Part E, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
She was curled in a soft blanket, warm and content, dozing in front of the fireplace, flames creating flickering images on her closed eyelids.
She frowned. Something was wrong with the flames. Too hot. Roaring.
Zoey came to with a start, heart racing, panic and adrenaline surging through her body. She sat up fast, hitting her head on the sloping rock wall at her back. Eyes wild as memory returned, she frantically searched the shadows beyond the circle of light cast by the small fire in the center of the space.
There. Movement on the other side of the fire. She had hoped she’d imagined it, conjured the beast from her fear, but no. There was a dragon staring at her with glittering golden eyes. A huge, scaly, winged dragon. With claws and a tail and sharp teeth. It was hideous, the stuff of nightmares.
And somehow not as mind-numbingly terrifying now that she could see it. But maybe that was because she was already dead. It seemed likely. “I’ve died and gone to hell.”
“Don’t be insulting,” said the dragon.
Zoey drew in a sharp breath. She knew dragons were dangerously unpredictable, but had never heard of one that could speak.
It spoke again, sounding oddly bored. “So, what’s your treasure? Where is it?”
Treasure? Like a tribute, or a bribe? She had nothing. Zoey just shook her head. No.
“Oy, you just got here. Already with the disagreement? Of course you have treasure. Show me.”
Was a gift of treasure the price of life, of freedom? Damn, she was in big trouble here. “I–” She cleared her throat. “I have no treasure.”
“Listen, sweetie, I’m a Cave Dragon and this is my cave. No one gets in here without treasure. It’s not even possible. So where is it?”
Great, it was getting angry. Did she dare make a run for it? She thought about the cave’s total absence of light and reconsidered. “I swear, I don’t have–”
“All these centuries guarding treasure, for this? So some puny human can come in here and tell me THE RULES OF MY OWN CAVE?”
She cringed as the dragon bellowed the last part, tiny weak flames dancing around its mouth. The roar ended with a coughing fit. “Sorry. It’s the fog rolling in. Puts a real damp-er on a proper flame.”
Zoey blinked. Did it just crack a joke?
The dragon caught its breath and resumed the rant. “You come schlepping up to MY FRONT DOOR and you have NO TREASURE? Chutzpah, is what it is, to come into my lair empty-handed. Such a thing I never heard of.”
This wasn’t happening. It was too bizarre to be real. “I- I’m sorry.” Maybe she was dreaming.
“Or maybe,” the dragon paused and narrowed its glittering eyes at Zoey as if it could hear her thoughts. “Maybe you are the treasure?”
For some reason, that sounded like a trick question. What was the right answer? She went with the truth. “No, I’m no treasure. Ask anyone.”
The dragon tilted its head and gave her a considering look, tapping one sharp claw on an even sharper tooth. “Yes, I think that’s it. Now to decide whether you’re worth guarding. It’s my choice, you see. Some treasure I agree to keep safe. Feh, some I don’t.”
Zoey didn’t find this reassuring. She had no experience with dragons and, in spite of hoping this might be a dream, it all seemed very real. Very precarious.
“I’ve never guarded living treasure before. Perhaps you’re dying? Bones, I can guard. Not a problem. I have a lovely collection of skeletons.”
“I don’t– no, not that I know of.”
“I suppose I could kill you.”
Zoey shuddered. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
“How did you get here?”
By an act of stupidity, she thought, but said, “Over the boulders.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” The dragon waved a claw impatiently. “Before that. Did you come from the sea?”
“I climbed down the cliff.”
“Ahhh, from the mansion.” The dragon seemed to smile. “So you belong to Himself. That explains it.”
Explains what? “I don’t belong to anyone. I was hired to work for him.”
“Such a nice boy. Is he feeding you? He should feed you.”
Nice boy? She couldn’t think of two words less suited to describe the man. “Are we talking about the same person?” This was insane. She was having a conversation with a dragon.
“Of course. Anton Ferraro, the Youngest. What a magnificent temper he has. Such fire.”
Zoey rather suspected he was a cold-hearted and unemotional bastard.
The dragon interpreted her expression correctly, or heard her thoughts again, and huffed out a puff of smoke like a laugh. “Ah, so you’ve only seen his iron control. I’m telling you, it’s a direct reflection of the fire inside. There are times I could swear the boy breathes it. Such a fine young man. You’re not married?”
Zoey was saved from a reply by the sound of flapping wings and that distinctive chirping noise she’d heard on the beach. Oh please, not the bats. Zoey crossed her arms over her head and curled into herself, trying to make a smaller target.
“Oh yes, here they are! Come to Bubbie, my precious babies, come show me what you’ve found.”
Did the dragon just call herself grandmother? She sounded so happy, Zoey lifted her head slightly to watch.
The dragon spread her impressive wings and dozens of bats swarmed around, dropping things on the floor at her feet before perching on her shoulders and along the top edge of each wing. “Oh, marvelous. Excellent. Such beautiful treasures you’ve found.”
Only . . . they weren’t bats, Zoey realized. She sat up straighter. “Baby dragons,” she whispered. They were shimmering green and gold miniatures, not yet scarred by life or made dull with age. Tiny baby legs and claws and tails, miniscule scales and delicate little wings, wispy fine wreaths of smoke circling their heads.
They were glorious and completely adorable.
They’d dropped smooth round stones and bits of sea glass and delicate sprays of seaweed at the old dragon’s feet. Each item beautiful in its own way, but utterly worthless.
“Don’t question the value of what others hold dear,” the dragon said sharply.
“I wasn’t– I mean, no, of course not.” Zoey felt slightly ashamed of her cynicism, remembering her own childhood treasures.
“As the elders say: Judge not, lest all that glitters be the bell that tolls for thee.”
That . . . almost made sense. “You’re right, it was thoughtless of me. They’re lovely treasures.”
The dragon reached up with a scaly claw and plucked one of the babies off her shoulder. “This little one is starting to look like his Grandpa David, alav ha-shalom. So fierce already. My mate was a War Dragon, gone these many years.”
Was it proper to offer condolences to a dragon? Zoey had no idea. “I’m sorry for your loss. Was– was he killed in war?”
The dragon huffed out a smoky snort. “Nonsense. You can’t kill a dragon, no matter what you read in stories. Agree to take a fall one time so that rascal George could win fair maiden and we’ve yet to hear the end of it.”
Zoey didn’t know what to say to that so she just nodded.
“Dragons die of two things: sorrow and loneliness. Not much for War Dragons to do these days, what with modern weapons. They’re all but extinct now.”
She sounded so forlorn, Zoey rushed to change the subject. “So, these are your babies?”
The dragon beamed with pride. “Grandbabies, yes. My daughter, bless her heart, mated a Story Dragon. She has attachment issues, not that I didn’t raise her better, and follows him from place to place. He’s in high demand. So many movies and books and plays. I warned them to stay away from the toy market, but do they listen?” She made a sound of disgust. “Plastic dragons. They’re killing me.”
Zoey wondered whether it was possible to dream and hallucinate at the same time. Play along, she told herself, you’ll wake up soon. “I didn’t realize there were so many different types of dragons.”
There was a moment of silence as the dragon stared into the fire. Not a good sign, Zoey thought. The dragon seemed pleasant enough, when she wasn’t being absolutely terrifying in the dark, but she was still a dragon.
Although, thinking about it, all the dragon had done was stomp through its own cave and pick Zoey up and bring her to this “room.” A room where there was heat and light. And baby dragons. Okay, it also shot flames and roared at her, but what homeowner wouldn’t defend against an intruder. Zoey’s own fears were what had made the entire thing a nightmare. Still. It was a dragon, one with apparent mood swings, and not to be underestimated. Plus there was the little unresolved matter of getting out of there alive.
“I’ve made my decision,” the dragon said abruptly and flexed her wings, sending all the baby dragons flying.
Zoey flinched and ducked as they circled and swooped before hovering in a cluster near the ceiling of the cave. Then flinched again when the dragon seemed to grow even taller, her massive wings still outspread, and spoke in a stern booming voice.
“STAND AND SPEAK YOUR NAME.”
Talk about mood swings. Zoey stood, fearing the worst. She was going to die in this cave after all. Would anyone know to carve “Death by Dragon” on her grave marker?
Might as well get it over with. “Zoey Prescott.”
The dragon nodded. “I thought as much. ZOEY PRESCOTT, I HEREBY GRANT YOU MY PROTECTION. I ALSO GIVE YOU MY SOLEMN VOW THAT I WILL GUARD YOUR TREASURE.”
“What? But I–”
“It’s done. You didn’t ask and I give this freely, my mitzvah for this century. No need for payment.”
Payment? Zoey wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that.
“Although,” the dragon added softly, “there usually is a price for everything. Eventually.”
Exactly. Hence her concern. “Thank you, ma’am, but really–”
“Oh, call me Bubbie. We’re practically family now. I suppose you’d like to get out of here and head back to the mansion in time for dinner. You should eat.”
“Yes! I mean, thank you for having me, but if you could just point me toward the exit . . .” Zoey trailed off, at a loss for proper manners in this situation. She really didn’t want to anger the beast, even if this was a dream.
“Oy, and how far do you think you’d get if I did? God forbid she should ask for help. Ermie!” The dragon called out as if that were a name.
Sure enough, Zoey heard scuffling sounds and saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned to look and– “AIEEEEEEEE. It’s a rat!”
“He most certainly is not. Ermie, come introduce yourself before the girl plotzes again.”
The sleek white creature held its head high and managed to look both dignified and affronted as it approached. “‘Tis nae a proper way to address royalty, lass.”
Never mind that it could speak too, the rodent had a Scottish accent. “Are you sure it’s not a rat?”
“Do I look like I’m not sure? He’s an ermine. Claims to be a royal prince of some country with a name we can’t pronounce, so we call him Ermie. He’ll guide you out and back up top. After you apologize for the slight, of course.”
It was a sign of how very desperate Zoey was to get out of the cave, whether dream or reality didn’t even matter anymore, that she found herself down on one knee, a dragon looking on in approval, offering an abject apology to an ermine. No, a royal ermine prince.
E is for Ermine.