Aaron hides the baby dragons from a kingdom that would be happy to eat them. He's also found himself protecting a boy whose family is in some trouble. He knows trouble will soon be upon them.
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.
"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.
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.