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"Aaron's Dragons"


Chapter 1
Aaron's Dragons

By Cindy Warren

Aaron was old to be a knight. He had been assigned to guard the forest with his old horse, Demon, so named because in his youth people had said he resembled one. He knew it was not because the forest needed guarding, but because the king didn't know what else to do with him.

Most days, he sat under an old elm tree watching for pheasants or partridges while Demon grazed. He wasn't as quick with his bow and arrow as he used to be, but most days he was able to bag a couple of birds for the royal table.

"Ain't fitting work for a knight," he grumbled. His horse ignored him and continued grazing.

A sudden movement in the bush about a hundred yards away caught his eye. Shouldering his weapon, he whistled for Demon, and the old horse responded immediately.

"Too big for a bird," Aaron said as he swung himself into the saddle. "We'll be eating good tonight."

Demon knew exactly what to do. He'd seen the movement too, and off he went at top speed to where the animal had entered the thick bush. He turned into an overgrown path still at a full gallop. Aaron aimed his weapon, turned his body sideways for a better shot, and found himself face down on the ground. A low branch had neatly clipped him on the head.

"You don't be telling nobody about this," he told Demon. Ever loyal, the horse had stayed with him. "I'm OK, old buddy. I just need a minute." Aaron dragged his aching body over to a stout poplar he thought he could use to pull himself up.

"I'm just going to sit here a bit."

He was using an arrow to clear away some twigs and brambles when something caught his eye.

"What the...?"

Aaron didn't have the breath to finish the sentence. He hauled himself into a sitting position under the tree and examined his find. He hadn't seen one in over fifty years, but he knew what he held.

It was a thing of rare beauty, glittering in the dappled sunlight. An egg, laid by a creature long believed to have been driven from the world, a forest dragon.

Knowing a single egg would be unlikely, Aaron forgot his aches and pains and felt around in the underbrush for more. Combing through the loose soil with aching fingers and using his arrow to push aside bramble bushes, he uncovered another, and another. After about two hours of searching he had a baker's dozen, thirteen eggs of varying shapes and sizes.

If the dragon lore he'd heard was true, each hatchling-to-be could have a different sire. There was no telling what might hatch. Aaron thought that would explain the differences in the eggs. He decided there was no sense speculating when he had a more immediate problem; the law.

By law, the eggs must be taken to the king. Since little dragons grew into big dragons, they were not allowed in the kingdom. In the past, they had been served at the breakfast table. Aaron had heard they were delicious, though he had never tasted one. A soft neighing in his ear interrupted his reverie.

"I know, Demon. It's time to go. I'm going to have to figure out what to do with these." Gently he placed them into his saddle bags.

The horse picked his way carefully back through the thick growth, mindful of the low branches hanging above his rider's head.

"I know what we're going to do, old buddy. Think I've known it all along. We're not letting them get served for breakfast. You know that old witch's cabin? Of course there's no witch there now, if there ever was. You know talk of that nonsense keeps people away. We'll be making a stop on our way home."

Aaron propped open the doors and windows to get rid of dust and stale air, then filled the sink with fresh grass and leaves. He had the perfect nest for his treasures.

"Relax, bud," he told the horse, who was very anxious to leave. "All the time we've been guarding this place what don't need guarding, you ever seen anyone around here? You might as well get used to it, 'cause we're going to be spending some time here. Now, let's go get some grub into these old hides and get some rest."






Author Notes I know what's going to come out of about half the eggs. I'm open to suggestions for the others.


Chapter 2
The First Egg Hatches

By Cindy Warren

Morning broke bright and sunny, and Aaron dragged himself painfully from his bed. His head ached from yesterday's encounter with the branch, and he was bruised from head to toe after his unplanned meeting with the ground.

"Can't let them see me looking like this," he muttered to himself. He headed for the stable, saddled his horse, and without looking at the stable boy, told him he'd seen game in the forest yesterday, and he'd be heading out early to track it.

The boy, who knew it had been his job to saddle the horse, nodded and said he'd pass along the message.

Aaron grabbed a couple of apples from the tree and headed off to the forest. There would be no napping under his favorite tree today.

His first order of business was to check on his eggs. Despite Demon's objections, Aaron turned toward the cabin. The horse danced and fidgeted. He clearly wanted no part of the place.

"Easy, buddy. You know this is foolishness." The horse had reached the clearing and would go no further. "This isn't like you. You stay put right here." Aaron dismounted and walked across the clearing, leaving Demon under the trees.

"What's that stench?" Aaron said to nobody in particular when he opened the door. He propped the door open and tugged the windows open, and turned to the eggs, worried. He picked up each one, smelling it to make sure it wasn't rotten.

"Well, it isn't you guys stinking the place up." For the first time, he wondered if Demon might know something he didn't. Both knight and horse had encountered bad smells before, and Demon had never reacted to them. He picked each egg up again, checking them carefully.

"Peep."

Aaron held the tiny blue egg to his ear.

"Peep." Then Aaron heard a scratching sound from inside the egg.

"Well, little fellow, it looks like you're going to be first."

"Water."

"Who said that?" Aaron looked around, scratching his head, taking in the one room cabin with no place to hide. It was impossible anyone else was there.

"Water."

Aaron put the egg back in its makeshift nest and checked outside the cabin. He saw Demon pawing nervously where he had left him. Nothing else moved, and he saw nothing.

"Water."

"I'm a knight. I don't fetch water. I sure as shootin' don't clean stinky houses! Who do you think you are?"

Aaron watched a small crack appear in the smallest egg. Again he heard "water!" He picked up the egg and examined it closely. It had a coarse and beautiful deep blue shell that sparkled when the light hit it. He held it to his ear again.

"Was that you?"

"Peep. Water."

The crack deepened. Aaron had no idea how long it took a dragon egg to hatch, but it appeared to be happening very quickly. He held his breath in anticipation.

The egg split open. Aaron's heart froze. The odd little beast that tumbled out was in serious trouble. Its short limbs didn't look like they'd support it, and that was the least of its problems. It struggled to breathe. Deep scratches behind its head pulsated. Aaron was horrified.

"Water."

Aaron grabbed a pail from near the door and ran to the pump. He hurried back with half a pail. He grabbed the little beast and held it above the water so it could drink. It ducked its entire head in the pail and wriggled free of Aaron's hand.

"Are you trying to drown yourself?" Aaron gasped in horror, but instead of drowning, the little creature came to life. His color changed from muddy brown-black to the same deep blue of his eggshell. It tucked its stubby legs next to its body and used its tail to swim around exploring the pail.

Aaron understood. He lifted the pail into the sunlight for a closer look. In the water, it was obvious the slashes on its body were, in fact, gills. The stubby limbs were not meant to support his weight on land. This was a little water dragon.

Aaron's heart sank a little. He knew he had a long ride ahead of him. There was only one place for this little fellow, and it was up to him to get him there.

"Can you understand me? You're going to grow, and there's not a river or lake in this kingdom that's going to hold you. Winding River flows into the sea, and that's where we're going. If I put you in the lake for now, I'd have no way to move you later, and it's going to freeze over in a month or two. Might not be too good for you."

The little creature regarded him with bright, intelligent eyes. If nothing else, he seemed to understand that Aaron was going to take care of him.

Aaron hunted around the kitchen for a jug, and to his surprise, he found one. He filled it with water for the trip, and came back for his little friend.

Demon was anxious to be on his way. He happily trotted along at a good speed in any direction that led away from the cabin.

Aaron didn't know how much the dragon understood, but he could be quite talkative when he had a captive audience, and he regaled him with stories of his youth about how he'd fought pirates along the Winding River. They'd used it to come inland for raids, but the river had its name for a reason, and the knights had been able to cut them off before they could escape back out to sea.

The sun was setting when the travelers arrived at the river bank. Luck was on their side, and Aaron found a shallow inlet filled with water bugs and minnows. He chose this spot to introduce the dragon to the river. He tilted the jug on its side and let it swim out.

The dragon was delighted with so much water, and the food! Soon there wasn't a single bug left, and any minnow lucky enough to escape had darted away. Aaron watched it roll and swim as it should do. He couldn't tell if it was male or female, and he didn't really care. It would soon be where it belonged.

Aaron slept by the river that night, and the little dragon filled his dreams. He knew he'd always have a strong connection with the little beast.







Chapter 3
The Witch

By Cindy Warren

Aaron watched the little dragon till it was almost too dark to see it, then turned his attention to his horse. He removed the saddle and gave him a rub, then let him graze in a nearby patch of grass.

He hadn't planned on being out overnight, and his stomach grumbled. He'd eaten only apples all day. Too bad, he decided. It would have to wait till morning. It was too dark, and he was too tired. Fortunately, the late summer nights were still warm. He rolled himself up in the saddle blanket and fell asleep, his dreams filled with the little dragon.

Aaron woke at dawn, stiff and aching. Slowly rising from his blanket, he walked to the river, and saw the little dragon playing in the water. Impulsively, he stripped off his clothes and dove in. The chilly water did nothing for his aches and pains, but it did help with the dust and grit caked to his body and eyes.

"I have to go, little guy, and so do you. You need to keep yourself hid from most of my kind. You just go the way the water takes you, and you'll end up in the right place." Aaron splashed water in his eyes, telling himself it was to get rid of the last of the grit.

He climbed out of the river, shook out his clothes, found himself a handful of purple berries, saddled Demon and started the journey home. Taking one last look back he saw the dragon swimming off with the current.

Hours later, passing the cabin, Aaron felt a need to stop and check on the remaining eggs. After the usual objections from Demon he opened the door to a spectacle he was scarcely able to believe.

The lovely red patterned egg lay cracked in two, and its former inhabitant was busily chewing a hole in a pale pink egg.

"Hey, stop that!" Aaron grabbed the would-be sibling eater by the tail, and was immediately rewarded with a bite to his hand. He dropped the offender back into the sink, where it rushed directly back to the egg it had been attacking and produced a small puff of smoke and a flicker of flame.

"Hey! You don't want to cook your sister!" Aaron grabbed it behind the head, where it could neither bite nor burn him.

The words sounded ridiculous even to his own ears.
The little beast clearly did want to cook its sister. Fortunately, Aaron had saved the jug he had used to transport the water dragon. He plopped her inside, despite her best efforts to squirm loose and chew up his hand . He somehow felt sure it was a female, though he couldn't say why.

Another idea that seemed not to be his own popped into his head. He went out into the yard and found a sticky leaf, added a couple of drops of water, and placed it gently over the hole in the pink egg. Then he turned his attention back to the hatchling.

The red dragon furiously threw herself against the sides of the jug, puffing smoke. Aaron thought he saw a tiny flame.

"What am I going to do with you?" Aaron picked up the jug to look her over. He saw she had golden eyes, and a gold fringe along the back of her neck and more gold down her spine. Strong hind limbs and tail worked furiously to free her from the jug. Tiny wings, clearly not ready to fly, protruded from her sides. Smaller forelimbs with squirrel-like hands tried to grip the glass.

"You're a pretty little thing."

The dragon was unimpressed with the compliment.

"Well, you're stuck in there for the night," Aaron told her. "Let's see if we can make you a little more comfortable."

Working quickly he grabbed handfuls of fresh grass for a nest. She tasted it, then showed no further interest.
A few dead flies he found on the windowsill went in next. She gobbled them up. Soon all the windows were free of dead insects.

"I guess you're just going to have to be mad for tonight," Aaron told her. "I need to go get some grub and some sleep."

Aaron turned to leave and found his way blocked by a woman.

"Who are you?" he blurted out.

"You expect me to tell you my name?"

"Sorry, Madam, you gave me a start. I forgot my manners. Aaron of Westwood at your service. Of course, I should be properly introduced to a lady, but there doesn't seem to be anyone to do the introducing.

"I know who you are."

Aaron stared at the woman. She might have been forty or seventy. Aaron couldn't tell. Something was amiss, and he was beginning to suspect who he was talking to. Worse, he could see the sunlight coming through the door behind her. This was not only a witch, but a ghost.

"My apologies, Madam. I did not mean to intrude on you. I'll take my pets and be going."

"The dragons will stay," she said.

"As I said, Madam, I didn't intend any imposition. They're a lot of trouble. I'll take them and be out of your way."

"You must listen. I know what they are, and I know who you are. I can't speak to you for long. Two hundred years I have protected those eggs. It's not by chance you found them and brought them here. There are some things I can't do. I could not have saved the water dragon yesterday."

"You're looking out for them? What will I do with this red one?"

"I don't know yet. It's possible we can't save them all. You're here because I know you'll do your best. Most folks couldn't get any nearer than your horse did. Keep the eggs here. Where else would you take them?"

"I suppose you're right about that," Aaron admitted.

"Now go. You won't see me for a few days. The past week has used most of my energy. You'll have some luck on your way home. Everyone will believe you were hunting."

The ghostly witch was true to her word. Aaron returned home with a deer with no effort at all. When he was asked about his bruises, he sheepishly said he'd been looking at the deer instead of the tree. Nobody suggested he was too old to be hunting.




Chapter 4
Aaron

By Cindy Warren

More had happened in Aaron's life in the last couple of days than in the last several years. He fell into bed completely exhausted.

Within moments he found himself swimming downstream with the little blue dragon, and saw the little fellow headed for trouble.

"Don't touch that!"

The dragon looked at him questioningly.

"Worms don't live in the water," Aaron explained. "That one will be attached to a hook. It's for catching fish. It's safe to take a close look, but don't bite it."

The dragon went in for a closer look, examined the hook and line carefully, then grabbed the worm by the tail and manoeuvred it off the hook. It seemed unconcerned about its close call.

"Look around," Aaron told it. "Learn what belongs. If you know what belongs, then you'll know what doesn't."

Aaron thought he saw the dragon nod.

"I must be dreaming. I can't be here, " he said.

"You are here now. Soon you won't be." The dragon's voice seemed to come from all around him.

"When I wake up I won't be. So this isn't real."

"Here real. There real. Different real."

If the grammar was terrible, the meaning was clear. Aaron wasn't sure he believed it, but he understood, and decided he may as well enjoy the dream.

"Another egg hatched today," Aaron told his companion. "She's not very happy. You got any idea what I should do?"

"Egg she bite know. Know much. Aaron not let bite more."

"Of course I won't. I don't know what I'll do if I end up with a dozen dragons who all want to kill each other."

"Mostly don't eat other one."

With that thought, Aaron found himself back in his bed. The sun was rising. Had he really slept that long? His body seemed to have found several new places to ache. He stretched his muscles and stood up.

After a quick breakfast he set out for the cabin. He soon found himself lost in thought. When a doe ran across his path, he let her go. Game was not plentiful in the forest, as it should have been. Aaron would never say so; that would be treason, but he knew it just the same. King Melvin was not a good king.

"Ah, what to do?" Aaron said to his horse. "Out king's father was not a wise man, He spoiled his children. Now we have a king who can't see what he's doing. Truth is, the kingdom can't pay any more tax, and it's dying. People are leaving. Yet he continues with his royal feasts. Soon there won't be anything left to feast on."

The horse hardly fussed at all when they approached the cabin, so Aaron knew the witch was not around today. He was on his own with the dragons today. No odor greeted him when he opened the door.

The red dragon saw him. Furiously, she puffed hot smoke and flame at him, all the while madly throwing herself against the jug. Aaron dropped a strip of venison to her. She attacked it like a creature possessed, shaking it and tearing it to shreds before gobbling up the pieces.

"I see your mood hasn't improved," Aaron said. She hissed in reply and belched acrid smoke. The little wings worked furiously as she tried in vain to free herself.

Aaron left her to her own devices and turned his attention to the eggs. Not much had changed. He added drops of water to the patch on the pink egg to prevent it drying out.

"Let's see what we have here," Aaron said as he opened cupboards and searched around the cabin. He found jars of dried herbs he couldn't identify, but noted the jars, thinking he could use them if any more little cannibals hatched.

An ancient wood burning stove sat near the middle of the room. A small stack of wood sat near the front door. An axe that still looked serviceable sat next to the wood.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be babysitting you little guys, he told the eggs, but if it's more than a few weeks we're going to need more wood than that."

He took the axe, checked on Demon, who was contentedly grazing, and went to work on a fallen log. Though it was hard work, it didn't keep his mind occupied. He wasn't one to worry, but he knew he was breaking the law hiding the dragons. At least one was potentially dangerous.

"If that little red devil gets out, all Hell's going to break loose," he said to himself. He knew people hid food and livestock in order to feed their families. Not only could a dragon be a threat, a dragon hunt could turn up a lot more than a dragon.

Aaron carried the wood he'd chopped into the house, then pumped some water and sat down to eat his lunch. The angry red dragon saw the food, opened her mouth and stuck out a little gold tongue. Aaron gave her a piece of his sandwich. Bread, meat, cheese and lettuce all disappeared down her gullet.

He checked the eggs again, and found one had developed a crack. It was not the pink egg as he had expected, but a green egg with flecks of yellow. Aaron watched closely. Nothing happened. He spent the next hour staring at the egg. The occupant seemed in no hurry to leave his cozy shell.

Aaron split the wood into kindling to pass the time. He dropped more water onto the patched egg. He smelled it to check for rot, though he had no idea what he would do if he smelled anything. Then he returned to staring at the green egg. The crack was a little larger. He stared at it some more.

Finally, after what seemed like ages, a little dragon wriggled free. Long and thin, he rolled about on the straw trying to get his legs under him. He was a mottled yellow and green. Two pairs of green wings sprouted from his body. He got his legs under him, tried to walk and tumbled again. He reminded Aaron of a newborn colt trying to find his feet.

Aaron offered him a piece of meat. He accepted it eagerly and tried again to stand. Obviously getting around was going to be a little more difficult for this
dragon.

Aaron was so involved with the new hatchling he hadn't been giving any attention to the red dragon. She threw herself against the jug again, causing it to topple over. The prisoner was free. She had no trouble scrambling up to the sink. Had she run for the door, Aaron would not have caught her, but that was not her goal.

She ignored her new sibling and went straight for the pink egg she'd attacked before. It was obvious she didn't want that one to hatch. She would have torn the patch off had Aaron not grabbed her by the tail. She twisted and sank her teeth into his hand. This time Aaron didn't drop her. He grabbed her firmly in his other hand and held on while she tried to tear a strip off him. She refused to let go.

Aaron plunged her into the pail of water he'd had handy since the first dragon and held her under water. She thrashed furiously for a few moments, then let go. Holding her firmly, he emptied the jug and added fresh grass and a couple of bugs, and forced her back inside.

She made no effort to contain her fury. Hissing and belching fire, she threw her body against the glass again, trying to knock it over. Aaron found the heaviest pieces of firewood he could and placed them around the jug. When he was satisfied it wasn't going anywhere, he returned to the new dragon.

He had his feet under him and was standing on his hind legs peeking out of the sink. Aaron gently lifted him out. His long thin body was covered in bright yellow and green. Two rows of black spots ran down each side. The colorful little fellow had two large sets of wings set high on his body. A bright green fringe ran along his back and the underside of his chin.

Aaron placed him back in the sink to see what would happen. He made no effort to bite, or to attack the other eggs. It appeared he had no concerns about the pink egg hatching. Aaron offered him another piece of meat, and he took it gently from his fingers.

Knowing he would have to go home soon, Aaron watched him closely, trying to decide what to do with him. Aaron had no idea what kind of dragon this was. He seemed calm enough. He explored the sink, climbed out onto the counter top and after exploring that and looking around the room, he climbed back into the sink, curled up, and fell asleep.

Aaron decided to leave him. Attracting attention would be more dangerous. He'd have to go home and leave the dragons until tomorrow.


Chapter 5
The Pink Egg Hatches

By Cindy Warren

After another night dreaming of the little water dragon, Aaron woke early and returned to the eggs. Nothing had changed since the day before.

The newest hatchling uncurled himself and yawned. Aaron saw a forked yellow tongue with a green tip behind a double row of sharp teeth. Despite his fierce appearance, he happily accepted food from Aaron's hand and made no attempt to bite him.

The red dragon had made herself a nest in the grass overnight, but when she saw Aaron, her fury returned. He fed her too, and she ate with her usual ravenous appetite. He filled a tin pan with water and placed it on the counter next to the sink.

"You want a drink?" He asked the confined red dragon. "You bite me and I'll dunk you again." He tipped the jug on its side holding a piece of kindling over the top, allowing her just enough space to stick her head out. She lapped at the water a couple of times, then attacked the kindling.

"You can't eat that," he said. The dragon hung by her teeth above the jug. She thrashed, sinking her teeth further into the wood. When that did no good, she puffed herself up, flaming, doing her utmost to burn it, and even managing to scorch it some.

Aaron admired the determined little creature. Seeing no way to dislodge her, he broke the stick in half, dropping her back inside. It took her a moment to realize what had happened, and when she did, she unleashed her full fury on the stick. She flung her body around in the grass, let go of the stick, threw it around, and attacked it again, flaming and blowing smoke.

"What am I going to do with you?" Aaron said, more to himself than the dragon. He watched her, ready with the water in case she did manage to set it on fire. Her sibling watched too, seemingly amused.

Aaron was getting worried. He knew he couldn't keep her confined for ever. Her ability to flame was improving, and she was either going to hurt herself or hurt him.

The next three days passed in much the same fashion, with Aaron becoming more and more concerned. She was growing, and he knew he couldn't keep her in the jug much longer. Of course, she did what all animals do, and sometimes the smell was overpowering. The jug often needed a wash, and Aaron always supplied her with fresh grass. It was becoming harder each time to put her back in.

On the third day, watching a red tantrum that might have been amusing had it not been so concerning, Aaron thought he felt another presence in the cabin. He watched the newest dragon climbing the firewood, and whatever else he could find to climb on. Though not fast, his long, lean body was perfect for climbing.

"It's not you causing the chill in here," he said.

"So you know. I see the mountain dragon has hatched."

Aaron recognized the voice and tried to repress a shudder.

"I can't see you," he said. "Yes, another egg has hatched. Maybe a mountain dragon. I don't know."

"You don't need to see me. You do need to listen. You will need another deer, but not for the king. I will show you the root cellar. Tomorrow, you must put whatever food you can find in there."

"I looked for a root cellar. I couldn't find anything."

"Of course not," came the phantom reply.

"Meat will rot in a root cellar."

"Don't talk nonsense. We don't have time for it. Nothing rots in my root cellar. Now listen. You know what the king has done. Soon there will be no food. You will need to feed yourself and the dragons. You'd be well advised not to leave that old horse of yours in the king's stable."

"Talk like that will get you hanged for treason."

Aaron heard a snort. "I know. I sure do know. So don't talk, just know. You can't save him, or his greedy daughter, but the forest and mountains beyond must survive, and so must their guardians.

Aaron was stunned. It had never occurred to him that the woman had died of anything but natural causes. Two hundred years ago, a king Aaron couldn't name had killed her. He wanted to ask more questions, but sensed she would not be responsive.

"Come. I will show you the root cellar. Then I must go. One more thing, you must listen to your dreams.
Has the water dragon told you his name?"

"They have names?"

"Ask them, but not now. There isn't much time. Open the door, and turn to your left."

Aaron obeyed, listening to her voice.

"The pink egg will be hatching in a couple of hours. You may stay or go, she will be all right."

A sudden breeze flattened the grass and blew away some dead vegetation. Aaron saw a stick protruding from the ground.

"All you need to do is give that a good strong pull," she said. "Not now, though. Not until you need to."

With that, she was gone.

"Wait!" Aaron had meant to ask her about the red dragon.

Aaron walked slowly back to the cabin, pondering what he had learned. He had sworn an oath to the king, and would have defended him to the death from any enemy. Saving him from himself would be considered treason, and would, of course, not save him at all.

Aaron sat in the single hard chair with a sigh. The green dragon climbed into his lap like a cat. The red one glared at him with the fiercest eyes he could have imagined.

"So you're a mountain dragon. You seem friendly enough. Are you one of the guardians she was talking about? I really have no idea what to do with any of you. Well, I'd better check on our new arrival."

The patch he'd put on the pink egg had been pushed off from the inside. A beak-like mouth worked at the shell around the hole. The occupant seemed to be trying to chew her way out. Aaron wondered if the moist patch had damaged the shell, making it hard for it to crack open.

"Can you hear me? Do you need help?"

Not getting an answer, and knowing sometimes it was best to leave things alone, Aaron sat and watched as tiny pieces of shell landed in the straw. He thought of the water dragon. That one had been able to tell him what it needed, and he hoped this one could, too.

Finally, after two hours of chewing off flakes of eggshell, a pink dragon crawled out of the hole.
She flapped her wings and stumbled about the sink. After only a minute or two, she hopped out and took a sip of the water Aaron had left on the counter. Balanced on two legs, she marched up and down the counter top, stretching her wings and limbs.

Aaron couldn't decide if she resembled a lizard or a bird. She had a bird-like beak and face, lizard-like forelimbs and tail, and the talons and wings of an eagle. Birdlike, she preened herself. Then she stepped into the water, flapping and splashing. After several minutes of enjoying her bath, she perched on the counter in front of the sink, flapped herself dry, spraying water everywhere, and surveyed the scene in front of her.

She worked her mouth, as if trying to figure out what it was for, and looked intently at her sister confined in the jug. Then she spoke.

"You can let her out now."




Chapter 6
The Pink Dragon

By Cindy Warren

The water dragon had told Aaron that the pink one would know. He sincerely hoped so. Despite his many misgivings, he tilted the jug so that the red dragon could climb out.

Her attitude had not changed. She perched on the rim of the jug for a moment, then, hissing and flaming, she launched herself directly at her newly hatched sister.

The pink dragon was ready for her. Catching her sister in an eagle-like talon, she tossed her directly into the pail of water Aaron always kept on standby. Furious, the red sister thrashed about in the pail, trying to flame, but the water had quenched it, and after a couple of minutes, seemed to dampen the attitude as well.

Aaron considered helping her as she thrashed about, clearly uncomfortable in the water. His hand was still painful from his previous encounters with her, so he decided to leave her be for a bit. Perhaps she needed to be put in her place.

The water seemed to cool her down somewhat, and she discovered she could brace her tail against the bottom of the pail and climb out. She perched on the rim, glaring first at her sister, then at Aaron.

"You will stop this," said the pink dragon. "Carrying on like you are nine different kinds of crazy will bring slayers from all over the realm. I know you are not insane. If you are going to put us all in danger when we leave here, I will kill you myself."

The red one jumped of the pail and slunk over to a sunny window ledge. To Aaron she seemed to be sulking.

Aaron sat, his head spinning, wondering if the feisty little one was really in danger. The little mountain dragon climbed into his lap. Aaron scratched him on the head and under his chin. He seemed to enjoy it.

Still perched on the sink, the newest hatchling looked them over, sizing up Aaron and his friendly little companion. She looked again at her red sister, then closed her eyes and seemed far away for a time.

"You have done well," she said. "All are safe."

"Huh? Me?" Aaron was startled.

"You."

"I'm just figuring things out as I go along."

"Your decisions have been sound. The water dragon is safe. The fire spitter has done no harm."

"You seem to know a lot, considering you have just hatched. How is that?" Aaron asked.

"We dragons are not like you. We are in the egg for a very long time. We are able to learn much before we hatch. It was necessary for me to communicate with the spirit woman, and with you, so I learned."

"I'm pretty sure the water dragon said a few words," said Aaron.

"The water dragon talks to you in your dreams. It's important you listen. Do not forget when you wake."

"I will remember. Will the others talk?" Aaron asked.

"Some. They may take more time to learn. They may also find other ways to communicate with you."

As if to confirm that, the dragon in his lap nudged his hand, asking for another head scratch. The red dragon moved to a sunnier spot, giving him a dirty look. Aaron couldn't tell if she was angry or jealous.

"You know you're going to have to let them go. They are not pets."

"I haven't thought ahead," Aaron admitted. "I haven't had much chance. I don't suppose I can keep them, but I'll sure be sad to see them go. You too. Even the little red devil."

She turned and looked at the eggs in the sink behind her. "It looks like we're going to have a little tree dragon pretty soon."

Aaron picked up the one in his lap, set him on the counter and examined the eggs. He saw the smallest egg, a bright emerald green one, had a deep crack and was about to hatch. He looked over at the window sill. "You want to come too?" The red dragon made no reply.

Aaron walked over to her and held out his hand. "You want to check out the new kid?" She hissed and flamed before she climbed onto his arm.

"You try to cook anybody and you're going back in the water. Understand?"

She jumped from his arm to the counter top with no hissing or flaming. Clearly she did understand.

Aaron and the dragons gathered around, waiting. Before too long a little emerald green dragon tumbled out of its egg. He stood up, flapped his wings, fell over, and tried again. Amber eyes with black slits for pupils gazed at the assembly watching him.

"Aaron, do you have any of that food left?" asked the pink dragon.

Aaron did. He offered some to the tiny newcomer, but before it could accept it, a red streak snatched it away.

"You want to go back in the jug? I know you can understand me. Knock it off," said Aaron.

She whipped her tail against the tin pan, splashing water on herself as she gulped the morsel. Obviously irritated, she jumped from the counter and scurried back to the window ledge.

"She doesn't seem to care much for water," Aaron said, laughing. The newcomer appeared to be laughing too, and fell over on his back again. Aaron offered it another bite. This time the correct mouth gobbled the food.

"I can't tell if it's male or female. I couldn't with the water dragon, either. With some I just know, but not those two. Is there a way to tell? Aaron asked.

"They're neither, yet. They'll decide when they find a mate. Until then it doesn't matter. That's quite common with dragons."

"Oh," Aaron had never heard of such a thing, but then he'd never met a dragon before. He picked it up, looked it over carefully, and placed it next to the water. It took a sip, climbed in, and deciding it didn't like it, jumped out in a hurry, making a bigger mess on the counter top.

"It's so small," Aaron said, still looking it over. This dragon's forelimbs looked as strong as the hind ones.
Tiny wings gave him a birdlike appearance, but he didn't resemble his pink sister much. His body was shorter, with a flatter tail.

"That one will be flying in a couple of days," said its sister. "You can release it then."

"So soon?"

"Yes. He lives high in thick pine forests. He'll be safer there than here. The spirit lady has warded this place well, but there are no guarantees. Don't worry, most of us know what to do." She cast a glance at her feisty sister.

Aaron looked at the slant of the sun coming through the window. It was getting late.

"I must get going. I should try to get a bird or two on my way home. Make things look normal for as long as possible."

"Yes, you have much to do tomorrow." She walked along the counter top, exercising her wings. "The spirit lady has told you. You should sleep, and remember to listen to the water dragon."

With that, Aaron whistled for his horse, who grazed quite contentedly when the witch was not around, and made his way home, even managing to hunt a partridge and a rabbit on his way.


Chapter 7
The Trouble Starts

By Cindy Warren

Aaron stabled his horse, grabbed a meager meal, and went to bed. He'd noticed there was much less food than usual. The 'spirit woman,' as the pink dragon had called her, had been right. With these unwanted thoughts invading his brain, he fell asleep and immediately found himself again swimming with the blue dragon.

Aaron found his little friend approaching the sea. It lifted its head out of the water and looked out over the vast expanse, amazed.

"Big water," was all its limited vocabulary could manage, but it made no effort to contain its excitement. It leaped out of the water, then dived down to the bottom, then jumped and dived again, then swam in swift figure eights.

"Might be best to stay around here a while, little guy," Aaron said. "Big water has big fish that could gobble up a little dragon the way you gobble up those bugs. Some are full of tricks you've never thought of."

He knew his words would not be heeded. The water dragon would not be able to contain himself.

"Trouble come," said the dragon. "Aaron know."

"Yes, I know," said Aaron. "The people are hungry, and angry." He was unable to bring himself to say more, but the dragon had no such restraints.

"Pink sister say king not do what king should. Aaron like riding animal. Careful. King eat. Aaron catch meat for dragons, before gone. Catch for riding animal too."

Aaron thought of his horse back at the stable, and of the dragons at the house, of the tiny green hatchling and the eggs yet to hatch. He suddenly felt the need to go home and remove Demon.

"Not feed Green. Green fly. Trees. Tree many bug for eat."

Aaron didn't bother to correct the grammar. It wasn't in his nature, and, right now, unimportant. Instead, he spent the next couple of minutes warning his friend of the dangers at sea. Moments later he found himself in his bed.

Despite some lingering aches and pains, he was up immediately. The stars told him it was midway between midnight and dawn. Demon knew something was wrong, and danced and tossed his head nervously when Aaron saddled and bridled him.

Thinking of the dragon's words 'catch for riding animal too,' Aaron slung a bag of oats across Demon's back. Demon knew he was not a pack horse, and wanted nothing to do with that.

"Things are changing, buddy," Aaron told him firmly. "We all must do things we'd rather not."

As the pre-dawn sky turned grey, Aaron was able to get a deer. A pair of rabbits and a pheasant soon followed. Aaron suspected he was getting a little help from an unusual source.

Unloading his haul behind the cabin, Aaron soon realized he had another problem. He had known what he was about to do was illegal; it hadn't occurred to him that he didn't know how to do it. Hunting was an acceptable passtime for an old knight, but keeping any game for himself was not. Aaron had never so much as skinned a rabbit.

"What now," Aaron asked his horse. He was unable to translate the answer. The woman had said nothing spoiled in her root cellar, and Aaron hoped it was true. He hauled the trap door open and hauled down his prizes along with the oats.

He looked around himself in amazement. The space was huge, well stocked with herbs, potatoes, carrots, turnips and several other things Aaron couldn't identify. Another bin contained an assortment of fruit. In addition to food were blankets, several hay bales, and some kind of oil. Aaron assumed it was lamp oil and decided to leave it where it was.

"How did she do this?" Stunned, Aaron made his way out of the cellar, carefully hiding it again. He walked Demon to a hidden grove under the trees behind the cabin. The horse fussed a bit, but seemed to sense this was the safest place, and stayed.

Aaron entered the house, and the dragons looked at him expectantly. Since he'd left well before breakfast, he had no food. The cabin smelled of messes four dragons had made overnight, and it gave him an idea. He opened the window above the sink.

The red dragon watched closely.

"If you're thinking of going anywhere, you're going to have to go through your sister," said Aaron.

His plan worked. Flies were soon buzzing through the open window, and all the dragons were happily chasing them. It wouldn't be enough, but it would work for now. Aaron moved the chair as close to the fresh air as possible. The smell let him know he couldn't keep growing dragons in the cabin much longer.

Pink seemed to know what he was thinking. "Later we must go outside," she said. "You guard as best you can. I have talked to Red. She understands that she will most likely die if she does anything foolish."

Aaron leaned back in his chair, watching them chase flies. It was comical, and he relaxed a little. Soon he was snoring.

"Watch and listen," Aaron heard the woman's voice. "Yes, you are sleeping. It is the easiest way to speak to you without using much energy. I will show you how to skin the deer. I would not advise you to tan the hide. The process smells, and will attract attention."

"I'm listening."

"Good. You make the first cut here."

Though Aaron knew he was asleep, he could see and hear all the details.

"Can you do it now?"

"Yes."

"Aaron, I know what you are thinking. You are an idealist, but you are no fool. Yes, people will starve. There is nothing you can do about that. If the king knew about the food, he'd take it for himself. If you shared with anyone else, word would get around, it would be gone in a day, and you'd be hanged for treason."

"I know it," Aaron admitted.

"My time in this world is short. Soon I must join my sisters. I would see the dragons safe before I go. The kingdom must solve its own problems. I can not. Nor can you."

Aaron woke to the sound of hoofbeats on the road. A hunting horn sounded nearby.

"Hunters,' said Pink. "They will find nothing. What animals are left are heading for the mountains."

Aaron had no doubt she was right. He went out to the root cellar and skinned the deer. Perhaps if he boiled the skin till it was soft, the dragons could eat that too. He wasn't sure about the entrails. Finding a shovel in the well stocked cellar, he placed a small scoop behind the cabin.

It was time to let them outside. After stern warnings from Aaron and Pink, they headed for the area behind the cabin, with the forest close by. Red and Green were thrilled. They raced around, up and down trees, flapping their wings and snapping up bugs as they went. Pink was cautious, but she knew she must exercise her wings, and she made a great effort, flapping onto a fallen log,then back to the ground.

"No!" Aaron said firmly when Mountain tried to climb into his lap. "You must find food. Learn how to use all those wings you have. Practice climbing."

Mountain looked at him with sad eyes.

"Don't worry. You can sleep with me tonight. Go find yourself something to eat."

Aaron sat on the log beside Pink. The impact of what he'd just said hit him. He couldn't go home. If he did, Demon would become horse meat. There would be no food for him, either. He watched the mountain dragon amble around the small clearing, finding the food he'd left for him. Pink saw him eating and joined him.

Aaron found himself wishing he'd allowed the dragon to climb into his lap. He suddenly felt lonelier than he had in his life. He knew his life had changed forever.

The afternoon passed with the dragons exploring everything nearby. It was all new and exciting to them. Once the mountain dragon found the food, he eagerly turned over logs and rocks searching for more. Red and Green darted about under leaves and twigs finding tasty insects. It didn't take them long to discover the tastiest. Aaron checked the eggs several times. None were ready to hatch.

As the sun set and the air cooled, Aaron ordered them back into the cabin. He expected some trouble from Red, and was surprised when she came inside easily. Perhaps she didn't want to spend the night outside alone.

Aaron grabbed the blankets he'd brought from the cellar and went out to sleep next to his horse. Mountain followed him, and Aaron remembered his promise. He wrapped himself in his blanket with the dragon snuggled next to him.

Moments later, he was not surprised to find himself swimming with the water dragon. What did surprise him was the mountain dragon had joined them, and was happily swimming in circles around them.


Chapter 8
Trouble of a Different Kind

By Cindy Warren

Aaron watched in amazement as the mountain dragon swam in dizzy circles around himself and the water dragon.

"How did you get here," he asked.

Blue answered for him. "Follow Aaron. Other many colors dragon sleep by Aaron."

"Isn't it dangerous? He's not a water dragon."

"No danger," said Blue. "Brother wake if danger. Like Aaron. Riding animal. Trees."

How does he know that? The water dragon never ceased to amaze Aaron.

Aaron decided it didn't matter. He had become used to visiting the water dragon in his dreams. The two splashed around, delighted to see each other. If Mountain had somehow connected to them, why not let them enjoy themselves? Aaron joined in the fun and spent a pleasant night.

The sun was rising when he awoke to a soft neigh from Demon. He knew the horse sensed something, and shuffled out of his blankets, disturbing the dragon at his side.

He went to the cabin to check his charges, found everything as it had been the night before, and decided to feed the dragons outside. It would cut down on mess and smell. He opened the door, and Red and Green rushed out to greet the morning.

Pink sat in her usual spot in front of the sink. "I think we will have two hatch today," she said. "Now you must go to the cellar."

"Yes, I'd planned on having breakfast outside," Aaron said. "I'll go."

Mountain followed at his heels.

"You go catch yourself some bugs," Aaron told him, and headed for the cellar.

He found he was not alone. The woman was there, and he could see her this time.

"Aaron," she said, "I know you have been considering bringing the eggs down here. You must not. This cellar preserves things as they are. You'll find some chicken eggs when you check more closely. Some may even hatch when you take them outside."

"How do you know what I was thinking? I don't like it."

"You don't seem to mind sharing your thoughts with the dragons, and I've been talking to them since before you were born. That's not important. You might want to lay a cloth under the eggs in case you have to move them in a hurry."

"Has this stuff really been here two hundred years?"

"Yes," she said. "Now, collect what you need and let me get back to what I was doing."

Aaron didn't ask. He collected some fruit for himself and meat for the dragons.

"It should be safe to cook yourself some meat tonight," she said. "It's going to be dark enough. The smoke won't be seen. Don't make a habit of it. If you look under that cloth, you'll find some bread to go with it," she said pointing.

Aaron took a loaf, and using the cloth, he carried everything back to the clearing behind the cabin. The dragons smelled food and came running. Red gobbled her share and went back to chasing bugs.
Green tasted it, then tasted the bread and a small bite of fruit, and decided he preferred bugs. Mountain ate everything he was offered and curled up in Aaron's lap. Pink seemed to enjoy the fruit and bread.

Aaron rested a minute, then headed back to the cabin followed by Pink and Mountain. Taking the eggs out of their sink nest, he saw two had developed deep cracks. He laid the cloth on the straw, wondering why he hadn't thought of this himself, and inspected the deep purple egg with the deepest crack. He placed it back in the sink, and picked up the yellow egg. This one was bright yellow with blue spots.

He busied himself shaving dry bark and chopping kindling, getting the stove ready for tonight, and cleaning the dragons' messes from around the cabin. He wondered if he could convince them to hold it till they got outside.

Pink didn't see why it was necessary.

Aaron tried a tactic he thought the dragon would understand.

"It's something hunters look for. I do it when I hunt deer. It tells me one has been there recently. People are scared to come here, but it won't last. They're getting hungry, and hunger always wins over fear. This cabin will be searched eventually."

Pink considered this. "I will tell them. The bad humans must not see it, and Aaron does not like clearing it out."

Aaron thought he would laugh himself into a fit. He might have, had Pink not stopped him.

"You must stop," she said. "You will scare the new one."

Aaron controlled himself and rushed to see the new hatchling. The purple egg cracked open, and Aaron was expecting to see a purple dragon, but the egg's former occupant was midnight black. He flopped around, stretching the longest, blackest wings Aaron could have imagined. His long, ferret-like body rolled about, trying to get long, strong looking limbs under him. His long thick toes were tipped with shiny black claws.

He climbed out of the sink and tried to fold those incredible wings against his body. Aaron wasn't sure he'd ever be able to do that. It seemed an impossible task. He stretched them out again and tried flapping them. Pink backed away. Aaron offered him food, and he snatched it from his fingers, leaving his hand bleeding.

At that, the mountain dragon stood on his hind legs and hissed at him. Black blew a puff of smoke. Mountain hissed, flapped his wings, climbing Aaron's leg in an effort to protect him from the black dragon. Red and Green perched outside the window, watching.

Aaron had an idea. He tossed another piece of meat into an alligator-like maw, offered some water, then held the jaws shut. He tore a strip from the cloth and wrapped it around the snout, so that Black could no longer open his mouth.

"Keep that up and I'm going to put you in a cage in the root cellar. You'll stay like that forever."

"What is he?" Aaron asked.

"I don't know," Pink admitted. "Another fire spitter."

They didn't have time to wonder. The yellow egg was cracking. Now that Black was securely muzzled, Pink came strutting back to the eggs. Aaron opened the window so Red and Green could get a better look. Even Black seemed curious about the new sibling.

The occupant of the yellow egg was taking its time. Aaron wondered if it was afraid of its black brother. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, a little yellow dragon tumbled free. It took its first steps on three pairs of legs. It had a large yellow head, bright blue eyes, and double rows of tiny blue dots down each side of its body.

The mountain dragon, who had climbed Aaron's leg and now perched on his shoulder, leaned closer to see this new sibling. Aaron lifted him to the counter. Mountain gave Black a warning look and climbed into the sink with the yellow dragon.

The yellow dragon lifted a long, fringed head and a blue snake-like tongue protruded from a cavernous mouth and checked out his sibling. Aaron watched in amazement as the mountain dragon nudged its brother to its feet. His legs were shorter than the black dragon's, but thick and strong looking, with strong claws. He stood and stretched his wings, fell over, and tried again.

"He's a Chinese dragon," said Pink.

"Well, he seems friendly enough," said Aaron. He offered him a piece of meat.

Forgetting his muzzle, Black charged in and tried to steal it. Mountain hissed at him and gave him a swat with his tail. Black backed off and Yellow accepted the meat.

As soon as Yellow was walking, Aaron carried him and Black outside. Mountain was close behind and was soon showing its brother how to turn over logs and find the best grubs.

Pink had followed them out. Green jumped from the window, flapped his wings, and made a rather ungainly landing. Red followed him.

Aaron grabbed Black by the tail and dangled him in the air. "You want that off? You remember I'm a lot bigger than you. You bite anything that isn't a bug I'm going to put it right back on. Got it?"

Aaron had no idea if he did or not, but he removed the muzzle so the dragon could hunt. His co-ordination was still poor, and Aaron didn't think he could go far. Soon he was stumbling about the clearing, stealing bugs from his siblings. Bugs were so plentiful it hardly mattered.

Aaron sat in the sun watching Pink flap up and down from a log. Red and Green were making short flights, usually ending in crash landings. He was almost asleep when an unreal screeching and squeaking woke him.

Red had caught a mouse, and the mouse was in a fight for its life. Attracted by the commotion, Black was trying to take it. Red was not about to give up her prize. The prey was too big for either dragon, but neither knew it. Red was trying to take it into a tree, but the mouse was too big, and Black was not letting go.

Fortunately, neither could flame with a mouthful of mouse. It was a dragon stalemate with the unfortunate mouse caught in the middle.

Aaron ran inside and grabbed Red's jug and a slice of meat. He let Black see him drop the meat into the jug. The dragon considered a moment, then decided to go for the easier prey. He was caught. Aaron knew that with his wingspan, Black was in for an uncomfortable night.

He carried the dragon inside out of the sun, and remembering Red's antics, piled wood around the jug,

"My horse needs some attention," Aaron told the remaining dragons. "I'm going for a ride."


Chapter 9
The Page

By Cindy Warren

Aaron guided his horse down the deer trail toward Hidden Lake. After his day with the dragons, he felt the need for some peace. He didn't expect to see any deer, but he'd brought his bow and arrows just in case. Demon seemed happy to be away from the cabin.

Hidden Lake was a small lake, not on any road. It was remote, but not unknown. He hoped for mushrooms along the shoreline, though he knew it was late in the year for them.

As he approached the lake, he heard a commotion in the water. He drew his bow and approached quietly. Demon knew how to hunt.

He had not found deer. He'd ridden up on four men chasing a boy about ten years old. The child was doing everything he could to avoid them, but Aaron didn't like the boy's chances.

"Let him go," Aaron shouted, aiming his bow.

"What you gonna do?" One of the men sneered. "You gonna shoot us all?"

"Let him go," Aaron repeated. "I'll get one of you. One in four chance it's you. Do you want to take that chance?"

"Who's the kid? What's he to you?"

Aaron thought fast. "His name's Duane. He's my page. I sent him to look for mushrooms. Let him go, now! Or I'll let this arrow fly."

As Aaron had expected, they let the boy go. He stumbled toward Aaron. The men slunk off into the bush.

"I'd better get you out of here, kid. What's your name?"

"I am Duane. I am your page."

"Come on, kid. Who are you? If I leave you here, those men will have you again in ten minutes. You know they don't mean you any good."

"I am your page. I will go with you."

"I don't suppose your mama would like that too much. You can't be too far from home. What's the name your folks gave you?"

The boy looked ready to cry. "My folks are gone. Now I am Duane. I will go with you."

Aaron was at a loss.

"Who were you before you were Duane?"

"Dead."

Aaron was losing patience. "You looked pretty lively when I came upon you," he said.

"If I was not Duane I would be dead."

"Kid, look at the sky. There's a storm coming. That will be the least of your problems if those men snatch you up again. You'd better tell me who you are so I can get you home."

The boy's eyes were pleading. Aaron thought he was about to burst into tears.

"OK kid, for tonight you can pretend you're Duane. I can't leave you here." Aaron lifted the boy into the saddle behind him.

"We can't go there," the boy said as they approached the cabin.

"Yes kid, we can. Are you sure you want to be Duane? I can still take you home."

The boy clung to him.

Aaron unsaddled Demon and started to work gathering pine branches to make a lean to for the horse. The boy caught on right away, and proved to be a hard worker. Soon Demon had a shelter from the coming rain.

"Take the reins inside," he told the boy. "I'll get the saddle. You ever work with leather after it gets wet?"

"No."

"You don't want to."

"I will keep it dry," the boy promised.

Sensing the coming storm, the dragons were all inside, but the door was open.

"We have some company," Aaron told them.

The boy looked about the cabin, and at the tiny dragons, with some anxiety, but he made no attempt to run.

Pink looked him over carefully, and seemed to go into a sort of trance. Aaron was pretty sure she was talking to the woman.

"She won't hurt you," Aaron said. "You'll need to watch out for the black one, but we won't let him out till tomorrow. Let's see if we can get our little red friend to get this fire going."

"We are all going to be cold if we don't get a fire going," Aaron told Red. "Let's see what you can do."

Red was co-operative, and soon they had a fire in the stove.

Aaron found a pan and threw the deer meat in.

"You hungry?" Aaron put the pan in the stove.

"Can't you cook?" The boy clapped his hand to his mouth as soon as the words were out.

"It's OK," said Aaron. "Truth be told, I've never cooked anything in a pan in my life. If it's not on a stick over a fire, I haven't a clue."

"That's OK. I will be a good page. I will cook."

Aaron happily handed over the task.

"I'm going to go and get some more," said Aaron.

"I'll go," said the boy.

"You cook. I'll go." Aaron did not want to show him the root cellar.

Minutes later he was back with more meat and several potatoes and carrots, along with a few things he couldn't name. He'd also grabbed his blanket, along with another from the cellar.

"Let's see what you can do," he said.

At that moment Pink came out of her trance. She looked at the boy again.

"Let him be Duane," she said. "He will not betray you."

At that, Duane dropped the potato he was slicing and stared at the pink dragon, mouth open. He had found a pot and set water to boil, and he nearly put out the fire with it. He caught it just in time.

"You can still change your mind if you want to," Aaron told him.

"Duane must be brave."

"You know, I made up that name when the men asked who you were, only because they would expect me to protect my page. You don't have to keep it."

"I will keep it. I will be Duane."

"OK, Duane it is," said Aaron.

The other dragons, who had been watching Duane warily, were becoming curious. The boy had chopped up the vegetables and thrown them into the pot, and added bits of browned meat. The mountain dragon approached slowly, and climbed into Aaron's lap, looking him over.

"I mostly call them by their colors for now, but this one is Mountain. It's a mountain dragon, and it has too many colors to name it that way. The woman says they'll tell us their real names when they're ready."

"Do they all talk?" Duane asked.

"Pink talks the most. There's a water dragon, but he couldn't stay here. He needs to live in the water. He talks to me in my dreams, and he's pretty good. So far the others haven't said much. Pink says they can learn, but it may take some time."

Aaron scratched Mountain's head. "This one is pretty friendly. Come and say hello."

Duane reached out a hand. Mountain rubbed his head against it.

"Seems he likes you," said Aaron. He sat back in his chair, breathing in the wonderful smell of Duane's cooking.

Aaron got up and spread the blankets on the floor. He knew that even with the lean-to, he would not be able to sleep on the ground tonight. He added another stick to the fire and sat waiting for the food to cook.

It was worth the wait. Duane proved to be a competent cook, and the food was delicious. Tired and full of food, Aaron was ready for bed. He checked the eggs one last time, and realized he wouldn't be sleeping anytime soon.

Another purple egg was about to hatch.


Chapter 10
The Purple Egg Hatches

By Cindy Warren

"This is the first one to hatch at night," said Aaron. "I wonder how it will be different from the rest."

The kitchen was fully dark now and Aaron added another log to the stove, leaving it open for light.

They all gathered around. Pink took her usual perch in front of the sink, and Mountain climbed onto Aaron's shoulder, followed by Yellow. The others gathered around on the counter top. Duane stood next to Aaron, yawning, but much too excited to sleep.

"Should we let the black one out?" asked Duane.

Aaron considered this. As a knight, he was well aware of the danger in creating an outcast. These were dragons, not humans, but the same principle might well apply.

"Perhaps we should," he said. "If we don't let him be part of the family, he won't be."

Aaron let him out of the jug with a stern warning, and he sat on the counter next to Red and Green. Red hissed a warning at him, and Pink gave him a warning glare.

Before long, the egg they were watching cracked open, and a purple dragon rolled out, uncoiling her long, thin body in the sink.

The moment he saw her, Black lunged clumsily at his new sibling, looking for all the world like he intended to gobble up something longer than he was.

Pink had had enough. Before Aaron could react, she had already grabbed Black in her talon and tossed him into the air. He sailed across the cabin, landed with a thump, bounced, and skidded into the woodpile, where he came to an abrupt and painful halt.

Purple seemed happily unaware of what had happened. She continued uncoiling her body and stretched out in the sink, blinking in the dim light.
This long, thin dragon had no wings, and, like Yellow, she had an extra pair of short, strong legs with thick, heavily clawed feet.

In the dim light, all Aaron could see was a deep purple color. No other markings were visible.

"She's a little Earth dragon," said Pink. "A cave dweller. She won't like the light."

"How do you know it's a she?" Duane asked.

"I know. She will live in caves and lay many eggs," said Pink. "This is the one I was expecting when that other one popped out."

"You mean the black one?"

"Yes."

Mountain was trying to climb down from Aaron's shoulder to greet his new sister, followed by Yellow. Aaron lifted them down. They greeted their sister, extending long tongues to say hello. Pink and Green simply stared from the counter top. Black had found a crevice in the woodpile and crawled in to sulk and lick his wounds.

Aaron pulled him out by the tail and forced him back into the jug. He was not willing to sleep with the little beast running loose.

"What's wrong with him?" Duane asked.

"I don't know. He hatched earlier today, and he's been crazy ever since. Red can be pretty feisty too. She spent a couple of days in the jug." Aaron was a natural storyteller, and Duane found himself listening to a slightly exaggerated tale of his adventures since he'd found the eggs.

Aaron turned his attention back to the newest hatchling. She had finished greeting her brothers, and crawled into the hay underneath the cloth to curl up and sleep.

"She'll be OK," said Pink. "She's tired."

"She's not the only one," said Aaron. He closed the stove and crawled under his blanket. "Time to get some sleep. Duane, you can take the spot by the stove."

He'd placed his own blanket next to the door. He didn't expect Duane to sneak off into the night, but he saw no sense in taking chances. He drifted off with Mountain next to him, wondering how many dragons would be in his dreams tonight.

In the morning, he couldn't remember. He awoke to find Duane already awake. Some of the stuff in jars Aaron hadn't been able to identify must have been tea, because Duane had a hot pot of it on the stove. He'd reheated the food from last night.

Aaron crawled out of his blanket, unable to believe he'd slept through that. He nearly tripped over some firewood that had been moved.

"It's a cave for the purple one," Duane explained. "Pink said she wouldn't like the light."

"Good idea." Aaron was impressed.

The rain had stopped, and Aaron opened the window so Red and Green could go outside. He'd take the others out after breakfast.

"I couldn't find any honey, so we'll have to drink it as it is," Duane said as he poured the tea.

Aaron had no idea if he had honey. He decided he'd find something for Duane to do while he took a full inventory of the root cellar. In the meantime, he was perfectly happy with the tea.

"You can trust him."

Aaron was slightly startled, but Duane, who had never experienced anything like it in his life, took a step back and nearly stumbled over the cave he'd made.
He regained his footing and stood shaking and staring with his mouth open.

The woman had materialized from nowhere. Both Duane and Aaron could see her clearly.

"You know who I am?" she asked Duane.

"Y-yes," Duane stammered.

"Aaron can trust you. Am I right?"

"Yes, of course."

"Do you know who he is?" Aaron asked.

Duane looked terrified.

"I won't spill your secrets, kid. I do think you can trust Aaron with them when you're ready," she said.

Duane still looked terrified.

"It's okay kid," said Aaron. "We have a bigger problem. What are we going to do with that black dragon?"

"You'll know when the time comes. Take Duane to the cellar with you. He'll know better than you what much of it is."

With that, she was gone.

"She's the witch," Duane stammered, still shaking.

"Yes. She's not so bad, once you get used to her. Now, let's have our breakfast and get the rest of these guys outside for a while."

Once they were finished eating, Duane found a large leaf, scooped the last of the stew into it, and put it into the 'cave' for the purple dragon. Then he carried the little dragon to her makeshift home and covered it with his blanket.

Aaron had to admit it was something he wouldn't have thought of. He picked up the jug containing the black dragon and carried it outside. The others followed. Aaron looked them over. He thought Pink and Red had grown since they'd hatched. Mountain was stronger and Yellow had gotten control of his legs.

He let Black out of the jug and he ran about snapping up any bug he could find. Duane had brought the dishes out to wash under the pump. Demon had wandered into the sunny clearing. That was where Black spotted him.

The little dragon arched his back, blowing smoke and blue flame. Then, letting out a blood-curdling hiss, he launched himself straight at the horse's head.

The old war horse was having none of it. He reared up, striking Black hard with his hooves, knocking him to the ground. Demon snorted in anger, ready to smash the dragon to a bloody pulp.

"Demon no!"

The horse paused a moment and looked at Aaron, giving him time to grab Black, who by now was staring at the horse in terror. He seemed to be in pain. Aaron was unsympathetic. Dangling him by the tail, Aaron lit into him.

"Are you crazy or just plain stupid? You know what that horse could have done to you? You could be lying there with your wings so busted up you'd never fly, ever! Or you could be dead. You do something like that again and you're going to get whatever you've got coming. I won't save you again!"

He dropped Black on a low hanging branch under the watchful eye of Pink and went to soothe his horse.

Duane, who had forgotten his chores in the excitement, returned to washing the dishes.

"What's in the cellar?" he asked as he finished.

"You finish up with that and we'll go take a look. Check on the eggs when you put them away." He returned to his horse, who was still spooked from his encounter with Black.

Aaron gave the horse a last scratch as Duane returned. "If he tries it again you can go ahead and stomp him," he said. The horse wouldn't understand the words, but he was fairly sure the dragon did.

Duane was stunned by the cellar, but not nearly as much as Aaron was. There, next to the potatoes, was his sword and shield. "How did she do that?" He really didn't expect an answer.

Duane, who had no idea it hadn't been there before, was more interested in the food. He went about gathering items for supper, and after warning him to ration the meat, Aaron left him to it. All thoughts of the inventory he'd planned had gone out of his head. If his things were here, the witch must think he'd be needing them, and she was usually right.

"Got everything?"

Duane had all he could carry.

Aaron contemplated leaving the sword and shield where they were, then decided that if trouble came, it wouldn't happen in the cellar. He took it with him.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Dragons ran about strengthening limbs and wings, and Demon grazed on grass freshened by last night's rain. Duane listened to Aaron's stories. Purple slept. Black made no further trouble.

Aaron held his sword and shield for the first time in months. If only the peaceful afternoon could last, he thought.


Chapter 11
The Black Dragon

By Cindy Warren

Aaron sat watching the sun go down. Red and Green were flying better as each hour passed. Pink was still having some trouble, and Mountain and Yellow still hadn't managed to get off the ground. Black hadn't moved from the branch where Aaron had dropped him.

Purple still slept in her makeshift cave, and Aaron wondered if she could be persuaded to come out now that the sun was setting. He called Pink and sent her and Duane inside to get her.

Aaron walked over to look at Black. The little dragon didn't move, even when Aaron offered him food. He knew Black was hurting. Though Aaron had some experience with battlefield injuries, internal injuries were beyond him.

Duane came out carrying Purple. He put her in the grass next to her brothers, who greeted her and encouraged her to join them foraging for bugs.

"Is the black one going to be okay?" he asked.

"I don't know," Aaron admitted. "Demon hit him pretty hard. Ever been kicked by a horse?"

"Yeah. It hurt pretty bad," said Duane.

"These little guys have pretty tough hides, but it's hard to tell what's going on inside. I'm going to carry him inside and hope he's better by tomorrow," said Aaron.

He picked Black up carefully, and this time the dragon made no attempt to bite him. He carried him in and placed him gently on the woodpile. It clearly hurt him to be moved at all.

Duane stood in the doorway. "What are you going to do?" he asked.

"For tonight, nothing. This isn't something I can put a splint on. He may recover on his own."

Pink came in on her own. Red and Green soon followed. Pink climbed onto the woodpile, flapping her wings, and almost making a short flight. She stood looking at her brother.

"Give him some water," she said.

Duane ran to get it.

"Drink it," Pink told her brother.

Black ignored her.

"You want me to drop you on the floor again? Drink it!

Painfully, Black turned his head and took a sip.

"Drink more!" Pink told him.

Black reluctantly took another sip.

"Now some food," ordered Pink.

Aaron speared some meat on a stick to protect his fingers. He needn't have worried. Black was only able to swallow a couple of slivers.

"Will he live?" Duane asked.

"We'll know tomorrow. Now, let's get the others inside and get to bed."

Within moments Aaron found himself again dreaming of the blue dragon. He found Yellow had followed Mountain to join them. Blue seemed thrilled to see them.

"Riding animal eat black one," said Blue.

"Horses don't eat dragons," said Aaron. "He almost killed him, though."

"Black one alive? Aaron eat black one. Trouble," said Blue.

"He's alive," said Aaron. He might make it. Could be something that spits fire has insides as tough as his outsides."

Blue considered this. He had clearly never given any thought to his insides. If the others understood, they seemed uninterested. To their way of thinking, whatever was inside was not important.

"Other dragon coming," said Blue.

"What?" Aaron looked around to see who else had found their way into his dreams. He watched, a little startled, as the white dragon crash landed in the water. She sputtered and struggled a bit, then pulled her limbs and wings together and managed to sit on top of the water, like a long sea bird.

She was beautiful. Her body was white, with a single pair of gold tinged wings. Her long thick neck and lizard-like head had a row of short gold spikes running from just behind her nose to the tip of her tail. Strong forelimbs ended in long, claw-like hands tipped with gold talons.

Blue swam splashing up to her, excited to greet his new sister. The other two approached more cautiously. She greeted them politely and turned to Aaron.

"Will you kill him?" she asked.

Aaron was shocked. He hadn't expected this. The gold egg hadn't even hatched yet. He recovered himself quickly.

"You mean the black one. I don't want to. If he attacks Demon again, I will not interfere. Demon will kill him. I told Black that I will not save him again. I meant it. Of course, I don't even know if he will live until morning, but if he does, and he starts getting bigger and more dangerous, I will do what I have to."

The white dragon accepted this. She stayed a few minutes more, enjoying the company of her brothers, though she refused to dive under the water. Then she disappeared.

Aaron was wakened before dawn by a commotion in the clearing outside. He grabbed his sword and shield and ran out the door to find Demon fighting off the same men who had been holding Duane. One of the men was barely able to walk, another clasped his hands to his shoulder. One wielded a knife.

Aaron attacked the knife wielder, knocking the knife to the ground. Blood dripped from the man's hand. He screamed. Aaron heard ribs crack as Demon delivered another powerful kick to one of the would-be horse thieves.

The fight was over almost before it had begun, and Aaron soon knew he had another problem. Normally he'd deliver the men to the king and his part would be over. That wasn't an option right now, and neither was keeping them here.

Aaron couldn't bring himself to kill four men who were no longer dangerous. He held his sword to the former knife-wielder's throat.

"Who are you?"

The man choked out something that might have been a name.

"I want the names of your friends," he said.

"We're hungry. There's no food. No work," the man stammered.

"Names!" Aaron demanded. He didn't care, but he didn't want them to know that.

The man stammered out the names of his companions.

"You fools are lucky I have business far more important than the lot of you," said Aaron.

"The king sent you to kill the witch. Is she causing this?"

"My business with the king is my own. Here's what's going to happen. You're going to head east. You're going to keep going east. When my business here is done I'm going to give your names to the king. If there's a brain between the lot of you, you'll be gone."

"There's no food," the man complained again.

"There's apples and berries. I suggest you stick to them for a while. You keep going east, you'll come to a town. I suggest you find work. You are such fools as outlaws, you'll get yourselves hanged for sure." Aaron didn't mention that the town he spoke of was two kingdoms away.

"I'm hurt," the man who had been kicked complained.

"Would you rather be dead?" Aaron knew it would be slow, painful going for these men, but short of killing them, there was nothing he could do about it. "Get on your way!"

Aaron watched them stumble off, and returned to the cabin to find Duane busily cooking breakfast before the sun came up. Aaron had cautioned him about letting anyone see the smoke.

"Did you get them?" Duane asked.

"They won't be bothering us again. How's Black?"

"He's moving his wings a little. I gave him some water. Purple said he would live," said Duane.

"Purple told you?"

"In my dream. She said I could tell you. She said you'd understand," said Duane.

"She really likes you." Aaron wasn't really surprised. He'd noticed Purple was getting attached to the boy.

"She said I could still talk to her after she has to go. She needs to find a cave before winter. She has to get a little stronger first. Rivers flow down from the mountains and not the other way around, so the journey will be harder for her than it was for Blue."

"That's true. I talk to Blue most every night. Pink said Green could go as soon as he could fly, but he seems happy to stick around, and I'm thinking we could use him as a lookout."

The sun was coming up. Duane fed Purple and put out the fire. Aaron was about to put the other dragons outside when he heard a crack.

Black stayed where he was. The rest gathered around in what had become their usual spots. Even Purple, blinking in the morning light, wanted to meet her new sister. The gold egg was cracking open, and Aaron had a pretty good idea who would be hatching.


Chapter 12
The White Dragon

By Cindy Warren

With the dragons gathered around, the gold egg cracked open. Even wet from the egg, she was beautiful. The gold spikes along her spine sparkled in the sunrise. She shook herself free of the egg and looked around at her siblings. She struggled to her feet almost immediately, flapping her wings for balance.

Pink leaned in toward her and helped her out of the sink. White stretched and looked around the cabin.

"Where is the other one?" she asked.

Black had crouched between the logs in the woodpile. He was clearly scared, and in no condition to attack his sister.

"He's scared," said Pink. "It hurts him a lot to move, and he's decided to hide. He's in that pile of sticks over there."

"Good. Maybe the animal he attacked scared some sense into him," said White.

Duane hurried to offer the new dragon food and water, then carried Purple back to her 'cave.' The others were getting anxious to get outside an catch some breakfast.

"What about Black?" asked Duane.

"He won't like it, but I'm going to take him out where we can keep an eye on him," said Aaron. He pulled Black off the woodpile as gently as he could, and put him back on the branch from yesterday.

Duane carried White out and put her on the log next to Pink. She watched Pink for a minute, then stretched and flapped her wings, jumped of the log and hit the ground. She recovered quickly and used her talons to climb back up.

"It takes some time," said Pink.

Aaron watched Pink. He could see she had grown, and her wings had developed since she had hatched. She'd soon be flying.

Black sat unmoving, watching them all, but Pink and White in particular.

"He's confused," said Pink. "He doesn't know why we didn't kill him."

"I guess we're all hoping that by the time he heals up he'll have a little more sense," said Aaron.

White spoke her mind. "Being smarter could make him more dangerous, not less. He won't attack the Demon animal again. He's going to grow, and if he sees everything as potential food, we have a problem."

"That's a possibility," Aaron admitted. In fact, it had been nagging at the back of his mind since Blue had suggested he eat Black. "We'll all have to keep an eye on him. If that turns out to be the case, we'll do what we have to. Until then, I don't want to talk about it any more. Hearing this kind of talk isn't going to help him."

Aaron took his sword and swung at the air. He knew he was out of practice. He flipped it from hand to hand, and his muscles seemed to remember what to do. He picked up the shield and practiced switching hands in a hurry. The exercise eased some of the tension.

Green chased a juicy fly to the open window, then stopped on the windowsill and let out a screech. It was the first sound Aaron had heard from him, and he ran to the cabin. There were four eggs left in the sink. One was hatching.

Aaron carried Black back to the woodpile and the rest gathered around again. While they waited, Aaron turned to Green.

"I have an important job for you. We need to know if people are coming. You can see them from the tops of the trees. Don't let them see you. If you see any people, come as fast as you can and holler like you just did. Can you do that?"

Green chirped.

"He can do it," said Pink.

Red let out a blood curdling screech.

"She wants to be important too," said Pink.

Aaron smiled. "Of course. We can't have too much help. Just stay out of sight."

They returned their attention to the small brown egg. It cracked open, as the others had, and a little tan colored dragon with multiple rows of dark brown leopard-like spots tumbled out. She immediately put her head under her wing and fell over. Her legs were longer than those of the other dragons ending in small feet and sharp claws.

"She's a forest dragon," said Pink. "They're nocturnal. She won't like the light either."

"We can put her in with Purple," said Duane. "I'll go talk to her."

As soon as Duane had the new hatchling settled with Purple, picked up his bow and arrow and called the others, except Black, outside.

"I have something to tell you guys," he said. "You see that pine cone up there?" Aaron pointed at a large cone a good distance away.

"I'm going to shoot it right out of that tree."

"Why?" White asked.

"You'll understand in a minute," said Aaron.

The dragons watched as Aaron drew his bow and sent an arrow into the pine cone. The cone flew off the tree and landed on the ground, pierced by the arrow. Aaron assassinated a few more cones at different heights and distances and sent Duane to retrieve the arrows.

Duane brought back the arrows, each piercing a very dead pine cone.

"What do we need these for?" he asked.

"We don't need them. We need our lookouts to know what can happen. There's not a man alive that could get up in a tree and catch one of them, and they know it. They need to understand why it's still important to stay out of sight."

"I understand now," said White. "My sister and I will make sure they all do."

"Now, I have a story for you. When I was a lad, a bit younger than Duane, there was a boy who was a little different. He walked with a bit of a gimp, and he couldn't always get his words out quite right."

"What happened to him?" asked Duane.

"Nothing good. Instead of helping him out, the other boys laughed at him. Sometimes they threw stones. He learned to stay out of sight, but he listened to everything. Later, we found out he'd hide and listen to things he shouldn't. Anyway, years went by and nobody gave much thought to him. Then the war came."

"Did he fight in the war?"

"No. He'd spent most of his life staying hidden, and he'd found pretty much every secret passage in the castle. He sold the information, and a lot of people died because of it. He thought with the money he'd
have a better life elsewhere."

"Did he?"

"No. Nobody keeps a traitor alive. Had he not always been an outcast, he'd have known that. Now, some people are going to be outlaws and traitors. The only thing for them is hanging. I don't think he was one of those people. I never forgot him."

"Are you telling us this because of Black?" asked Duane.

"Yes. You know, even when they lost their own kin later on, none of the men who had jeered and thrown stones as boys thought they'd done anything wrong. Truth is, they'd made an outcast, and that's what they got."

"So it was their fault."

"Maybe, a little bit," said Aaron. "There's no excuse to turn traitor, and that's on his soul forever, but if he'd had friends to be loyal to, he probably wouldn't have done it. Now, I don't know if Black is following an ill nature, or if his brains just haven't caught up with his stomach."

"Most of what he's done was pretty dumb," said Duane.

"Right now he's crouched in the woodpile scared half to death. What he's overheard has him terrified. What are you going to do about it?"

They all looked at Aaron for an answer.

"You get back to catching your bugs. That's one thing we have plenty of around here. I want you all to think on it," said Aaron.

Aaron went back to the cabin to check on Black and the three remaining eggs. "I hope the rest of you get yourselves hatched pretty soon," he said. He was becoming concerned, imagining the cabin being surrounded, and all of them trapped inside.

He was surprised to see Mountain coming in the door with a huge grub in his mouth. He took it to the woodpile where he dropped it in front of Black. Black looked uneasily at Mountain, and the multi-colored dragon backed off, leaving the grub in front of Black.

Black flicked his tongue at it, looked warily at Mountain, and gobbled it up.

A few minutes later Yellow followed Mountain's lead, and brought food to his injured brother.

Aaron remembered seeing a shovel in the root cellar, and he had an idea. In the bush next to the clearing, he rolled a heavy log out of the way, dug a small trench, and rolled the log back in place. Starting tomorrow morning, Purple and Brown would have a safe cave during the day, where they would not be found if the cabin was searched.

The day passed. Pink and White made no effort to help Black, but didn't threaten him either. Black relaxed a little. They talked of dinner and of the new outdoor cave. Mountain found a leaf covered in caterpillars and brought it in to Black.

Black was puzzled, if a bit less anxious, but he happily accepted the food.

"Around here we do not eat each other," Aaron told him. "We look out for each other."


Chapter 13
The Sky Dragon

By Cindy Warren

As the day drew to a close, Aaron sent the dragons back outside. Purple and Brown needed a little coaxing, but once Brown discovered the abundance of bugs around the clearing, she was quite content.

"Starting tomorrow morning, nobody goes in the cabin during the day," said Aaron. "Duane, you take the tea and whatever you think you can use and hide it in the root cellar. Just keep enough for tonight and tomorrow morning. I smell trouble."

"I don't smell anything," said Duane.

"Listen. What do you hear?"

"Nothing," Duane looked at Aaron, confused.

"Is that normal?

"No."

"I haven't heard so much as a gopher all day," said Aaron. "No birds, and not a single coyote howled last night."

"Maybe they smell the dragons," Duane said hopefully.

"Maybe, but there's more to it than that. Things are bad, and they'll be looking to blame the witch. The soldiers are coming for her. I wouldn't be surprised if they burned the cabin."

"She didn't do anything, did she?"

"No!" Pink, who had been listening, chimed in. "It's the king's fault!"

"I don't know anything about witchin', but I know something about people," said Aaron. "It's unlikely, even when she was alive. It would only get her killed. She's never been a fool."

"She isn't bad," Pink insisted.

"I don't think so either," said Aaron.

Purple and Brown explored the new cave Aaron had dug for them and scratched around making it more to their liking. Black was still in a great deal of pain and barely moved, but he did eat the food that was brought to him, and he no longer tried to hide.

Aaron watched the others. Mountain and Yellow had doubled their sizes, and their wings had grown to match their body sizes. Pink was exercising her wings, flapping up and down from the log. As he watched, she managed to spread her wings and glide several feet from the log.

Aaron had never seen Pink so excited.

"I can fly!" she exclaimed making a flying leap back onto the log.

"You sure can!" Aaron told her, though she had only managed to glide a few feet. "You keep that up and pretty soon you'll be up in the trees with Red and Green."

"I did it again," Pink squealed after making it about the same distance, with White doing her best to follow. Aaron felt bad for White. In spite of her great efforts, he could see her wings were not quite ready.

"It's getting dark," said Aaron. "It's about time we get everyone inside for the night." He picked up Black and carried him in. Black seldom moved, but Aaron knew he could if he wanted to. He didn't want him creeping off into the forest in the dark. "Let's see if you can make it in the window," he said to Pink.

"I did it!" It had taken several attempts, but Pink could hardly contain herself. White was almost shaking with frustration. Pink flapped back and forth between the cold stove and the counter. The night was warm and clear, with a full moon and a light breeze, and Aaron refused to allow a fire.

"Will they come tonight?" Duane asked.

"I doubt it. Dylan is the Captain of the Guard, and I've known him since he could walk. He's smart. I don't think he'll send his men to a witch's cabin on the night of a full moon. They wouldn't like it, and he'll want to keep their trust and respect," said Aaron.

"But if they smell your cooking on that breeze they may change their minds," he added."

"No fire," Duane grumbled.

Aaron closed the window and settled them for the night. He would have preferred to spend the warm night outside with his horse, but something told him this might be the last night they'd all spend together here. He wrapped himself in his blanket and soon found himself swimming with Blue.

The water dragon welcomed him happily. Aaron noted how much he had grown, and was glad he had released him when he had. He would have a hard time to transport him now.

"Aaron must go," said Blue.

"What, why? I just got here."

"Sky dragon need Aaron."

Aaron didn't have time to wonder. He couldn't have slept any longer anyhow. Pink and White were both screeching.

Aaron dragged himself out of his blanket and joined them at the sink, followed by Duane.

"He can't get out!" Pink screeched

Aaron could hear scratching inside the large pale blue egg, but he saw there was no crack in it.

"He can't breathe! Get him out!" Pink was in a panic.

Aaron had never seen her so upset. He picked up the egg and tapped it against the stove. The thick shell refused to crack. He tapped harder, to no avail.

"Get the knife," Aaron said.

Duane grabbed the knife left behind by the would-be horse thieves. Aaron stabbed it into the shell and twisted. It had very little effect on the shell. He twisted harder.

"That's not working." Pink was upsetting the others.

"I should be able to punch a hole in it so he can breathe. Then I'll worry about getting him out," said Aaron. "If I'm not careful I'm going to run him through."

Aaron put the egg on the stove and chipped away at the shell. Finally, a small hole appeared. He heard more scratching from inside.

"He can breathe now," he said. "Now let's get him out." He picked up the axe.

"No!" This time it was White. The others crowded around, watching in horror as Aaron grabbed the axe by the blade. Even Black looked on, eyes wide.

"I'm not going to chop him in half," Aaron said. "Take it easy, guys. I'll get him out in one piece." He held it by the blade, using it as a wedge to pry the shell open. It took several minutes of chipping and prying, and the egg suddenly split open.

Duane caught the little blue and gray dragon just before he hit the floor. He carried him over to the window to get a better look at him by moonlight. Blue had called him the sky dragon. His colors would make him almost invisible in the sky.

"Put him in the sink until he gets on his feet," said Aaron. They watched as he wriggled his streamlined body upright. He had long tapered wings, slender limbs, and a long flat tail.

"He looks like he'll be a good swimmer too," said Duane.

Aaron agreed. This dragon's body looked built to be a strong swimmer and diver as well as a good flier. He was bigger than the others had been when they hatched. While the water dragon was a deep blue, this one was pale.

"We'll call this one Sky," said Aaron. He opened the window, hoping for some insects for him. Sure enough, within a few minutes they had flies. Aaron fed him and the others crowded around to meet him.

Duane picked up the large half inch shell and examined it. "How was he supposed to hatch out of that?"

"Sometimes egg layers have to bite them open," said White. She didn't volunteer any more information.

The hatchling climbed out of the sink and stretched his wings, and since he seemed to have plenty of company, Aaron shut the window and went back to sleep.

Aaron woke about two hours before dawn, with Mountain and Yellow next to him. He saw Purple and Brown beside Duane. He got up, re-stacked the firewood that had been the cave, and removed the straw from the sink and tossed it out into the bush. Purple and Brown woke, and he sent them out to their new cave.

The noise woke Duane, and together they cleaned up all signs of the dragons. Aaron opened the window and Red and Green flew out into the pre-dawn morning. He picked up the two remaining eggs and hid them in some thick brush. He'd ask the other dragons to keep an eye on them.

Just before dawn Green landed on the window ledge chirping.

"Someone's here," said Pink.

"Out!" Aaron ordered. Pink flew out the window, followed by White, who didn't exactly fly. Aaron heard hoofbeats outside. He grabbed Duane and almost threw him out the window, and tossed the remaining dragons out to him. Aaron heard voices. Someone was at the door. Duane and the dragons ran for the trees, but Aaron was trapped. He knew he wouldn't get out the window in time, so he closed it.


Chapter 14
Dylan

By Cindy Warren

Aaron heard a loud thumping on the door. He opened it.

"There's no need of that," he said.

"Aaron? What are you doing here?" It was Dylan, Aaron's old friend.

"Same as you, I reckon. The king's hoping for a witch to burn. He sent me to lay hands on her," said Aaron.

"Any sign of her?"

"Nope. Pretty much what I expected. I've been sitting here all night," said Aaron. "Get your guys in here. I have some tea left."

"They're checking on a noise around back," said Dylan.

"Already done," said Aaron. "That horse of mine has been kicking up a bit. He doesn't like it here too much."

"Okay then. We had the same problem riding up. Something's spooking the horses. You really stayed here all night?"

"Sure. Nothing to worry about. Sorry there's only one chair. Your guys can grab some of that firewood to sit on," said Aaron.

Dylan gave Aaron a strange look.

"You don't really think there's a witch, do you?" said Aaron. "You know the king's been setting me to work that don't need doing. You know I know it too."

Dylan admitted he did.

"Ya know," said a man Aaron didn't recognize, "word has it she's long dead. They say she had a dragon for a familiar. Rode around on the thing. In fact, it was my double-great grandfather what got her. Got both her and her dragon. My Granddad says her ghost is still around."

"You believe that?" asked Aaron. "You know how it is with stories. They grow with the telling. She wouldn't have been the first hag with too many dents in her head to be burned as a witch."

"It's the truth," the man insisted.

The look on Dylan's face said he didn't believe a word of it.

"You should burn this place down," the man insisted.

"Why?" Aaron asked. "If the king's wanting a witch to burn, that won't catch her. If she's around, it's going to scare her off for good. If she doesn't exist, and I don't believe she does, this makes a perfectly good hunter's cabin."

"We're not going to go settin' the woods on fire," said Dylan. "We've got enough trouble without that."

"Yeah, I heard there's been trouble," said Aaron.

"It's getting worse," said Dylan. "There's been local uprisings. Now there's talk of invaders from the north."

"If they cross the border, you know where to find me," said Aaron. "I'm not too old to be of use, and that horse of mine still lives up to his name when he wants to."

"You still riding Demon?" asked Dylan.

"You bet. There's not a better horse in ten kingdoms."

"I just might take you up on that. It's time we were going. We've got a ways to go today. One more question before we go, you haven't seen a kid around here, have you?"

"No. This place spooks kids pretty bad. Why? Somebody lose a kid?"

"His folks were involved in some trouble," said Dylan. "The kid got away. There's some people wanting to talk to him."

"Kid big enough to have any say?" Aaron asked.

"Nah, and I'm not looking too hard. I don't hold with handing kids over to be questioned. Mostly they haven't done nothing. Then they get so scared they say most anything, and you can't trust none of it. We end up chasin' our tails," said Dylan.

Aaron considered asking the kid's name, but decided he didn't want to appear too interested.

"Speaking of tail chasin', I'd best get back to it and let you get about your business. It's been great to have some company."

Aaron walked the men out to the road and watched them ride off. He stood there a couple of minutes, making sure they were gone. Then he hurried back to the bush behind the cabin.

"They're gone," he called. "You all can come out."

Duane crawled from the bushes, carrying Black. Except for the two nocturnal dragons, the rest followed.

"Is there something you want to tell me?" asked Aaron.

"Like what?"

"Dylan tells me they're looking for a kid,' said Aaron.
"You know anything about that?"

Duane went silent, unsure what to do.

"Duane, we're going to have to trust each other. Now, kids don't get much say in what the grownups do. I'm not going to be turning you in, 'cause I don't believe it was your fault. What kind of trouble are your folks in?"

"You're a knight. You swore an oath. You have to tell. I can't betray my father!" For the first time since Aaron had known him, Duane burst into tears.

"I won't make you betray your father," said Aaron. "But I want you to know, I know the tax collectors are taking more than folks can spare. I know those folks are hiding a chicken coop or two in the forest. I'm not trying too hard to catch them."

"What if you get caught?"

"I just did. They believed everything I told them. Some of it was even true. You want to hear about it? I think it might even be safe to have some hot tea."

Duane dried his eyes, made some tea, and listened to Aaron's story.

"Was she really riding around on a dragon? Can we do that? Was that one the mother of these?"

"Well, I'm not real sure, but I suspect there's some truth to it. I'd say there's a good chance she was the mother. It's going to be some time before we're riding them instead of the other way around."

Duane still held Black. The little dragon stretched out along his forearm, and though his tail dangled a bit, he was about the same length. Mountain, Purple and Yellow were a bit bigger, and Green, who hadn't grown as much as the others, wasn't much bigger than a crow. Pink had grown to the size of a large owl, and Red and White weren't far behind.

They had just finished their tea when Pink landed on the windowsill.

"Eggs are hatching," she said.

"Both of them?" Aaron asked.

"Yes, both."

Aaron lifted the eggs from where he'd hidden them and carried them to a patch of short grass. These last two were both gray, and each a little smaller than his fist. They gathered around, curious to see the last two hatchlings.

"What are those?" Duane asked.

Aaron had no idea. The little beasts that rolled out of the eggs were slate gray, and resembled a curious mix of a forest dragon and the stone gargoyles Aaron had seen decorating churches. Had they not been so small, they would have been frightening.

Mountain and Yellow, who had been busy catching fat grubs for their new siblings while they waited for them to hatch, sat unmoving, staring at them. Aaron took the grubs and speared them on sticks to offer them to the newcomers. He didn't know if they would bite, but they certainly looked like they could.

The food was quickly gobbled up. They sat on thick haunches, and their bulldog faces and eyes looked around for more. Sharp pointed teeth lurked behind thick lips. Aaron thought the pair were the ugliest things he'd seen in his life.

Pink regained her composure first.

"They might like some water," she said.

Duane ran to the pump.

The pair lapped it up and sat, eyes taking in the world around them. Finally Mountain got his nerve and moved in to greet them. Yellow followed with another grub, which they both went for at once, tearing it in half.

Black had slowly backed off and found himself an anthill. The ants were doing their utmost to drive off the intruder, only to be lapped up. The twins noticed, and were soon digging and gobbling up ants and their larvae. Black flamed at the irritating pair, driving them away from his dinner.

"Maybe they'd be happier with full bellies," said Aaron. He sent Duane to the cellar for bread and meat.

Duane returned with the food and sat in front of them, offering it. They ate until their bellies bulged, then climbed into his lap, curled next to each other and fell asleep.

By noon, the dragoyles, as Duane had named them, were running around chasing their own bugs. A couple more flames from Black let them know their thieving would not be tolerated. Mountain seemed happy to help them turn over logs for the tasty treats underneath.

Aaron dozed under a tree. He hadn't had much sleep the night before, and neither, so it seemed, had the dragons. Soon they were stretched out in the sun beside him. Purple and Brown slept in their cave. Red and Green kept watch. Black was moving a little more, digging up the anthill. Things were quiet, for now.


Chapter 15
The Dragoyles

By Cindy Warren

The two new hatchlings, named the Dragoyles by Duane, raced around the clearing looking for anything they could eat. Moths, ants, grubs, worms of any kind, as well as the odd fungus were all on the menu for the odd little twins.

As long as their bellies were full, they seemed quite content. If they knew they were ugly, they didn't care. Once they were past the shock of something so different from themselves hatching, the other dragons didn't have a problem with them.

Mountain, the strongest of the dragons, rolled another log over, looking for edible delights underneath. When a mouse ran out, it was immediately snatched up by Red, who could manage mice quite easily by now. The twins made a grab for it. Red flew up into a tree, making it clear she was not going to share.

The two ran at the tree, chattering like angry squirrels. They made it a few inches up the trunk and slid back down, landing on their round little haunches and rolling on the ground. Flapping still useless wings, they made another charge at the tree. Red ignored them. They clung to the trunk for a few moments, unwilling to give up the prize. The effort proved too much for their newly hatched bodies, and they tumbled back into the grass.

Duane was rolling on the ground laughing. The Dragoyles seemed to have no idea what the laughter meant, and they ignored him. They chattered angrily at the base of the tree until Red, finished with her prize, flew off.

Pink looked at Duane curiously and turned to Aaron.

"What's the matter with him?" she asked.

"Nothing. He just finds them amusing. Do you understand any of what they're saying?"

Pink didn't answer. She was watching Duane like he'd lost his mind. That got Aaron laughing too, and Pink was getting annoyed.

Aaron, after an anxious night and an even more tense morning, couldn't control the laughter.

Soon White was beside Pink, followed by Sky, Mountain, and Yellow.

"Are they going to die?" asked White.

Pink didn't know.

Mountain climbed into Aaron's lap, stretched up into his face, tongue flickering. Yellow ran to Duane. Poor Sky stood by, trying to figure out what was going on.

Realizing he was scaring the dragons, Aaron forced himself to stop laughing.

"Seems our friends have no sense of humor," he said. "You better stop that and calm them down."

Duane sat up, still trying to stop laughing, and scratched Yellow's head. "It's okay," he said. "We haven't gone crazy. It was just so funny."

Pink and White sat glaring at Aaron. Had they been bigger, it would have been terrifying. He had to force himself not to laugh.

Watching this, Duane imagined Pink and White scolding Aaron, and didn't think he'd be able to control himself, so he ran off into the bush, followed by Yellow.

Left alone with two angry dragons, Aaron had to choke down the urge to laugh. He knew he'd scared them, and hadn't known they wouldn't understand laughter, but the furious little beasts did nothing to quell his urge to laugh some more.

Aaron took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I scared you. They just looked so funny, trying to climb that tree."

"Funny?"

Try as he might, Aaron could not explain funny to Pink or White. Mountain snuggled next to him, just glad he was okay. He didn't seem to understand all the fuss.

"Was it 'funny' when Black attacked the horse?" Pink wanted to know.

"No. That was dangerous." Aaron tried to explain the difference. "Demon could and would have killed Black. Those two today were in no danger."

Pink puffed herself up. Aaron was still struggling not to laugh. A small pink dragon trying to look angry and ferocious was hilarious to him, but he didn't want to upset her further.

Fortunately, they were interrupted by the two Dragoyles fighting over a mushroom. Aaron jumped up and grabbed it.

"No!" he said. "This one will make you sick. You'll have a horrible bellyache. Pink, can you make them understand?"

Neither Pink nor the twins had any concept of sickness, or of bellyaches.

Aaron took the mushroom and threw it as far as he could. The two ran after it. All Aaron could do was hope they were distracted by something else before they found it.

There were plenty of tasty distractions, but the Dragoyles were determined. Their mushroom had been taken away, and they wanted it back. They scoured the underbrush until one found it, and the other sank his teeth in as well, and the two chattered and fought until it was ripped to pieces. Unfortunately, they had both swallowed more than enough.

A short time later, two Dragoyles dragged themselves out of the bush with their tongues hanging out. Duane had pulled himself together and returned to the clearing.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Looks like they found the mushroom I threw away. They didn't know what a bellyache was. They're about to find out," said Aaron.

They crawled up to Aaron and sat together in front of him with mouths open and eyes pleading.

"Can't you do something?" asked Duane.

"Is this funny?" asked Pink.

"No to both," said Aaron. "They ate it. They're in real pain and they're in for a rough night. Nothing funny about that."

The two little beasts looked so pathetic he had to resist the urge to say I told you so. The sun was setting, and Purple and Brown emerged from their cave. They had not yet met the Dragoyles.

Purple was curious, and approached with a flickering tongue, then recoiled in horror when the little creature screeched and rolled in the grass, followed by his brother. Brown scrambled up into Aaron's lap, looking to him for an explanation.

"They'll be okay." He recounted the story of their hatching. "They have bellyaches."

Brown looked at him questionly.

"Pain here." Aaron put his hand on his stomach, and Brown regarded her two new brothers from the safety of his lap. Purple watched, perplexed, not knowing whether to be scared or sympathetic.

"Mushrooms make bellyaches?" asked White.

"Some can do a lot worse than that," said Aaron. "If you want to eat a mushroom, you better show it to me first."

"I do not eat mushrooms," said White.

"No mushrooms," Pink agreed.

"There are many mushrooms. Some are good," Aaron told them. "I only eat the ones I know well."

"No mushrooms," Pink repeated.

"Maybe we should take them inside," said Duane.

Aaron disagreed. "They ate the wrong mushroom. It's going to have to come out. It's not likely to smell too good."

The little beasts let out such pathetic moans Aaron found himself wishing the witch would show up. Perhaps she'd have some remedy, but there was no sign of her. The two had curled themselves into tight balls, rolling on the ground.

Duane offered them some water, hoping that would help. They took only a couple of sips, but one climbed into the pan and rolled his body in the water.

"Yuck!" Duane was horrified by the smelly mess left behind. "Now I know why they have to stay outside."

He threw the contents into the bush and rinsed the pan.

Black, unaffected by the smell, was thrilled with the fat, easy to catch flies it attracted. He was moving better by the hour, but still very slowly.

"See if the other one wants a bath," said Pink.

Aaron sent Duane for more water. It was getting dark, and the humans were wondering what to do, but a couple of smelly messes later, the twins were feeling slightly better.

Red, Green, Sky, White, and Pink huddled together in the lower branches of a pine tree. Black stared at them. Aaron lifted him into the tree, and they let him stay.

Purple and Brown, who preferred the darkness, and who still didn't know what to make of their two new brothers, wandered around looking for food while watching them carefully.

Aaron decided he'd sleep under a tree near his horse, and Mountain soon joined him under his blanket. The twins seemed to draw comfort by curling up next to Mountain. Yellow went to Duane, and Purple and Brown joined them later, once they'd eaten enough.

Minutes later Aaron found himself again swimming with Blue, who seemed to already know about Sky's difficult hatching, and of the two dragoyles. A few minutes later they were joined by Mountain.

Blue and Mountain rolled and splashed, enjoying each other. Blue caught a good sized fish and gobbled it up, and Mountain tried to imitate him. It didn't work. Blue caught another one and tried offering it to him. That didn't work either, and Aaron was pretty sure he knew why.

"I don't think we can eat here," he said. "Remember, we're sleeping somewhere else."

Blue considered that, and ended up eating the fish himself.

"What are these two new hatchlings?" Aaron asked.

"Not know. Different."

"Different how?"

Blue didn't know. He knew they'd hatched, but not what they were or why they were different.

Aaron decided to forget about questions for now. Perhaps he'd take the dragons to Hidden Lake tomorrow. Blue picked up his thoughts and agreed. Tonight they would simply enjoy the moment.


Chapter 16
The Lake

By Cindy Warren

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

The first thing Aaron noticed when he awoke was the smell. The Dragoyles had crept out into the bush around the clearing in the pre-dawn hours. They were able to eat again, and were clearing the last of the mushroom from their bodies.

The dragons were unaffected by the stench, and were happily feasting on the insects it attracted. Aaron saddled Demon, sent Duane for some food to take along, and announced "We're going fishing."

Purple and Brown didn't want to come out into the light, and Aaron decided they'd be safe enough in their cave for the day. He had Duane carry Black, and let Sky ride on his shoulder, and the others were able to follow along, with Red and Green keeping watch.

The dragons were fascinated by the lake. Mountain and Yellow proved to be strong swimmers. Sky had been born to dive, and though she couldn't yet fly, she was perfectly at home in the water. The Dragoyles preferred the shallows, where swarms of insect larvae swam.

Aaron sat watching them. As in his dream, White preferred to swim on top of the water, like a duck. Pink was doing her best to copy her. Red and Green flew over top, refusing to dive in at all. Black sat by the shore, wanting to swim, but still too sore to do it. Mountain saw him there and brought him a small fish. Black forgot his misery as he tore into it.

Aaron was considering lighting a fire when Red let out a shriek. Someone was coming. Dragons disappeared into the bush, along with Duane, carrying Black.

Aaron grabbed his weapons and backed Demon against a large tree. Three mounted men approached. These were not farmers, and not any of his own people. He recognized their garments. They were scouts, and that meant there were enemy troops they were scouting for.

"Hand over the horse," called the lead swordsman. "And you might live to see tomorrow."

Aaron, who had his bow drawn, let an arrow fly, striking the man in the shoulder joint.

"Not today," he called back. "Your wound isn't serious. You can ride back and tell your captain the area is well defended."

"By you?" The leader snorted and signaled to his two companions. They raised swords and shields and rode toward Aaron.

Unable to penetrate the shield, Aaron put an arrow in one man's knee. The pain wouldn't stop him, but it would make it difficult for him to fight. The pair advanced toward Aaron, and he knew he was in trouble. He grabbed his sword and shield and prepared to go down fighting.

The third man, sword drawn and shield protecting his body, whooped and charged at Aaron, then toppled from his horse and hit the ground hard. A rock twice the size of his fist rolled away from him. Another rock flew from the bush and hit the second man on the back of his neck. He lifted his shield and Aaron was able to send a second arrow into his hip.

As it dawned on him that his enemy was not alone, the leader called off the attack.

"Get off the horse," Aaron told him. "Or the next one goes through your neck."

With the arrow still protruding from his shoulder, and unable to wield both his sword and his shield, the man dismounted.

"Now you," he told the second man.

Seeing the arrow still aimed at his leader's neck, he obeyed.

"Now throw down the swords. If you can carry the shields along with your comrade, you can keep them."

Aaron carefully studied their faces, making sure they hadn't seen anything unusual. They stared at him in anguished disbelief, but didn't have the look of someone who had seen something supernatural.

"You tell your commander that if he's looking for sitting ducks, he won't find them here. Now, come and get your comrade."

"Is he dead?"

"I don't know." Aaron was not about to lower his weapon to find out. "You want to leave him behind?"

They didn't. With a great deal of difficulty, they dragged him back along the way they had come.

Aaron watched, bow drawn, until they were well out of sight, though he didn't expect they'd come back today.

He gathered the horses and tethered them together, then picked up the swords and tied them across a saddle. Duane cautiously emerged from the bush.

"Are they gone?"

"For now."

Duane studied the horses.

"Take your pick," Aaron told him.

"For real?" Duane could not contain his excitement.

"I think you've earned it. Without those rocks you threw I might not be here right now."

Duane looked sheepish. "It wasn't all me," he admitted. "I threw the second rock. Got the guy in the neck. Mountain dropped the first one."

"Mountain?" The dragon emerged from the bushes, flapping his double set of wings, and launched himself onto one of the saddles, much to the chagrin of the horse.

"He saw you in trouble and he got those wings working," said Duane.

Mountain jumped from the horse into Aaron's arms, tongue flickering toward his face.

"Thanks, little guy. I owe you one." He gave him a hug and put him on the ground next to the water.
"Think you can catch a few more fish? We'll even fry one up for you. Get Yellow and Sky to help you. I think we'll be having some company tonight."

Aaron pulled out a handful of bulbs from next to the water and showed them to Duane. "We'll need lots of these too. They're pretty good roasted. Tonight we're going to light the stove and not worry about the smoke."

While the dragons fished, Aaron turned a large log for Black to forage under and hunted about for mushrooms and other edibles. Soon he had all the saddlebags full. It was time to go.

Duane mounted one of the horses carrying Black. The little Dragoyles had exhausted themselves, and he let them ride too. Mountain was practicing his flying, and seeing this, Yellow was doing his best to copy him. White perched herself proudly on one of the empty saddles. Sky scrambled onto Aaron's shoulder.

Back at the cabin, Aaron sent Duane to unsaddle the horses. He put the fish into cold water to keep them fresh, and after tossing a couple of smaller ones to Purple and Brown, he set about lighting the stove, with a little help from Red. Once it was going, he gathered up some green wood and threw it in, knowing it would smoke, and feeling fairly certain Dylan would get his message. Then he went to help Duane with the horses.

"Get them all out of sight, just in case we attract the wrong company," Aaron told Duane. "I'll help you put the saddle you want to keep in the root cellar. Do you need more time to make your choice?"

"No," said Duane.

"Okay. Get them all out of sight, and we'll get supper started. I'll get the dragons to watch for any sign of company. Dylan needs to know about our little adventure this afternoon."

Aaron and the dragons watched for signs of anyone approaching while Duane fried the fish and prepared the bulbs and greens. Mountain was delighted with the fried fish he'd been promised. When Green landed on the windowsill chirping, he was also rewarded with a piece. Sending his charges out of sight, Aaron picked up his weapons and went to greet the visitors.

"What are you planning to do with those?" Dylan asked, laughing.

"Take out the villains who think they're going to get some supper."

"Was it someone other than you who sent us the invitation?"

"Must have been that witch who lives here. But since you found me, you better get inside."

"Looks like you had a bit of luck," Dylan said when he saw the fish.

"You guys can help yourselves. I have something else for you."

"Can we eat it?" Dylan asked.

"I wouldn't recommend it."

"I don't know if we should eat this." One of the men, who Dylan had introduced as Gareth, said.

In reply, Dylan tore off a large strip of fish and popped it into his mouth. "If Aaron says it's okay, then it is."

"I caught them this afternoon," said Aaron. "Anyone who doesn't want them doesn't have to eat them. Got some roasted roots and greens too."

Gareth's stomach got the best of him. He found himself eating dinner in the cabin he'd wanted to burn.

"Hang on a second," said Aaron. "I said I had something else, and I'm going to need it or you're not going to believe my tale." He went outside to retrieve the swords he'd hidden.

Dylan examined them, impressed. They were well made, strong swords.

Aaron spent the next hour spinning a much embellished tale of the afternoon's events.

"A dozen guys and only three swords between them?" Dylan asked.

"Well, I couldn't get them all. I'm just one man. But I did get these, and two of their horses too."

"All by yourself?"

"Yes."

"Okay. If you trust this helper what don't exist, that's good enough for me," said Dylan. "Can I see the horses?"

"Sure. You make the tea and I'll go get them."

Dylan found the water and put it on to boil. When Aaron got back, he'd have to admit he had no idea how to make tea.

Aaron returned with the horses, spinning yarns no sane man would have believed, but the swords and horses were real, and Dylan knew of his friend's story telling abilities. The number of men had been exaggerated, and he'd most likely had help, but his detailed description of their dress and the direction they'd taken was accurate.

"They look like they've been ridden pretty hard," Gareth said as he and Dylan looked them over.

"They're good, solid horses. They'll be fine after a good rest," said Dylan. "And Aaron, you were right to send that message. Somebody's going to be wanting them back. You might want to take a break from witch catching and ride out with us in the morning."


Chapter 17
The First Battle

By Cindy Warren

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

This was something Aaron hadn't considered. He knew the horses had left a trail a blind buffoon could follow, and that was why he'd signaled Dylan.

"You want me to come with you?" he asked.

"Yes, of course. We can use another man. There's nobody better with a longbow than you. You don't think we're going to leave you here alone, do you?" said Dylan.

"I guess not." Aaron couldn't say he was not alone. He had to decide what was the best way to protect Duane and the dragons. If he stayed, he knew there was an entire battalion headed his way.

"Well?"

"You know I'm a little rusty with the sword," he said.

"We can go outside and work on that right now."

Aaron picked up his sword and shield. "Let's go."

For the next hour his concentration was totally absorbed by fencing with Dylan. Dylan was tough, and let Aaron know exactly where he was weak. By the end of the workout, both were exhausted.

"You're a little slow with the sword," said Dylan. "But you hit what you shoot at, so that's what you'll do tomorrow."

Aaron realized he'd known it all along. He couldn't defend his charges on his own. The enemy would not be taken by surprise twice. They'd likely have men searching the bushes. His best chance was to throw in with Dylan and his men and drive the invaders off before that happened.

"You've got yourself another man," he said.

"Good. We'll leave at first light," said Dylan.

"Now, I'm going to give the horses a little more water," said Aaron. "I didn't want to give them too much at once and cause bloat."

"I'll have one of the men do it," said Dylan. "All the horses need water, and I see they aren't objecting to the land around the cabin any more."

Aaron didn't know what to say. He had wanted an excuse to get away and talk to Duane.

"Okay," he agreed. "It will be dark soon. You and the men can use the cabin. I'll take the first watch. I'm not quite ready for sleep."

"You go ahead and send that helper what don't exist home before he gets in any trouble. Then get some sleep. First let my men take care of the horses. I don't want to see you with your tail draggin' in the morning."

Aaron didn't argue. He watched Dylan until he disappeared into the cabin and went to find Duane and the dragons.

"I want to help," said Duane.

"You'll help by staying here and taking care of the dragons. You keep them here, or they'll be shot the minute they're seen. There will be a lot more men this time."

"I know. I'm scared. I don't want you to get hurt."

"I know, Duane. There's always that chance, but Dylan and his men are the best. This is our best chance. If we sit and wait for them to hunt us down, they will."

Reluctantly, Duane agreed. Aaron returned to Dylan to make plans. The dragons stayed out of sight.

An hour later it was dark. Aaron took his blanket and stretched out next to his horse. Mountain and Yellow joined him under the blanket. Within a few minutes they found themselves again in the dream with Blue.

"Bad men coming," said Blue.

"Yes." Aaron did his best to explain things to them. "Dylan and his friends will help me send them away."

"Dragons help too."

"No," said Aaron. "Those men will put arrows into you as soon as they see you."

"Bad men not see dragons."

"They better not see dragons," said Aaron. "Dragons will be dead. Understand? Make sure they all understand."

"Dragons understand."

The night passed too quickly. Aaron awoke before dawn, and Mountain and Yellow crept off into the forest. He saddled Demon and went to find Dylan. He and the men already had the stove lit and were scrounging around the cabin for whatever food they could find. They had brought little with them, and their search had turned up a few apples and a couple of wrinkled potatoes. After a meager breakfast, they set off.

They followed the deer trail to Hidden Lake. Dylan thought there was a good chance of finding the enemy there. He expected they too would set out at dawn to retrieve their horses and take their revenge on Aaron. They'd be looking to pick up the trail from the lake.

Dylan halted them just before the lake, listening.

"Hear anything?" he asked softly.

"No."

"Good. I think we got here first." He sent archers, including Aaron, to take up positions and wait.

They didn't have to wait long. Aaron had to resist the urge to whistle between his teeth. He'd expected maybe a dozen men, but he saw at least fifty. They were seriously outnumbered. He didn't see a choice, and Dylan apparently didn't, either.

"Fire!"

Several men fell, and their fellows quickly fell into formation behind large, rectangular shields, leaving their fallen comrades where they were. Aaron could see arrows pointed at them from between the shields.

This was a problem. A few archers tried firing over top of the shields, but the men simply tilted them to protect their heads as well. Neither Aaron nor Dylan could see a way to penetrate that wall of shields. Retreat was not an option. It would allow the enemy into the trees, giving them the advantage.

The enemy began to advance. The wall of shields moved toward them. Dylan's little band was in serious trouble. That was when the first rocks fell from the sky. Aaron aimed and fired as soon as the shields were lifted. He saw a couple of others do the same.

Next to fall was a burning log. It hit the ground, spraying hot sparks between the shields.

"They didn't," Aaron muttered. But he knew they had.

Rocks and burning sticks rained down from the sky. The men were startled, but soon realized the firestorm was solely aimed at the enemy. They seized the advantage. None of the amazed men could see where it was coming from.

Aaron remembered what Blue had said. Blue hadn't agreed that the dragons wouldn't help him, he'd simply said the bad men wouldn't see them, and they hadn't. Aaron had no idea how, but he was sure he knew who.

The enemy scattered, some running for the lake and others for the woods, to be cut down by Dylan and his men. A very few managed to mount their horses and flee behind their shields. Arrows and rocks flew everywhere.

One man blundered into Aaron, sword drawn. Aaron responded, remembering his match with Dylan yesterday. Dylan was one of the best. This opponent was only average, and hadn't been looking for a fight, but wasn't about to back down and be jeered at as a coward. He swung wildly, hoping for a lucky strike. He didn't get one, and Aaron soon had the upper hand. His opponent struggled valiantly for a few more minutes, then threw down his sword in surrender.

It was all over. A few who had fled into the lake returned home with stories of invisible lake monsters who had chewed on their body parts. The man who had surrendered to Aaron, along with a handful of others, were being taken back to the king for questioning. Any horses still milling around were tethered together for the trip back to the king's stable.

Once the prisoners were securely tied, Dylan handed them over to Gareth, who had no desire to return to the cabin.

"You're in charge," he said. "You know what to do. Take these men to the castle and take care of the horses. Tell the king I'll be there soon. Aaron and I have some business to discuss."

Aaron pointed them in the direction of the main road and joined Dylan on the deer trail.

"I was as surprised as you," he said. "I'm no wizard. I can't make stuff fall out of the sky. I don't have that ability."

"I know," said Dylan. "So who does?"

Aaron was silent.

"Aaron, you know there's a couple of dozen men headed home right now with a pretty fantastic tale. Whatever secret you've been keeping is out. She saved our hides just now. Maybe we can save hers."

"She's dead. I expect she has to stay that way."

"How do you know?"

"She told me."

"Are you telling me you've been talking to a ghost?" Dylan asked in disbelief.

"Yes."

"I want to talk to her."

"I don't know," said Aaron. "She's not one to take orders. You can go back to the cabin and talk to her. She might answer you, or she might not."

"I want to try. You know this isn't over. She chose to help you. I knew you had some help, but I figured it was either that kid or some farmer with a hay fork. I didn't figure on this."

"I have a feeling you're in for a few more surprises."

They rode in silence for a while as Dylan mulled things over. Things had taken an unexpected turn. Magic was something he'd never given much thought to, but after the morning's adventure, he was willing to take whatever help he could get.

They'd arrived at the cabin, and unsaddled their horses, leaving them together in the clearing. Inside, they found hot tea and a pot of stew just beginning to bubble.

"Where did that come from?" Dylan asked. "There was no food here this morning."

"I told you to expect a few more surprises. Don't worry, you're perfectly safe. Leave your weapons by the door. You don't want to scare anyone.


Chapter 18
Dylan Meets the Dragons

By Cindy Warren

Dylan sat in the single chair. Aaron sat on a piece of firewood.

"Is she here?" Dylan asked.

"I don't know. She does seem to know what's going on, but I have to tell you, she's not the only help we had today."

"The kid?"

"Yes, but there's more."

"I think you better start at the beginning," said Dylan.

Aaron did. He started with finding the eggs, meeting the witch, and each egg hatching into a fascinating little beast. Much to his surprise, he found the story difficult to embellish.

"I'd like to see them," Dylan managed to stammer when Aaron had finished his story.

"I'm sure they're curious about you too. Let's see if they'll come and meet you."

Aaron went out to find them. He thought he could simply call them, but they were not dogs, and he didn't want to give that impression.

He returned, followed by Duane, who was carrying Black, and the dragons, with the exception of Purple and Brown. The look of disbelief on Dylan's face made Aaron want to laugh, but he forced it down, not wanting to upset the dragons.

Mountain went to Dylan and put his front legs on his knee, reaching his tongue toward his face.

Dylan stiffened and backed away.

Seeing Dylan's reaction, Aaron sat on the log next to them and reached over to scratch Mountain's head. Sky climbed onto his shoulder and stared intently at Dylan, who sat unmoving. The others took up whatever perches they could find, and sat staring at the stranger, unsure what to do.

Dylan's eyes fell on the Dragoyles, and Aaron thought he was about to fall out of the chair. He sat, gaping at the odd little faces, then at the rest of the colorful assortment.

"They're friendly, especially this one." Aaron gave Mountain's head another rub.

"There are more?" Dylan found his voice.

"There are three more. One's the water dragon. The other two don't come out in the daytime. If you're still around tonight, you can meet them," said Aaron.

"They can understand us?"

"We understand you perfectly." Pink strutted over in front of him, giving him her most intimidating look.

Dylan was too shocked to laugh. "You are what dropped rocks and fire out of the sky today? I thought you'd be a lot bigger."

"Yes." Pink glared at him. "We're big enough."

As if to punctuate her words, Black blew an impressive flame in his direction, followed by an acrid plume of smoke. Not to be outdone, Red blasted a piece of firewood with flame, setting it alight. Aaron quickly grabbed it and threw it in the stove. He knew he needed to break the tension.

"Pink, I know we haven't had guests before, but this is not the way we introduce ourselves. Pink, this is Dylan. Dylan, meet Pink."

"Pleased to meet you, Pink." Dylan smiled.

"Duane, meet Dylan. "Perhaps our guest would like some tea."

It became a game. The dragons all wanted to be introduced. The tension was broken.

"The lady who owns this place says they all have names," said Aaron, "but she thinks telling them would give us some kind of power over them. Right now, we're calling them by their colors."

"I've heard that before", said Dylan. "A slip of the tongue to a wizard, and he can put spells on you. Never believed it before today, I'm now I'm not so sure."

"Believe it," said Pink.

"It's the truth," White confirmed.

Dylan wasn't sure, but he was a brilliant strategist, and knew when to keep his mouth shut. He wasn't about to argue with a potential ally over something that made no difference to him.

Duane poured the tea and stirred the stew.

"The potatoes are a little hard," he said. "I was a bit busy this morning."

"I hear you were," said Dylan. "How did that come about? Did Aaron put you up to it?"

"No. Aaron told me to stay here with the dragons. It was the woman. She said you didn't have a chance. She said you'd all be killed, and then they'd be coming here to set the place on fire. She said hiding was not going to keep us safe."

"So you took all these little dragons and threw burning sticks at the enemy?"

"Not all of them. Just the ones that can fly, and Black, because he can flame. She made a spell so nobody could see us. She called it a glamour. We could appear as anything, or blend in with everything."

"And where is this very wise lady?" Dylan asked. "May I meet her?"

"Not tonight, I think. Making that spell was very hard for her. She's tired. If you have a message for her, you can tell Pink. Pink talks to her all the time."

"I want to thank her for her help this morning, and I would very much like to meet her."

"I will tell her," said Pink.

Dylan looked over at the stew. "Is this how you feed the dragons?"

"No," said Duane. "We give them a few bites, but mostly we let them catch their own food. Usually we eat outside. It's not a good idea to keep them all indoors for too long."

"Then that is what we should do." Dylan had quickly regained his composure, after being somewhat floored.

They sat outside watching the dragons while the stew boiled. Dylan found himself amused by their antics.

"I don't see the little green one," he said.

"He's our lookout. He's very good at letting us know if someone is coming. He doesn't need a spell to disappear. He just sits up in a tree and blends right in. Unless he moves, you won't see him."

They watched as Black stretched his wings and attempted a few stiff flaps. He'd dug up most of the anthills and was looking for another source of food. Mountain was running out of logs to turn for him. The others still fed him, but he was growing restless.

Duane poured tea. They sat, watching Yellow follow Mountain, as he usually did. Mountain was heavy, and flying was difficult. Still, since his maiden flight the day before, he was determined. He used his strong claws to climb up into a tree, then launched himself off. Yellow followed him into the tree, and sat looking down at the ground.

Mountain gave him a whistle of encouragement, and he took a flying leap, half flying and half falling to the ground. Mountain wouldn't let him give up, and nudged him back up the tree. He selected a spot in a nearby tree, and aimed for it, whistling for Yellow to follow him. Yellow leapt into the air, wings flapping hard, and ended up latched onto the trunk with his claws.

"He almost made it that time," said Dylan.

Black looked on, and Aaron thought he looked dejected.

"Don't worry, little guy," said Aaron. "You'll be up there with them soon."

Black slowly stretched his wings and tried flapping them. Finding it too painful, he blew a stream of flame and smoke into the air in frustration.

"Whatever that horse of yours busted, it wasn't his fire maker," said Dylan.

"I suspect it's some broken ribs," said Aaron. "It's going to take some time. He's doing pretty good. A few days ago he couldn't move at all."

"Some food usually cheers him up," said Duane. "I'll go and check on that stew."

"Any idea who the kid is?" asked Dylan.

"No. He's not saying much. The woman thinks he's okay, and so do I."

"There's a reward offered for a kid," said Dylan. "I think you may have him."

"What did he do?"

"I doubt he did much. The idea is that if they can get the kid, they can make his folks talk."

"I think we'll keep that to ourselves," said Aaron. "He'd want to help them, and he'd most likely end up getting himself killed. What did they do?"

"There are rumors, but the only thing we know for sure is they fed their own family instead of the king's. Better keep him out of sight. I doubt you'd be tempted by the reward even if we could collect it."

"I hear you," said Aaron. "Rewards don't apply to us; we're doing our jobs, but all it would take is a word to the wrong person. Some of the men might be tempted to split it."

"As for your other charges, keep them here. I'll have to convince the king you found a way to make the witch help you. I'm afraid we have a king foolish enough to serve up some pretty good little allies on a platter. This is not the time for anyone to know about them."

Duane came out with bowls of stew, and threw a piece of deer meat to Black. He wondered why Dylan didn't ask where it had come from.

They sat watching Mountain and Yellow work on their flying. Aaron threw a tough piece of meat to the Dragoyles and the men laughed as they fought over it, sharp teeth tearing it to shreds.

They had just finished eating when Green flew down from his perch chirping loudly before he disappeared. Duane and the other dragons disappeared into the woods.

"Someone's coming," said Aaron. He quickly hid the stew bowls.

Moments later, Gareth galloped into the clearing.

"The king is sick. There are rumors he's dying. He wants you," he told Dylan. "Things are bad. People are hungry, they're angry, and they're blaming him."

"Stay here and do what I told you," Dylan said as he threw the saddle on his horse. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

Aaron was happy to do as Dylan asked.


Chapter 19
The Witch is Back

By Cindy Warren

Dylan didn't return the next day, or the next. Aaron wasn't normally one to worry, but this time, not knowing what was going on was bothering him. He considered riding to the castle, but didn't want to leave Duane and the dragons undefended.

He sat outside watching the sun set, and Purple and Brown emerged from their cave. Brown and Sky were encouraging each other to fly, and Purple came to Aaron, sensing something was wrong. She climbed into his lap.

"Where's this lady who knows what's going on when we need her," Aaron asked. "I don't know what's happening, and it's driving me crazy. I need to know what's holding Dylan up."

Purple couldn't answer, so she lifted her face to his and tickled his nose with a forked tongue. Pink flew over and landed beside him.

"Pink, where is she?" Aaron asked. "I need to talk to her. She knew we were in trouble at the lake, and I think she knows what's going on now. I need some answers."

"She sleeps. She is very tired, and there is much trouble. Aaron must stay here. If Aaron dies, the dragons will die."

"Did she tell you that?"

"Yes. She said we can't stay safe by hiding for long," said Pink. "She said you knew that."

Aaron did know that, and though he didn't say so, it troubled him. The dragons were growing, and so were their appetites. He also knew men were telling tales of the battle by the lake, and the cabin would not be a refuge much longer.

"Tell her I want to talk to her," he said.

"I will tell her," Pink agreed.

Aaron sat watching the dragons hunt in the twilight. He'd noticed a lot more mice recently. A lack of predators had allowed them to multiply, and it was good news for the dragons. Mountain had caught his second one and was bringing it to Black, who had yet to catch one. Black was thrilled, and pounced on the prey, gobbling it up.

The little Dragoyles had figured out how to hunt the mice as a team, but not how to share once they caught one. The first one they'd caught had escaped while they fought over it. They learned quickly, and there were no more escapes after that.

They all looked so content and happy, yet Aaron knew that what one knew, they all knew. Still, they were perfectly comfortable living in the moment, and if they were capable of worry, Aaron couldn't tell. He considered asking Pink about it, then decided not to. If they weren't worried, why change that?

When it was almost too dark to see, Aaron and Duane grabbed their blankets and went to bed. It took Aaron a long time to fall asleep, but when he did he found himself with Blue. This time he was not alone. He found himself surrounded by all the dragons, including the Dragoyles, Duane, and the witch.

"We've been waiting for you," she said.

"I couldn't sleep."

"I want everyone together. This way is easier," she said.

Green had perched on White's back, refusing to get in the water. Pink also swam on top of the water. Red circled overhead. Mountain, Sky and Purple swam easily, and Brown and the Dragoyles were in the water, although a little unsure of this new experience. It was the first time Duane had seen Blue, and he was delighted. Black, who found he could swim without pain, was ecstatic.

"Aaron," said the witch, "I know both you and Dylan want to talk to me. You must stay with the dragons for now. You can't have them following you to the castle. Dylan will be back."

"What do you know?"

"The king is dying, and there is much trouble. Dylan is not able to come to you now. People are fighting over food. They think the castle has more than it does. They're trying to fight their way in. There is talk of a wizard with the power to drop fire from the sky. The enemy thinks it's you, and they want you dead. Dylan knows the truth, but he can't tell anyone yet."

"You told the dragons they couldn't stay safe by hiding. Why?"

"Aaron, they are not human children. Would you have me tell them pretty stories? That could get them killed. After years of being over-taxed and overburdened, the kingdom is in trouble. Our enemies know that. They plan to invade and take it. What do you think they'll do to you and the dragons?"

Aaron considered this. "You must have something in mind. Otherwise we would not be here."

"That is true. Your friend has an idea. It could work. Wait for him to come back, and talk to him. If I can tell you when and where the invasion is coming, you will have a chance."

Aaron looked over at the dragons. Other than Pink, who had been nearby listening, they seemed to be having so much fun. Even Red tried sitting on her siblings' backs and testing the water. Duane was with them, and although he knew something serious was going on, he seemed content to enjoy the moment.

"Look at them," she said, seeming to pick up on his thoughts. "You might learn something. Do not let what will happen later spoil what is happening now. You have a week, maybe a little more. You can enjoy it."

It made sense, Aaron decided. If a week was what they had, for Duane and the dragons, he'd make it the best week of their lives.

"One more thing," said the witch. "Within the next week, you must let the cave dragon go. If she resists, you must push her."

"Purple? Why?"

"Aaron, think. Did you think you would keep them all forever? You can see how fast they are growing. Three months from now, the cave dragon's tracks will be clearly visible in the snow. Before that, she may have to deal with invaders' fires. She doesn't fly, so how will she manage?"

He had to admit he hadn't been thinking too far ahead. His plan had been to see they all hatched, and care for them as best he could, but the situation had changed so much. It was time for a new plan.

"Pink said you told her the dragons would die if I did," he said.

"I told her that their best chance is for you to win, and for them to help you. If the people see them as allies who helped drive of invaders, they will not want to eat them. I can't read the black one very well, but I believe he will join you. Have you considered what you will do if you lose?"

"No," said Aaron. "I would never go into battle thinking like that."

"Then you must not. I will talk to them. If they are thinking they will die if you do, I need to set them straight. I do not see you losing, but neither of us is so foolish as to think anything in life is certain."

"You knew their mother?" Aaron asked. "That's why you are doing this?"

"Yes. Does it matter?"

"It might. I may have to convince some men to trust you. They're going to wonder why you'd help us."

"I can understand that. They fear being betrayed. I've grown rather fond of you and the boy, but I have no love for the rest of humanity. But I have nothing to gain by betraying you."

"Revenge?" Aaron ventured.

"I could have had that two hundred years ago. I made a choice. The dragons were more important. That hasn't changed."

"I believe you."

"Good. Now, go enjoy yourself for a while. I will talk to this one." She indicated Pink.

Aaron was happy to go.

"Aaron not worry," said Blue. "Aaron win. Dragons safe. See Purple Dragon here."

"Of course, Blue. We will win. Purple will be fine. I've known all along I'd have to let her go. I just didn't want to think about it."

"At least we can all come here at night," said Duane, who had been listening.

"Yes. Purple has a bond with you," said Aaron. "I'm glad you were able to come here and meet Blue."

"Me too. This is fun. How long can we stay?"

"Until morning. It comes too soon," said Aaron.

It did come too soon. They awoke, and Duane started breakfast. Black stretched and flapped his wings. It was getting easier for him each day. Aaron thought he'd be flying by the end of the week, and he had mixed feelings about it.


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