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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.


Chapter 20
Goodbye Purple

By Cindy Warren

Aaron picked at his breakfast. He found he didn't have much appetite, but the dragons had lost none of theirs. In fact, they seemed excited. Green, who hadn't grown much, picked caterpillars from a leaf and wolfed them down. The others looked for something a little bigger, though they still gobbled up any insect unfortunate enough to come their way.

He watched Black turning over small rocks and twigs. It was the first time he'd seen him do this on his own. After he'd found a few grubs, he used his powerful claws to climb onto the same log the others had used and stretched his wings. He flapped and seemed to be considering taking the next step. Aaron could see he still had some pain, but Black was determined. He marched back and forth on the log, flapping and stretching.

Duane came from the cabin and joined Aaron. "He'll fly pretty soon," he said. "I wonder if he'll grow into those wings."

"I imagine he will," said Aaron. "He's grown so much already. The beating he took doesn't seem to have affected his growing. He's been too well fed."

He tossed a piece of meat from his plate onto the ground in front of the log. Black went for it without thinking. He didn't exactly fly, and landed clumsily, but he was so focused on the food he didn't seem to notice. He righted himself and sat looking at Aaron, hoping for more. When it didn't come, he climbed back onto the log.

Aaron considered tossing another piece, then thought the better of it. Black sat there glaring at him.

"That's enough for now," he said. "You do too much all at once and you're going to start hurting again."

Black looked at Aaron, squawked, and settled himself.

"I think he remembers what happened to the Dragoyles when they didn't listen to you," said Duane.

"He's using his brain a bit more," said Aaron. "I hope that's a good thing."

"It might be worse if he didn't."

That got a smile from Aaron. It was so simple. He'd been so concerned about what might be going on in Black's head, he hadn't considered the alternative. Black was no longer the foolish creature who had attacked Demon. He seemed to be developing relationships with his siblings rather than seeing them as potential meals.

"You have a point there. There's nothing worse than an empty head."

"His head isn't empty any more," said Duane.

"Nope, it sure isn't. I guess there's no use in worrying about it. There's other things we have to worry about."

"Purple?"

"So you know."

"Yes," said Duane. "Purple knows too. She doesn't want to go, but she's afraid of fires."

"That's what I'm afraid of too," Aaron admitted. "That's why Dylan wouldn't let his men burn the cabin that first night they were here. Does Purple know where to go?"

"Yes. The woman told her to follow the stream that flows into Hidden Lake. It comes down from the mountains, and if Purple follows it all the way up, she'll find what she needs."

"We have a few days, maybe a week. Let's make the best of them," said Aaron. "We could invent some games so all the dragons can strengthen their wings. It would be good for them to have some fun with each other, especially Black."

Duane proved to be good at inventing games. He was creative, and his inventions ensured each dragon had a chance to win. By evening, when Purple and Brown emerged from their cave, he was creating games where they couldn't use their wings. The two nocturnal dragons joined in happily.

Pink landed on the grass next to Aaron. "It was a good idea," she said.

"What?"

"I know what you're doing," said Pink. "We all do. We all think it was a good idea. I have another idea. Tomorrow, make them team up so they have to work together to win the deer meat. Make them think. Don't make it too easy."

"That's a brilliant idea. I should have thought of it myself."

Aaron sat watching Green catch a mouse without using his wings. Green had so far not tried to catch them, and it was a challenge for him. Though he seemed quite proud of his success, he showed the mouse to Duane, decided he didn't want it, and claimed his prize after giving the rodent to Black.

The day had passed too quickly. When it was too dark to see, Aaron and Duane had no choice but to go to bed. Aaron, as usual, dreamed of the water dragon. None of the others joined the dream that night.

The next two days passed peacefully. Aaron and Duane exhausted their imaginations coming up with games for the dragons. Black and Red ended up in a few squabbles and nearly cooked each other before they figured out how to cooperate. Mountain and Yellow each carried a Dragoyle up into a tree to find leaves covered in caterpillars. There were no losers there, except perhaps the caterpillars. They were plentiful, and the Dragoyles were happy to get at them. Once up in the branches, they were able to use their claws to hang on, and their wings to maintain balance.

Though they designed the games to be fun, they also had a purpose. Aaron wanted the Dragoyles to be comfortable up in a tree, should he need to get them off the ground in a hurry.

On the morning of the fourth day, Black climbed onto his log, doing his usual stretching and flapping. Aaron thought his movements looked more limber and less painful, and he tossed a piece of meat well ahead of the log. Black, true to form, went for it. This time, he spread his wings and managed to glide several feet. His landing was a bit clumsy, but he righted himself and went for the meat immediately.

"You did it," Aaron told him. "You're ready to fly."

Black flapped his enormous wings and squawked, looking at him.

"If you want more, you're going to have to catch it yourself," he said. "If I feed you all day, you're going to be too fat to fly."

Duane had Yellow and Mountain carry the Dragoyles into the trees again, and within a few minutes, the twins were jumping from branch to branch. The games had worked. Not only were they perfectly at home in a tree, they had allowed themselves to be carried up there.

The humans were pleased. Pink stood by, seeming proud of her contribution. Though the Dragoyles were jumping rather than flying right now, they all knew they'd have the idea very soon. Underneath, though, there was a sadness. They knew their time together was drawing to a close.

As the hours passed, Black's flying skills improved. He was able to get up into the lower branches of a tree and glide back down. Once he had mastered gliding, he worked on flapping and turning. Turns still presented a challenge, but his skills improved with each effort.

Towards evening, Pink landed near a tree in front of them. "Look at me," she said.

They looked. Suddenly, Pink was no longer there.

"Where did she go?" Duane asked, amazed.

"I'm right here," she said. "I've been practicing the trick the woman taught me. I can do it now."

Aaron squinted his eyes, and saw a shimmering in front of the tree where he knew Pink was. Had she not spoken, he never would have noticed her. He would have taken the shimmer as sunlight through the leaves.

"Can you hide the others too?" he asked.

"Not yet. White and I are working on it. Pretty soon we'll be able to do it without help." Pink reappeared in front of them.

Over the next couple of days, the dragons all practiced their new skills. Black was becoming a strong flier, and the Dragoyles did less jumping and more flying. Too soon, the evening came when they all knew they had to say goodbye to Purple.

Purple emerged from her cave with Brown, and they all knew it was time. She came to Aaron and reached her long body toward his face, forked tongue flickering. Brown followed her.

"Brown, no," said Pink. "You can not go with her. You are not a cave dragon. You belong in the forest. Purple will lay many eggs in the safety of her cave. The woman has shown us how we can visit her at night, with the water dragon."

"I know you're going to miss her," said Aaron. "We all are, but I believe we all have our own destinies. Purple was not born to fly. The rest of you were not born to live in caves. Duane and I will saddle the horses and go with her to the lake. You may come that far, but then you must come back with us."

They saddled the horses, and Purple chose to ride with Duane. The Dragoyles rode with Aaron, and the others were able to fly on their own. None of them were in a hurry, and Aaron had to prod them a little in order to arrive before dark.

Purple had not come to the lake last time, and this was her first experience with real water. She proved herself a strong swimmer right away. Mountain, Yellow, and Sky dived in with her, showing her how to catch the fish. They ate their catches, and then it was time for Purple to go. Aaron and Duane could only watch as the others flew or swam across the lake to the mouth of the stream. Then they had to turn around and let Purple swim off on her own.


Chapter 21
Dylan Returns

By Cindy Warren

"I think we'll be staying here tonight," said Aaron. "Any kind of torch is likely to attract more than bugs. We're best to camp under the pines."

He unsaddled his horse and laid the saddle blanket under the trees. Duane did the same. They soon found the dragons under the blankets next to them. Mountain squirmed and shifted position beside Aaron. The Dragoyles climbed over him. It didn't matter much, because sleep eluded him. He heard Duane tossing restlessly nearby.

He listened to the waves lapping against the shore, and thought of Blue. He'd let Blue go almost immediately, and had visited him in his dreams every night since. Keeping the water dragon in a pail had never seemed an option, and setting him free, though not easy, had been the only thing to do. He sat up, his back against a tree, and let the dragons climb into his lap. Duane soon joined him.

"Nobody can sleep," he said. "Yellow's done nothing but wriggle. Red and Green were climbing all over me."

"We're all missing Purple, and worrying over her. I don't think we'll be getting much sleep tonight."

"So what do we do?" Duane asked.

"Not much we can do in the dark. We sit here for a bit and go back to bed. Wait for morning."

They were up before sunrise, as soon as there was a glimmer of pre-dawn gray. Brown, who was nocturnal by nature, was diving for fish. Mountain, Yellow, and Sky joined her as soon as they could see. Black also tried diving, but found his large wings made it difficult.

"Watch Sky," Duane told him. "See how she holds her wings next to her body when she dives."

Black watched his sister, tried a couple more times, and soon came up with a fish, looking pleased with himself.

The dragons gobbled their prizes, and Aaron sent them to catch more to take home. While they fished, he and Duane hunted for more of the edible bulbs. At sunrise they headed home with plenty of fish and a few handfuls of greens. Brown climbed into a saddlebag to get out of the light.

They arrived at the cabin to find a brown horse grazing in the clearing.

"It's Dylan's," said Aaron. "You stay out of sight and take care of the horses while I make sure he's alone." He sent the dragons, except Brown, into the trees, picked up their catch of fish, and went to greet his friend.

He found Dylan in the cabin, looking for breakfast.

"I guess I don't have to ask where you've been," he said, eyeing the fish. "Tell the kid not to waste time hiding that horse."

"What horse?"

"I feared the worst when you weren't here," said Dylan. "I checked for tracks. There's two sets, and no sign of trouble."

"I guess nothing gets by you. Let the kid keep his horse."

"I didn't say he couldn't keep it. I said not to waste time hiding it. I'm hungry. Them fish are going to be burnt to a crisp if you cook them."

"I'll get Duane. Then you can give me all the news."

Soon the water was boiling for tea and the fish were sizzling in the pan. Aaron followed Dylan outside.

"You came alone," said Aaron. "Why aren't your men with you?"

"I had to leave them to keep order. You've probably guessed. The king has died, and you know, the princess is not fit to rule as queen. There's a lot of unrest."

"Any more signs of invaders?"

"Not so far. We know they're coming. It's just a question of when and where," said Dylan.

"I might be able to help you with that." Aaron recounted his conversation with the witch. "We can be ready for them."

At that moment, Duane interrupted them with tea, fish, and boiled greens.

"That smells good," Dylan said, taking the plate. The dragons gathered round, expecting some cooked fish. Duane had saved the heads, and fried the parts the humans didn't want to eat. He went back inside to get it for them. They gobbled it up and returned to catching bugs and mice.

Aaron found he didn't have much appetite. He passed half his fish to Dylan, who ate like he hadn't seen food in days. Over the next couple of hours, Dylan filled Aaron in on events at the palace. They discussed the witch's promise of help.

"Seems Gareth was telling the truth," said Aaron. "She did have a dragon, the mother of the ones you met. She feels responsible for her death. She wants to do right by this generation. I think we can trust her."

Pink landed next to the men. "The woman will tell you what you need to know," she said to Dylan. "You must stay until she comes. She must know who to send messages to. You must meet her."

"I must, huh?" Dylan looked at the pink dragon, annoyed.

Pink glared at him. "Yes."

"I think there's a little pink gal getting too big for her britches."

"Do you?"

Dylan took a step back. The little pink dragon was suddenly gone, and in her place was something eight feet tall. Her pink color had faded and become flaming oranges and yellows, and her voice meant business.

"You said you wanted to meet her. Make up your mind. Do you want our help or not?"

Dylan looked at Aaron, who was just as startled at this new development.

"I guess you better answer the lady," he said.

"Beg your pardon, Madam. I didn't mean any disrespect. I'd be pleased to meet your friend."

Pink, unable to maintain the illusion any longer, became herself again, gave Dylan the most deadly stare she could manage, and flew off into a tree.

Dylan turned to Aaron. "What was that?"

"That's a new one. She's been working on something she calls a glamour. She can blend in and seem to disappear. I've never seen anything like this."

"That could be useful. I seem to have offended her. I'll have to fix that."

"I'm sure you can," said Aaron. "When you meet the woman, remember humanity didn't treat her very well. She has little reason to like us. She's not friendly, and she has the sight. You'd do best to be direct and honest with her. Insult her and you might find yourself sitting on a lily pad catching flies."

"Could she do that?"

"I wouldn't take the chance," said Aaron.

"I'll keep in mind we need her as an ally. I'll be the perfect diplomat. If she's too big for her britches I won't tell her so."

"Good."

Duane had crept into the root cellar for bread, meat, and cheese. He'd seen Dylan at breakfast, and guessed he hadn't been eating much. After tea and a fat sandwich, Dylan was in a better mood. Aaron and Duane were exhausted, after their sleepless night.

Dylan went to find Pink and make peace, and Aaron and Duane stretched out under a tree near the horses. Sheer exhaustion soon sent them to sleep.

Instead of finding himself in the water with Blue, Aaron found himself with Purple. What he saw was terrifying. The little dragon was doing her best to call for help, and he couldn't help her. She'd found a crevice to sleep in for the day, and something had found her and dragged her out.

Purple whipped her tail around, slashing the creature across the neck. Had she been bigger, a blow from that tail would have been fatal, but Purple was not big enough. She was in serious trouble.
Aaron tried to put himself between her and the animal, which he could now see was a mountain lion.

Purple saw him, but the mountain lion didn't. He was helpless. His dream self was not able to intervene. Purple was trying to back into the stream, but he could see it would do no good, even if she made it. The stream she'd been following was only a couple of feet deep.

"Pink!" he called. "Make her disappear, or make her big and scary!"

If Pink could hear, she didn't reply.

Aaron looked away, unable to watch. He'd let her go. Now he couldn't protect her. He felt sick. The little dragon was putting up a brave fight, but she was outmatched. He heard the predator growling, and turned to suddenly see a second dragon. His size and strength was no match for the hungry mountain lion, but his fire was. Black blew a second plume, and the lion backed off, but not far, unwilling to give up his meal.

Black lifted his terrified sister by the tail, hauling her upstream toward deeper water. Dangling in his claws, Purple curled herself into a ball as best she could, trembling. Aaron found he could follow them. Black hauled his sister upstream until his strength gave out. Finding a stretch of deeper water, he set her down beside the stream. Purple sat there trembling.

"You're safe now," Aaron assured her. "I think we'll let Black watch out for you for a day or two. It's a good thing he showed up when he did."

Not knowing how to comfort her, Black dived into the stream and came out with a fish. He offered it to her. Purple, blinking her eyes against the sunlight, huddled next to him. She took the fish and nibbled at it nervously.

"Sleep next to deep water from now on," Aaron told her. "Always leave yourself a way to escape. I think Black is going to be looking out for you anyhow, so I'm not going to object. You are going to be okay."

"Aaron! Aaron!" Pink pulled at his sleeve. He came slowly awake, sweating and shaking.

"What is it?"

"The woman is here. She wants you and Dylan, right now!"






Chapter 22
Dylan Meets the Witch

By Cindy Warren

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

Aaron looked over at Duane, wondering if he should wake him, but the boy had woken on his own. He was visibly shaken.

"Purple," he began. "Did it get her? She made me wake up."

"She's okay. Black grabbed her up by the tail and got her out of there. We have a new problem." He considered telling Duane to stay where he was, then thought the better of it. Being shut out of things would probably scare him worse than the reality.

"The woman is here. She wants to see us. There must be trouble," said Aaron.

They found Dylan already at the cabin. The witch was there as well. She sat in the only chair, looking hazy and semi-transparent. Aaron didn't think she looked well, even considering her current state. Pink and White were perched nearby, and Mountain and Yellow had followed Aaron and Duane.

"They're coming, four days from now, at our northern border," she said. "You know where the salt licks are. They plan to cross the border at dawn, then head for the palace. I see them trying to install one of their own princes as king."

"I know the place," said Dylan. "We'll have to get there ahead of them to prevent them taking the high ground."

"We'll have to cross the border ourselves to prevent that," said Aaron.

"You can discuss the details later," said the witch. "I'm giving you what information I can. You're without a king, and I believe they intend to force a marriage with the princess and take over the rule. She probably won't live long after that. The marriage is simply to make their rule seem legitimate."

"How many?" Dylan asked.

"Many. Thousands. You have many angry people looking for a fight. Use that. Direct the anger at the invaders, and it should help with some of the trouble you're having now."

"Did you know Black saved Purple?" Duane piped up.

"I know."

"Did you tell him to?"

"No," she replied. "He did that on his own. I suspect some of the others will discover their talents in the next day or two. And young man, I suggest you tell Aaron who you are. Tell him everything you know. You need to trust each other. What's more, I see trouble here, tomorrow. Make sure the forest dragon is not in that hole."

"Perhaps we should leave here in the morning," said Aaron.

"I would not recommend that," she said. "If they find nothing here, they'll spread across the countryside looking for you. I see only about a dozen men, but that's more than enough to burn a lot of farms. Let them think they've killed you. Pink will know what to do."

With that, the witch was gone.

"What did she mean about the others discovering their talents?" Duane asked.

"I suppose it means they have some tricks we haven't seen yet. We'll find out pretty soon."

Aaron and Dylan spent the next hour making plans, and Dylan announced it was time for him to go. Sky suddenly appeared in the cabin holding a pear in her claw. She handed it to Dylan, who took the fruit and looked around the cabin, shocked. The door and all the windows were all closed.

"How did she do that?"

"I don't know," Aaron said. There was no way Sky could have opened the root cellar, or gotten into the cabin, yet here she was, with a pear.

"It's one of the talents the woman told us about," said Duane.

"Is it safe to eat?" asked Dylan.

"Yes. I know where it came from, but it was locked up tight. It appears walls won't keep our little Sky out."

"Or in," said Duane.

"I wish I didn't have to go. I think you're in for an interesting evening," said Dylan, taking a bite from his pear. "Got another one?"

Sky disappeared, and soon returned with a pear in one claw and a turnip in the other. The humans all burst out laughing. Aaron looked at Pink and tried to control himself.

Pink and White stared at them as though they were looking right through them. Sky tried to copy the sound, which only made them laugh more.

"They're trying to read our minds," said Duane.

"I'm getting the same impression," said Aaron. "They got scared the last time we couldn't stop laughing. Now they're trying to understand it."

Dylan had finished his pear, and he took the second one as well as the turnip, and left. "You know where to meet me," he said.

"I guess he didn't like having his mind read," said Duane.

"Since I can't read minds, you're going to have to tell me what's on yours," said Aaron. "Soon enough we're going to have to ride into town, or to the castle. I know some people have been looking for you. It's time you told me why."

"I didn't do anything."

"Who did? Why did the king want Dylan to find you? You're okay. If Dylan wanted to hand you over, he would have. He's known from the start it was you they were looking for."

"My uncle and my cousin. They said they wanted to poison the king. They weren't really going to do it. They said those things because they were mad when the taxman took their cows when they couldn't pay taxes. They talked too much, and some old gossip told on them. When the soldiers came, they took my whole family. My dad told me to run, and I did."

"You know somebody always tried the king's food first before he ate it, and only a couple of cooks could get near it. It's unlikely anyone could have done anything like that."

"That's what I said. He only said he was going to kill him because he was mad. He wasn't really going to do it."

"Okay. I'm glad you told me. If anyone asks, you've been with me since spring. Okay?"

"Okay."

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. Come evening, Aaron had to explain to Brown why she couldn't use her cave any more.

"There's no way out," he said. "If you're found, you'll be trapped."

He had Duane prepare as much food as they'd be able to carry, keeping it in the root cellar until it was time to go. Aaron had decided to feed Dylan's men as best he could. He was glad for the second horse, though he had mixed feelings about taking Duane along. Since there was no safe place for him to go, and the boy wanted to come, he had reluctantly agreed.

Night fell too quickly, and morning also came too soon.

At sunrise, dragons were posted as lookouts along the road and deer trail. As the witch had predicted, they soon spotted a dozen men riding along the trail. With them were two large hunting hounds. The dogs soon found the little cave that had been home to Purple and Brown. Had they found them, they would have torn them to pieces.

As it was, the scents they found seemed to confuse the dogs. One of the men came to check it out.

"It's some kind of den," he said. "Whatever was in there ain't there now."

The dogs dug franticly, certain they'd found something. Their owners were unable to call them off, and from his vantage point, Aaron was able to put arrows into two of the men.

That was when things took a turn for the strange.

A dozen new men suddenly appeared in the clearing. Aaron noticed they all looked a lot like himself and Dylan. The invaders fired at the newcomers, and the arrows simply passed through them. Aaron was able to put an arrow into the shoulder of another man. The dogs, who should have easily tracked the real humans and their horses, were totally befuddled. One rubbed his nose on the ground.

"It's wizardry!" screamed one man, who had attacked one of the illusions with a sword.

Arrows, which had somehow found their way to the cabin's roof, lifted off and aimed themselves at the invaders. Many were the same weapons they themselves had fired. Arrows lifted themselves from the ground and flew from all directions.

The cabin appeared to catch fire and plumes of flames shot toward the enemy, singeing one man's hair and beard. Thinking he was on fire, he leapt from his horse and rolled on the ground.

The invaders continued firing at the illusions, obviously thinking one or two had to be real. Their arrows did no harm, and continued to fly back up from the ground at the ones who had shot them. Finally, Aaron watched two of the illusions fall to the ground. He felt a chill up his spine, watching what looked like himself and Dylan fall and die.

The arrows stopped flying, but the flames continued. A sudden breeze blew flame and smoke directly at the men.

"We got them! Lets get out of here before the whole forest catches fire!"

Whoever had said that got no argument. His remaining comrades followed him down the trail at top speed. Their dogs ran after them, letting out blood curdling hound dog howls.

The two Dragoyles sat on the roof, looking very pleased with themselves.

"You made those arrows fly?"

They chittered happily.

The flames vanished along with the other illusions. Other than Purple's destroyed cave, very little damage had been done to the cabin. Unfortunately, four men lay dead. The dragons gathered around the bodies.

"NO!" Aaron was horrified when he saw what they were about to do. "We don't eat people. Not even enemies."

Pink looked at him, confused. "You cook them first?"

"No. We don't eat them at all. If you're hungry, I'll send Duane to the root cellar. You did a good job. You deserve something special for dinner, but not people."

Duane emerged from the trees where he had been hiding, his eyes like saucers after what he had just seen.

"Go get a shovel," Aaron told him. "And you can cook that rabbit for dinner. Make something special for them."

Aaron didn't think the invaders would be back for their dead, so he decided to bury them. The hard work helped settle him. Whatever else they might be, they were human, and he couldn't let the dragons eat them.

He gathered the horses that had been left behind, unsaddled them, and tied them near Demon. He'd have pack horses for the trip, and then he'd hand them over to Dylan.

With that done, he was ready to talk to Duane and the dragons, and possibly look at some food.


Chapter 23
Preparing for Battle

By Cindy Warren

After the morning's excitement was over, Aaron sat in the clearing with Duane watching the dragons. They were hunting bugs and mice as though nothing interesting had happened. Aaron found himself wishing he had their resilience.

"I'm glad they didn't wreck this place," said Duane. "It used to scare me, but now I hope I can come back here someday."

"You might. It's not as though many people want it," Aaron replied.

"When do we need to leave?"

"Tomorrow morning, I think. We have time, but I don't want to overwork the horses."

"What about the dragons?"

"I expect they'll go wherever we do. I'll have a talk with Pink tonight. I think she knows more about what the woman sees than I do," said Aaron.

"She wants you to win, but I don't understand how that helps the dragons. What does it matter to them who rules the kingdom? Kings are all the same to them," said Duane.

"I've wondered the same thing myself," Aaron admitted. "She sees something she hasn't told us."

Pink, who had been listening, chose that moment to land beside them. "She's told you what you need to know," she said. "She sees many things. It won't help you to know them."

"Do you know?" asked Duane.

"Some."

"Maybe she thinks if you help us, you'll be heroes. Then the king will want you alive. That would only work if we win."

Pink didn't answer.

"I don't know. Maybe, though I doubt a king would think like that," said Aaron. "They're dragons, they're not something he could keep in his stable. They have their own minds, and he can't control them. People will be afraid of them once they're a little bigger."

If Pink knew anything more, she wasn't saying. Brown had emerged early from her daytime hiding place, and was busy trying to enlarge a gopher hole.

"Gophers always have plenty of holes," Aaron told her. "They leave themselves plenty of ways out. They also tell a buddy where they are, in case the hole caves in." He wasn't sure about the last part, but he worried about her getting trapped underground.

A few minutes later, Brown backed out of the hole with a gopher in her teeth. Aaron was surprised. He hadn't seen a gopher in weeks. The rodent struggled and squealed, and it didn't seem Brown would be able to hang onto it. It twisted itself around, and when Brown realized it could bite her, she let it go.

The two humans expected it to dash back into its hole, but it stumbled around, confused. It was obvious the little forest dragon was not as helpless as she appeared. The others, curious, had gathered around. Aaron had been bitten by Red immediately after she had hatched, and it had never occurred to him that any of them might be venomous.

It apparently had not occurred to Brown, either. She simply stared at the gopher, until Mountain quickly dispatched it for her. She sniffed at it and looked up at Aaron.

Aaron looked at Pink. "Did you know?"

"No."

Brown looked perplexed. She knew she had not killed the gopher, but she had done something to it. She sniffed at it some more, turned it over, not sure if she should eat it, and looked at Aaron and Pink for answers. It was Duane who came to her rescue.

"You can eat it if you want," he said. "You'll need to be careful what you bite from now on. Whatever you bite will probably die. I've seen plenty of snakes catch rats that way. They eat them after. I even saw a cat steal one of the mice once. She was fine after she ate it. Sometimes people even eat the snakes. It's not like other kinds of poison. It will only kill you if you are bitten."

The Dragoyles had invited themselves to share the grisly feast, and the humans left them to it. They headed back to the cabin, sure the dragons would soon be catching mice and letting them go, to see if any of them had venom.

As it turned out, Green was also venomous, though he was content eating caterpillars and totally disinclined to bite. Red had captured the mouse for the experiment, and then eaten it herself when Green showed no interest.

"I wonder if Purple has it," said Duane.

"She'll have to find out," said Aaron. "It's good to know the smaller ones aren't helpless. I should have known they wouldn't be. I wonder what other surprises they have in store for us."

The day ended too quickly, and after a night dreaming of Blue, they were up early, packing the rest of the meat and whatever other food they could carry, along with blankets and anything else Aaron thought the men might need.

Brown, with a very round and full belly, curled in one of Aaron's saddlebags, out of the sunlight. Pink and White had decided they preferred to travel on horseback. The rest either flew from tree to tree or rode occasionally with Aaron or Duane.

Travel was easy the first day, but after that the terrain became more difficult. Knowing he would need the horses in the upcoming battle, Aaron was glad he had left time to rest them. During the rest stops, the dragons happily explored their surroundings, with Brown keeping watch at night. Finally, around noon on the third day, they arrived at the border and found Dylan and the men waiting for them.

The food, blankets, and extra horses were welcomed.

"Okay, everybody, weapons down!" Dylan ordered. "You all know Aaron. He's brought some very unusual friends to help us out. I want everyone sitting down, and Aaron is going to put an arrow into anyone who raises a weapon."

The men were confused, but they trusted Dylan, and the food and provisions had put them in a much better mood.

"Aaron and I have been planning this for a while. It's time to let all of you in on the secret. I know you've heard different, but we have a very good chance of winning this. Men, meet Aaron's dragons. They won't hurt you, but Aaron will if anyone raises a weapon to them."

Friendly Mountain flew toward Aaron, followed by Yellow. The two were happily greeting new friends, and the others emerged from the trees, landing near Dylan and Duane. The men were a little apprehensive, but curious, and none wanted to risk Aaron's wrath.

"They're called for their colors," said Dylan. "The one that looks like the sky is called Sky, and the little ones are Dragoyles. Pink and White can talk, and the others understand. They defend Aaron, and anyone they see as his friend."

"What can they do?" asked Gareth. "They're too small to be much good."

"I'll let Aaron tell you what they've done so far. It's thanks to them we have these extra horses."

Aaron, with his natural story telling ability, gave them detailed accounts of the battle by the lake, which some of the men had seen, with fire raining from the sky. He followed up with the attack on the cabin, the arrows flying on their own, and Pink's ability to create illusion, which everyone wanted to see. He saw no reason to let them know about Blue or Purple, and left them out.

"There's a black fire breather that will probably be joining us tonight. He was responsible for much of the fire some of you saw at the lake.

"Can the Dragoyles try something else?" Dylan asked.

"You can ask them."

"I'm going to shoot this arrow at the knot in that tree. Dylan pointed. I want you to make it go somewhere else. Can you do that?"

The Dragoyles chittered. Dylan had no idea what they'd said, but he aimed for the knothole. The missile did the impossible, turning mid-flight to land in some shrubbery several yards away.

The men watched, astonished. There was no wind, and the arrow should have flown in a straight line. For it to turn should have been impossible.

Next, Dylan laid arrows on the ground, and asked them to hit targets. The Dragoyles seemed to enjoy showing off, and Red, who didn't like to be outdone, set fire to them as they flew. Aaron had no idea how she did it, but he'd put out several fires before he asked her to stop.

They spent the afternoon with the dragons showing off, winning the approval of the men, and giving them hope they hadn't had that morning.

Towards evening, Black flew in, and blew a few flames at Red, which she heartily returned. Fortunately, both had thick scaly hides, resistant to burns. Satisfied with his entrance, he sent a mental image to Aaron, something he'd never done before. He showed him Purple, safe in her cave. Black had gone in with her, and they'd had to swim underwater several feet to gain entry, something a wolf or mountain lion would be unlikely to do. Aaron was relieved, both for Purple's safety, and to have Black with him again.

Brown climbed out of her saddle bag, and when it was almost dark, Aaron sent her to scout for the enemy. She spotted them a couple of miles off, and they all knew they could expect them shortly after sunrise. The little forest dragon spent a few minutes greeting new friends, and Aaron privately told Dylan about the venom. Both agreed it was not worth alarming the men with that detail, and Aaron sent the dragons up into the trees for the night, with Brown keeping watch.


Chapter 24
The Battle Continues

By Cindy Warren

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

It was nearly midnight when Brown raised the alarm. Though Aaron awoke with a start, the men were tired from the day's events. Brown continued her chirping and shrilling, and the sleeping dragons stirred to life. Black, who could already bellow like the terrifying beast he would become, soon had everyone awake.

"They're almost at the place they left the trebuchet, said Pink

"I guess they were hoping it would still be useful," said Dylan.

"They were going to kill us while we slept, the cowards," Gareth grumbled.

"I expect going home and telling their king they failed isn't something they could do," said Dylan. "It's possible they'd be punished, and they have to do everything they can."

"At least they're not taking us by surprise," said Aaron.

"We'll be ready for them," said Dylan. "I wish we'd kept that treb. I didn't think they'd be back, but I should have known it was a possibility."

"We don't need that to throw stuff at them," said Duane.

"That's true," said Dylan. "Everybody, get out of sight. Leave the blankets. We'll let them think they've taken us by surprise. Then we'll surprise them."

Hiding in the brush, Aaron could hear the enemy searching through the camp.

"We have to get that wizard," he heard one say.

"They knew we were coming," said his companion. "They knew everything."

Slashing through the underbrush with swords, two men eventually found what they were looking for. The two he'd heard almost stepped on Aaron. He slashed behind his opponent's knees with his sword, putting him out of the action, but the man's companion was soon on him. Aaron stumbled out of the brush to engage him, swords clanging.

"It's him!" the man shouted. "I found the wizard!"

Swords clashed all around him as the enemy tried to close around him, with Dylan and the men doing everything they could to defend him. Rocks and sticks bounced off visors, but failed to stop the attack.

It took only moments for Aaron to realize he was facing a much better swordsman than himself. His enemy was quickly gaining the upper hand when something small flew at him from behind, getting between his body and his shield. He tried pulling his shield closer to his body in an attempt to crush whatever it was. It didn't work. Aaron took advantage of the distraction to stab at an elbow. Unfortunately, it hit only chain mail.

Realizing his mistake, the swordsman ignored the distraction and focused all his attention on Aaron. Whatever the annoying animal was, he'd deal with it later.

Aaron knew it was Green, the smallest of the dragons, trying to get under the man's armor. He took a step back, trying to make his opponent reach for him and give Green space. It worked, but only for a moment. The superior swordsman soon advanced on him again. Green flew from behind the shield and into a tree. Free of his annoying little attacker, the man redoubled his effort. He would have killed Aaron within seconds if he hadn't suddenly stumbled as though drunk. Aaron struck him, and he fell, though the sword had only struck armor and it was far from a killing blow.

More men advanced on Aaron. They believed he was the wizard who had caused rocks and fire to fall from the sky, and their mission was to kill him.

The torches they carried or had planted suddenly burned brightly for a second or two and went out. In the dim light of a crescent moon, instead of one wizard, they saw a thousand. Though they knew only one was real, there was no way they could tell who it was. A sudden wind blew dirt and grit into their eyes and eliminated even that light. In the darkness thousands of flying animals bit any exposed flesh. Men who had been bitten began staggering drunkenly. Some fell, while others simply became incapacitated. As Brown and Green ran out of venom, the last ones bitten knew they were in trouble and retreated hastily.

Arrows flew with amazing accuracy in the dark to find any who wanted to continue the fight. The invaders looked to their leaders for direction, and finding none, chose to save themselves. It was pretty much over.

Since he saw no reason not to, Dylan allowed a fire for the rest of the night. Nobody was going to sleep, wondering if there was someone still hiding in the dark waiting to murder Aaron.

"They wanted to kill me," said Aaron. For the first time in his life, he was truly shaken. "I'm no wizard. I'm not even a good swordsman. I'd be dead if Green hadn't managed to bite a man a lot better than me."

"Not a better man," said Dylan. "Perhaps a bit better at sword play. They're afraid of you, and they should be. That's why they wanted you dead. If not for you and your dragons, we could all be dead. You did right by the dragons, and now they're loyal to you. I'm glad you're on our side."

Mountain and Yellow climbed into Aaron's lap. Green and Sky perched on his shoulders. Brown scoured the bushes and tall grass looking for anyone who might be lurking. The rest gathered near.

"I'm okay," Aaron tried to reassure them. "This wasn't my first battle. I've had enemies try to kill me before."

The dragons moved in closer. They all knew that this one had been somehow different.

"In most battles, the enemy is nameless and faceless," said Dylan. "We really don't want to see each other's faces. This was different. They wanted you. You are probably the reason they returned in the dark. When has that happened before? I know you're no wizard. They don't. With the tales being told about you, their king probably ordered them not to return without killing you. There would be something wrong with you if you weren't a bit shook up."

"Then I guess there's nothing wrong with me. I know I'm mighty lucky to be alive." He rubbed Yellow's and Mountain's heads. "I likely won't get much sleep tonight, but tomorrow when the sun comes up and we're heading home, I'll be fine."

"How did you win that fight?" Gareth asked. "That guy was good. How did you manage to knock him down?"

Aaron began to relax as he spun a tale everybody loved and nobody believed. "After all that he was still getting the best of me with the sword so I kicked him where it counted and down he went," he concluded.

Dylan saw the storytelling was settling things down, so he encouraged Aaron, who spun some wild tales of his life since he'd found the eggs. The witch became a fine lady who had been wronged. Yes, she had practiced magic, but it was healing magic and protection spells for the benefit of the kingdom. Her dragon was the mother of these, and had died protecting her mistress. The much embellished truth made for fine campfire stories. Aaron told them until the sun rose and Dylan ordered everything packed up.

A few hours into the long trip home, Aaron was asleep in the saddle. He found himself with Blue, who was full of questions about the stories he'd told. The dragons had been paying attention, and wanted to know more.

"Most of it just popped into my head," Aaron admitted. "Some of it is true. Some of it might be. I really don't know where it came from."

"Pink ask woman."

"I hope she isn't too mad. I was mostly spinning yarns. I don't expect people to believe much of them. It never occurred to me that the dragons would, or that the witch would hear of them.

"Woman angry?"

"I don't know. She might not like me telling tales about her. I didn't say anything bad, but she still might be upset. I guess we have to wait and see."

Aaron awoke with a jolt as the horses jumped a small stream. He could have sworn he heard a woman laughing at him. Pink sat on a nearby pack horse watching him, and the little dragon who had been upset when she'd heard the humans laughing seemed to have suddenly developed a sense of humor.

"She says she doesn't mind if any fool who believes those tales remembers her that way. Your story was a little bit true. You made it better than it really was. She says it's something humans do that might be hard for dragons to understand, but I think I do understand, at least some. She's amused, and I can read her.

Relieved, Aaron stayed on his horse trying to keep his eyes open. Dylan would want to put the river between themselves and anyone who might be following them before they rested. It was what Aaron would have done. For now, he was satisfied.


Chapter 25
The Journey Home

By Cindy Warren

It was mid-afternoon when they reached the river. The men and horses were tired and reluctant to cross, but they understood they'd be sitting ducks should the enemy come upon them mid-crossing. Dylan didn't think that was likely, but he was taking no chances. He'd seen their determination to murder Aaron.

Mountain and Yellow dived right in. Mountain soon surfaced with a large fish in his mouth.

"They love to fish," said Aaron. "When we get to the other side I'll ask them to catch us a few."

The grumbling stopped. The crossing suddenly became an opportunity to get rid of the dirt and grit. The men and dragons both had discovered that when you raised that stuff, it went everywhere, and they were covered in it. Even Pink splashed herself in some shallow water, and the promise of fresh fish brightened everyone's spirits.

Once across, Aaron unsaddled Demon and let him graze. Other men did the same. Red and Black soon had a fire blazing, ready to cook the fish. Though tired, Aaron and Duane were able to find some of the edible bulbs that grew along the water's edge. Duane had become quite adept at cooking them.

They watched the dragons fishing. Black, though not a natural diver, had learned from his siblings and was becoming quite good at it. Sky could spot the fish from above, dive in and come up with it in seconds. Yellow and Mountain were strong swimmers. The Dragoyles were becoming braver in the water. It was not their element, but that was where the fish were, and they managed to catch a couple near the shore. They gobbled them up immediately, unwilling to share.

Mountain and Yellow carried their fish to the fire.

"They'll eat them raw if they have to, but they prefer them fried," Aaron explained. That brought smiles, and they were happy to oblige.

The afternoon passed swiftly. Fish were caught and fried, and Dylan suggested they cut some into thin strips to dry by the fire for the journey. Duane proved quite good at that. Red made a game of creeping up to steal a few of the slices, until Aaron explained to her what they were for.

Towards evening, Aaron could no longer keep his eyes open. That was okay with him. He wanted to sleep and spend some time with Blue. The dragons saw him lay his blanket on the ground and gathered around beside him. Brown had not yet emerged from her saddle bag. Duane guessed what he was planning and decided to join him.

He soon found himself in the dream that wasn't quite a dream, with Blue. He found Purple and Brown already there, and Duane and the other dragons soon joined them. They also had another visitor. She sat on a floating log, and Aaron thought she looked good.

"You have done well, Aaron," she said. "You were wise enough to see that you couldn't continue to hide the dragons. You timed things perfectly, introducing them at exactly the right time. Now they have friends, and soon it will be illegal to kill them."

"They did their share."

"Indeed they did."

"What I want to know is how they managed that hot water," said Aaron.

"Purple did it," Pink chimed in. She sat on the log with White and the woman. "She does not like to be cold. She learned how to make it warm. She made it hot before we made it rain on the bad men. Blue, Sky, and the Dragoyles made it move."

Purple swam in circles, pleased with herself and excited to see everyone. Aaron hugged her, and she climbed onto his head and shoulders, then back into the water to play with her siblings. Even Brown seemed to be enjoying the water.

"Tell us a story about me before I must say goodbye," said the woman.

"She was a queen among the witches," Aaron began. "It was a peaceful time, before the kings and nobles became afraid of them. She was a great healer, and the people loved her. Young women would come to her for for learning, as well as love potions and charms. Even the king would come to her for protection spells and help when enemies attacked. It always worked, enemies were driven back and the kingdom was a happy place."

"What went wrong?" asked Duane.

"A rival became jealous. She wanted the love of the people and respect of the king for herself, so she went to him and told him the woman would betray him. It was a lie, but she told a convincing story, and the king believed her. Her plan worked, but not the way she wanted it to. The king was afraid of what would happen if any witch were to betray him, so he ordered an end to them all."

The dragons stared at him, riveted.

"The king went to Gareth's grandfather and told him she was about to commit treason. He believed what the king said, so he and his men killed her and her dragon. The dragon had laid eggs, and when she knew she was about to die, the woman promised the dragon that her spirit would stay and look after them, since the dragon spirit could not. She kept her promise for two hundred years. Now the eggs have hatched, and the hatchlings are growing into fine, brave young dragons."

"The last part is very close to the truth," she said. "I have kept my promise, and now the fine, brave young dragons no longer need me. It is time for me to join my sisters in the other world. Aaron, you must take the eggs out of the root cellar and hatch them. And you, my darlings," she said to the dragons, "must not eat them."

"No! We still need you!" Pink croaked.

"Not go," said Blue.

Aaron thought his heart would break. The dragons made a mournful chorus of sounds he had never heard from their throats.

"Don't be sad," she said. "I no longer belong in this world. My time is over. Yours is just beginning. You and the young man here have a wonderful future ahead of you."

"Me?" Despite his sadness, Duane looked surprised.

"Of course you. I have never met a braver, more loyal young man. With you I have no fear for the future." With that, the woman was gone.

The dragons could not cry, but Aaron could feel their grief. Pink and White were especially affected. Those two, it seemed, had been trying to emulate her. She had appeared tough and proud, but Aaron suspected that was not always the case. He could see Duane trying to comfort Purple, and was glad they had this time together.

As was always the case, the night passed too quickly. Morning came, and they awoke to a cold drizzle. The fire had gone out, and the men were grumpy. Mountain and Yellow went fishing, and came back to camp to grumbles because they couldn't cook them.

"They seem okay," Duane said as Red proved the grumbler wrong by cooking the fish, only slightly charring it on the outside.

"They'll be fine," said Aaron. "I've noticed that they feel things intensely, but they don't dwell on them long."

"I wish I could do that," said Duane. "She said I was brave. I don't feel brave right now."

"Duane, feeling sad does not mean you are not brave. You will be sad sometimes. It will not turn you into a coward."

"The first time I saw her I was so scared. I thought she'd be mean, but she wasn't. She liked me, and she really cared about the dragons."

"I'm going to miss her too. When I met her I wanted no part of her, then I found myself admiring her and eventually liking her."

Sky and Black had joined in the fishing, and Red was kept busy cooking their catch. She still had no desire to go in the water, but she was more than willing to cook and eat the fish. Pink and White were a little subdued, but ate a few bites.

Dylan was allowing time for breakfast, but he was anxious to get underway.

"What's going on?" he asked as they saddled their horses.

"We've lost a friend," Aaron said. He described the night's events for Dylan.

"They seem to be doing okay."

"She doesn't like sad," said Pink, who had been listening.

"You can all meet up in a dream that isn't quite a dream? How do you do that?" Dylan asked.

"I don't know how it works. It started as soon as I released the water dragon. I found myself swimming with him, first in the river and then in sea after he made it there. The others joined us later, and soon Duane found his way in. I think Blue was lonely, and he wanted us. It seems if one of them wants something, they find a way to make it happen."

"I think I'd like to meet Blue," said Dylan.

"I'll ask him," Aaron promised as they resumed the long ride home.


Chapter 26
The Dragons Come Home

By Cindy Warren

"Will we ride into town with them?" Aaron asked as they approached the palace.

"I think that would be best," said Dylan. "You can't hide them any more, and if people can see them and meet them, they will not fear them quite as much. Then you should take them back to the cabin for the night."

"You are going to see more people than you've ever seen before," Aaron explained to the dragons. "Some will be afraid of you. That's not what we want, so you need to be as friendly as possible. People look out for their friends. Can you do that?"

"We can do it," said Pink.

Mountain, who was naturally friendly, flew back and forth between the men, excited. White perched on one of the pack horses, unimpressed.

"White?"

"I know. They must like us so they won't try to kill us. I can do it."

"I hope that you will soon find out that there is more to liking someone than not trying to kill them. That might be the way it is with a few people, but I think you'll find most really like having you around. We do."

As they approached the palace, people soon saw them and crowded around, eager for news.

"We have won," said Dylan. "I don't think we'll have any more trouble."

Cheers erupted from crowds as Dylan and the men rode in. It wasn't long before someone noticed the dragons mounted on pack horses toward the center. Green and Sky sat on Aaron's shoulders.

"What are those?" someone asked.

"New friends," said Dylan. "They helped us win. In fact, we couldn't have done it without them."

"Can we eat them?"

"Didn't you hear me? Do you want to eat friends who helped us win?"

White flew over and landed on the horse behind Dylan. The horse jumped a little, but it was obvious he was used to the dragons.
"We don't eat people," she said. "Why would you eat us?"

The man took a step back, startled.

"Y-you can talk?" he stammered.

"Of course." White glared at him. "What did you expect?"

"I guess we won't be eating you."

Aaron decided it was time to intervene. "Nobody's eating anybody. You can come and say hello to them. They're friendly to anyone not looking to have them for dinner. They saved our hides back there, and I will defend them if necessary. I trust it won't be."

The men were greeting friends and family, and the story of the battle soon spread. People crowded around to see the dragons, and for their part, the dragons were curious about all the new sights and sounds. Mountain and Yellow were eager to greet new friends. All seemed comfortable meeting new people.

"What do they eat?" somebody asked.

"Mostly mice and bugs," said Aaron.

"We got plenty of those."

When an older brother dared his younger sibling to feed a caterpillar to Black, and the child timidly offered it to him, Black took it gently from his fingers. After that all the children wanted to feed him.

"It's perfectly safe," Aaron assured apprehensive parents. "In fact, they're quite protective of people they like."

Soon bugs of all sorts were being picked from trees by eager children and fed to the dragons, who graciously accepted them. That set the mood for a celebration. The enemy had been driven back, and the dragons were on their side. Though a few hungry people would have liked to have them for dinner, none were willing to challenge an armed knight to do it.

Black had taken a liking to the little boy who had been dared to feed him. The little guy had been so scared, and had done it anyway.

"You fed him already." A bigger boy gave him a shove. Suddenly Black was between them, squawking loudly. Black had no words, but his message was clear.

White translated anyway. "He thinks you were brave," she told him. He likes brave. Pushing you was not brave. He didn't like it."

Hearing himself called a coward, the older boy moved off with a dangerous look on his face. Duane noticed it.

"Keep an eye on him," he said. "He's trouble."

Keeping an eye on him, however, proved difficult. The boy disappeared from sight. They soon forgot about him.

As the day wore on, Aaron could see the dragons were growing tired of all the attention, and just as he was about to take them home, a rock flew from behind and hit Black's new friend on the neck. A second rock hit Black.

Red and Black looked at each other, and then at the Dragoyles, who chittered excitedly. The two dragons flew off in the direction the rock had come from. They soon located their target. They had promised not to hurt anybody, so the two dragons had hatched another plan. They had been sitting and allowing themselves to be stuffed with bugs all afternoon, and their bellies were round and full.

Seeing the dragons overhead, the boy took aim with his slingshot, when it suddenly fell from his grasp. The hot, stinking mass that struck him between the eyes was not particularly painful, but it caused him to squeeze his eyes shut and hold his breath. A second mass struck the top of his head and trickled down into his ears. He tried rubbing it out of his eyes with his knuckles, and only succeeded in spreading the mess to his hands. He ran off cursing, presumably in search of some lye soap and water.

The crowd roared with laughter when they realized what had happened. The boy had fired a rock at a small child, and was getting no sympathy. The dragon he'd hit had taken his own unique brand of revenge, and along with his sister, punished him without really hurting him.

"Those guys have good aim," said a voice in the crowd. Of course, he had no idea the Dragoyles had helped direct the landing.

"I wouldn't want them mad at me. Might have to take a bath," someone else said.

It was all lighthearted. Consensus was the kid had deserved what he got. The dragons were not monsters to be feared.

It was time to go. Aaron knew they'd had enough, and he had things to take care of at the cabin. He called them together and set out with Duane.

The dragons were happy to fly free and catch their own food. Though they were naturally curious and fascinated by all the activity they'd never seen before, by the end of the day they were tired of it.

Back at the cabin, they found things pretty much as they'd left them. Duane set to work making a vegetable stew.

Aaron removed the eggs from the root cellar. The sink soon held eggs again, roughly three dozen. The dragons all gathered around.

"They won't be like you," Aaron told them. "They're chickens. I don't think you'll be impressed. I'm no farmer, and I'll probably have to find a place with a chicken coop, but you heard the woman. They can't stay in the root cellar any more.

"It's too cold for them," said Duane.

Pink stared at the eggs. She clearly had no idea what chickens were.

"When will they hatch?" she asked.

"I have no idea."

"We'll have to keep them warm," said Duane. "It's the wrong time of year for them. I don't know how warm. We always left it to the hens to look after them."

"I think we're going to have to find someone who knows what to do," said Aaron. "Dylan promised he'd ride out tomorrow. He knows some local farmers. In the meantime we'll keep the fire going. The nights are getting pretty chilly."

"It's going to make some people pretty happy once they start laying their own eggs," said Duane.

Pink looked at Duane. "Eggs will lay eggs?"

"No, silly. They'll hatch first. They grow fast, and then they lay an egg every day."

"Every day? How can it lay an egg every day? How many days?"

"They just do. They lay eggs every day for most of their lives."

Pink stared into the sink, looked at White, who made no comment, and back into the sink, in anticipation of the wonderful Chicken, who could lay an egg every day for most of its life.




Chapter 27
The King

By Cindy Warren

The days were passing quickly, and the weather was growing colder. The leaves began to change color and fall, much to Green's dismay. There were less bugs in the trees, and the dragons were forced to work harder for their meals.

The dragons didn't have much patience with the eggs Aaron had so carefully placed in the sink. He and Duane took turns filling jars with hot water and placing them under the straw to keep them warm. After a couple of nights vigil, all but Pink lost interest in them.

"We're going to need a way to feed the dragons," said Aaron. "We have a few vegetables left. The woman left us plenty of grain and chicken feed, but we have no more meat."

"I have an idea," said Duane. "Remember how the dragons moved all that water? Do you think they could do the same with fish? Big ones, like we see when we visit Blue?"

Aaron was impressed. "That's a good idea. If we can get a few big ones, we can send a couple to town with Dylan. A gift from the dragons would be welcome. Let's get Sky and the Dragoyles in here and see if they're up to it."

"Yes, we want big fish," said Pink. "The dragons are hungry. Dragons will catch them. Duane will fry them."

"I guess I will," Duane laughed.

Sky disappeared. A few minutes later, there was a loud thunk on the floor. A huge beast with a mouthful of sharp teeth thrashed about the cabin, trying to get itself back into the water, and looking for anything it could get those teeth into.

Duane jumped onto the counter. "Is that even a fish?"

"It is," said Aaron. He grabbed the axe and gave the monster a whack on the head. "It's a shark. We asked for a big fish. We got one."

Dylan chose that moment to walk in the door. The six-foot shark continued to thrash, in spite of the blow to its head.

"What the bloody hell?"

"I told them to get some big ones," said Aaron. He delivered a couple more sharp blows to the shark's head, and it stopped moving. "That's what they did. I told them to get a few for you, too, so I think we should get out of the way. Help me get this one outside."

With Dylan's help, they dragged it out of the cabin, just in time for several more to appear out of nowhere. The dragons had located a school of tuna, and huge, living fish dropped into the cabin. The dragons had no way of dispatching such large fish before delivering them.

"Okay, that's enough! We have no place to put any more!"

The dragons crowded into the cabin, pleased with themselves and looking for their fish dinner.

"They've grown a lot since I saw them last," said Dylan.

"They're bigger and hungrier every day," Aaron agreed.

Duane chose one fish to begin cooking, and Dylan and Aaron hauled the others outside.

"You're going to need a farmer with a cart to haul these into town," said Aaron. "Why don't you go find one while we get supper started? We'll plan on feeding a couple of extra people."

"I know just the right man," said Dylan. "I'll be back before dinner."

Dylan rode off, and Aaron helped Duane wipe the water from the floor and start filleting the huge fish. The dragons were impatient, and they decided to feed them before their guests arrived. Duane brought potatoes and whatever vegetables he could find from the root cellar. The potatoes were showing signs of sprouts. Aaron put one aside, intending to show it to the farmer.

With the floor dry and the food cooking, Aaron relaxed in the single chair. Pink flew to the sink to check the eggs.

"One has a hole in it!"

Aaron's relaxation was short lived. Sure enough, one egg had a small hole in it, and tiny peeps could be heard from inside.

"What is it saying?" Pink asked.

"Pink, I told you, they're chickens. They're not very smart. They don't talk. I don't know much about them, but I think they want to start eating about as soon as they hatch. That's the only thing they have in common with dragons."

Pink stared at Aaron, not wanting to believe him. The egg remained as it was, with the little hole. It was still unchanged when Dylan returned with his guests.

"Aaron, I think you've met Harvey. This is his daughter, Marjorie. I promised them a good dinner before they haul your catch into town."

"Pleased to meet you, miss. Here, take my chair. Good seeing you again, Harvey. Duane will have your plates filled in a second."

Instead of taking the proffered chair, Marjorie walked around looking at the dragons. She and her father had not been in town the day of their visit, and she had not seen them. For their part, the dragons stared at the young woman like she was from another planet, until Mountain approached her, flicking his tongue at her hand. Yellow soon followed suit.

"Can I touch them?" she asked.

"Sure. Those two love attention. When they've had enough, they'll let you know," said Aaron

She scratched chins and heads, and then noticed the eggs in the sink. A tiny beak stuck out the hole, and began peeping.

Pink looked perplexed, and Marjorie laughed. "He'll be out soon," she said. "Where on Earth did you get chickens?"

"The question is what are we going to do with them. You don't happen to have a chicken coop, do you? I really don't want them running around in here."

"We do have a coop. I wouldn't put them in there just yet, though.
Put them in a box next to the stove for a couple of weeks. I'll come and get them if that's what you want."

Duane had heaped the plates with fish and vegetables. He passed them around, and Aaron tried not to watch Marjorie, who was trying to eat politely despite being very hungry. He liked looking at her. Though she was no great beauty, she had soft brown hair and hazel eyes, and her skin was clear with the exception of a few freckles sprinkled just below her eyes.

Pink, finished with her meal, was watching the little beak, still sticking out of its egg, still peeping. Suddenly, the egg broke open and its occupant tumbled out. The dragons gathered round, watching the tiny body get to its feet, wet yellow feathers sticking to its body. Pink grabbed a piece of fish to offer it.

"No!" Marjorie jumped up and quickly removed the fish. "They can't eat that."

Pink glared at her. "Chicken must eat."

"Yes, but not that," said Marjorie.

Pink looked at her, then at Aaron.

"I'm pretty sure she's right. Chickens eat grain, not fish. Marjorie, Duane, eat your dinner and then go to the root cellar and see what you can find. I'm sure there are some bags of grain."

Harvey, who had been busy eating his dinner, decided it was time to speak up. "Them little ones don't survive if they get sick. Don't be feedin' them fish. No meat either. If there's somethin' for them in that there cellar, Marjorie will know. Just give 'em chicken feed and a little water what ain't too cold."

Black was looking at the newly hatched chick and flicking his tongue.

"He wants to know why he shouldn't eat it," said White.

Pink hissed at him. "The woman said no!" She was suddenly protective of the little bird.

"I've explained that already," said Aaron. "These must live so they can lay eggs and there will be more chickens. If we eat them, they will be gone. Other than that, they're just chickens. There's nothing special about them."

They finished their dinner, and the men loaded the fish onto the wagon. Marjorie and Duane went to the cellar and found a bag of ground grain. The witch must have guessed they'd hatch the eggs and left it for the chickens.

"This is perfect," said Marjorie. The two dragged the heavy bag back to the cabin. They found a second egg had hatched, and several more had developed cracks. The first chick had dried and become a fluffy yellow. Since they had no box, they created one out of firewood near the stove.

Pink watched them pick at the grain. She tasted some and dropped it quickly.

"Aaron is right. They are not like dragons," she said sadly.

"They shouldn't be. Only dragons can be dragons," said Duane.

Pink looked at Black, and back to the chicks. Despite her disappointment, she still felt protective.

As soon as Marjorie had left with her father to take the fish into town, Dylan came back in.

"Aren't you going with them?" Aaron asked.

"I'll catch up. I had something important I wanted to talk to you about when I walked in and found that shark flopping about on your floor. I never know what I'll find when I visit you. The talk had to wait. You know that we have no king."

"I know."

"He had no son. His daughter is like a spoiled child, totally unfit to rule.There's nobody to replace him. The people are talking. They want you."

"What? They can't do that. That's not the way it works. I am no king!"

"How does it work now, Aaron?" asked Dylan. "The way it has always been no longer works. Would you have someone marry the princess for the crown? That would put her life in danger, and I am responsible for her safety."

"Are you suggesting I marry her?"

"No. You'd have to take care of her somehow, and I think that's what she wants. She's like a child. She's not ready to marry."

Aaron leaned back in his chair. Dragons perched on counters, and chickens peeped by the stove.

"Some king I'd be."

"I disagree. Look what you did today. You could have sold those fish for a good price, or traded them for almost anything you wanted. People are hungry, and you could have asked just about anything for them."

"I didn't think of that."

"No, you didn't. You knew the people were hungry, and you thought of their needs. That's exactly what a king should do. Now, I must catch up with that cartload of fish before the bandits do. I will be back tomorrow. Go and visit Blue, and talk things over with your dragons. You know more than you think you do."


Chapter 28
Decisions

By Cindy Warren

Aaron sat staring at the fire in the stove, watching the wood spark and shift. Dylan had left, and Duane was out tending the horses. His mind was reeling, and he struggled to settle it.

In the past, kings had always inherited the position from their fathers. It had never occurred to him that things might change. That the change may involve him boggled his mind.

Pink flew over and landed next to him. "Aaron will be king. Dragons will be safe," she said simply.

"You don't seem very surprised," said Aaron.

"We are not surprised. We knew. The woman knew. She said we must not tell until you knew too."

"I wouldn't have believed it. I still can't believe it."

"That's what she said."

Duane chose that moment to walk in.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

"I'm going to try and get some sleep. I want to talk to Blue. I don't know if I'll have much luck. Between that noise and Dylan's news who could sleep? Are those chickens going to peep all night?"

"Try covering the box," said Duane. "They're usually quiet in the dark. I think we should stay here. I like things the way they are."

"I know. So do I. I also know I don't have a way to feed ourselves and the dragons all winter."

"The deer might come back, and the rabbits. They won't like the mountains when it gets cold. They'll want the forest. You could teach me to hunt."

"I was thinking the same thing, but we can't count on it. Right now I need to get some rest and think things over. I never thought I could be king, and now it might be what I have to do. I'll still teach you to hunt, no matter what happens."

They made their beds, and Duane covered the chickens. Someone would have to keep the fire going in the stove, and the nights were too cold to sleep outside.

Despite his misgivings, Aaron was soon asleep and found himself again in the dream-that-wasn't.

"Aaron will be king. Now Aaron knows," said Blue. The dragons and Dragoyles gathered around. It was not clear to all of them what a king was. Pink and White understood, but the Dragoyles had no idea.

"The king can tell people what to do," said Pink. "He can tell them not to kill dragons."

"I don't think Aaron wants to be king," said Duane.

Black squawked. The Dragoyles chittered.

"They say Aaron likes telling them what to do," said Pink.

Aaron couldn't help laughing. "The king must also take care of everyone and make sure they are safe," he said. "He has to take care of a whole kingdom, not just a silly little dragon who thinks it's a good idea to eat a horse."

"Aaron looked after dragons. He can look after people too," said Blue.

Aaron noticed his speech had improved beyond his usual one or two words. His charges were growing up.

"I suspect you two will be talking soon, too," he told the Dragoyles.

They looked at him, chittering in surprise.

"I think you can," he said. "You're more than smart enough, and you're already making the sounds."

"You are telling them what to do again," said Pink. "You will be a good king."

Aaron smiled. "There's a little more to it than that," he said. He really didn't expect them to understand right now.

He awoke to Brown pulling on his leg. The fire was nearly out, and the cabin was getting cool. Brown had been with them in the dream for a while, but she still considered herself their nighttime lookout.

Aaron tried to move without disturbing Mountain, who had snuggled next to him, but the dragon awoke as soon as he moved. He knew the human was troubled, and followed along as Aaron added wood to the stove.

Scratching Mountain's head, he considered what the dragons couldn't. A king didn't just sit around telling people what to do. He knew many people thought so, including, apparently, the previous king. He would have to deal with the result.

"Right now they think I'm some sort of savior," he told Mountain. "That's why they want me. I'm the man who tamed the dragons and fought off the enemy. That's not entirely true. Dylan did his share, and if you guys weren't who you are, we'd have lost. When I do what has to be done to put things right, they may feel differently about me. I may not be the answer they want."

Mountain rubbed his head against his hand and looked into his eyes. He caught an image of himself telling the Dragoyles they could talk. Mountain was telling him the same thing. "You can do it."

"Let's go back to bed," said Aaron. Mountain followed him. This time sleep eluded him. He'd had one dragon or another next to him since they'd hatched, and he didn't like the idea of sleeping without them. The dragon was likewise wakeful, and Aaron wondered if he had any idea that a king didn't live in a cabin with eleven dragons and a box of chickens.

After about an hour of trying without success to sleep, and then to lie still so as not to disturb Mountain, Aaron got up. He sat in the chair watching the sleeping dragons. Mountain, who had awakened every time the human moved, came and sat with him again.

They were soon joined by Duane, then Pink. They'd missed Aaron, and guessed the reason.

"You don't have to," said Duane.

"Somebody has to," said Aaron. "If it's not me, it's going to be somebody else. Dylan is right about one thing. If it's the wrong somebody, we could all be in trouble. The princess is going to have plenty of suitors very soon. I think she is foolish enough to believe some pretty words spoken by a cad."

"You have made up your mind," said Pink.

"Yes. I swore to defend the kingdom. I'd be breaking my oath if I let it fall to some foreign prince."

"You didn't take an oath to be king. Kings don't take oaths," said Duane.

"There's something else. Whoever is king will have power over the dragons. He could kill and eat them if they don't comply with his wishes."

Duane looked horrified. "I hadn't thought of that," he said. "It has to be you, doesn't it?"

"I believe it does," said Aaron. "Duane, stop worrying. Do you remember the night the woman left? She told you that you and the dragons have years of adventure ahead of you. There's nobody else I'd trust with their care. Of course, you'll need some help. We'll have to see what we can do about finding your family."

Duane looked doubtful, but didn't argue. One by one, the dragons were waking up and gathering around. The witch, it seemed, had told them Aaron would be king and they would be safe, but she hadn't explained what that might mean.

"Dragons will live in the castle?" Pink asked.

"Maybe, for a little while," said Aaron.

"I will be queen," said White.

The Dragoyles chittered.

"They want to know what they will be," said Pink.

Aaron imagined them in the castle, all thinking they had somehow become royalty. He was getting a headache.

"You will be dragons. All of you will still be dragons. Soon you will be too big to live indoors."

"I will still be a dragon when I am queen," said White.

"I will be a queen too," said Pink.

Black let out an impressive roar, followed by smoke and flame. Red, not to be outdone, nearly set the cabin on fire. The message was clear. They would be important too.

"I am going back to bed," said Aaron. "No king in history has ever had a problem like this. I am not the king tonight. I'll sort this out tomorrow."

Author Notes For anyone who missed that chapter, Black was seriously injured soon after hatching when he tried to eat Aaron's horse.


Chapter 29
Dragons in the Palace

By Cindy Warren

Aaron had not expected to sleep, but after a few minutes he found himself alone with Blue. The water dragon didn't seem surprised.

"You are not happy," he said.

"I'm not unhappy. I will do my duty. I didn't expect it to be so hard already. Pink and White both think they will be queens. They don't understand that the queen is the wife of the king. They all seem to think they're going to live in the palace and be something special."

"I do not understand the ways of humans," said Blue. "What is wife?"

"A mate, and a partner. Someone to have my children."

"That is not possible. You must tell them."

"I know. I tried. They're not listening. That's why I went back to bed. I didn't expect to fall asleep again."

"You must tell them again. Tell them in a story. They will listen," said Blue.

"That's a good idea," Aaron agreed. "I don't think they understand what a queen is. I think I can make it sound so terrible they won't want to be queens after all."

"You feel better?"

"Yes. I think I'll stay here a while, then I'll go spin them a yarn that will have them happy they're not going to be queens."

As was his habit, Aaron awoke just before sunrise. Duane had tea already made, and had fried potatoes and onions for breakfast. The dragons were out turning over logs, looking for mice. Aaron explained his plan to Duane, who burst out laughing. As they drank their tea, Duane helped him spin a tale of a king and his queens.

Aaron carried his chair outside and watched the dragons hunt. Once their bellies were full, they gathered around, wanting to know all about the palace.

"I'll be just like King Gerald with his wives," he said. "Of course, his wives were human, not dragons."

"Wives?" asked Pink.

"Of course. Everyone knows the queen is the wife of the king. She must have many children, or the kingdom will be left without an heir, just as it is now. I can't let the same thing happen again. The king is in charge of everything, you know. We can't have just anyone taking over when I die. You're going to love it."

"Children?"

"Of course. You must love our children, or they may behave like the boy you gave that lesson to. You dragons were so good at creating a lesson that wouldn't really hurt him. You're going to make great mothers."

White looked like she was about to be sick.

"I may have to find a human queen or two as well," said Aaron. "If it turns out you can't have people babies, I might need them. After all, I'm getting rather old. I can't wait too long to have children."

"I don't understand what 'wife' means," said Pink.

"Didn't the woman explain that to you? A wife is a mate, and a partner. A queen is the wife of a king. She keeps things running smoothly at the castle. She gets to tell people what to do, too, as well as looking after the children."

Pink and White stared at each other. "I think Marjorie should be queen," said White.

"Dragons must not have people babies," said Pink.

"I thought you wanted to be queens," said Aaron.

"No, said White. "I do not want to be queen."

"You must have a human wife," said Pink. "I don't want any people babies."

Both Duane and Aaron burst out laughing.

Pink puffed herself up, appeared to grow larger, and her color changed to flaming oranges, reds and yellows.

"That was mean! That was not funny!"

"I tried to tell you that you must always be dragons. You are already important, and you always will be, but you are not queens. A queen is the wife of a king. That part is true. I don't know what I'm going to do about that. Perhaps in the years ahead the princess will be ready to marry and take her place as queen.

"Marjorie should be queen," said Pink. "You like her, don't you?"

"Sure I like her. Why do you think she'd want an old man like me?"

"She likes you."

"Liking isn't the same as marrying. Anyway, I can't worry about that today. Dylan will be here soon."

"Will we go to the palace?" asked Duane.

"Yes. I've been thinking about that. I want to keep all of you close for a while."

"What about the chickens?" asked Pink.

"Marjorie will have to take them," said Aaron. "If we take them with us, they're going to end up on the dinner table."

"Can't you tell them not to?"

"I wouldn't count on it. Hungry people don't always listen, and I don't think it would be wise to have somebody guarding chickens. It's best if they don't see them. Besides, Marjorie knows a bit more about caring for them then I do."

"I want to see them."

"I don't think Marjorie would mind if you flew out to the farm to visit them. In fact, she seemed rather fond of you."

At that moment, Dylan rode up with about a dozen men.

"I hope you've decided," he said. 'We need you at the palace right now. Somebody's told the people you're not going to do it. They think the princess is going to marry the invading prince and unite the kingdoms. He's probably the one responsible for the rumor. We need you to put things right immediately."

"I was afraid of that," said Aaron. "Have one of your men get Marjorie and have her take the chickens right now. Tell him that if he can't keep their existence quiet, I'll take them to the palace and give him the job of guarding them. Duane and the dragons will be coming with us."

"You said that wouldn't be wise," said Pink.

"Hush. He won't want that job. He'll stay quiet about them," said Aaron.

"It's hard to leave this place," said Duane.

"You'll be back. In fact, I think she'd want you to have it," said Aaron. "We'll figure it out in time. For now, if our neighbors are planning anything they shouldn't be, I don't want you and the dragons here without protection. I think you'll like the palace."

Crowds had gathered in anticipation as they rode to the palace.

"All hail King Aaron!" Dylan shouted. "Aaron has decided to accept the appointment. Now, I think he has something to say to you."

Aaron had not been expecting this, but fortunately, he was never at a loss for words.

"I thank you for your confidence in me. We all know this is unusual, but we have been blessed to live in an interesting time. I will do all I can to return the kingdom to prosperity. This is not a kingdom of fools, and nobody thinks that is going to be easy. We have some special little friends here to help with the food."

The crowd cheered.

Aaron continued. "We take care of our friends. We do not eat them. We do not stand for anyone trying to harm them. Anyone caught doing so will be dealt with harshly."

There were more cheers.

The dragons stood on horses flapping their wings, showing off.

The two little Dragoyles stood together on a horse, and one managed "Aaron king. Aaron king."

This was followed by a wave of silence, then more cheers.

"Those little guys will be talking more than me pretty soon," said Aaron.

That was greeted with laughter, and more vocalizing from the Dragoyles, though nobody knew what they were saying.

As Dylan and the men escorted them to the palace, people cheered and dragons showed off. The Dragoyles soon learned to imitate the cheering, and it made for a noisy parade along the avenue. Eventually they reached the palace, and Aaron, Duane, and the dragons were escorted inside.

Eleven pairs of eyes looked around in amazement at the high walls covered in colorful tapestries, carved ceilings, and marble floors.

"What is it?" White gasped.

"This is where the king lives. Of course, other people live here too."

"Dragons live here?"

"They do now," said Aaron, as a crowd gathered around.

Black sat on top of a marble statue gaping at everything while the crowd gaped back at him. Brown peeked from inside her saddlebag gazing at her new surroundings. Red and Green flew around, exploring behind curtains and tapestries, examining each nook and cranny, until they were exhausted, and Aaron asked to be shown to the bedroom.

He had never seen the king's chamber, and he couldn't believe his eyes. Duane was stunned.

"What is that?" Pink asked, indicating the bed.

"It's the biggest bed I've ever seen," said Aaron.

"You sleep on it?"

"Yes." Aaron flipped the quilt down, and the Dragoyles scurried underneath, exploring the soft, warm mattress. "Now you guys have to get out of there before you tear the stuffing out of it."

The rest of the day passed in a blur. There was so much to palace life Aaron had given no thought to. He could see that keeping the dragons here was going to be a challenge. They were curious and excited, climbing on everything, and often forgetting to go outside when they needed to.

He flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Brown scurried under the blankets and curled up next to his neck. The rest gathered around, digging in the quilts to find a cozy spot.

When Duane found himself a soft couch, Yellow flew over beside him, intending to scratch himself a nest.

Aaron sighed. This was going to be more difficult than he'd anticipated. There's a reason dragons don't live in castles, he thought.


Chapter 30
Success and Havoc

By Cindy Warren

Aaron lay staring at the ceiling, pondering what to do next. He knew that the people who said he knew nothing about being king weren't entirely wrong. He'd have to figure it out, and fast. Winter was coming, and if people were not fed, the ones who could leave would go, and the rest would riot. His predecessor had taxed the kingdom to its limit, and the people had nothing left.

The dragons, not used to being idle in the daytime, were growing restless. Aaron woke Duane, and suggested he take them to the stables to catch mice before they destroyed the room. Alone, he wandered through the palace, taking in his new surroundings.

"You!" A shrill voice penetrated his reverie.

"Hello, Princess," he said.

"You have no business being here. I should be queen!" she shouted. She tore into him, insulting him with words more suited to a drunken sailor than a princess. Nearing the end of her unbecoming tirade, exhausted, she used the last of her energy to shriek at him some more.

"I know you're a fraud! That fish we had for dinner last night cost more than this dress. Did you think I wouldn't know? I've had it twice before. There's nothing wrong with the kingdom. There's plenty, and you're letting us go hungry!" She stormed off, back to her own apartment.

Aaron's head was beginning to ache, but he had an idea. He called for a meeting with the former king's adviser, several traders, and the cook who had prepared the fish. He had no idea what kind of fish had been served last night, and he needed to find out.

With everyone assembled, he shared the one useful piece of information the princess had given him.

"It's called tuna," said the cook. "I doubt it costs as much as the princess's dress, but it is expensive. I was surprised to see it."

"Do we have something of value to trade?" Aaron asked.

"Indeed we do," the men agreed.

The new king could see the relief in their faces. It was clear to him that these men had seen the problem, and been helpless to do anything about it.

"I'm going to need some smart people around if I'm going to get things sorted out," he said. "Can I count on you?"

They stared at him as though he had suddenly sprouted another head.

I know this is not the way things have been, but the way things have been have led us to this. I need to know what is needed, who has it, and then establish trade. You may speak freely.

"You could use those dragons to take whatever you want," said the adviser to the former king.

"I could. It might work for a short time, but the kingdoms would soon unite against us. I don't believe I've been entrusted with the dragons to get them killed. Besides, it's peace and prosperity I want for the kingdom, not war."

"I think Aaron, I mean His Majesty, is right," said one of the traders. "We don't have the resources for a war. We need food and supplies right now. We can't live on fish all winter. We need allies, not enemies. Give me a few of those fish, and I'll see what I can get for them."

The first man looked displeased.

"I want to hear all options," Aaron told him. "Say what's on your mind. I need to know what's going on, and what people are thinking."

It was decided. The princess had unwittingly given Aaron what he needed to set them on the road to success.

The sun was setting, and Brown crawled out from her nest under the quilts. Finding herself alone and a little disoriented, she flew around looking for company. In a room a little way down the corridor, she found a human lying in a tub of warm, sweetly scented water. Brown had never seen a bathtub before, and she was curious. She perched on the side of the tub, where the human relaxed with her eyes closed. She dipped a clawed foot into the water. It was so warm and smelled so delicious, and before she could think, she found herself diving in.

The human screamed. She thrashed around in the tub, sending water in all directions, at once lashing out at the dragon and trying to get away from her.

Brown had never seen a human behave like that before. She climbed to the edge of the tub, staring at her. She watched as the human continued screaming until the lady's maid rushed into the room with a broom. Screaming, she swung at the dragon, who landed back in the tub. The human in the tub kicked and thrashed, screaming more. Now terrified, Brown scrambled out and flew to a high shelf, letting out frightened squawks.

Her squawks immediately attracted the attention of her siblings, who rushed to her rescue. The maid panicked, swinging her broom in all directions, nearly hitting Black. Black blew a plume of flame at it, setting its straw on fire. In her panic, the poor lady swung the flaming broom at the dragons a few times, then decided to douse the flames in the tub.

The wet human flung herself out of the tub, ran for her bed and dashed under the covers, still screaming.

Duane, who had followed the dragons as best he could when they had all suddenly taken off, arrived just in time to see Pink, decked out in her favorite glamour, confronting a terrified woman holding the remains of a broom. Confronted with what appeared to be a large, flame colored dragon, she dropped to the floor in a dead faint. He shouted for Aaron.

Now that the perceived danger passed, the dragons were checking out the bathtub. Warm, scented water was a novelty for all of them. With the exception of Brown, who still crouched on the shelf in terror, they were splashing it all around the room. Aaron arrived and lifted the unconscious woman to the bed, causing a new chorus of screams.

Aaron immediately ordered Duane and the dragons out of the room and sent for a nurse to see to the women.

Back in his own room, with Brown clinging to his chest, he demanded to know what had happened.

"She was hurting Brown," said Pink.

For her part, Brown had no idea what had happened. The human in the water had simply gone crazy. She didn't know why.

Slowly, Aaron was able to piece things together. Brown had not meant to frighten the woman in the tub, and when the maid had frightened Brown, her siblings thought she was in danger and rushed to help her. The only question was what to do now.

"She wants to go home," said Pink. "She doesn't like it here any more."

"You can't go back to the cabin right now," Aaron told Brown, but perhaps you could visit Purple for a couple of days. Would you like that? I bet Purple would."

Brown stopped trembling and looked at Aaron.

"Sky could help you pop over to see her, and I'll have a couple of days to figure out what to do. You'll be okay. I don't believe you'll be jumping into bathtubs with strange humans again."

"She wants to see Purple," said Pink. "Sky wants to see her too."

The dragons gathered round on the bed.

"If things around here get to be too much, and you need to get away for a while, it's okay if you want to go see Purple. Please let me know so I'm not worrying that some crazy woman with a broom has managed to drown you, and do not go to the cabin."

Mountain and Yellow snuggled next to Aaron as Sky vanished with Brown. They all knew life was changing. The human world was not the best place for dragons.


Chapter 31
Aaron Makes a Decision

By Cindy Warren

Aaron awoke in the morning missing Brown, Sky and White.

"They don't like it here," Pink explained.

Aaron hauled himself out of bed.

"What about you?"

"I like some things, but not everything. There are too many humans," said Pink.

"What about the others?"

"Mountain and Yellow want to stay with you They don't care where. Green likes it well enough. Black and Red aren't sure yet."

Aaron sat on the side of the bed in stunned silence. He'd hoped to keep the dragons in the palace until spring, not only to protect them, but because he wanted them nearby. Now it seemed his charges were unhappy.

Mountain, sensing that Aaron was troubled, crawled from the nest he had made into his lap. The dragon was now too big to sit there comfortably, but he made the best of it.

Aaron scratched the dragon's head, pondering what to do. He'd planned to give the cabin to Duane in the spring, and find one of his family members to live with him. He hadn't had any success finding them so far, and he'd expected to have more time.

"What am I going to do with you guys?"

Mountain gazed into his eyes. The Dragoyles scampered from under the bed.

"Aaron," said one.

That cheered him a bit. "I knew you could do it," he said.

"Dane," his brother chimed in.

Duane opened his eyes. He was still half asleep, but he sat up, rubbing his eyes. The little Dragoyle didn't have his name quite right, but it was close enough.

"You're talking!"

"Aaron. Dane. Pink."

The remaining dragons gathered around in surprise.

"Ye-wow."

Yellow landed in front of him, flapping his wings.

Pleased with himself at Yellow's version of applause, the Dragoyle tried again.

"M-m-m-tin,"

Mountain looked at the Dragoyle, confused.

"That's a hard one," said Duane. "You almost got it."

"I think it's going to help a lot if they can talk to people," said Aaron. "Duane, you and Pink can help them out."

Feeling a little better, Aaron pulled on his clothes and headed to breakfast, leaving Duane to feed the dragons.

"You!" A now familiar screech found Aaron. "You sent your monster to attack me!"

He turned toward her. "You were not attacked. You weren't hurt at all. I'm getting weary of the way you carry on. You scared Brown so bad she doesn't want to be here any more."

"Good. Those things shouldn't be here. This is a palace, in case you don't know. You want to live with animals, go live in the stable!"

"Those 'things' are the reason we're not a conquered people right now. Are you so thick you can't see what's happening? Sure, you had offers of marriage from men who didn't have the slightest interest in you while your father was alive. Did he raise a fool? How long do you think you'd live, behaving as you do?"

"How dare you speak to me like that!" She was shrieking now, turning red and beginning to tremble. "I'm not a fool! How dare you say such a thing!"

"I'm telling you the truth. It's high time somebody did. You're not a child any more. You're a princess. You should have the respect of the people, but all anybody sees is a spoiled brat. Your behavior is beneath you, and somehow you don't know it."

"How dare you!" She was visibly trembling and sweating now, and for a moment Aaron thought she was going to faint.

"I dare because someone has to. I know you've lost your father, and your life has changed. I'm sorry for that, but if you continue to carry on like you do, you're going to end up dead.

"You're the fool! Nobody would dare. Don't forget who I am!

"Don't you see? It's because of who you are. There are many who would marry you for your crown, if you had it. A shrieking shrew would be an embarrassment they wouldn't want around. Your life would be in danger."

"That's not true," she stammered, starting to cry. The color had drained from her face, and she looked pale and weak.

"Go and clean yourself up," Aaron told her. "Then show the people a face that befits a princess. If you have any sense at all, you'll show no more hysterics or fits of temper."

She sulked off to her chambers, but without any of her former fire. Dropping onto her bed, she pounded her fists into her pillow, sobbing in humiliation and anger. She tore the sheets from the bed and was about to rip them to shreds when she was confronted with an angry pink dragon.

Pink easily dodged the pillow being thrown at her and perched on a bedpost, wings outstretched, showing her most intimidating glamor.

Black appeared on another bedpost, breathing fire, and was soon joined by Red, also flaming. Green appeared, flying around the room squawking loudly.

The princess shrank back as the two Dragoyles appeared on her bed, hissing and showing sharp teeth, and Pink resumed her usual form.

"You scared Brown away," she said. "Aaron is sad. The dragons have decided. We will not let you be so mean."

"Did he send you?" she asked, almost whimpering. Her encounter with Aaron had left her feeling weak and defeated.

"No. I told you, the dragons have decided."

At that moment, Sky popped into the room, carrying a hare in her claws.

"Sky can bring things into here, and she can also take things out. Do you understand?"

The terror on the girl's face would have told Pink everything, had she been a little better at reading human expression. Instead, the dragon glared at her, waiting for a reply."

"Well?"

"I-I u-understand."

"Good. Now, take the meat to the cooking place before it spoils."

"Me? I don't..."

A glare from Pink followed by flame from Black let her know the dragons neither knew nor cared that she considered such a chore beneath her. She wiped her face on the sheets and reluctantly picked up the dead hare Sky had dropped. She carried it to the kitchens and returned to her bed, where she stayed for the rest of the day.

Aaron was kept busy the rest of the day, meeting with traders and sending them off to trade the fish for other goods before winter truly set in. He saw that the princess's former suitor was escorted to the border, after spending a few days in the dungeon to discourage him from returning. It was evening before he was alone with the dragons again.

"You shouldn't have done that," he said when Pink told him of her encounter with the princess. "This is her home. If she were exiled she'd most likely die, and I don't want that. I want to make sure her habit of pitching fits no longer works for her. I'm going to see that nobody pays her any attention when she does it."

"We wanted to help," said Pink. "We weren't really going to hurt her. We just wanted her to stop being so mean."

"I know." Aaron sighed. "I'm not sure she can help herself. It's going to take some time. The thing is, if she's scared enough, she's likely to do something crazy."

"I will tell her," said Pink. "We don't like her. We will not take her away."

Aaron was nearly ready for bed when Dylan knocked on the door wanting to talk to him privately.

"I've found some information about Duane's family," he said. "I don't like what I'm hearing. It looks as though some of them truly may have been guilty. The cousin has been hanged for treason. It may be best if the others are not found. If they acted against the king, it's treason, and you'd have no choice. You'd have to act."

"I think you have more important things to do than chase after people who are probably dead," said Aaron. "Let's not look for trouble. We have enough." He recounted the story of Brown getting into the princess's bath, and the troublesome aftermath, with Dylan trying hard not to laugh.

"The thing is, they're dragons. They're feisty. I'm not sure they can conform to human rules. There are some people who don't want them here, and I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before they have to defend themselves. They can and will, and then I'll be in a real bind."

"They like Duane," said Dylan. "May I make a suggestion? Talk to Marjorie. Their farm is pretty secluded. I could have a few men keep an eye on things, just in case. It might be the safest place for both the kid and the dragons right now."

"I'm afraid you're right," said Aaron. "I'll have a talk with Duane tonight. I'll have to tell him about his cousin, before someone else does. It's going to break my heart, but keeping him and the dragons here can't end well. We both know it."

"I think that's the right decision," said Dylan. "I know it's not the easy one."





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