Having come to terms with the manling's supernatural origin, Morg returned to the pit where, to his surprise, he found the breeder still alive and unusually animated. Once it was fed and watered, it quickly settled down, looking none the worse for neglect. Morg marveled at the spunky little creature. Never before had a manling survived so long in captivity. With proper care, it might last until winter, giving him even more time to study and analyze it.
In the sun-moons that followed, discovery followed discovery. Like most beasts, the breeder slept once every sun-moon and liked to laze about in the warm afternoons. In some ways it was disturbingly dragon-like, and in other ways it behaved like no other creature at all.
There was the breeder's meticulous attention to hygiene, for instance. For such a vile, disgusting beast, it went to extraordinary lengths to keep its habitat neat and tidy, disposing of leftover food scraps in the fire and reserving one corner for its excretions which it covered over with dirt. It used a branch to sweep up ashes and was constantly rearranging the smaller boulders to its liking. Following such exertions, it would plop down squarely upon its rump to rest. This explained the riddle of its missing tail. Any tail a manling might possess at birth, he theorized, would quickly get worn down through such constant misuse.
The breeder possessed a remarkable capacity for producing sounds. At various times, it chattered, sang, cooed like a dove, bayed like a hyena and moaned like a herd beast. On occasion, it even emitted a quacking noise from some concealed part of its anatomy that was accompanied by the pungent smell of rancid meat. Some sounds appeared to be survival adaptations. The raspy, hocking noise it made in its sleep was probably a defense mechanism for warding off predators whereas the quacking noise might be some sort of mating call, the pungent scent engineered to attract males. Then there were the chattering noises whose variable cadences resembled a primitive sort of language.
Meanwhile, the manling appeared to be undergoing some sort of metamorphosis. Having shriveled to half its original size, its pink, flaccid face went ruddy and firm while its colorful outer skin turned pale and dingy, hanging loosely about its body like bedraggled plumage. He wondered if it might have spawned in secret, but repeated searches turned up neither eggs nor live brood. Perhaps it had been in a larval stage and was only now maturing into a grown breeder. Or perhaps it was undergoing a seasonal change. As autumn came, he wondered if it would grow out a winter coat.
Yet of all the strange things Morg had witnessed since that fateful revelation of fire mastery, none was perhaps so strange as what he saw peering down into the pit one cool, cloudless morning. The breeder had shed its outer skin during the night, exposing an under-body as smooth and milky white as a maggot. It gave the rumpled skin a thorough rinsing in the tortoise shell then scrubbed at it with a rough stone until, satisfied at last, it draped it over a rock.
No stranger to molting, Morg wondered how long it would take the breeder to grow out a new outer skin. He could not have been more surprised when, later that afternoon, the manling picked up the discarded tissue and, with a series of torso gyrations, reinserted its body back into it. Morg was flabbergasted. There was only one creature in all of nature that had the ability to slip in and out of skins the way the moon could slip in and out of a cloudbank—Worm himself.
The story of how Worm came to lose his armor was familiar to every dragon. Ever envious of the Great Serpent's sparkling scales (for his own scales were cloudy and gray), Worm covered himself all over in hot pitch and rolled amongst precious gemstones until he was coated from mouth to tail in radiant jewels. Then Worm went and straightaway presented himself to the Great Serpent.
"Behold me now, oh Great One. Are my scales not as resplendent as yours? Is my armor not so radiant and flawless? Surely then, I am in every way as magnificent as you are."
"Your scales are indeed resplendent, your armor radiant and without flaw," replied the Great Serpent. "But alas, you yet lack for one thing. If only you could make fire from within, then you would certainly surpass even mine own magnificence."
Taking these words to heart, Worm went at once to Mount Horga at the center of the world. "Grant me some of your fire," he told the volcano. "For if you do not, I will call down snow and icy hail upon you until the fire within you is turned to obsidian and ash."
"I will grant you what you ask," the volcano replied. "Only beware. For fire proves everything for what it is. Gold it will purify, but corruption it will consume."
But Worm, in his vanity, paid no heed to the volcano's warning. And so it was, that when he drank of the immortal flame, the pitch which he had used to coat his body in jewels was set ablaze, engulfing him in a cocoon of living fire that no water could quench. When at last the flames had devoured their fill, Worm was left naked and fleshless, without scale or hide, claw or tail, destined forever to slither about upon his belly in disgrace. Forever at the mercy of the searing sun and the chilling rain, he took shelter in the cool, soft earth where he looked out in envy upon the creatures that moved about in the open air. Every moonless night, under the cover of darkness, he would emerge from the depths to slay an animal and slip into its skin. That was why dragons never hunted on moonless nights, for fear of devouring the Worm.
* * * * *
A dragon, Berla was discovering, could be quite friendly once you got to know it. While it was nothing like having a puppy or a kitten (it couldn't be cuddled or belly-scratched, for instance), it was rather endearing in its own way. While its eyes were full of ageless knowing, the uneven line of its jaw made a quirky grin. The overall effect was both whimsical and sage like an eccentric grandparent.
Encouraged by the results of her earlier attempts, Berla embarked upon a bold new course of communication. She followed the example of her mother, who was prone to start every sentence with the phrase, "I do declare." If Berla forgot to curtsy, her mother would say, "I do declare, someone should teach that child proper respect for her elders." If Berla left her stockings in the middle of the floor, "I do declare, I will not tolerate a lack of orderliness under my roof." Those had sounded like fine ideas to Berla though no one ever did get around to telling her what an elder was. As far as orderliness was concerned, she thought she had a pretty good grasp of the concept; people had been ordering her around her entire life. Now she was beginning to understand why. Giving orders was quite fun when one got to do all the bossing about.
"I do declare, what this place needs is some more apples," she asserted. She had roasted no less than four apples the night before, skewering them on an ornamental stiletto and holding them over the flames until she could pinch off the brown skins and crush the mushy pulp with her tongue.
"I do so like the red ones," she instructed the dragon, scanning about for something red with which to demonstrate. Her eyes fell on a sagging floral arrangement in a cobalt-blue vase. The petals were crimson, but she feared the dragon might get the wrong impression with them being all withered up like that. There was always the danger of being misunderstood, like the time she had pantomimed for bigger eggs and been brought a dead bird instead. Then an idea occurred to her. "Reth," she pronounced with difficulty, sticking out her tongue and pointing at it. "Appleth." She held up the stiletto which still had some remnants of the cores. "Red appleth."
Tapered eyes narrowed in understanding as the dragon lurched to its feet, ready to fly off and do her bidding.
"Remember," sherepeated for good measure. "Bring me the red ones."
YOU ARE READING
The Mighty MorgFantasy
When a knight-in-training sets out on a dragonquest to win the hand of a fair princess, he expects to return in time for a pavilion wedding in the fall. But after fifty years of tracking his quarry across godforsaken hinterlands, he is starting to w...