“I should go first,” Azi whispered, wiping his brow and adjusting his cap in one movement. It was unnaturally warm in the dragon’s den.
The little brown mouse, standing on her hind legs beside him, twitched her whiskers. “You’re too big. She’ll hear you, and she’ll smell you. We’ve already decided. Why do you waver?”
The two were hidden behind a large boulder on the other side of which was a great sleeping dragon.
Azi held up the metal pin between his thumb and forefinger. It was such a little thing and yet it bore such a great burden. He had always believed that great burdens should be for broad and hardy shoulders. He had believed a great many things that proved to be wrong before he began his apprenticeship in spell-making. He dropped his gaze and considered the small furry shoulders of his friend. He smiled and lowered the pin toward Rig.
“Wish me all-speed,” she said before grasping the pin in her mouth.
Luck meant nothing to a mouse. Speed, everything.
“All-speed, my friend.”
With that, Rig dashed away.
Azi was skilled in pin-craft when it came to soothing aches and pains, and relieving sore and twinging nerves from constant agony. He had done so for many creatures, not only men, women, and children, but cows, horses, dogs, pigs, many birds, and since meeting Rig, mice. But never had he performed any kind of spell-craft on a dragon. He had only studied and read what he must do in books. There was no way for him to practice. Friendly dragons were not wont to happen along in those times. Yet he had dared to craft a pin such as he had never crafted before. It looked to be a common pin, but if inserted into the right place, if it pierced the soft flesh behind a dragon’s ear, just behind the jaw, it would grow large enough and long enough to meet the inside of the dragon’s nostrils. With her eyes closed, a dragon’s keenest senses were her nose and her ears. Those senses were already much dulled in sleep. The pin would further dull the dragon’s senses. Rig was small enough, they hoped, that the sleeping dragon would not smell or hear her until she could sneak up and place the pin.
Though there were no living dragons to volunteer, Azi and Rig had practiced as best they could with dragon’s heads they made of wood and clay. Azi had studied all he could find about dragons, stories and legends concerning them, their strengths, their weaknesses, their special powers, and the signs of their movements. So he had learned how to tell when a dragon was sleeping.
In ancient times, it was purported that most dragons had other senses, beyond the ones that most mortal creatures possessed. So Rig and Azi had feared that their plan to dull only two of the red dragon’s senses might be futile. But when Azi read further, he found rumors and whispers of the dulling of dragon’s senses long ago, in his great-great-grandfather’s time, or even beyond. Perhaps some illness had swept among them. Or perhaps some mage or spell-caster among those mortal creatures who could wield magic, like humans or cats, had managed to subdue the dragons just a bit. It was perhaps no coincidence that such rumors seemed to start at the same time that dragons, who had once been much like other folk in the world—some good, some wicked, most a bit a both—seemed to turn bitter and envious, hungry and greedy, more wicked than good.
Azi gasped as Rig’s tail almost disturbed a coin from one of the many piles of riches that littered the dragon’s den. By instinct, he reached out a hand as if to command all the coins, pebbles, and grains of dirt on which Rig trod or which she passed by to stay in place. But he was no mage. If he wanted to hold anything in place with his hands, he would have to lay those hands upon that thing. Even with his gaze upon his friend, Azi could not help but to note the glint of jewels and gold from the many piles and heaps that lay around the cavern, not just in the dragon’s den, but along the many tunnels and corridors that led to it.
If he did not know any better, Azi would have taken a coin or two, for how could two coins be missed in the midst of mounds upon uncounted mounds. But he did know better. Scattered though they seemed, each coin and jewel in each mound was counted and counted often. A dragon knew the shapes and sizes of each pile and mound in her scattered hoard better than Azi knew the veins on the back of his hand.
The heat of the cavern was nothing to the heat that Rig’s paws felt, when she climbed atop the dragon’s neck. Azi had made a salve for her feet and warned her how long she could remain standing on the dragon’s scales before they would burn her feet beyond recovery. She smelled smoke and wondered if the dragon was producing it in sleep. But then she realized that the hairs on her stomach had gotten singed. A red dragon’s scales were hard and scalding even days after the dragon’s death.
Rig found the proper spot behind the dragon’s ear. It was, as she expected, harder to find, smaller on the real dragon. It was a delicate task, slipping the pin into place. When she did, she expected a reaction, a jerk of pain from the dragon, but there was none. She hoped she had placed it correctly, but neither she nor Azi would test the pin’s effects if they did not have to.
With the pin in place, Rig skittered off the dragon’s scales and took a few breathes of respite. All four of her paws were burned, but not badly so. The hairs on her stomach were singed, but they would grow back. She had thus far survived. She was close to her quarry. She crept past the dragon, marveling at its immense head. She often teased Azi about his large head (and he quipped back that it meant he could hold more knowledge, wisdom, and charm in his head). But she had never imagined any living creature’s head could be so enormous.
The dragon slept with her wings folded upon her back and her body curled up so the tip of her nostrils met the tip of her tail. Rig spotted another of the cavern’s many treasures lying within the circled form of the dragon. It was a golden horn that seemed to glow, like some of the other piles of treasure, with a soft golden light of its own.
The light dimmed as she continued past the dragon toward a rough stone dais. It was as tall as Azi’s knees, for it was not made for creatures the size of men or dragons.
In the half-light of three dying candles, Rig saw what—who—she had braved the dragon’s den to find. Lying on a pallet of torn silk stuffed with feathers and hay was the true king of the Blue mice.
That Blue mice were bigger than Brown was mostly true (there were some tall tales of unusually large Brown mice who were bigger than some unusually small Blue mice). Rig was fairly well-traveled and had acquaintances among most of the races. But even she was unprepared for the king’s size. She had hoped to be strong enough to carry or drag him herself. But he was twice her size. Though he had been in captivity for many years, it seemed he was in some spell that held him in the same state in which it had found him. He had not aged. His muscles had not shrunken or shriveled as he lay in some kind of enchanted sleep. His fur was still that striking shade of blue-gray that marked the Blue mice in youth.
She tried his weight and gasped when she found she could not even lift one of his limbs. They had foreseen the need for Azi to come forth and help. They had also foreseen that the king himself might make much noise upon his rescue. That was the reason for the pin inside the dragon’s skull. It seemed it would indeed be put to the test.
Rig gestured for Azi to approach. He came tiptoeing toward the dais and crouched down. He slipped a hand beneath the king’s body and frowned. Rig could see that he was straining to lift the king, but could not. They did not have to speak to know what the other was thinking. There was some spell at work.
Rig climbed up onto Azi’s shoulder and spoke in a strained whisper. “Perhaps now that you and I have seen with our own eyes, others will believe me. They will send mice of higher rank and mages of higher skill, begging your pardon, friend.”
Azi turned around, so they could keep their eyes on the dragon. “No pardons needed,” he whispered back. “I’m no mage. But are you sure you want to leave without him? When she wakes, the dragon will surely know we’ve been here. She will tighten her defenses against intruders. We may not have another chance.”
“Can you break the spell?”
“I’m not even sure what it is.”
“What do you think it is?”
Azi peered down at the sleeping king and scratched under his cap. He had learned so much about dragons in such a short time that he could have changed his apprenticeship to dracology. Yet little of that knowledge came to him under the looming walls of the cavern, in the scorching den with a dragon that could wake at any moment and find him stealing her living treasure. Dragons could wield magic. They were fond of trickery and artifice.
“He may be trapped in a dream,” Azi said.
“You can see that?” Rig marveled.
“His weight is the clue. I’d wager he is weighed down by lies and illusions.”
“Can you break the spell?” Rig asked again.
“The truth might work. A true tale told to him by someone standing in the true world.” Azi turned his head to Rig. “Tell him the tale of how you and I met. And I will think of something else in case that doesn’t work.”
As Rig climbed down from his shoulder and began whispering a true tale, Azi eyed the golden horn that he had spotted nestled inside the curled body of the dragon like a child’s favorite bedtime toy. He wondered if that horn was the key to breaking the spells that lay heavy on the king. If it was then it would be a deadly task for him to fetch it, but he would have to try if Rig’s tale did not work. He hoped it would, for he did recall that such simple acts, taken even by those who were not learned in magic, could guard against magic, could break spells, and sometimes even cast them.
He tried to recall other knowledge, but he found himself leaning closer to the mice so he could listen to Rig’s whispered tale. He did not know all of it.
Some among the mice were suspicious of the Blue king and the troubling new decrees he had begun passing some years ago. Mousekind had known and savored peace among themselves for many generations. But the Blue king’s decrees seemed…martial. He commissioned the building of small weapons and the expansion of the Blue orders in an army that was meant only to guard mice against threats from other (usually larger) beings. Spies went forth from the other mouse nations. The Brown mice questioned more than others, and little by little, they discovered that something was amiss at the court of the Blue mice. But the Browns were considered lower, even in the modern times when judging a mouse by color class designations had long been outlawed. So they were ignored when they claimed that the Blue king was a pretender. They were shouted down when they claimed that the true king of the Blue mice lay within the den of the red dragon Carnelian, who was said to have risen out of the molten earth that burst from an ancient mountain, and flowed out to cool and form the lands upon which they all came to dwell.
Rig was among those who believed what the spies reported. She was not a mouse of great power, influence, or prestige, even among the Brown. But there were some details among the reports that compelled her to act. She tried to rally her own kind to march to the mountain of the red dragon. None would follow her. She tried to find some mouse among the Blue who believed the spies. But if there were any, they did not make themselves known to her. In the many months that followed, when Rig spied upon the dragon herself, she did not encounter a single mouse. Indeed, many warned her that she risked her rank and livelihood if she pursued the false obsession that led her so often to the cave of the red dragon.
Many generations past, there were tales of Carnelian being a jolly if somewhat reckless dragon. Not particularly kind, but not cruel either. She even helped defend the valley in which she lived from disasters and invaders from outside. She seemed most fond of the naked hind-leggers who called themselves humans.
Rig had always stayed away from humans, not knowing what to make of them. The mice who lived among humans seemed to live shorter lives and simpler ones.
But mousekind did not dabble in magic, not because it was forbidden, but because rare was the mouse who showed any skill in magic. It simply was not a trade that mice could do, much less master. So Rig had to find a race who could do and master magic. Aside from dragons, the race that was most skilled at magic was the one that most confounded her, humans.
She did not seek the most learned, the most famous. She wanted a simple spell. One that she would be able to wield. So she watched the many apprentices in the village closest to where her tribe and home was in the forest. She found one to be favorable because he was honorable and kind-hearted, but strong, and from what she gathered, naturally talented and hard-working at his craft.
Most humans did not speak any languages beyond their own, and so believed that other races did not speak. Some even believed so of the mighty dragons who were so long-lived that even the dullest of them, even the ones who hibernated the longest, had vast stores of knowledge in his mind, simply from living.
So it took a while for Rig to get her message across to the young apprentice known as Azi. But the young man was clever, and he found a way to learn the dialect of Brown mouse-speak that Rig and her people used.
At first, she asked him to create a key that could break locks and dissolve chains, for she imagined the king locked up in a cage, and she did not know that such a craft was beyond the skill of all but the most powerful mages. When he asked what she needed it for, she told him the truth. Azi was much terrified at the mention of the dragon and awed that little Rig was set to go into that dragon’s den to rescue her king. She corrected him and told him the mouse inside was not her king, but that she feared his capture and replacement meant something dire for all mousekind, at least in that region. She warned that the ripples might even affect other peoples, including humans. Though she said this more to convince the young man than from actual belief.
The unmoving figure of the king exhaled a sudden breath. His eyes fluttered. Rig and Azi looked at each other, their eyes wide and mouths agape. Azi slipped a hand beneath the king’s back and helped him up to a seated position.
As the great Blue mouse opened his eyes, Azi and Rig dared to turn their backs to the sleeping dragon and block her from the king’s sight until they could give quick explanations.
The king glanced between his two rescuers, blinking and breathing as if he had emerged from underwater.
“Hail, Breninglas. We have come to save you.” Rig spoke the words in a low voice. “There is danger still.” She moved aside and let the king see the dragon.
The king peered at the dragon, not with fear or awe, but with curiosity. He was still quite dazed as Rig helped him down.
To Rig’s amazement, the three managed to creep past the dragon and back through the tunnel that she had mapped out to reach the den where the king had been kept prisoner.
They tried not to speak, for it was said that dragons, when awake, could hear any noise in any part of their cavernous dwellings. The rescue party had enjoyed the good fortune of a sleeping dragon thus far. They had the king. They need not dare anymore. Now was the time for caution. But when they rested, so that the king could sip some water and begin to recover himself, it was he who spoke.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Rigibre of the Brown mice. This is Azi, the apprentice spell-caster.”
“What reason do a common Brown mouse and a hind-legger have for rescuing a Blue king?” His expression was more curious than suspicious and seemed to have a hint of teasing.
“Do you remember anything of the tale I told you while you slept?” Rig asked.
The king pondered for a moment. He frowned.
“Who would dare to pretend that he is me?”
“Alas, I am ashamed to say it is a Brown.” Rig lowered her head.
“One Brown has betrayed you. But this Brown has come to save you,” Azi said gazing fondly at Rig.
“I felt something was amiss,” the king said, his gray eyes flashing. “I never imagined I was dreaming.”
He brushed his paw through the hair of his chin. “I remember being visited at court by a most alluring red mouse. I became quite fond of her. She said her name was Lian.”
Rig started. “Carnelian!”
The king’s shoulders slumped. “I told her many things I should not have.”
Azi placed a hand on the Blue mouse’s shoulder. “We’ve all been fools for love at one time or another.”
Rig nodded. “I know I have.”
“Ah, but you are free people. The cost of your foolishness may be nothing more than your pride. The cost of my foolishness…may be my entire kingdom. My people.”
“You think she may have been telling the pretender what you told her?” Rig asked.
The king nodded gravely.
Rig looked thoughtful. “Was she fond of you as well? Perhaps, if it were so, she might have told you things that she should not. True things that she never expected you to reveal, because she never expected you to wake.”
Azi glanced down the tunnel the way they had come. “We should move on, before she wakes—“
“No,” the king said. “I’m already forgetting what I knew in the dream. You are right. There may be truth. I must tell it before I forget. I am not the only prisoner. She is not the only dragon.”
The king frowned in concentration. “There was a…leader of the dragons. I think. He…commanded this. A prisoner for each of the Greater Ranks. Empress Oak. Mushroom Prince. And the smallest ones. Smaller than mice. Smaller than insects. Too small to see.”
Rig and Azi exchanged a glance. They noted in their memories what the king spoke, both practiced in the art, because both mice and apprentice spell-casters were expected to learn by remembering. But neither could make sense of the king’s words.
“Vain and hungry was this dragon,” the king said. “Always hungry, for praise, for meat, for treasures, for power. The greatest power he could possess was control over what he deemed to be the greatest beings in the world, dragons.” The king’s eyes widened.
Suddenly, the king leapt to his feet. He glanced between his rescuers. “The horn!” he cried, and he raced down the tunnel just as they heard the distant roar of a waking dragon.
The king was going the wrong way. Azi and Rig ran after him, but Azi knew he had no chance of catching up to the king, who seemed to have thrown off any last remnants of drowse from his sleep-of-many-years.
Now that the dragon was awake, she was certain to hear them if they spoke. Still, Rig called out to the king. Azi worried that his footfalls, though padded with the softest soles he could find, might be heavy enough for the dragon to hear. Then he remembered the pin.
If Rig had placed it correctly, the dragon would not have an easy time dislodging it. He might still have a chance to catch up to the mice and they all might still have a chance to escape before the dragon found them.
Their initial descent into the cavern and to the dragon’s den had been so slow and arduous that Azi was stunned at how quickly he reached the den just by running.
Azi stopped at the mouth of the den. The dragon was awake. As he watched, she raked the back of her neck with one of her claws. So she felt the pin. But it was still in place. He peered ahead, but he was still too far to see the mice. He ran toward the boulder where he and Rig had been hiding. It seemed many days ago, though it had been no longer than an hour since they found the king. He wiped sweat from his brow and felt it dripping down his back. It felt as if he had entered a furnace.
From behind the boulder, he spotted the mice. There were coins scattered all over the floor as the dragon’s tale swept across and through the many heaps and piles that lay about. The dragon calmed herself and stopped moving. She bared her sharp teeth in what appeared to be an irritated grimace as she shifted her sight downward and spotted the mice where Azi saw them.
They were gathered about that golden horn that the dragon had been guarding even in her sleep. The king had his mouth against the narrow opening. He was trying to blow the horn, but no sound came from it. Perhaps none was meant to, but whatever favorable affect the king hoped for did not seem to be manifesting. Rig stood on her hind legs, her face turned defiantly up to the dragon.
The dragon spoke one word. “Breninglas.”
The sound of the dragon’s voice rumbled through the air. It shook Azi’s bones and made his skin shudder.
Azi stood horrified as he watched a bright red-orange glow appear at the dragon’s throat. She was summoning fire, and there was nothing he could do to stop it or guard against it. Something made him run forth. The dragon would need some time to stoke the fire. He could sweep the mice up in his arms and dive behind a boulder. They were all small. They could hide from the dragon and flee.
But when he reached them, the dragon was already opening her mouth, even as Rig lowered herself to four feet and placed her mouth beside the king’s on the horn. Both Rig and the king blew into the golden horn.
The horn sounded.
Azi stood before the mice and below the dragon, stunned by the music of the horn. It was only one note, but there seemed to be a tune or melody woven into that note, something that he did not hear with his ears but that he heard nonetheless, perhaps in his mind.
The mice stopped blowing on the horn. The dragon lowered her head toward them. Azi stood between the dragon and the mice. Rig called out to him. He was too afraid to recognize what she was saying over the sound of the blood rushing through his head and the pounding of his heart.
The dragon brought her eye level to him. He saw the glow of red still within her throat. Then she raised her head, stretched her neck up toward the high roof of the den, and roared out a burst of bright blue flame that flickered out sparks of red and yellow-orange. Her neck and head shook and it was a moment before Azi realized that the dragon was laughing.
She lowered her head and peered down at the party of small creatures.
“Breninglas,” she said again, the rumbling of her voice again shaking Azi’s bones. “You have freed me.”
“With this horn, we can free the rest of your kind as well,” the mouse king said.
Smoke rose from the dragon’s nostrils. She narrowed her eyes. “I only dreamed that you might help me. I never thought you would.”
“We were both trapped.” The king turned to Azi and Rig. “Until they freed us.”
“Of course, those who are deemed the smallest and least. He was always blind to them, to his doom.”
“The dragon, you mean?” the mouse king asked. “The one who cast the spell on you, to control you?”
The red dragon glanced at Rig and Azi. “I will speak only to Breninglas.”
The king gave a stern nod to Rig and she obeyed, guiding Azi out of the den, despite his misgivings.
The little brown mouse and the apprentice spell-maker waited for the king outside of the cavern.
“Strange rescue,” Azi said, as he sat against a boulder, using its shade to keep cool from the late-day sun. His face felt tight and was beginning to hurt.
“What did you mean to do by standing before the dragon like that?” Rig asked. “Afford us one more moment of terror before her fire burned through your flesh and bones and reached ours?”
“Your cheeks, your face is too red. You’ll need to heal yourself.”
Azi nodded. They both needed healing. He found the pack of food and supplies he’d left outside of the cavern, and reached inside it for the proper salves.
Rig placed her paw upon Azi’s hand. “Of all the many beings I have known that walk upon two legs, you hairless hind-leggers are the most like mice. Some wicked. Some good. Most a bit of both. But you in particular…I chose well when I chose you.”
Startled, Azi raised his flask of water to hide his embarrassment. “To the pit with kings and dragons. I drink to you, Rig, and to me, and to all mice.”
Rig struck her own tiny flask against Azi’s, and they set about salving and feeding themselves, while a king and a dragon spoke of greater things.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Red Dragon’s Den” by Sanjay Patel.