Mika couldn’t believe his luck. After months of trying, he had finally did it! He had captured something that would bring in a real payday and just in time for winter; a dragon! He peeked into the cage for a third time just to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, his heart pounding in his chest. The dog-sized dragonling cast him an arrogant, baleful glare with its bright ruby eyes. A wide, intelligent head sat on a delicate frame of sinew and shining crimson scales. The wings, still too small and fragile for flight, sat furled upon its back. It was clearly too large to be fresh from the shell and Mika estimated it to be roughly six months or more in age.
This was the ultimate culmination of his career as an animal trapper and tamer. Mika had never heard of such an occurrence as this. He had listened to stories of hatchlings the size of house cats caught fresh from the shell, but never something as large as this. He felt a dizzy glee envelope him when he considered how much a few of his contacts would pay for a live dragon.
Or he could keep it. The thought creeped into his consciousness, like ice on the banks of the autumn river. Had anyone ever tamed a dragon? Surely such a story would have made it to all corners of the world if so. If he could pull it off, he would be the most famous person in all of TerVarus! Bards would sing praises for Mika the Dragon Tamer! Women would throw themselves at him and powerful people would be clamoring to do him favors.
After checking to ensure that the latch on the cage was secured, he brushed away the cover concealing the trap. He grasped the handle and began to lift, his hand only inches from the metal mesh of the cage when the dragonling threw itself into a frenzy. It bit ferociously at the bars, sticking its small claws through the bars and giving Mika a terrible slash across his knuckles.
“Ouch! You little pipsqueak!” Mika yelped in pain and immediately dropped the cage before the hatchling could mark him again. He scowled at the creature, who returned his gaze smugly, as if it knew how badly it had hurt the trapper. He examined the wound, amazed to see that the tiny claws had sliced him to the bone. He would most definitely need stitches when he returned to the village. For the time being, he wrapped his wound tightly with a length of clean bandage. Scratches and bites were a common career hazard and he was always prepared for them.
Since carrying the cage itself was no longer a possibility, he used a dead limb from a near-by tree to push the cage onto his cloak so that he could drag it back to his cabin. As soon as the cage was firmly on the fabric, the dragonling began tearing at it through the mesh floor.
“Ugh,” Mika moaned. “I just bought that cloak last month. Now you’ve ruined it!”
The dragonling’s reply was to defecate. Mika scowled again before reminding himself that it was a young animal, hardly more than a baby. “They do these things. Once it has a safe, comfortable home next to the fire, with a fresh meal and a few herbs in its belly, it’ll settle right down. Isn’t that right, Pipsqueak? I wonder what combination of herbs will soften up your attitude…”
The dragonling ignored him, gnawing on the bars of the cage.
* * * *
Mika was breathing heavily when he caught the first glimpse of his cabin in the evening light. The dragonling was much heavier than he would have guessed for something the size of a dog, and it was doing its best to destroy the cage it was trapped inside. The cage, intended for canines, wolverines, and badgers, was valiantly holding itself together. But the damage to the cage, which had cost him nearly half-a-season’s profits, was severe. The dragonling had managed to bend several of the bars and nearly loosened a bolt before falling into asleep for the remainder of the journey.
Salt and Pepper, a pair of wolves he had found as cubs and raised several years ago, came bounding through the forest. They had scented their master on the breeze and were eager to greet him. After lavishing Mika with their affections, they turned their attention to the hatchling. It had awakened when Mika dropped the cloak, and was watching the wolves with trepidation. Salt, the smaller, lighter-colored female, sniffed curiously at the cage while Pepper, male and much darker in color, simply growled and kept his distance.
With the same vicious speed displayed earlier, the hatchling lashed out at Salt’s muzzle when she stuck it in between the bars. With a terrified cry, Salt jumped back and ran to hide behind Mika, red blood swelling on her white muzzle.
“Oh Salt!” Mika soothed, kneeling before the whimpering canine to examine the wound. “You are too friendly for your own good! You need to give Pipsqueak space until it settles in and becomes our friend. There now, it’s not so bad as all that.”
The scratch was not as deep as the one across his knuckles, and for that Mika was grateful. His wolves were the closest thing he had to family and he hated to see them get hurt. He reached into his first aid kit for a small packet of styptic powder and sprinkled it into the wound to stop the bleeding. Mika sent the pair back to the cabin and finished the trip with the cage and hatchling in tow.
When they arrived Mika considered bringing the cage into the cabin, but soon changed his mind when he discovered the dragonling had messed the cage several more times over the course of their journey. The smell in close proximity was ferocious on its own, and the mess seemed to be dissolving what remained of his cloak the longer it sat. He settled instead on leaving it in the shelter of the woodshed for the night. Mika felt bad leaving the young dragon in such conditions, but the alternative wasn’t going to make the other occupants of the cabin happy.
He retrieved a shank of jerky from his pantry and a large ceramic bowl which he filled with water before carefully sliding them into the cage while keeping the dragonling inside and his fingers intact. After a few minutes, the hatchling did drink from the bowl, but refused the meat before returning to its aggressive attack on the cage. Mika hoped he would be able to salvage the cage for another use once he better secured the creature.
* * * *
The next morning found Mika sipping his coffee at dawn, his eyes bloodshot from a severe lack of sleep. All through the night the dragonling had voiced an eerie, high pitched wail, making sleep for anything within a quarter mile impossible. It had finally stopped when the sun began to slip above the horizon. Salt and Pepper had climbed back into the bed and eyed him mournfully when he had called for them to go out. He let them stay, yearning to join them himself, but he had too much to accomplish today. Pipsqueak needed more space and stronger walls to keep it safe until Mika could tame it and bond to it.
He found the dragonling as he left it the night before, the only changes were the empty water bowl and more damage to the cage. The jerky remained, untouched. The hatchling opened one eye lazily to watch him. It seemed to have tolerated the cool night air without suffering any harm. It did try to bite him as he reached in to refill the water, providing the night air hadn’t cooled its temper at all. He left the jerky inside the cage, figuring that perhaps dragons did not eat as regularly as other animals. Mika knew though that once it was hungry enough, it would eat anything he fed it.
It seemed to him that the woodshed might be the ideal location to keep the dragon, as the smell had not improved for sitting overnight. With a little reinforcement and a solid floor, Mika could see that the structure would hold up for a good long while. Sacrificing a walking stick to the terrors of the smaller creature, he maneuvered the cage from the shed and began work immediately.
It took most of the morning, but he moved his substantial firewood supply out of the shed and to the north side of his cabin, where it would provide insulation from the cold winter winds. Using long iron strips, he secured his thickest boards down over the dirt floor. Shorter strips went over the only window in the shed and more boards were nailed to the walls for support. He secretly hoped that the extra mass to the walls would also help muffle the dragonling’s cries, should it decide to grace them with a repeat performance in the future.
It was difficult work alone, but he was able to transform the flimsy shed door into a sturdy barn style one that could be opened at the top to allow fresh air and light in while still keeping the bottom secured. He added a frame and the last of his iron strips to the top, to keep Pipsqueak in while the top half of the door was open. He then turned his attention to sacrificing one of his traps to create a tight and secure exterior lock for both door sections. The stories he had heard about dragons all called them smart, and since his wolves had figured out how to nose open a latch, he wasn’t going to put it past his dragonling.
The sun rested low on the horizon as Mika put the finishing touches to the shed. He spread fresh straw down on the floor then hung a pair of old buckets from the wall next to the door for food and water. Since the dragonling seemed to enjoy digging and chewing he brought in several of Salt and Pepper’s old toys. Young animals needed stimulation after all.
Happy with his what he had wrought, he worked the dragonling and it’s cage back into the renovated shed. He then tied a bit of string to the release latch, threaded it through the security bars on the door, and secured the locks before giving the string a tug. The cage sprung open with a sharp snapping noise and Mika waited with baited breath to see Pipsqueek explore its new home. Much to his disappointment the dragonling simply sat where he was, alternating between ignoring the young man and glaring hatefully at him through the bars.
* * * *
Autumn slowly faded into winter and Mika fell into a routine with the care of the dragonling. Every morning he refreshed the water and tried a new type of meat, trying to tempt it to eat. He would then go about his daily chores, check his trap lines, and return to find the food untouched. He wasn’t overly concerned, he was convinced it would eat when it became hungry enough, but it confused him how the dragon seemed to be growing without eating anything.
That particular mystery was solved when he found several decomposing bits of rat while mucking the shed. It had been particularly frigid the night before and they must have sought out the protection of the shed in large numbers, only to meet their demise at the claws of a hungry dragonling. He laughed at his own foolishness, of course an apex predator such as a dragon would not settle for anything less than live meat it had hunted for itself. He immediately began trapping the area for rodents. If he was going to win Pipsqueak over, hand feeding live rats might help his cause.
During his weekly trip to the village to trade, Mika came across a book, worn with age and decorated with beautiful drawings. He wasn’t much of a reader, but it was filled with stories of various creatures, including dragons. He traded three rare, early season white ermine furs for it. Reading from it became part of his evening routine and he learned a great deal from the pages and illustrations, including the gender of his dragonling. Pipsqueak was still young and undeveloped, but Mika was almost certain that it was male.
All the stories spoke about the wondrous hoards of dragons, and Mika began to worry that the coldness from Pipsqueak was due to to a lack of treasure. One chilly morning, he decided to test the theory. After refreshing the water bucket and throwing a pair of live mice in the shed, he observed the dragonling for a few moments. Pipsqueak was resting on the old cage he had once been trapped inside, lounging on it like a cat on a pillow. It watched the mice scurry off with an air of boredom; he refused to hunt in front of the human. When Mika failed to withdraw himself in his normal timely manner, the dragonling cast one of his baleful glares at his jailor.
Once Mika was certain he had the dragonling’s attention, he slowly slid his hand between the security bars and flashed a small silver nugget in the sunlight. The attitude of the dragonling changed immediately, interest flashing in its ruby eyes. Unexpectedly, it sprang into motion and launched itself at his hand. Mika reflexively jerked his hand out of harms way, bruising his knuckles on the metal bars and dropping the nugget into the straw below.
As he nursed his injured hand against his chest, he watched Pipsqueak pace anxiously around in the straw, clearly searching for the dropped treasure. After scanning through the straw for a minute or two, the dragonling uncovered the nugget. It snatched it up with it’s maw and trotted gleefully back to its place on the old cage. Nestling the nugget between its forelimbs, Pipsqueak proceeded to rub every part of its head and neck over the small bit of silver, rumbling a sound that Mika could only call a pur.
The young man felt encouraged, as this was the first positive response from the dragonling he had elicited since it’s capture. He ran inside his cabin and dug through his belongings to scavenge several copper nuggets and another silver. Returning to the shed, he carefully tossed them onto the shed floor where Pipsqueak could see them. The dragonling cast him a suspicious look before retrieving the other nuggets in short order. Once all of the nuggets had been gathered together, it nudged them into a loose pile and curled up on them. The odd rumbling sound returned, and Pipsqueak cast Mika a thoughtful look.
The following morning the dragonling was sitting in front of the shed door with a hopeful expression. It did not try to scratch or maul Mika as he refilled the water bucket or released a rat that he had trapped overnight into the shed. He cast an incredulous at Pipsqueak when it sounded a bird-like chirp at him. The young man was struck dumb; he had finally stumbled on the secret to taming the dragonling. All he needed were more nuggets.
* * * *
Over the next several weeks, deep winter set in and Mika pushed himself harder than ever to trap the fur-heavy creatures of the area. He doubled his lines and was often out checking them long after dark. He traveled into town more often despite the miserable weather and even accepted less than the full value of his skins, just to close the sale and secure more currency. He was also entertaining an offer for Salt and Pepper, as another hunter in the area was having trouble with coyotes.
All the extra work appeared to be paying off in a big way with the dragonling. A week ago it had killed a mouse while he watched and just the other day it had pounced upon one of the rodents he had trapped and released for it. With the latest collection of nuggets clinking in his belt pouch, he hoped to convince the dragonling to tolerate his touch.
As he neared the cabin, he noticed deep footprints in the new snow. They were cloven and quite deep, indicating a mature deer. He slipped his bow from his shoulder and carefully followed the trail, fresh scat giving him hope of a kill. He rounded a bend in the trail when he practically stumbled over a young buck, his antlers tangled in the naked branches of a young blackthorn tree. Taking quick aim, he fired into the heart of the struggling creature and put it out of its misery. A few quick strokes of his hunting knife saw the carcass gutted and beheaded to lighten the load, as the cold would prevent any putrification of the meat for quite a while. With the strength that comes from living alone in the wild, he slung the buck over his shoulders and carried his prize home.
The wolves greeted him in their usual manner, as happy to see him as the fresh meat he carried. He shouldered his way into the cabin, eager for the warmth, and began to properly butcher and skin the buck. He tossed the leg bones to Salt and Pepper who were waiting patiently for such a treat. Mika then carefully wrapped what he would not eat that night and stowed it away in the freezing cellar beneath the cabin floor. Inspiration struck, and he held back a large chunk of the flank to give to the dragonling along with the nuggets he had acquired in the village. Setting the meat in his stew pot over the fire, he ducked back out into the cold winter air to tend to Pipsqueak.
As had become the dragonling’s habit, it was sitting before the door and waiting for him. It greeted him with a curious chirp, and danced around excitedly as Mika lobbed a pair of copper nuggets into the shed for it. It quickly snatched them up and delivered them to its nest. Mika gave a low whistle as he tossed another in, impressed with the amount that had accrued. “Who knew I had it in me to earn so much in a single season! You inspire me, Pipsqueak. I’ll keep working hard for you, and we’ll get you a proper hoard before spring.”
When the last of the nuggets were carefully tucked away, Mika decided to try the meat. He cut off a small chunk using his hunting knife and carefully chucked it to the dragonling. It approached it cautiously, giving it a measuring look. With one ruby eye on the trapper, the dragonling slowly scooped up the meat into its maw and swallowed. Mika cut several more pieces of meat and tossed them in, encouraged by the response. Before he realized it, Pipsqueak’s sides were bulging and only one small strip of meat remained.
He stared at it for a moment, weighing the risks of offering the piece from his hand. Before he could lose his nerve, he stuck his hand through the bars and clinched his eyes closed. It seemed like an eternity before he felt the meat begin to leave his hand. He retracted his hand gradually, trying his best not to trigger a violent response in the animal. His hand safely returned to the outside of the shed, he was overwhelmed with euphoria. He had done it; he had hand-fed a dragon! He let loose a whoop of excitement before jogging back to the cabin.
* * * *
Something was wrong with Pipsqueak. Mika leaned on the lower door of the shed the next morning, looking in on the dragonling. It whimpered pathetically from its small pile of metal, obviously suffering. A rancid stench waifed at him from a corner of the shed, partially digested venison was the source. Mika was wracked with guilt. It had never occurred to him that a dragon could become ill and he seriously feared that it could prove fatal for the young animal. Lizards were notoriously fickle when it came to treatment, and he didn’t have much experience with them either.
When the dragonling’s condition did not improve by dusk, Mika made the choice to bring the dragonling into the cabin. He set up a large crate next to the fire and filled it with old rags and blankets along with a small bucket of fresh water. He was surprised when his entrance into the shed did not provoke a response from Pipsqueak, and he grew more concerned over its condition. He cautiously gathered the dragonling up, the way he would if he had to carry one of his wolves. It did not struggle at all, sending Mika into a panic.
He rushed back into the cabin and carefully laid the beast on the nest he had made for it. Then he returned to the shed for its small hoard, hoping that it would comfort the dragonling. Suddenly he heard a commotion inside the cabin. He entered only to find chaos, as his wolves had discovered the hatchling in the crate. Pipsqueak was riled up and hissing angrily at the pair, while they growled and barked viciously at it.
Mika growled back at the pair and chased them out the cabin. “You two leave it be! Can’t you see it’s sick? Go on, get outside! You can stay there ‘til you remember the manners I taught you!”
He closed the door firmly in their wake before turning his attention back to the sick dragonling. It eyed him through the boards of the crate, its watery eyes glowing red with reflected firelight. He sat down next to the crate and carefully dropped the dragonling’s nuggets in. With painful slowness, Pipsqueak pulled each nugget under itself before resting its head on its forelegs and closing its eyes.
Mika sighed with frustration and ran his fingers through his hair. He wished desperately that there was something more he could do for his pet. He retrieved his book on dragons and laid down upon his bed to read. The worry and exhaustion from the day caught up to him, however, and he soon drifted asleep.
As the trapper snored softly from his bed, the hatchling looked about him, examining the room. The night was still young, and so it bided its time and recovered its strength. The darkness outside deepened, and shortly after that the scratching of the wolves’ claws on the porch silenced. It continued to wait patiently, sipping the fresh water and enjoying the warmth of the fire as it recovered from the human tainted food. At some unseen que, it rose and began consuming its collection of nuggets. The last one swallowed and stored in its crop-like throat, it firmly pushed the unsecured board blocking its escape from the crate. The board shifted enough that the dragonling could squirm out, creating only a small amount of noise.
The dragonling approached the bed, an arrogant strut appearing in its step and the promise of revenge in its ruby eyes. With a single bound, the beast leapt onto the bed and landed lightly on Mika’s chest. The young man startled awake and gasped to find the dragonling standing over him. He raised his hand to push it off, but the dragonling quickly slipped around his defenses. With a blindingly fast strike that it had practiced on countless rodents over the last several months, the dragon bit down upon the trapper’s exposed throat.
Crimson splattered the walls and covers as the two grappled for several long, excruciating moments until the young man finally stilled. The struggle had alerted the wolves outside and they scratched desperately at the locked door. Its desire for revenge sated, the dragonling explored the rest of the cabin, sniffing out a few small trinkets crafted of silver. Once it was certain there was nothing more to benefit it in the cabin, it unlatched the shutters over one of the large windows and escaped into the absolute darkness of the winter night.