17. Rubble, Rubble, Boil and Bubble

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Moribus wedged his bloodied fingertips into yet another crevasse. He had removed his riding gloves when they had gotten too wet and slippery to grip on the ice-slick stone. Without them, his hands were paying a terrible price. The pads of his fingers were bruised purple-white, and his knuckles were lacerated to the bone. The rest of him was faring little better. His kneecaps were thoroughly pulped, and his chest and thighs were scraped raw, leaving red smears on the stone. He forced himself to keep moving. Painful as they were, his injuries weren't immediately deadly. But should he remain still for too long, the shakes would start, and that would be the end.

The mountain was cruelly deceptive, riddled with shallow ledges and grottoes that revealed more sheer rockface beyond. Only when he was able to peer over did he dare believe he had reached the true summit. The snow-covered rise was devoid of rocky debris with not another barrier in sight.

With what remained of his strength, he hoisted himself over the lip to flop onto his back. He lay there for a while in numb rapture, staring at the sky. It was early evening, and the sky was a deep, cobalt blue, more like a reflection in a lake than the sky itself. A wisp of cloud drifted into view like a lady's kerchief. Or like the tail of a horse. A white horse, he laughed bitterly, recalling the chain of unlikely events that had led him to this barren mountaintop.

Only two days had passed since Lord Manerion had been felled by a dragon's sneeze, but it seemed a distant memory now. Caught up in the titanic showdown, Moribus had been too spellbound to leap to the knight's defense or even comprehend his predicament. Only when the dragonslayer's limp body was being lofted away above the treetops did his wits finally return to him.

Moribus rode hard in the direction the dragon had gone, knowing he stood little chance of catching up to it. It was only by good fortune that the dragon reappeared a while later. It had somewhere disposed of the knight and filled its talons with boulders. When next it appeared, it was headed the opposite direction and its talons were empty. This pattern repeated itself many times over the next few hours, but before Moribus could home in on its point of origin, darkness intervened. He feared he had lost it for good when a diffuse glow bloomed on the horizon like a false sunset. Driving his horse to collapse, he raced onward on foot, catching up with the dragon just before daybreak.

Remembering to smear himself liberally with goat dung, he crouched behind a shrubby hemlock to watch. Like a demon warlock tending a boiling cauldron, the dragon towered over the steaming pond at its feet. Every so often it would spew fire on a boulder and cast it into the water where dead fish bobbed on the surface like onions in a stew. Heat washed over Moribus in waves, alternately causing him to break out in a sweat and then shiver clammily. It was only when he saw Lord Manerion's body sprawled face down in the shallows that he fathomed what the dragon was doing. Rhojë in heaven! It was boiling him.

The sight of his master's corpse brought his thoughts into sharp focus. His squire-ship had just ended. It was up to him to slay the dragon now.

Armed with only his sword and wits, he knew he had to choose the time and circumstances of his attack carefully. He would only get one chance, and the slightest miscalculation would spell certain death. Such had been the knight's final lesson.

He decided on a morning strike when the sun would be full in the dragon's eyes. He watched anxiously as the first thin rays broke the horizon and the sun blistered up, gathering strength. But he hadn't counted on the steam rising off the hot pond and muting the glare. When a breeze pushed the steam toward the far bank, it also carried the smell of his goat dung camouflage. The dragon cast a curious glance in his direction. It knew something was there but was too preoccupied to investigate. Moribus crouched lower, considering his options. Without the element of surprise, he had almost no chance of success, yet he couldn't stay hidden forever. The time for action had come. Yet still he delayed.

Then the opportunity was gone. The dragon rounded the pond and snatched up the armored knight as if it were plucking a lobster from a pot. Moribus leaped from cover just as it was launching itself into the air, but he was too late. His hoarse shouts were drowned out in the gale of wingbeats. He could only watch helplessly as the dragon carried his master away for the second and final time.

Why had he hesitated? A thousand times Moribus would ask himself that question. Was it from common cowardice or just good common sense? Or maybe it was from the bitter absurdity of it all. Triumph would have brought its own tragedy: the slaying of an immortal wonder for the sake of a tainted bounty.

In the end, it didn't matter what his reasons were. The consequences were painfully clear. Without dragon or dragonslayer, there was no Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third, only a poor farmer boy with dreams far above his station. He could not return to Alvaron both master-less and a failure. He had but one choice: track the dragon back to its lair and slay it or perish valiantly in the attempt.

It had taken him three days to reach the base of the rugged mountain he had seen the dragon pass over right before it disappeared from view. Then it had taken all that morning to scale its icy face. Now, at long last, the summit was within view, a false horizon some hundred paces up a gently rising slope. With any luck, its lair was just on the other side.

Fighting against shivers and tightening muscles, he hoisted up the provisions and gear he had scavenged from camp. This time he would not be caught unprepared. He tucked the pouch of red pepper under his belt and loaded a pair of bolts into the crossbow. Thus armed, he turned and slogged toward the open sky.

The western vista opened wide before him, revealing more rocky slabs like the one he had just climbed. Numerous caves opened like dark mouths in their sides; any one of them could have harbored a dragon. Lifting his eyes to the horizon, Moribus was met with a sight that chilled the very marrow in his bones. Line after line of peaks marched away into the distance as far as the eye could see. A man could search for a thousand years and still not stumble upon the dragon's lair. There would be no autumn wedding that year.

* * * * *

Morg laid the gleaming stinger next to the manling shell. He leaned back to assess his handiwork, tilting his head slightly right then left. He nudged the point of the stinger a scale-breadth inward. Perfect.

With every piece meticulously arranged, the shell appeared as a singular whole once more, ready to stand up and walk. No longer would it be dragged through the muck like a shell on a snail's back. Inside the timeless sanctuary of his lair where neither rot nor rust could invade, it would live on forever.

Morg looked over his lair with pride. Not only was his treasure vast beyond reckoning, but it was arranged with aesthetic and orderly precision. Every golden, effigy-stamped disc, every opalescent pearl, every silver chain and light-shattering jewel had been sorted and piled into symmetric cones that glinted and gleamed like a forest of jeweled stalagmites. Not the tiniest jewel was mislaid nor the least pearl out of place. In the adjoining chambers were arrayed the larger and more unique of his possessions: all manner of graven birds, beasts and flowers along with bowls, pyramids and plinths, preserved forever in marble and alabaster, crystal and onyx, silver and gold.

But of all his treasures, it was the manling shells he prized most. They were arranged into four concentric rings at the back of the central chamber, away from the entrance tunnel where chill and moisture made their seasonal forays. There were a hundred and sixty-one in all, thirty-seven this cycle alone. Not to mention this latest shell, a treasure among treasures. Each one of them was unique and irreproducible like the husk of an ancestral soul.

Morg coiled himselfinto a warm knot in the empty core of the great chamber. Nearby cones oftreasure sparked to life as he let out a jaw-stretching yawn. Then the caverndimmed once more. Feeling contented and at peace, he drifted off to sleep and slumberedfor fifty-three turns of the sun.

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