Soaked by the rain and weary to the bone, Martin landed roughly in the mud, his wings scraping against an inconveniently-placed tree nearby.
"Ooh, that's at least six skips there, Skip!" cheered Arthur as he hopped off the small dragon's back.
Martin scowled as he shook off the branches that tangled themselves on the tip of his wings. "I wish you wouldn't call me that."
"And I wish you'd keep your voice down," said Carolyn disapprovingly. "People will talk if they see us hopping on and off a dragon's back."
"They wouldn't be so scared of him if they got to know him. Skip is great!"
"Yes, he is, but people won't understand." Carolyn patted Martin's muzzle, then tied a small satchel of scrolls around his neck. "Off you go now, before the sun rises. We'll send a letter for you when we need you again."
With a quick flap of his wings, Martin took to the air again, eager to return to the meager comforts of his cave.
'Martin, you can't tell me that you actually live here. A hole in the ground is not a proper dragon's cave at all!'
Martin flinched as he remembered Douglas' mocking words. "Just ignore him," he muttered to himself. "He was just bitter that he was too big to fit into the opening. Had one too many boars for breakfast if you ask me."
It was true that Martin wasn't anyone's idea of a fearsome dragon. As Douglas had helpfully pointed out, Martin never did manage to find a mountainous cavern to call his own and it wasn't for lack of trying. The first six caves he found had already been taken by larger, more dangerous dragons. It was on his seventh failed attempt, where he ended up being chased out by angry axe and torch-wielding dwarves, that he decided to give up before he humiliated himself any further.
With a happy sigh, Martin settled down on the floor of his cave, careful not to nudge his collection of scrolls and parchments down from their shelves. It wasn't fair to call his cave small. It was cozy. Warm. An efficient use of space. Because unlike other dragons, Martin didn't collect mountains of treasures either. Not like Douglas, who needed three caves to fit everything he owned. Instead, he collected songs, poems, and tales of heroism, which he treasured more than all the gold in the world.
Lazily, he lifted up a claw to retrieve his favourite book, The First Dragon. A gift from his mother, this rare book was what inspired his life-long dream of being a collector of lore, and in his most secret desires, a dream of writing stories of his own. He was tired tonight, so perhaps he can start from the Battle of Belhal --
Martin frowned, his musings halted. No. There shouldn't be a gap where his favourite book was stored. Not with his meticulous filing system. His heart sank. His book was gone!
"Thief! Thief! Show yourself!"
He paced in agitation around his cave, his cries of dismay echoing uselessly off the walls. Of course, the thief would be long gone by now. Martin hadn't seen any creatures about when he landed, and his cave certainly wasn't large enough to hide anyone. Still, logic and common sense didn't prevent him from checking every nook and corner in his cave, before checking through the bushes and trees outside. It was only when the faint but persistent glimmer of hope finally flickered out that he returned home, downtrodden but steadfastly refusing to cry.
"Martin? Oh, Martin! It's a beautiful day to come out and fly!" Douglas carefully swept aside the collection of branches and leaves that covered the entrance to Martin's cave and peeked inside. If Douglas were the type of dragon to express concern and pity, he might have felt a slight tug on his heartstrings as he took in the sight before him. Martin's stature had never been impressive, but he appeared even smaller now with his tail and wings curled protectively over his slight body. And perhaps it was just his imagination, but it almost seemed as though Martin's usually vibrant red scales were a slightly duller red today.
"Martin, are you all right?"
"Go away, Douglas."
"Martin..." Douglas silently cursed the ridiculous size of the cave's opening as he tried to get in. He settled for lightly tapping Martin on the head with his tail. "Carolyn and Arthur are worried about you. Arthur told me that you sent his last letter back torn in shreds."
"Oh." Martin sniffled. "I didn't mean to be rude. Tell him I'm sorry, would you?"
"Arthur's not offended, but ... you're not crying, are you?"
"What? No! It's... It's just all this dust in the cave. I haven't cleaned it recently."
"And from the looks of you, you haven't eaten recently either." Douglas was fully aware that he was beginning to sound like some sort of fussy dragon matriarch.
Martin let out an annoyed huff. "Why do you even care?"
"Because while you're moping in your cave, Carolyn is one week away from fitting me with that hideous contraption they use to ride you all over the place."
"It's not so bad. You can barely feel it. Humans don't weigh much."
"That's not the point, Martin. I am a battle-worn veteran of countless wars. I am there to breathe fire on our enemies and trample them underfoot as a valid negotiation tactic. I'm not some glorified flying mule."
"Oh, oh, thank you Douglas, that makes me feel a lot better."
Douglas shook his head. He always forgot just how prickly and sensitive Martin could be. "Let me rephrase. You are smaller and more limber, therefore making you far more suited to transporting fragile human beings like our dear Carolyn and Arthur than I would ever be."
Martin warily opened one eye. "What on earth did Carolyn threaten you with that you're actually here playing nice with me?"
"Carolyn threatened me with nothing because she is a human the size of one of my toes who I could kill with a sneeze," replied Douglas. "Fortunately for her, she is far more useful to my treasure collecting business alive. As are you."
"Oh. Just protecting your investments then."
Douglas had an uncomfortable feeling that he'd said something wrong again. For a dragon who prided himself on both his ability to threaten and to charm, it was beginning to bruise his ego a little bit that Martin was so uresponsive to his best attempts at tact and diplomacy.
"Martin. Just tell me if I can help you. We're a team, aren't we?"
Maritn seemed to consider this for a moment before unleashing a torrent of words. "Allrightfinesomeonestolemyfavouritebookthereareyouhappy?"
"Deep breaths, Martin. Someone stole from you?"
"Is that all?"
"It was my favourite book," added Martin in a forlorn voice.
"You should have told me sooner. It wouldn't have been any trouble for me to take care of this."
"Of course not. There's only one village within walking distance of your little cave, and it's small enough that I can burn it to the ground with a single breath. I'll be back in time for lunch! How about preparing me some rabbit stew while you wait?"
"Douglas!" Martin scrambled out of his cave and blocked his path. "You can't just burn a village to the ground! You don't even know that the thief is from that village!"
"I hate to point out the obvious, but we're dragons. We absolutely can and do burn villages to the ground. Especially when they've stolen from us." Douglas paused. "Well, I suppose you can't burn a village to the ground, what with not being a fire-breathing dragon and all. But acceptable alternatives include but are not limited to: stepping on their dwelling, eating their soldiers, kidnapping their princess and putting her in a tower, et cetera et cetera."
"And the thief must be from a nearby village because no one else could possibly know about your little cave, nor what's in it unless they stumbled upon it while exploring. So. Nearby village. Fire. The end of thieves."
"No. I won't let you!"
"Oh, really?" Douglas drew himself up to his full height and bared his teeth. Not that he had any intention of hurting the smaller dragon. He simply had to protect his reputation at least a little bit.
Undaunted, Martin flew up in the air until he was eye-to-eye with Douglas. Then, he took a deep breath and let out a roar.
"Hm. Not bad. Could use a little more earth shaking to go with that." As if to demonstrate, Douglas roared back at Martin. In the small village nearby, its inhabitants began to stir and look out fearfully at the horizon.
"Still not letting you go without a fight," insisted Martin. "A-and besides, you'd burn my book too."
With a long-suffering sigh, Douglas relented. "What if I gently threatened them to get your book back?"
"Oh. Um. Well. I suppose that would be all right. Although I could probably do the threatening myself."
"You could, but knowing you, you'd stammer all over yourself in the middle of a speech and end up promising to bake the village cookies somehow."
"I would not. But I know how much you love posturing, so I'll humour you this time."
Not bothering to dignify that utterly ludicrous statement with a reply, Douglas flew over to the village, grinning as the villagers screamed at the sight of his form darkening the skies.
Martin cautiously sniffed the air around him for the scent of humans. Douglas had assured him that the villagers were suitably terrified and that the thief was certain to return the book to him tonight. Martin hoped that he was right. It was so easy for Douglas to be confident. But if the villagers decided to band together and fight the evil dragon instead, Martin would be in trouble.
Maybe he should have swallowed his pride and asked Douglas to stay with him. As though stubbornly staying alone erased the fact that he was a sorry excuse for a dragon. He shuddered as he remembered the dwarven army that had driven him out of his last home. Fiery arrows had rained down at him from every direction, embedding themselves in the soft flesh between his scales. On the ground, axe-wielding warriors had come at him screaming with a fury and hatred he couldn't understand. Sometimes when he flexed his wings, he could still feel the red-hot chains they used to tie him down in place.
Deep in thought, he almost missed the light rustle of footsteps approaching him. Relief washed over him. It was the thief coming to return his book, not an angry mob. With a mixture of curiosity (who could it be? why did they steal from him?) and anger (how could they? it was the only thing he had left of his mother!), Martin padded in the direction of the noise.
"Oof! Watch where you're going!" a small shrill voice cried out.
"Sorry!" Martin looked down at the tiny girl he almost stepped on. "I was just--"
Martin blinked. Wait a minute. This was the thief? The girl couldn't be a day over twelve, if that.
"Oh! You're the dragon!" she exclaimed.
"Er. Yes. Dragon. That's me." Martin puffed out his chest and tried to look suitably majestic and dragon-like.
"You're smaller than I expected," she said.
Martin deflated. "You're not exactly what I was expecting either," he grumbled.
She giggled, then sobered up immediately.
"Right. I came to return your book!" She held it out to him. "I'm very sorry for taking this, Mr. Dragon, sir." She bit her lip. "I thought the cave had been abandoned. And I love to read, and I wasn't thinking and I am so so sorry..."
Martin's heart softened. Other than Douglas, none of the other dragons showed much interest in the books Martin liked to collect. It seemed to him then that this girl couldn't be all that bad if they shared a love of reading. Then he looked at her large beseeching eyes and wobbly lips and knew that he could not possibly find it in himself to bully her, even a little bit for taking his book. "There there now. It's all right. You're forgiven. And you can call me Martin."
"Martin: the dragon who blocked out the sun!" The girl announced dramatically. She tilted her head. "It doesn't quite fit, does it?"
"The dragon who blocked out the sun?" Martin asked. "Why would I care about blocking out the sun?"
"That's how mother described you. Said you were going to eat everybody if we didn't find the thief and return your book!"
"Oh! That wasn't me. That was my friend, Douglas."
"Martin and Douglas? What sort of names are those for dragons?" The girl covered her mouth. "Um. I mean. I'm not supposed to insult dragons, am I?"
Martin laughed. "First of all, they're perfectly respectable names! And I think I'd know more about dragon names than you do. And second, no, you're really not supposed to insult us. I'd not try that around Douglas if I were you. Now, I've told you my name. What's yours?"
"I'm Frida." She smiled at him tentatively. "So you're not going to destroy my village?"
"No, I'm not exactly the village-destroying type of dragon. Although... the next time you want a book to read, see about asking me first, all right?" Martin ran a reverent claw over his book. "I thought I'd never see it again."
"Next time?" Frida's eyes widened. "You'd let me read your books? Really?"
"Yes." He playfully nudged her with his nose. "As long as you promise: No more taking things from strange caves."
"I promise! You're the best dragon in the world!"
"Why yes. Yes I am." Martin preened. "And if your friends ask, I'm a much better and more fearsome dragon than Douglas."
"I don't know if I can convince them of that," said Frida, pulling a face. "Mother said that his eyes were made of molten lava and that his scales looked as though they were forged by dwarven armorsmiths. And his voice made the core of the earth shake."
"Hrmph. Red eyes are overrated. His scales weigh him down. And you wouldn't be so fond of his voice if you heard him snore."
Frida giggled. "Is he really your friend? He must be an all right dragon too if you're friends with him."
"Right on both counts. He's my friend and he's an all right dragon. Just all right. Not the best."
"Definitely not!" agreed Frida as she wrapped her arms around his leg. "Thank you for not destroying my village."
"Er. You're very welcome." As far as thank-yous went, that had to be the oddest one he had ever received.
Frida stepped back and grinned. "Well, I should get going before my parents wake up. Good night, Martin!"
"Wait just a minute here." Martin stopped her in her path with his tail. "It's far too late for you to be out alone."
Frida pouted. "Don't make me take back the best dragon title I just gave you! You're starting to sound like mother."
Martin lifted his tail and started to walk nonchalantly back to his cave. "Well, if you don't want me to carry you back to your village, I'll just go--"
Before he could finish his sentence, Martin was interrupted by an ear-splitting screech that vaguely resembled the words "best dragon" and the feeling of tiny arms and legs scrabbling up his tail onto his back. "Careful now. Can you grab hold of the scales on my shoulder?"
"Yes! Let's fly!"
With a graceful leap, Martin lifted into the air.
"Are you watching Skip and Douglas, mum? Are they fighting again?"
Carolyn put up a hand to shush Arthur. When she first decided to try her hand at trading, Carolyn never imagined that her modest little business would eventually involve the delicate art of wrangling two volatile dragons. Right now, Martin and Douglas were doing the "Douglas just did Martin a favour so Douglas will now pretend he doesn't care about Martin at all while Martin pouts about needing help in the first place" dance, which always had the potential to result in an explosive row if not properly handled. (If this kept coming up, Carolyn would need to come up with a shorter name for this particular dance.)
Arthur lowered his voice. "Poor Skip. Douglas looks like he going to win the entire cheese cart from him with this 'Riddles that sound like dirty innuendos' game."
"I don't now how Martin expected to win that one."
Carolyn moved closer to the two dragons as their game seemed to be approaching an end. Predictably, Douglas won all the cheese on the cart their latest customer gave them as a tip, though one could argue the voluntary nature of said tip when the alternative was Douglas looming over them during negotiations. And just as predictably, Douglas took one look at Martin's thin figure and began to open his mouth to make the colossal mistake of giving Martin a pity offering. Carolyn shook her head in despair and swung a giant hammer at Douglas' toes so his words turned into an indignant yelp.
With smoke billowing out of his nose, Douglas glared down at her. "I assume that madame had a good reason for stubbing my toe?"
In the background, Martin was doing his best to keep himself from laughing out loud.
"Arthur, why don't you and Martin start gathering up our belongings?"
"Right away, mum!"
With Martin and Arthur thus dispatched, Carolyn turned her attention back to Douglas. "You do realize, you colossal oversized fortress, that Martin hates it when you take pity on him?"
"I wasn't taking pity on him," protested Douglas. "That would imply that I have a heart or any semblance of compassion."
Carolyn rolled her eyes. "So you're telling me that you weren't about to offer him some of the cheese from your cart? Just to make sure he doesn't fall over from starvation?"
"That's called being practical, Carolyn. It wouldn't do to lose our flying mule now, would it?"
"Well, why don't you let me take care of the practical side of business, which shall henceforth include the feeding of our dragons. And you just focus on lining up our next customer, hmm? I've been hearing rumours of a manticore who might have some baubles to trade."
"That would be acceptable," Douglas conceded.
"Good. Because I've already arranged several cauldrons of rabbit stew for Martin when we get home, so rest assured, he will be well fed before our next journey."
"Right. I'll be off to see a manticore about a jewel, then."
After checking that they had cleaned up their campsite, Carolyn picked up the book she would be paying Martin in exchange for his services and climbed onto the harness on his back with Arthur.
"Your favourite rabbit stew awaits at the end of our journey, Martin! So let's hop to it! And really, try to remember to eat more often, would you?"
"Yes, mother Carolyn," replied Martin as he took off.
Carolyn spared a glance at Douglas, who was flying off to the east of them, then back at the dragon carrying them home. She shook her head in despair. What would these two idiot dragons do without her?