To meet a Dragon unarmed is to meet death.
–Clans 7:1, Book of Rhag
“Oh, dear,” sighed Dredger Goodslow. “I’m lost. I’m sure of it.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth several times as he surveyed the tunnel. “Trouble, trouble, trouble.”
Being lost did not concern Dredger much, for he was a Mubwon, and like most Mubwons that meant he was spending his youthful days wandering the world, earning a living through the art of storytelling and woodwork. When the time came, he would settle down in a Mubwon burrow, adding his stories to the great Mubwon libraries. Being lost was seen as an opportunity to live a new story. Dredger’s unease came from his surroundings. Currently he was surrounded by dark. Not moonlight dark or starlight dark. This was tomb dark.
Mubwons, over the centuries, carved a vast underground network of tunnels throughout much of the land, and it was these tunnels they used in their travels. The irony was not lost on most clansmen that for a clan who proclaimed a love of seeing the world, Mubwons spent a great deal of time underground in darkness. It was a general consensus that traveling this way would be monotonous and certainly not lead to as many adventures as walking on the world’s surface. Mubwons, needless to say, disagree. It was in just such a tunnel that Dredger was expressing his doubts.
“Dear, oh dear,” he mumbled as he shook his head. “This just won’t do.”
Mubwons have excellent vision, but their eyes do need light to be able to function; eyes were useless in their tunnels. It was not the dark that worried Dredger. Mubwons can also see with sound. To Dredger, the secrets within the dark were easily viewed with a few simple clicks of teeth and tongue. It was these revealed secrets that were his concern.
This tunnel, it appeared, had not been used in quite some time. It is customary for Mubwons to repair tunnels as they travel, but this one seemed neglected, if not abandoned, and this worried the small clansmen. He clicked his tongue against his teeth again. The returning echoes confirmed his fears. The ceiling was too soft and the supports were not in good condition. He folded his large mouse-like ears down and sat as he considered what to do.
Sitting there, if there were light to see, Dredger would have resembled a huge tailless mouse. Like most Mubwons, his red-orange fur covered a pudgy body. His immense round eyes, large ears, and oversized head gave him a childish quality that endeared him to most of the clans he encountered. Except in harsh weather, nearly all fur bearing clans wear clothes for ornamentation rather than protection from the elements, but the Mubwon lifestyle of crawling through tunnels makes this impractical. Even Mubwon feet are shoeless, as their fingers and toes sport long, tough, retractable nails used for digging and shaping wood.
Their single article of dress while traveling is a leather belt on which is connected, or stuffed inside one of the many pouches, all the necessities of the Mubwon lifestyle. Dredger reached down and slipped his compass from its clasp. This piece of wood, shaped like a small tripod with a short handle where the three legs met, is the Mubwon’s second most important asset when traveling. Dredger held the instrument with the three legs pointed away from him.
“Oh dear,” he mumbled, “come such a long way; loathe to turn back.” He returned the compass to its clasp.
Although Mubwons are excellent diggers, a collapsing tunnel was dangerous. Once falling dirt buries the arms and legs, movement becomes impossible, which means digging free is not an option. This is where the Mubwon phrase dying in your grave originated. Dredger flipped up his round ears; clicking his teeth, letting his ears and the returning echoes do the work of eyes. Dredger did not like the look of the tunnel ahead.
“Something else,” he said to himself. He cocked his ears toward the ceiling. He could hear something moving on the surface above him. Something big. Really big.
He folded his ears down and turned his head toward the way he had come. He didn’t need to use echoes to tell him what a long journey it was to the last fork.
“Should have gone left,” he mused. “Left is always a good choice.”
The calm of the tunnel was suddenly broken by a heavy thud accompanied by a swirling thick cloud of dust. Something large moved vigorously, kicking up more dirt; then it jumped quickly upward, leaving a large hole about two yards from the startled Mubwon. Running the opposite direction came immediately to mind, but the hole was between Dredger and the direction he would like to escape.
“Goodness,” was all he could manage to say before the dust reached his nose. For a half-minute he coughed and choked on the chalky air.
“Hello,” came a raspy voice from above the hole. Dredger froze. He clicked his teeth twice, caught himself making the noise, then covered his mouth with his hands.
“I say, hello,” the voice repeated.
Dredger slowly removed his hands from his mouth, and meekly asked, “Who might you be?” There was something about the quality of that strange voice he didn’t like.
“My friends call me Threashfield,” said the voice.
Odd thought Dredger, to leave off the traditional clan title in a first greeting. “Dredger here. Dredger Goodslow, clan of Mubwon. Uh, what clan do you be?”
“Are we not all children of Nemesis and Eris?” The voice sounded friendly enough, but there was something odd about it that Dredger could not place.
“As are spiders and flies,” he whispered to himself.
When the owner of the voice heard no response, she continued, “Good Mubwon, can you help a fellow clansmen?”
“Oh dear, I should have turned left.” The dilapidated tunnel leading away from the hole was starting to look enticing.
“What did you say?” There was a pause, then a giant claw reached through the hole and dragged great clumps of earth away. Dredger slowly backed away. Again dust choked him; forcing him to close his eyes and ears to protect them while the claw enlarged the opening in the ceiling.
He heard the digging stop, then a wind blew past him toward the hole. Opening his eyes, he saw the dust being sucked out of the newly enlarged entrance to the tunnel until the air was clear. He stared in fascination, his desire to know how this was done overcame his instinct to run. This, he realized when the dragon head lowered itself into the hole, is why the phrase curiosity killed the Mubwon is used so often by clansmen throughout the land.
The head was connected to a long, beaded neck which arched out the opening. The smooth, round scales were every imaginable shade of blue, speckled in a beautiful random pattern on her neck and head. It was a pretty head, as Dragon heads go; somewhat like an alligator’s, except the forehead was high and pronounced. Large cat-like pupils divided each of the Dragon’s red eyes, and her long narrow tongue occasionally darted out of her mouth. Her scales sparkled in the light pouring through the hole in the ceiling. Scales, which resembled long, bright-red hair, started at her crown and ran up her neck, disappearing through the hole in the tunnel ceiling.
“Hello, good Dredger,” said the head. It was almost twice the size of the Mubwon.
Dredger thought of running, but if the Dragon blew fire down the hole he would never be able to escape the flames. He surprised himself by wondering how baked Mubwon would taste; then shuddered at the thought.
The Dragon noticed Dredger was trembling and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you.” She smiled, but this seemed to upset the Mubwon further, so she stopped.
“What do you want?” Dredger asked, hoping the answer would be, Oh, nothing. Just wanted to say hello. Have a good day. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
“Help?” Dredger looked down the tunnel, trying to estimate how far he could move before the Dragon reacted. About half a yard was his best guess.
“I am Threashfield Iceborn, Dragon clan. Sorry for the breech in etiquette earlier, but I thought the mention of my clan before we met face–to–face might frighten you. You may call me Threashfield. I will reward you handsomely for your assistance.”
Taking this response as sympathy, she continued, “I’m a prisoner of Polymath Gord and—”
“Gord!” Dredger interrupted. He moaned louder than before, “Oh dear.” His troubles seemed to be compounding by the moment.
“Yes,” she said. “An odious and evil clansmen. Please, I need help.”
“What can I do?” pleaded Dredger. “Gord is so powerful, and I am just a simple Mubwon.”
“You do not have to do anything about Gord,” she assured him. “I plan to discuss my disagreement with him myself.” She said the word discuss in a way that told Dredger that it would involve a lot of fire, claws, and screaming.
“I am in need of a metal smith.” The Dragon shook one of her legs which sent the sound of a large chain rattling down into the tunnel.
“Ah,” said Dredger, “Mubwons are wordsmiths by trade, as you know. ‘Fraid I can’t talk the chains off you, Freashfield.” He smiled foolishly at the large head.
“That’s Threashfield, good Mubwon.”
“Yes, of course.” Dredger pulled out a handkerchief from his belt and wiped his face as he spoke, “Carpentry is my other skill. Now if your bonds were wood, I could remove them easily, you know.” Dredger laughed nervously. “Of course, you could, too. I mean, if your chains were wood, all you would have to do is burn them off. I mean…” Dredger paused, while nervously fiddling with his handkerchief. “Oh dear.”
Threashfield moved her head forward a bit. “You only need to bring someone here to help me. I will reward you both well. Much gold for each of you.”
“Mubwons can’t carry too much gold around, you know. Quite heavy dragging it through a tunnel.” Then, fearing he might have offended the Dragon, he quickly added, “But, I suppose I could manage a little more. Always find a use for gold.” Perhaps paying for a funeral, he thought to himself.
“You do not look like a cruel creature,” observed Threashfield. “It would be a most cruel act to leave me in the hands of Gord.”
“Yes, well…” Dredger could not find words that would say what he wanted to say, yet keep the Dragon from erupting into a fit of fire-breathing anger.
“I understand.” The hurt was evident in her voice. “You do not trust me because of my clan.”
“It’s not that,” Dredger lied. He paused to collect the right words. “There have been…stories.”
“Stories!” Threashfield snorted. “Always stories. Any story in particular that is bothering you?”
“Well, there’s been some trouble in Noblen Valley. Lumin children have been disappearing over the last eight months or so. A dragon has been seen several times flying off with whelps grasped in its claws.”
“That story is ridiculous!” She realized her anger had frightened Dredger, so she calmed her words as she continued. “What would a Dragon want with Lumin children? Besides, I’ve been chained to this mountain for almost a year, and I have no firestone to make flames.”
“No firestone?” Despite himself, Dredger felt he stumbled onto a good story. “I have heard of this stone, but know little about it.”
“A Dragon must have a firestone to breathe fire, surely, you must know that.” Dredger shook his head. Threashfield explained, “It’s the stone made in a Dragon’s stomach when we are whelps. Upon maturing we spit up the stone, and it rests in a pouch in our throat.”
“Interesting, interesting.” Although Mubwons were not above inventing details to make their stories more entertaining, they did appreciate learning actual facts they could add to their tales. Of course, if the facts were boring, then Mubwons would gladly improvise.
“Oh, what do Mubwons know of Dragons?” she scolded.
Dredger ignored the question and asked hopefully, “So, you lost your firestone?” Without the Dragon’s ability to spit fire, Dredger could easily escape. He was feeling more confident.
“Gord took it,” she said in quiet contempt, more to herself than Dredger. Then she bellowed in anger, “He tricked me, that wretch!”
The startled Mubwon jumped and hit his head on the tunnel’s ceiling. Pieces of dirt fell around him from overhead. This reminded him that the tunnel was not safe for more reasons than containing a Dragon’s head.
“Can’t you grow a new one?” asked Dredger, as he tried to remove dirt from his right eye.
The reply was dripping with sarcasm. “Could you grow a new arm if it were torn from your body?” She immediately realized her poor choice of words.
Dredger grabbed his chest where his heart was pounding rapidly and swallowed hard. “So, you can’t breathe fire, eh?” He started moving backward in tiny steps.
“Please, that was not a threat; it was an analogy,” said Threashfield. “You’re a storyteller; you understand analogies. You must help me. Where’s your spirit of adventure? You are a traveling Mubwon; what a tale this would add to your repertoire.”
“It’s kind of you to point that out,” said Dredger with some sincerity, “but we Mubwons prefer telling about dangerous adventures, not having them.” He stopped moving and leaned forward just a bit, as if sharing a deep secret. “Confidentially, that’s why we like to travel underground, you know. It’s safer.” He thought about his current predicament, then added, “Most of the time.”
The expression on Threashfield’s face was sorrowful; she said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Dredger said softly, “I’ve been told by more than one clansmen that Dragons can’t be trusted.” He took another step back.
“Then how do you know I’m telling the truth about my firestone?”
“Oh dear.” Dredger shifted his weight from one foot to the other while he wrung his hands. “I—I don’t. That’s the problem, you know. You’re not going to like this, but—but I don’t know what to believe, Teashfield.”
“Thhhhhhhreashfield,” hissed the Dragon. “My name is, Thhhhhhhreashfield.”
“Thhhhhhhhreashfield?” The Mubwon looked at her in confusion.
Threashfield’s frustration exploded from her mouth, her voice like thunder, “Not Thhhhhhhhreashfield, you silly sack of bones. Threashfield! I was extending the t h sound for emphasis. I would think a storyteller would understand that.”
For an instant Dredger’s own frustration took charge of his senses. “No need to insult me,” he said indignantly. “When you yell, I get nervous, and it’s hard for me to remember things when I’m nervous.” As soon as he spoke he regretted it. His knees became weak, his brain told his feet to take another step backward, but his feet had stopped taking orders from something crazy enough to reproach a Dragon. It wouldn’t be the first time his temper plunged him into trouble, and for a moment, he thought this trouble was going to be his last. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Oh dear.”
Threashfield laughed. It was a raspy, fuzzy laugh. A laugh filled with goodwill and humor. “So, you have some fight in you, good Dredger?”
“I have trouble remembering names,” confessed the Mubwon, “even when I’m not nervous.”
“I’m sorry I became upset,” said Threashfield. “I know meeting a Dragon for the first time must be stressful.”
“Yes, you could say that.” His eyes darted down the tunnel as he reconsidered the possibility of running for his life, but his feet still weren’t on speaking terms with his brain.
Dredger’s eye movements were not lost on Threashfield. She spoke to the Mubwon in a quiet voice, “If I lied about my firestone, running would place you in grave danger. If I told the truth, you are as safe as a babe in its mother’s arms, for I can’t hurt you. You risk nothing by staying here to talk. I need your help.”
Dredger looked hard into the Dragon’s eyes, but could find no solace in them. All he saw was red, the color of blood. When he remained silent, Threashfield continued, “Ask me questions. I have nothing to hide. Voice your fears, good Dredger.”
Mubwons have a tendency to say the first thing that comes to their minds, perhaps accounting for their spontaneous creativity when they tell stories as well as their tendency to frequently find themselves in heated arguments. He spoke softly, as if conveying a secret to a friend.“I’ve heard Dragons eat their young. Is it true?”
“Yuck!” It was a strange, childish word. Dredger would never have placed it in the mouth of such an impressive looking clansmen. In fact, he was considering what word to replace it with for the retelling of this event, should he survive, when Threashfield added, “That’s disgusting! Who would ever spread lies so horrid? Why is it when a clansmen doesn’t know something she makes up a lie?” Dredger’s nose blushed, for he had repeated such Dragon stories often, and just as often invented details to make the telling more interesting.
“This is what comes of an entertainment culture, good Dredger,” the Dragon lectured. “A good myth always beats the truth. Clansmen do love their stories. Clansmen believe—” She stopped abruptly, realizing ranting at the Mubwon would not solve her problem. Calming herself, she said, “I sometimes go on a bit.”
“No problem.” Dredger smiled nervously. “With me, it’s an occupational hazard. I understand.”
Dredger decided his best choice was to flee. He could not trust this Dragon. Too many stories were told for them not to have truth at their root.
Threashfield moaned ruefully, “Dragon stories! The product of busy tongues in partnership with idle minds. How can I evoke trust in you with so many ghastly lies placed between us? What can I do to prove I am worthy of your trust?”
As Threashfield lamented, Dredger prepared himself for his bolt down the tunnel. Unfortunately, like most clansmen, Dredger knew very little truth about the Dragon clan. For example, to blow fire from their mouths they must move vast quantities of air over their firestone, but this air does not come from their lungs. Dragons have a special air-sack used only for the purpose of controlling their fiery breath, and it occupies half their body. A great deal of air can be compressed in this sack, allowing the Dragon to spit fire great distances and for long periods of time. Threashfield used this ability to gently clear the dust out of the tunnel, but she could inhale air into her sack at gale forces, if she desired.
Feeling she would never convince Dredger that she could be trusted, Threashfield started to suck air into her air sack. At first, it created nothing more than a mild breeze, but as Threashfield put her heart into the task the wind blowing toward her mouth became a hurricane.
Dredger, realizing he was being sucked toward a Dragon’s head, turned to run, but fell over backward and rolled within a few feet of the open mouth, stopping himself by digging his claws into the soft earth. The air moving into Threashfield’s air-sack had turned the tunnel into a raging wind storm. As Threashfield pulled in air as fast as she could, Dredger lost his footing completely and started to slide towards the open mouth. He clawed uselessly at the ground; the earth was too soft and kept breaking free. The Dragon’s air-sack, being a separate organ from her lungs, was undisturbed by the huge amounts of dirt being swept into it. Dredger reached for a root and missed. He reached for another; it slipped from his grasp. He knew he had little time before he became Dragon fodder as he tried to grab a third. His powerful claws caught the thin lifeline and he held tight as the wind rushed and whistled all about him. He felt that if he could hold on long enough the Dragon would have to stop, giving him time to escape. This is exactly what would have happened if the root had not snapped, causing Dredger to fly into Threashfield’s gaping mouth. The Dragon’s jaws snapped shut.
• • • •
Mubwon Chronicles: Of Dragons, Boxes, and Periapts; copyright © 2016 by Jared Mark Graham. All rights reserved.