5. Peeling the Onion

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As Moribus gazed up the mountainside, contemplating the subject of his final kill, he knew it would be nothing like that first clash of fifty odd years before. That battle had been won through skill, reflexes and guile, but of those three, only guile had survived the ravages of time. While his own abilities had waned, his adversary was in the prime of its strength and wisdom. It wasn't exactly a fair fight. Then again, it never had been.

Another dawn broke cold and brittle over the mountains. Moribus rooted in his breeches to produce a warm, flattened onion. He peeled off an outer layer and placed it on his tongue so he could suck out the sour juices before swallowing it whole like a clam. He washed it down with a swig of meltwater.

Further up the mountainside, the dragon was performing its own morning ritual. Emerging from its lair, it took a long slurp from a nearby lake and gave itself a steam bath, craning its neck around to spew steam along the length of its body. Then it curled itself up into a tight coil next to a rocky cleft where, if it followed the usual routine, it would spend hours intently observing whatever was down there. A couple times a day, it would fetch a tortoise shell from the pit and refill it from a pool of runoff. At less predictable intervals, it would fly off to collect various items or carcasses It always returned by nightfall, when it would deposit a fresh tree and set it ablaze. Smoke would roil out of the pit in dark columns, the red-orange glow creating a false sunset that tormented him as he shivered beneath his ledge.

Moribus knew only too well what all this added up to. The dragon had taken a captive. Contrary to popular wisdom, dragons did not whisk off young maidens for the purpose of subjecting them to dark sorceries. Rather, as a curious child might trap tadpoles in a bucket in the hope of seeing them transform into frogs, they would sometimes take a human captive in order to observe it at close quarters. But a dragon's curiosity was every bit as lethal as its anger, and few survived its close attentions for long. Moribus was not so foolish as to think he might find the baker girl alive. Only one person had ever lasted more than a week as a dragon's captive, much less four months. This latest victim, whoever they were, must be a fresh catch.

He peeled off another layer of the onion. The presence of a captive complicated matters. Reaching the dragon's lair would be difficult enough without factoring in a rescue attempt. He hoped the chasm was not too deep or the captive too weakened from the ordeal. It was a lot to hope for. Terror and isolation would drive most people to the brink of madness.

He took an inventory of the small arsenal which, until recently, he had kept stashed in a secret cave. The motley items appeared practically useless to the untrained eye. There was a tin whistle that gave off an ear-piercing shriek, a bulging pouch of bat guano which he kept moistened by regularly spitting into it and mashing between his hands, and a smaller pouch of exorcis powder which would set a man's (or dragon's) innards on fire without the sniffling and sneezing caused by milder peppers. Had Lord Manerion been acquainted with it, events might have taken a different course. There was a tin of fire-blossoms, papery cocoons twisted at both ends and filled with a mixture of powdered incendiaries. They were a big sensation at royal processions where they were tossed from rooftops, filling the courtyard with colorful fire-bursts. There was a pair of superbly crafted crossbows made of swirled walnut and tooled in silver that, for all their elegance, packed enough wallop to pierce plate armor at a hundred paces. Finally, there was a bag of round river rocks and his trusted slingshot, the leather cradle worn smooth as a baby's palm.

Satisfied that everything was in order, Moribus settled down to wait.

* * * * *

Morg was getting worried. The breeder's condition was deteriorating, and nothing he tried—colorful flowers, its favorite fruits, or even more treasure—was having the least effect. He saw nothing outwardly wrong with it. Rather, it seemed to be suffering from a sickness of the spirit. Sullen and non-communicative, it would sit on the same boulder for hours on end stroking the silver disc he had dropped there by accident.

It all started with the death of the caribou fawn. Instead of eating the carcass, the breeder spent the entire morning building a cairn over it. It moped about the pit for some time afterward, leaking water from its eyes and refusing to eat or drink. While it eventually began to take nourishment, it did not snap out of its despondency.

Morg had nearly given up hope of a recovery when he was struck by a sudden inspiration. Since the death of one animal had brought on the mysterious malady, perhaps the life of another might be able to effect a cure. Manlings, after all, were creatures of the hive. Maybe what the breeder needed was a companion on its own level to keep it company.

After an entire sun-moon spent combing the mountains, he managed at last to corner a newly weaned goat and transport it unharmed to the pit. The stratagem didn't appear to have worked at first. The breeder spurned it outright, refusing to even look at it. But when he checked in on the pair the next morning, he found them huddled together like clutchmates. From that point on they were inseparable. When they weren't frolicking or snuggling, the breeder was running around after the goat, cleaning up after the chaos it left behind. The goat proved to be far more durable than the fawn, bounding to and fro and eating every last weed in sight. It stripped the lichen right off the stones.

With the manling returned to its former vitality, Morg was eager to resume his experiments, but to his dismay he found that his former methods were no longer effective. Failing to respond to new stimuli, the breeder constantly demanded its favorite amenities. When he failed to oblige, it barked at him and retreated sullenly to a corner. Though greatly irked, Morg was not ready to abandon the project just yet. After all, he had yet to see the breeder mate, spawn, hunt or build a nest. As he watched the breeder running its grabbers tenderly through the goat's thick curls, he considered that perhaps what was needed was another manling specimen to breathe new life into his research.

Morg spent the nightcleaning and sorting his collection of manling shells. The next morning, afterchanging the breeder's water dish, he spread his wings and headed east.

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