One of the inconspicuous stones jumped and cracked, popping loudly. A farmer, who had been snoozing on the rockpile, was startled. He sprang up, eyeing the pile suspiciously. An oval stone the size of a man’s forearm jumped again. Tiny cracks broke its surface. The farmer took a few terrified steps backwards. The stone jumped again, cracking even further. A piece fell off it. A tiny, toothy, snout squeezed through the hole. The man turned on his heel, and ran.
The rock skipped a few more times. Each time it did so, a deeper and wider map of cracks showed on its surface. Opening the gap wider still, a miniature blue-green head squeezed through it. Paws with teeny talons followed the snout; wings and the rest of the body succeeded. The dragon cub could not have chosen a worst moment to hatch. He pushed out of his egg, slipped on the uneven surface of the rockpile and tumbled down, landing spread-eagled in the grass at its foot. He lay still for a moment then squeaked quietly. The little dragon lifted his head, shook it twice and hiccupped. A small cloud of warm air escaped his nostrils. Clumsily, the cub tried to stand on unsteady legs. This was no easy task due to the necessity of balancing his head and tail. The head being obviously heavier than tail complicated the matter and led to the diminutive dragon falling repeatedly on his snout. Finally, he managed to stand up relatively straight, winning his altercation with gravity. He stretched his webbed, translucent wings. They were still wet. The cub hiccupped again. He looked around and took a few uncertain steps. Stretching his neck, a long high-pitched whine escaped his throat. It sounded almost like a baby’s cry. The little dragon listened for a while, but there was no reply. He called again.
At least to Elena, hiding in the bushes, it sounded like a call. It seemed natural for a newborn creature to call its mother, so she decided to stay in hiding. Aaron always said that mothers guarding their young were dangerous. And dragons were said to be humungous. She had no ambition whatsoever to risk an encounter with a big angry beast. She intended to stay put. However, her timidity did not prevent her from watching the cub as it endeavored to gain control over its legs. The cub was obviously making progress; he toppled face first a few more times, but his balance was improving. He reproduced that whiny call, but there was still no reply.
From the forest, where the fainthearted farmer had disappeared, angry voices could be heard. They drew nearer. Elena listened. The dragon cub noticed them too. He darted for cover behind the rockpile as fast as his still clumsy legs allowed. He flattened himself to the ground and lay still. For a moment, Elena lost sight of him. Four men, led by our farmer, rushed into the clearing. The men were all armed with swords and shields, except for one fellow who brandished a heavy war club.
“So, where’s the beast?” asked the beclubbed man. The farmer pointed to the rockpile. Their intentions were all too clear. Elena stood up and ran around the clearing to get closer to the rockpile and the men endangering it. Once she reached their level, she stepped out from under the trees. Occupied with hunting the little dragon, the men had not noticed her yet. Looking for the cub, they approached the rockpile spread out in a skirmish line.
“Hold it!” she shouted, attempting to fortify her voice with the authoritative tone she had so often heard from her father. Surprised, they halted. She marched towards them, stopping between the men and the rockpile behind which the dragon cub was hiding.
“What?” managed the most aggressive one at last.
“Stop!” answered Elena calmly. The men looked at each other uncertainly, wondering where the girl had come from.
“Out of the way, girl,” ordered the one with the club, reaching out to push her with a shovel-sized hand. Elena took a step back and rested her hand on the hilt of her sword.
“Leave the cub alone!” She stood there, a tiny eight-year old girl dressed in black, standing up to four grown men armed to the teeth. One of them laughed a harsh laugh.
“Move, girl,” he repeated. Elena only shook her head.
“It’s a dragon. We’re gonna get him before he grows and eats someone. Git!” he commanded. She shook her head again.
“No, it’s just a cub and it can’t defend itself.” She realized it was a poor choice of words as soon as she let them out of her mouth.
“Exactly, we’ll kill it before it’s able to defend itself. Out of the way!” He was obviously angry.
“Yeah, move girl. That little bugger ain’t gonna go screaming here, calling other dragons. We have a village close by. We don’t want his kind wondering around.” He made a step towards her. She took one more step back.
“The other dragons are exactly why you should not kill him,” crossed her mind.
“Every cub is bound to have its mother close by. Maybe she is on her way here. What do you think she will do if she finds out you killed her child? Dragons have an amazing sense of smell. She will track you down all the way to your village and burn it to the ground. Is that what you want?” Uncertain, the men looked at each other. This had not occurred to them. They had even forgotten that they believed dragons to be extinct.
“With him screaming like that, it ain’t gonna make any difference. Git brat, or I’ll whip you with my belt for getting in our way,” barked the pugnacious peasant, as he stepped towards where he thought the dragon cub to be hiding. Elena drew her sword. They had pushed her so far that she was almost behind the rockpile now. She dared a quick sideways glance into the grass at the foot of the rockpile. She glimpsed a puny little dragon trying to be invisible, crouched as low as possible. He gave her a wide-eyed pleading look. Quickly, she turned her eyes back to the four men.
“I command you to stop right there!” she tried again. Once more, there was that harsh, cruel, laughter.
“How dare you?!”
“I am Princess Elena, daughter of King John and Queen Ashka, and I command you to leave immediately!” she backed her tone with a determined expression and straightened her back, trying to look dignified. Elena stood there, sword in hand, as a living shield trying not to think about how scared she really was. The men stopped as one.
“What?” asked one of them, confused.
“You heard me!” snapped she in a haughty tone of voice she had so often heard from her brothers. Gathering into a tight group, the men started arguing in low voices. Elena could not hear much, but from what she did, it was clear they were having difficulty agreeing.
What if the brat really is a princess? If she is, where’s her personal guard? And what if she isn’t? But what if she is? And what about the dragon? What if his mother really does come? And what if her mother appears? Yeah, what then? What are we gonna do? Such questions reached Elena’s ears. She dared another sideways glance at the dragon cub. He appeared as merely a shadowy shape, slightly darker than the grass around him. It took her a while to distinguish his hide from the sea of green grass. The cub was contemplating her.
Don’t you look at me like that! We are both in hell of a lot of trouble! she thought and was surprised to see the dragon cub tilt his head to one side, as if he were listening. All of a sudden, the debating group parted, and the aggressive man with the club emerged.
“He can’t be screaming here like that! He’s got to git!” he demanded, but his confidence seemed slightly dulled. Elena gave him a look. However, her head was not even up to his belly, so it probably did not come across as threatening as she meant it to.
“Go back to your village. I will take him away,” she answered at last. It was not the greatest idea, but she could not think of anything better to do. The men looked at each other.
“How do we know you won’t leave him here once we turn our backs?” peevishly asked the farmer who had witnessed the cub hatch. Elena made an offended face.
“How dare you speak to the King’s daughter in such a tone? How dare you question the word of royal blood?” This time she took an angry step forward. At that moment, despite her small stature, she looked fierce. Without realizing it, the men took a few backward steps, before it dawned on one of them that four grown men were backing away from a small girl, and he stopped.
“No buts about it! Be gone!” she ordered in a tone even her father would have been proud of.
“But you will take him away from here?” the fourth man spoke for the first time. Elena had a feeling his heart was not in it, that the others had dragged him along, just to make up the numbers.
“Yes!” she answered, so sure of herself they couldn’t help but believe her. What if she really was a princess after all… Reluctantly, they turned around and walked away slowly, looking back over their shoulders. Elena waited for them to disappear into the trees. She returned her sword to her scabbard and turned to look at the dragon cub. He was watching her with keen interest.
”That was close!” she sighed with relief. Her knees were wobbly and she felt like fleeing, wanting to be as far away from here as possible. But she could not. That would mean breaking her word and her father would not appreciate that! Giving and keeping one’s word was taken very seriously in the royal family. Promises were not a matter to be taken lightly; she dared not test her father’s patience with her, nor worse, disgrace her family.
“We have to get out of here before they change their minds and come back with reinforcements,” she commented aloud. The Dragon cub looked right at her. It was almost as if he understood. It seemed to her his scales had changed color. Was she imagining it, or was the cub suddenly more visible? From up close his scales were strangely green with shimmering blue tints.
“Don’t be scared, I won’t hurt you!” she told him. She approached him very slowly, with her hand outstretched as if approaching a puppy, allowing him to sniff her. The dragon cub stood up, stretched its neck to pick up her scent.
“Don’t even think about biting me! My name is Elena. I am daughter of Ashka, the daughter of the Adragon, the dragon protectors. I won’t hurt you. We have to get out of here, quick. It’s not safe here. Will you let me carry you?”
She drew nearer, her hand still outstretched, feeling silly to be talking to the little dragon as if he could understand her. Her fingers were shaking. The cub sniffed her hand carefully without taking his eyes off her. She was pleased he did not try to bite her fingers off. Suddenly, he hiccupped and warm air puffed out of his nostrils. Instinctively, she jerked her hand away. The cub bowed his head apologetically covering his snout with front paw. Elena smiled. She whistled quietly. At first, nothing happened. Then a huge black Berber warhorse emerged from the trees, its hoofs thudding quietly in the grass. He galloped towards Elena, but, picking up an unfamiliar scent, he stopped nervously before reaching her. The dragon cub hissed.
“Hey, stop it the two of you! Ashkent, don’t be scared, it’s just a dragon cub. We have to take him out of here; the villagers want to hurt him. I know you don’t like the smell of him, but he is only little, he won’t hurt you.” Dragon cub and horse sized each other up and sniffed one other carefully and suspiciously. Elena was used to talking to her horse, aware he could understand her, because he was a wise Berber warhorse. The Berbers believed their horses carried the souls of ancient Berber warriors. Carefully she picked up the dragon cub and sat it up on the leather saddle. While he was balancing there uncertainly, she swung up behind him. She cradled the little dragon in her arms, leaving the reins tied around the pommel. She maneuvered Ashkent with her knees as Aaron had taught her.