered the carriage, bellowed at his current customer and finally tossed out a scrawny youth in moth-eaten attire. The silver-haired boy landed face-first in a mud puddle.
The men just smirked and watched as the driver hopped back out and gestured for them to enter, a falsetto smile plastered in his day-old stubble.
The men obliged. The shorter man stepped in haughtily while the other paused to aim a mean-spirited kick at the young boy before rejoining his companion. The driver greedily snatched the proffered money before closing the door to the carriage and climbing back into his own seat in front.
He called through the carriage window behind him, cold black eyes shining. “Eh, fellers, nice boots -- what’re they made of?”
“Dragon,” the taller replied slyly.
“Yeah, and mine are made of solid gold,” the driver snorted, chuckling. “No offenses intended, mates. Where ya headed?” He pulled his brown cloth cap further down over his unkempt, grizzled yellow hair.
“The corner of Fifth and Main, gentleman,” the shorter man answered in a gruff tone.
The driver incorrectly took that last part as a compliment and smirked, pleased. “YAH!” he roared, lashing the reins. The horses screeched and took off, hooves clattering over the cobblestone.
Meanwhile the boy in the mud sat up with a moan. He had another block to traverse before he reached the butcher’s, and that blasted driver had kept the money the youth had paid for the ride.
He decided that the meat could wait. He had to get the news to Zenatheus right away: two suspicious-looking men were heading for their street.
And they had been cruel enough to kick a ten-year-old -- to kick him, the boy who seemed to live in the sorcerer’s cottage.
He, Thomas Baker.
Quite some time after those events, Zenatheus, after panning through a spell book in a bored manner, was brewing some rosemary tea (the rosemary was purchased by Thomas from the herbalist’s some time before; Zenatheus always made sure that they were stocked up on tea herbs). He sat down in his chair at the table (just the right size) to wait for the kettle to whistle. Ragwort jumped up into his lap, hissing, to escape from Shadeback, who was lurking underneath the table and eyeing her.
The dragon in question stalked over to the legs of Zenatheus’s chair. Ragwort hissed again and scratched at his muzzle, causing him to snort and back up. Soon, however, the youngling walked back casually and sat on his haunches, surveying the problem.
(Indeed, it had been Shadeback who had found Ragwort first after they’d all left Zenatheus’s bedroom, and the dragon had been antagonizing her ever since.)
Ragwort’s tail was flicking temptingly back and forth along the edge of the cushion, just within reach.
The slits of black that were Shadeback’s pupils followed the twitching of the tail like he was watching the pendulum swing on a grandfather clock. Finally, without warning, he lunged forward and clamped his jaws down on Ragwort’s tail-tip.
“RRRARROWWOW!” yowled Ragwort, streaking, claws unsheathed, up Zenatheus’s front, over his face, down the back of the chair and beneath it. She then darted under the table. The entire time, Shadeback was holding on.
Zenatheus cried out in pain, then shock, as his chair was overturned. The kettle began to shriek.
Shadeback growled in defiance as Ragwort dragged him around the hearthroom at the speed of a pursued hare. At last she burrowed under the rug, kicking up dust behind her. The dragon fastened to her tail gave a violent sneeze and careered backward, freeing Ragwort and removing himself from below the carpet. He sneezed again and silver flames with licks of white and blue in their centers streaked out of his nostrils in a sudden torrent. The carpet burst into a raging inferno, sending Ragwort screeching out from her hiding spot.
Zenatheus calmly stood up, righted his chair, then, gazing dumbstruck at the fire, grumbled: “Lathra.”
The blaze puttered out.
The severely damaged carpet fixed itself. Ragwort’s singed fur and whiskers and her abused tail healed.
The cat hissed, giving him the evil eye, and then crawled under the carpet again.
“Ungrateful cat,” Zenatheus cursed at her, then walked over to the quaking kettle and extinguished the fire in the hearth with the term ‘lathra’. Afterwards he fetched some pink oven mitts hanging over the sink by a nail, put them on, and grasped the kettle. He set it on the tabletop, brought over a tea set, poured the tea into the teapot, and then used the teapot to fill two china cups with the rosemary tea.
Zenatheus sat back in his chair and drank from the cup.
Shadeback waddled over and cast up wide, begging eyes.
“No,” grunted Zenatheus, “this is mine. Oh, and bless you.”
Ungrateful old sorcerer, Shadeback sniffed.
Zenatheus snorted into his teacup.
It is mine.
“No, it isn’t,” growled Zenatheus.
Yes, it is.
“No, it isn’t.” He drew the teacup close to him protectively. “This is the first cup of tea I’ve had all day.”
You are a very bad sorcerer.
“I’m an awesome sorcerer. Go away and leave me in peace.”
Go away, Shadeback retorted. I’m an awesome dragon.
“Go and get your own tea, you beggar!” Zenatheus snapped.
I got a tooth, Shadeback threatened.
Zenatheus bared his own teeth. “You will NOT touch this tea. It is MINE. You cannot have any tea in a cup like this if it isn’t yours.” He hefted his cup in example. “Got it?”
Yes, Shadeback relented when suddenly the door slammed open with such bone-jarring force that the other cup and the teapot tipped over and the tea spilled.
Shadeback seized his chance and half-leaped, half-flew onto the tabletop, then began to lap at the spilled tea.
Zenatheus didn’t notice that at first. He slowly put his cup down, staring at something—someone—else.
Thomas stood in the doorway, caked in mud from head to toe.
Only minutes later, Thomas was cleansed (by magical means) and dried (also magically). Finally, good as new (including his clothes), the apprentice was seated in his chair, which still lacked a cushion because Shadeback had eaten it and Thomas kept forgetting to buy a new one.
“So,” Zenatheus said with concerned interest, steepling his fingers together and resting his chin on them, “what happened?” Zenatheus was perched in the other armchair once more, studying Thomas.
Thomas made as if to begin a very important speech. Instead he croaked, “Shadeback’s drinking your tea.”
Shadeback had finished the spilled tea and was now slurping straight from Zenatheus’s cup.
“Oh, yes, I…see…” Zenatheus trailed off, eyes widening. “Wait a moment – wait… WHAT??! SHAAAADE—BAAACK!”
Shadeback looked up guiltily, tail tucked between his legs, tea dripping from his snout. Oops.
Thomas managed to laugh.
Zenatheus narrowed his eyes. “It’s not funny, boy.”
Shadeback stared at his paws in shame, apparently believing that Zenatheus was referring to him.
“And you too,” Zenatheus snorted. “Bad dragon, very bad dragon!”
Shadeback tucked his head under a wing and faded out of sight, leaving only a vague outline of his stripes behind. The air shimmered just slightly where he’d last been standing.
Thomas gave a little jerk. “Huh?! Did he just disappear?!”
Zenatheus raised a brow and waved a dismissive hand. “Yes, yes, I’m quite sure that his species can all turn invisible after reaching a certain level of concentration of their inner—“ he made a strange, somewhat alarming guttural noise – “—.”
Thomas blinked. “Really, Master. Speak English, please.”
Zenatheus sighed. “Just get on with your tale, Thomas…”
Thomas frowned slightly as he remembered again what he had to say. “Okay. So, on my way to the butcher’s, I stopped at the corner of Fifth and Main, right? And since Johnny only works Monday through Thursday, McGwire was driving a carriage today… of course.” He rolled his eyes. “Anyway, we were riding up Mulberry Avenue when—”
“The blithering idiot,” Zenatheus interrupted with a snarl worthy of a dragon. “The lily-livered, yellow-bellied, lying, scheming, thieving, thrice-blasted little—”
“Master,” Thomas said urgently. “There’s a child present. Actually, there are two children present. We wouldn’t want mockingbird-Shadeback saying that kind of stuff.”
Zenatheus grumbled. “Fine. Continue.”
“As I was saying, we were driving up Cherry Ave. when we passed two men. The taller one stuck out his arm and he was holding a whole lot of money.”
Zenatheus frowned. “What did those men look like?”
Thomas rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Uhh… I didn’t get a real good look at them, but I think they had gray cloaks and one of them maybe had black hair… and I know that they were wearing some weird, scaly boots.”
Zenatheus’s eyes darkened. He gestured for Thomas to keep talking.
“Well, McGwire reined in his horses the way he always does. He came into the carriage and yelled at me to get out. I refused, saying he should give me my payment back. Then he literally threw me out and I landed on my face in a big muddy puddle.”
Zenatheus’s face turned an angry shade of maroon.
Shadeback, sensing a possible outburst of fury and/or magic, materialized into existence and jumped onto the safest perch he could think of – Thomas’s head.
Hello, he told the apprentice, looking upside-down into his friend’s face.
“Hello,” Thomas smiled, then returned to his story. “I’m pretty sure that the two men got into the carriage. McGwire kept my money and drove off. One of the men actually kicked me before McGwire took them.”
“WHAT?!” raged Zenatheus.
Thomas desperately plowed on. “And when McGwire let them in, he asked them what their boots were made out of. They said they were dragon. McGwire didn’t believe them and asked where they wanted to go. Then they said the corner of Fifth and Main.” He paused. “That’s really close to us.”
Zenatheus stood up so quickly that his chair squeaked and toppled over. His complexion went from furious and red to fearful and pale.
“Master?!” Thomas exclaimed, also standing and causing Shadeback to shrill indignantly and flutter onto the table. “Master, what is it?”
Zenatheus sprang over to the hallway entrance. Thomas chased after him as the sorcerer dashed down the hall, Shadeback soaring after them.
By the time Thomas and his dragon caught up to Zenatheus, the one-time dragon-raiser was bolting the only door to the outside. Forty locks were latched and a sturdy plank of wood placed across them.
“What’s wrong?” Thomas queried anxiously.
Shadeback mimicked the words. What’s wrong? He alighted on the coat rack.
Zenatheus turned. He looked distressed. “Thomas, the men you saw are dragonknappers. They’re coming to steal Shadeback. They could capture and give him to… to someone like McGwire… or..." Zenatheus closed his eyes. "They could kill him.”
Thud. Thomas fainted to the floor.
Shadeback’s silver eyes widened in terror and their pupils narrowed to a hair’s-breadth of black. He hid his face under his left wing and vanished.