Sunday 16 February 2014

The Healer

The dragon was dying. She had been sick for over a week, and now even the girl knew that the old beast wouldn’t get better.

The girl’s grandmother knelt in the hay by the great animal and rubbed her armoured cheek sadly. “She won’t last the day,” she said. “It was to be expected. She’s getting old, poor thing.”

The girl watched, wanting to say something that might help but not knowing what. She watched her grandmother’s gnarled fingers run over the ridges of the dragon’s great curved horns. The dragon, comforted by the familiar touch, snuffled.

Finally her grandmother climbed wearily to her feet. “I wish your parents were home,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “This would happen when they’re trading down south. And we can’t be without a dragon, come spring and the wind-sowing starts.”

“What will we do, Grandma?” the girl asked.

“You’ll have to go down to the town, Ghinna.”

“I?” Ghinna asked. “Alone?

The old woman sighed. “I can’t leave the poor old thing’s side,” she said. “Not after all the years she’s lived with us, since your father was a boy. I have to stay with her and make her last hours as happy as I can. Still, I hate to let you go alone.”

“What do you want me to do in town?”

“Buy a dragon egg. You’ll find the shop. It’s called Eldritch Abomination, Enterprises, just off the main market, where the seven streets come together. Come back with the egg, and we’ll plant it right away. By the end of winter it will have hatched. Of course, a baby dragon isn’t much, but it’s better than no dragon at all.”

“But...Pitta...” Ghinna looked down at the huge dragon head in the straw. “I want to be with her.”

“You can’t do anything for her, darling,” Grandma said. “We can’t afford to lose a day, either. Come with me, I’ll give you money and teach you how to choose a good egg. Don’t go by what the salespeople tell you.”

With a last glance over her shoulder at the sick dragon, Ghinna followed her grandmother out of the stable.  Her eyes were brimming with tears, and she surreptitiously wiped them on her sleeve. Pitta had been her companion and playmate since she was born. She’d hung laughing from the huge dragon’s horns and sat astride her nasal plate...and Pitta had taken it all in great good humour. If a dragon could grin, she would have. Ghinna had always assumed the dragon would be around as long as she herself lived. After all, they often grew to be centuries old. But, Ghinna thought, people sometimes lived to be a hundred years old, but most died well short of that age.

And now Pitta was dying, and there was nothing Ghinna could do.

She was, of course, not naive enough to believe her grandmother’s tale about how imperative it was to get the dragon egg today itself. A day this way or that wouldn’t make the slightest difference. But it would spare her the sight of Pitta’s suffering, and give her something to look forward to. After all, Ghinna had always loved visiting the town.

But that was when her parents had taken her there, holding her hand through the crowds and patiently answering her questions as she chattered on at the exciting shops and colours, the noise and bustle. Today, though she should have been proud at being thought adult enough to go to the town alone, she was so weighed down with sorrow and worry for Pitta that she hardly noticed the cobbled streets her feet were treading, though she was looking down at them; or the old sandstone buildings rising on either side, which turned honey-coloured in the orange noon sunlight.

Over and over she ran through what her grandmother had said about choosing a good egg. “Get a golden-green one,” the old woman had told her. “Those are the female eggs; the males are silver and have a purplish sheen. Male dragons are no good for the wind-sowing business. The sales people will try and sell you a male egg because those never sell well. Don’t listen to them.

“Then look for a good egg. It shouldn’t be too large, no bigger than you can hold in both hands and still touch the fingertips together.” She’d demonstrated. “If it’s too small, it might take up to a year to grow to hatching. If it’s too large, you can’t predict when it’ll hatch, and that’s never good.”

Ghinna muttered the rest of the instructions to herself as she walked. “Hold it up to the light and check if the shell’s translucent enough to see a shadow. If it isn’t, the shell’s too thick and the baby won’t be able to breathe easily and may have growing problems. Got that? And don’t forget to choose one that’s slightly warm. Warm, that’s it.”

“What’s warm?” someone asked. Ghinna looked up from her feet, startled. A tall, thin man was looking at her. He was a very odd looking man, Ghinna noticed, with long white moustaches which stuck out to the sides and an old brown hat with a shiny badge of some kind on his head. His boots were so long that his legs seemed to vanish into them to the hip, and his greenish-grey tunic was of a sort she had never seen before. And, most oddly of all, he carried a bundle on a stick over his shoulder.

“What’s warm?” the man asked again, with a grin. Ghinna thought it was probably meant to be a friendly grin, but it stretched so wide that his cheeks seemed to quite disappear. So the effect was rather unsettling.

“Nothing,” Ghinna muttered. Behind the man, she could just see the door of the shop Grandmother had mentioned, Eldritch Abomination, Enterprises in strange, spiky letters arching over the door. “It’s nothing important.”

Nothing important!” the man exclaimed. “I never heard of nothing important which sent a pretty young lady walking into town with tears drying on her cheeks, muttering about something being warm. Nothing important, indeed!”

His voice was so full of scorn that Ghinna blushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just have to buy something for my grandma, from that shop over there.”

“Which shop? You mean that shop?” The man made an exaggerated show of looking over his shoulder. “Eldritch Abomination? Don’t you go in there, my girl. They’ll eat you for breakfast. Cheats, utter and total cheats, the lot of ‘em.”

“But I’ve to...I’ve got to buy a dragon egg there, for my grandma, you see.”

“Dragon egg?” The man suddenly looked very interested. “Why would your grandmother send you to buy a dragon egg? Are you in need of a dragon?”

At this, suddenly the thought of Pitta welled up in Ghinna’s mind, lying in the straw, ill and dying, and she burst out into tears. Suddenly she found that her face was buried in the strange man’s grey-green tunic and he was roughly patting her head.

“There, there,” he was saying, awkwardly. “Now it isn’t nice to see a pretty young lady cry. Tell Uncle Natok what’s wrong, my dear. Uncle Natok will help you if he can.”

“It’s our dragon, Pitta,” Ghinna began, and before she knew it, she was pouring it all out to the man who called himself Uncle Natok. “And that’s why I have to get a dragon egg,” she finished, wiping her eyes on Natok’s willingly proffered sleeve. “That’s all. Nothing really important to anyone except us, you see.”

“Nonsense,” Uncle Natok said. “You don’t need a dragon egg. Let’s go back to your home and have a look at this sick dragon of yours.”

Ghinna looked up at him with a confused frown through her tears. “But she’s going to die.”

“Not when I’m there, she isn’t.” Uncle Natok struck his chest with his fist. “Here you see Natok Mohafakibaj, the greatest dragon physician the world has ever seen. Nobody else is even close, not even that Jamesherriot in Inglistan. I’ve never seen a dragon yet I couldn’t heal. Now stop crying and lead me to your dragon.”

Despite herself, for the first time in days, Ghinna felt a lifting in her heart when she heard his words. There was something about him that forbade doubt. Even then, she had a further thought. “Uncle Natok,” she said, “my family isn’t rich. We may not be able to afford your fee.”

For a moment she thought Natok’s moustaches stood straight out with fury. “Listen here, young lady. Natok Mohafakibaj has never considered a fee when it comes to saving a dragon’s life, is that clear? If people give him something afterwards, that’s their lookout. If they don’t, well, the dragon will be grateful, at any rate, and a dragon’s gratitude is worth more than all the silver in the world.”

“Well, all right then,” Ghinna said. “I’m sorry to have doubted you. But I’ve never heard of you, you see.”

“That’s quite all right,” Uncle Natok said. His good humour seemed completely restored. “Let’s get to your dragon so you can see for yourself that I’m not just boasting.”


I don’t know,” Ghinna’s grandmother said for the fifth time. She looked at Natok with increasing disfavour. “The poor thing’s slipping away quietly now, She’s at peace for the first time in days. I’d hate to have her disturbed in her last hours for nothing.”

“They aren’t going to be her last hours,” Natok told her, also for the fifth time. He glanced up from here he was kneeling by the dragon’s gigantic head. “Tell me this, Old Mother – if the dragon lives, will you be happy?”

“Well, of course I will, and Ghinna here too. But...”

“And will the dragon be happy?”

Ghinna’s grandmother looked at the dragon. One of Pitta’s eyelids flickered, so that it looked as though the great beast was looking back at her. She sighed. “I don’t know...”

Ghinna could stand no more of it. “Grandma,” she said, tugging at the old woman’s sleeve. “Grandma, please.”

“Oh, all right,” Ghinna’s grandmother said, throwing up her hands. “Do as you want. You will, anyway.”

Uncle Natok nodded and grinned. Opening his bundle, he began taking out a number of glass phials fullof coloured liquids and powders, and after that, instruments. Most were of tarnished brass and wood, some with heavy leather bulbs and straps attached. There were soon so many of them on the floor that it seemed impossible that the bundle should have held them all, but Natok still kept rooting around. Finally he came up with one which looked like a trumpet mixed with a mill wheel and a butter churn.

“Ah, here it is,” he said. Clapping the end of the trumpet over the dragon’s upper nostril, he poured several powders into the other end of the contraption, and then began turning the churn handle. Thick yellow and violet smoke began seeping around the edges of the trumpet. The dragon began coughing, and opened her startled eyes very wide.

“There’s a good girl,” Uncle Natok said, stroking the nearer horn. “Just relax, all right?”

Apparently obeying, Pitta closed her eyes and lay back down in the hay. Natok put the opening of the trumpet to her other nostril and repeated the performance. This time the smoke was green and purple. Finally he sat back on his heels and began putting the instruments back inside the bundle.

“Now what?” Ghinna’s grandmother asked.

“Now we wait,” Natok replied. “There’s nothing to be done for an hour or two while the medicine takes effect. Let her rest.”

Ghinna’s grandmother scuffed her flat shoes in the hay. “Well, as long as we’re waiting, why don’t we go into the house and have something to eat? A bowl of warm soup and some fresh bread wouldn’t go amiss, I’m sure.”

“Not at all, Old Mother, not at all. There’s nothing to be done for a while anyway.” Having tied his bundle, Natok slung it back on his shoulder. “Lead the way.”

It was only in the kitchen that Ghinna realised just how tall her new friend was. Of course, to someone her size, most adults looked large, but in the street and in the huge barn she hadn’t been able to judge his height. In the little kitchen his head seemed to touch the smoke-blackened ceiling even after he’d taken his hat off. Even when he sat down, he was still taller than both Grandma and the girl, and his white moustache seemed more imposing than ever.

“So, where do you come from?” Grandma asked, after she’d served them all the promised food. “You certainly aren’t from hereabouts.”

“Oh,” Uncle Natok said, through a mouthful of fresh bread. “I’ve been in a lot of places, so many that it no longer matters where I was born. My home is everywhere.” He waved to illustrate, droplets of soup flying from his ladle to splatter on the wall. Ghinna stifled a grin at the thought of Grandma’s reaction. “I never stay long in one place. Sooner or later, you see, I can feel a dragon in need of me, and then I go where it calls.”

“That’s how you found my granddaughter here? Because the dragon called you?”

“I’ve known for some days that there was a sick dragon that needed my help, somewhere in this part of the country.” Uncle Natok helped himself to more bread. “This really is very tasty, you know, I can’t remember when I’ve had better bread than this. Well, as I was saying, I knew the dragon needed my help, but I couldn’t locate it exactly – my senses aren’t that keen. So I found the premier shop which sells dragon eggs and accessories here, that’s Eldritch Abomination, and cheats they are too. I kept watch outside it, and sure enough I found this pretty young lady come along with tears in her eyes. A couple of questions and I knew this was the dragon I was looking for.”

“The dragon called to you?” Ghinna’s grandmother repeated. “For help?”

“It’s not exactly like that,” Uncle Natok said. “When a dragon’s sick, I mean really ill, but isn’t ready to die, it sends out a message for help. Other dragons hear it and keepsending it out, until it finally reaches a dragon-healer. There are only a few of us in the world.”

“And you’re one of the best, I take it?”

“Madam,” Uncle Natok declared, “as I said to your granddaughter, I am not one of the best. I am the best. In all the world, there has never been a dragon-healer like Natok Mohafakibaj. Why, there’s not a single dragon illness I can’t cure. And my talents aren’t restricted just to dragons, either.”

Ghinna’s grandmother blinked. “But how can you claim to be the best? Isn’t that a matter of opinion?”

“You might say so, but not if you know whom I’ve treated.” Uncle Natok spooned some soup and ate it meditatively. “I doubt if you will find anyone else who’s ever cured the devil himself.”


“I said,” Uncle Natok repeated, clearly enjoying the sensation he’d just caused, “that I doubt if you’ll find anyone else who’s cured the devil himself.”

“The devil...the one in Hell, you mean?”

“Yes, the devil.” Uncle Natok sighed. “Poor fellow.”

“Poor fellow? Isn’t the devil fictional – and evil?”

“Not at all. Not at all.” Uncle Natok sighed. “Poor, parasite-ridden fellow. And not even being able to scratch himself – in that cold, too!”

“I...” Ghinna’s grandmother began to rise cautiously from her chair. “Um...”

“No, no, I am not crazy,” Uncle Natok assured her. “I’ll tell you all about it if you want. But, first, could I have a little more soup?”


I was returning from a long journey across the sea (Uncle Natok said). I’d been to Inglistan, which is far away, and where many dragons live. They were being persecuted cruelly by a king named R’toor, who used to carouse with his men all night around a round table, which is why they all got called Nights of the Round Table. And terrible smelly they were too, because they never bathed, any of them. But this story isn’t about them.

After I’d disposed of R’Toor and his Nights (for my talents extend not just to healing, but, alas, sometimes I have to use other arts in order to protect the dragons), I decided no longer to tarry in Inglistan, for it’s a miserable place of rain and cold, very different from here. So I took ship, and began the long journey to this land, where I knew a lot of dragons live. It was a long journey, too, through storm and wave, and the danger of pirates off a barren desert land to the west of here. But there were sea-dragons too, to keep my skills from withering away, and I spent a reasonably pleasant time on board. One evening, then, just as the sun was setting behind our backs, in the far distant horizon we sighted land. The captain informed me, bowing low, that we would be reaching harbour early the next morning.

It was therefore with happiness and pleased anticipation – for I had long since grown weary of the sea – that I went down below decks to my tiny room, where I could hear the waves rushing by on the other side of the wooden hull, a sound I’d grown to find soothing as I dropped off to sleep. But that night I did not get to sleep at all.

I didn’t get to sleep because when I entered the room, I found someone sitting on my bunk. I didn’t know who he was – for that matter I wasn’t even sure if it was a he – because he didn’t have a face. In fact, he had no features at all, being of pure, total darkness, darkness so deep and pristine that it swallowed every bit of light that fell on it. And yet I knew that he had eyes, and was watching me.

“Come in,” this person said, before I could speak, and the words seemed to echo inside my head without entering through my ears. “Come in quickly, for I have something important to discuss.”

Without knowing just how it happened, I found that I was sitting beside him on the bunk, and a curtain of the same pure darkness had covered the door to my room. “The ship will reach land tomorrow,” the person said.

“I know,” I replied. “I’m looking forward to getting off and feeling the solid ground under me again.”

“I’m sure you are,” the person of darkness said. “However, you will not feel it ever again. Tonight, the captain and his men intend to kill you and rob your gold.”

“What?” I was astonished. “I have no gold.”

I know that you do not.” Not for an instant did I disbelieve his assertion that he knew. “But they are convinced that your bag is full of jewels and gold, and in any case they want whatever money you have. They had long since planned this, but waited till now because they thought your skill with the sea dragons would protect them through the voyage.” He paused a moment. “In fact, they are gathering together right now, even as we speak. Before the candle in your holder there is melted, they will enter the room with their knives, ready to cut your throat while you sleep.”

“How can I stop them?”

“You can’t.” His tone was of such absolute certainty that I believed him completely. “There are too many of them, and there is nowhere you can run. Long before the moon is at the zenith, you will be at the bottom of this ocean. Unless...”


“Your only hope is to come along with me.” His faceless head turned to stare at me. “That is why I came, to take you with me – if you wish to come.”

For the first time I thought to ask the obvious question. “Who are you? And where have you come from?”

“Who I am isn’t...relevant,” he replied. “You could say I’ve been created for this moment only, to meet you. As to where I come from, you’ll find that out for yourself. Either way, you’re headed there anyway.”

I frowned as his words sank in. “You mean...?”

“Yes, the other place, the one men call Hell. In just a little while, those up on the deck there will swarm down here and cut you to pieces, and you will end up there, of course. Or else, you can come with me, and you’ll end up there too.”

“Then why should I go with you? It’s all the same thing, it seems to me!”

“Not at all the same thing,” he said. “If you wait for them, you reach there once and for all. You won’t come back and you won’t have any say in what happens to you there. But if you come with me...let’s just say there’s someone there who wants to meet you very badly. After you talk to him, you can go where you wish.”

“Let me think a moment.” I struggled to marshal my thoughts; even I couldn’t easily deal with what my mysterious visitor had just been telling me. “Assuming I am to believe you...”

“You’re free not to believe me,” he said. “But I think you’ll find that it won’t make a difference whether you believe or not. And you don’t have much time to think. Listen!”

I listened, and I heard a sound. It was a sound that I had never heard before, but which I identified at once. It was exactly the sound a band of ruffians would make coming stealthily down from the upper deck of a ship, intent on cutting the throat of a passenger as he slept. Getting up quickly, I looked at the film of darkness covering the door.

“That won’t stop them from coming in,” my visitor informed me. “And when they do, I’ll have to leave anyway. Well then, what is it to be?”

I swallowed. “I’ll come along.”

“Excellent.” My visitor pointed at my bundle, which I always kept by my side.”Bring your bag, you’ll need it.”

“I’ll...” I don’t know what I was going to say, but in any event I never got to say it. As soon as my hand touched the bag, everything around me went completely dark, as though I was back in the dungeon of R’Toor when...but that’s another story. The darkness was so absolute that it wasn’t even as though I’d gone blind; it was as though I no longer existed. My arms and legs, even the breath in my lungs, was all part of the darkness.

It was impossible to say how long I was in that darkness, for I had no reference of any kind. Then, finally, in the far distance I saw a faint glimmer of light. It was dim, greyish-blue, as of a heavily overcast winter day Slowly, it grew in extent, though no brighter, and I realised that I was falling towards it, from a height so great that I could not even begin to understand. And yet it came so slowly towards me that I had no fear. It seemed as though I could fall forever, and I still would not reach the ground beneath.

And then, abruptly, the light was around me, and far below I could see something. It was a crawling, thick fog, so thick that it looked almost solid; and, rising from it, there were huge broken spires and eroded pinnacles as of some titanic city, made of ice the colour of midnight.

Clutching my bag, I fell. I realised now that I was falling at a tremendous rate, like a dropped stone, but there was nothing I could do about it. There was not even any point in being afraid. I looked around, but couldn’t see my dark visitor anywhere. I was alone, falling through that dim-lit emptiness towards the curdled fog and the city of ice.

And then the fog had me. It clung to me with fingers of icy mist, wrapped tendrils around my arms and legs, and twisted itself around my body till I was no longer hurtling downwards but scarcely moving at all. Slowly it let me down until I was standing in it, with nothing but the fog holding me up and the ice around me. I looked around, but I could find nothing to see – it was the same in every direction. And it was clod; I can’t even begin to express to you how cold. But I had a feeling that I was only experiencing a tiny bit of that cold; that if I could feel it all, it would flay the very flesh from my bones, and then bones from the marrow beneath.

Then, I saw a shadow. It was not close enough for me to see clearly, just a smear in the mist – but it moved, and it had limbs and a head, and it beckoned for me to follow. So, shouldering my bundle, I went.

We must have walked a long way, because I soon lost count of all the edifices of black ice we passed – great ruined amphitheatres and tumbled spires, broken towers and castles with turret-lined walls, but crumbling away in decay. But, little by little, there was something that grew and grew in the distance, a hump in the dim grey light.

It was enormous, whatever it was – so enormous that as I came closer, I could no longer see the top of it. or the sides that stretched away into the mist. So I have no idea of its shape or nature. There was something repellent about it though. Perhaps it was the carvings that grinned at me from the ice, with hooked teeth and bulging eyes, curling tongues and taloned limbs. Perhaps it was the other carvings, of human faces in the ice, frozen in terror and despair, begging for release. But I could not turn back; and the smear of shadow was always before me, beckoning me on.

We came to a passage in the wall, narrow and low enough so that I had to bend my head to enter. But the shadow was still before me, beckoning me on; and under my feet the mist still extended down, into depths I could not even guess. We walked on and on through that, till I began to wonder if there would ever be an end to this.

Then the walls receded, and I was out in the open, staring at what lay before me and trying to make sense of it all.

Imagine a pit in the ground, so huge that you cannot see the other side; a pit whose walls are made of black ice hacked into terraces, crude and sharp-edged as knives, filled with dark water in which floated sheets of black ice which crackled and shifted, and clicked together as with the voices of a thousand times a thousand people crying for help, but too far away to be heard.

In the middle of the pit there was a Presence. It towered above me, looking down with huge pale eyes out of a face crowned with gigantic horns. Its gigantic arms. Matted with black fur, lifted, rising out of the water, immense fingers flexing; but it could not lift them very far. There were chains of gargantuan size hanging from its wrists, chains of black ice which sank out of sight into the water. It threw back its head and howled, a noise of such pure desolation and anguish that it sent the blood in my veins throbbing not with fear, but with pity.

And then it was no longer howling, but bending towards me. “You are the healer Natok.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “At your service.”

“I sent for you,” this being said, “for I have heard of your renown. I am told that there is no disease of the dragons that you cannot cure, no matter how bad. Is what I heard mere exaggeration and gossip, healer?”

“Sir!” I drew myself to my full height, for I have my pride. “I am Natok Mohafakibaj. I am the greatest healer of dragon diseases that has ever lived. I can cure any dragon disease, from rheumatism to rickets, from depression to diabetes, from agoraphobia to acromegaly. There is nothing I cannot cure.”

“How about parasites? Can you remove parasites, healer?”

“Parasites? Whether it’s grimpkins or chiggerleminths, flealees or remorabugs, there is not a single parasite I have found which I could not get rid of. None!”

“That is good.” The huge horned head dipped even closer. “I have parasites, healer. I have parasites that make my torment unbearable, and I cannot even reach to scratch.”

“What parasites?” I began, and then I saw them. I have said that the Creature’s body was covered with black fur; and now, as it bent closer, I could see that the fur twisted and rippled, as if it were alive. All over and around it crawled hundreds, maybe thousands, of things – flat, grey, many-limbed, like nightmare gods from some artist’s diseased imagination, with mouths full of knives and eyeless faces which rooted and quested for tender spots to bite.

“You see, healer, what I am afflicted with. Rid me of these, and you will not be sorry.”

I looked at the parasites, and up at the flat pale eyes. “I will,” I said. “Not because of threat or the promise of reward, whatever your words may mean, but because such as these do not deserve existence in the universe; and because I am sworn to heal those who seek healing, whatever the costs to me may be.”

The horned head nodded. “Then do so.”

I will not weary you by describing all that I did, of the tests I performed and the potions I mixed, of the many weary times I began over when efforts that seemed at first promising went to waste. But at last, after many, many tries, I created a powder grey as the fog and the light, which I flung on one of the parasites scuttling across the shaggy hide. At the very touch of the powder, the thing shrivelled, crumbled and fell to dust.

I could barely restrain my joy. I had, of course, known that I would succeed, but it is always gratifying when the breakthrough comes. And when I had made enough of the powder to cover the Presence in its grey ambience, there was not a single one of the dread creatures left.

“At last,” the Thing sighed. “After more aeons than I can count, I am free of the things. I am at rest. I can scarcely explain to you, healer, how filled with gratitude I am. Tell me, what reward you wish to receive.”

“The pleasure of healing is its own reward,” I said. “All I would want is to be returned to the world, where I can safely continue my work of healing. That is all my heart desires.”

“Are you sure?” asked the Creature. “You can have all the riches you want, wealth beyond imagining, and armies to obey your every whim. Are you sure that you want nothing more than what you already have?”

“I am sure,” I said.


“And so I returned,” Uncle Natok said. He swallowed the last fragment of bread and looked wistfully at his empty plate, but Ghinna’s grandmother made no move to fetch more for him. “I emerged in an alley in a city far from here, where I had never been before – but I at once realised I was in the right place, because I could feel the call of a dragon in distress. Before the night was through I had found and cured him, and moved on. I have been moving ever since – and here I am now.”

Nobody said anything for a moment. Through the window, dusk was falling fast. Ghinna’s grandmother got up to light the oil lamps.

“Let’s go and see the dragon,” Uncle Natok said, rising reluctantly.

“Yes,” Ghinna’s grandmother said. “I expect the poor thing will be at peace by now.”

“Grandma!” Ghinna said, scandalised.

Her grandmother shrugged. “It has to be said, girl. Our guest here tells a pretty tale, I’ll admit, but mark my words, the old dragon there in the stables will never rise again.”

“We’ll see, Old Mother,” Uncle Natok said, smiling under his moustache. “Shall we go?”

Ghinna’s spirits dropped with every step they took across the yard toward the stable. All the while she had been convinced that their guest knew what he was doing – but her grandmother was probably right, and he was just a smooth talker who had wormed a meal out of them. If only –

And then she stopped where she was, because a gigantic head had emerged from the stable door, and Pitta’s rough tongue was licking her all over her face, and she was hugging the dragon’s muzzle and laughing and crying and laughing.

“Well, I’ll admit I was wrong,” Grandma said grudgingly. “I’ve never seen a dragon recover from that level of illness. How can we pay you for this, Natok?”

But there was no answer, and when they looked around, they saw nobody there.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014