Renenyad was a small town at the foot of a dark and looming mountain range. Its people were watched over by a kind and just old Lord and his Lady, who frequently held feasts throughout the Summer for their townspeople.
In the town of Renenyad lived an apprentice cobbler who wasn’t really an apprentice at all. Ackerley had been making shoes for nearly ten years, and repairing them for longer, but his master continued to look down his nose at Ackerley. He still had a lot to learn, the old man always said.
Ackerley didn’t mind. He enjoyed his simple, honest life and never wanted for anything. He had clothes and a roof over his head to keep him warm in Winter, and a spectacular view of the rising peaks of the mountains in Summer. At sunset, when the golden sunlight had left all but the very tops of the mountains, they looked like great candles standing watch over the little town of Renenyad.
It was on one blustery Autumn day that Ackerley met a most extraordinary man.
The sky was bright and clear overhead and Ackerley was making use of this last desperate ray of Summer despite the wind. He worked outside, beating nails into the sole of a shoe with rhythmic knocking to echo that of his master from inside.
It was only when he stopped to run his thumb over his work that he noticed the stranger standing by the door.
He was tall, but Ackerley could see little else of his appearance beyond that. He wore an oiled brown cloak down to his knees and a hood that came down over his eyes. His face was half concealed by shadow and half by a short, thick beard, but Ackerley could tell the stranger was staring straight at him.
Ackerley swallowed. ‘How can I be of service?’ he asked carefully.
‘Are you the cobbler here?’ the stranger asked. His voice sounded like the cool, earthy wind of Autumn.
Ackerley hesitated a moment. ‘I’m an apprentice,’ he admitted. ‘My master is inside if you’d like me to fetch him.’
The stranger’s hood ruffled as he shook his head. ‘I want to be in town for as short a time as possible,’ he said. He took a few steps closer to where Ackerley sat and produced a pair of worn old boots from his cloak. He dropped them at the apprentice’s feet with a heavy clatter on the earth. ‘How quickly can you mend these?’
Ackerley looked at the boots, and noticed with a start that the stranger was barefoot.
The cloaked man cleared his throat and stepped awkwardly back, trying to hide one bare foot with the other. ‘I’ll pay you well.’
Ackerley nodded, then put his hammer and half-finished shoe down beside him so he could pick up one of the stranger’s boots.
The soles were coming away from the rest of the boot and would need to be completely replaced, and there were big holes in the toe of both boots. One had a sizeable chunk taken out of the back of the heel, like an animal had been chewing on it.
‘About—’ Ackerley stopped to clear his throat, which had become suddenly dry. ‘No more than a day or two,’ he finished.
The stranger shifted as his arms folded under his cloak, and Ackerley could see his lips narrow in thought. Then, finally, a nod. ‘Good,’ he said. He flinched and hissed a breath in through his teeth. One heavy hand came out from under his cloak and pulled his head back. His short, messy hair matched his dark beard, and his eyes were frowning and irritated as he rubbed his neck.
Ackerley could just hear him mutter under his breath, ‘Now, that was uncalled for, Birch.’ He took his fingers from his neck to check for blood, then sighed heavily.
From the collar of his cloak poked a tiny reptilian head, no bigger than Ackerley’s thumb. It was stark white against the stranger’s dark cloak, and it looked briefly at the apprentice before giving a disinterested flick of its tongue.
Ackerley gasped as it darted out from the stranger’s collar, its body a delicate white vine as it reared up and faced the man. Jagged black marks dotted over its scales. A snake? No…
‘A dragon,’ Ackerley breathed, unable to keep his jaw from dropping open as the tiny animal’s wings emerged, brittle and papery and tinged yellow like dying birch leaves.
The stranger nodded briefly in confirmation, then crossed his eyes to look the little dragon in the face. ‘No,’ he said, his voice still quiet but firm.
A gust of cold wind from the south rustled leaves around the workshop.
The stranger sighed and cast an almost apologetic look at Ackerley as he scratched the back of his head. ‘We’ll see,’ he mumbled, then glanced worriedly up at the bright blue sky.
The little dragon turned to Ackerley, opened its mouth and breathed a small puff of smoke into the air. No, not smoke, Ackerley thought. It was more like fog, the kind of fog he could breathe on a cold Winter’s morning, but it wasn’t nearly cold enough for that now. The dragon’s tongue flicked out again, then it darted back under the stranger’s cloak.
The man shivered, then pulled his hood back over his head. ‘As fast as you can,’ he said, then turned to go as another gust of wind billowed under his cloak.
Ackerley stared at him for long minutes as he strode back down the street on long, unseen legs. He didn’t notice that the rhythmic knocking of his master’s hammer had ceased until the old man stood at the door.
‘That shoe’s not going to make itself, boy.’ His sharp voice made Ackerley jump after the stranger’s soft, zephyr-like voice.
‘Yes, master,’ he said quickly, dropping the stranger’s boots and picking up his hammer and shoe again.
‘Who was that, then?’ the old man asked, thick arms folded over his thicker stomach.
‘I don’t know, master,’ Ackerley replied. ‘I’ve never seen him before. He had—’ He broke off, realising the old man probably wouldn’t believe him.
‘He had what?’ his master asked, eyes narrowed and suspicious. ‘Did he threaten you, boy?’
‘No! No, I was just… surprised, that’s all.’ He frowned and looked down at the boots. ‘He had a dragon, master. Only a little one, you understand, but—’
‘A dragon…’ the old man mused.
‘Yes, master!’ Ackerley went on, encouraged by his master’s serious tone. He did believe him, then. ‘A little white one with black spots, and wings like birch leaves.’
The old man looked down at him and stroked his greying moustache in thought.
‘Do you know him, master?’
The cobbler nodded. ‘I know of him, certainly. I was too young to remember the last time he came down from the mountains.’
Ackerley frowned. ‘But you look to have a good twenty years on him, master, how were you too young?’
He shifted under his master’s penetrating eyes. ‘Looks can be deceiving, boy,’ he said. ‘Whatever that man wants you to do, you do it, understand? And you do it better than he’s expecting. Any other projects you have right now, you give them to me.’
The young apprentice nodded in bewilderment. ‘Yes, master,’ he said.
The old man gave a curt nod, and his shoulders seemed to relax at Ackerley’s response. ‘Good,’ he said. He gave a quick glance towards the castle before disappearing back inside.
Ackerley frowned a moment before following him, the dragon man’s boots in his hand. ‘Please, master,’ he asked carefully. ‘Who was that man?’
The cobbler looked up with narrowed eyes. ‘That’s none of your business, boy. Just do exactly as he says.’ He held out his hand and beckoned for the boots Ackerley held.
‘He didn’t seem so horrid to me,’ the apprentice said as he passed them over.
The cobbler snatched them from him. ‘Didn’t I tell you that looks can be deceiving?’ he snapped, turning the boots over in his hands and testing the strength of the leather. ‘Get to work,’ he finished, then shoved them back into Ackerley’s hands.
‘Yes, master,’ the young apprentice agreed meekly, then hurried out the door.
He worked all day on repairing the dragon man’s heavy boots, hammering in a new sole, cutting new leather to patch the holes and stitching new thread into the deteriorating seams. Every few minutes he looked up towards the road, trying to catch sight of the stranger, but there was no sign of him or his little dragon.
He worked into the night, using the fire in the hearth for light, before he was finally able to set them aside and call them finished.
It was still quite dark when Ackerley was woken the next morning. The wind had grown louder and stronger overnight, and there was a loud and persistent thumping on the front door. He groaned and rubbed his eyes, looking out at the milky light of predawn. He almost yelped at what else he saw in the window.
The little birch-like dragon flapped its papery wings hard to stay aloft, mouth opening and closing as it blew irritated clouds of fog against the glass. It was like a winged snake, with no arms or legs or even an obvious body.
‘I’m coming!’ he shouted as he jumped out of bed, but the thumping continued. He pulled a smock hurriedly over his head and raced down the stairs to answer the door. A violent gust of wind swept dead leaves into the cobbler’s room as he swung the door open.
The dragon man stood there, hood up and dragon perched on his shoulder. Its long, snakelike tail wound around the man’s neck, and it reared up threateningly at Ackerley with another cloud of fog.
Ackerley gripped his arms around himself against the cold outside. The clouds were heavy overhead, he could see now, quite a change from yesterday.
‘I need to leave now,’ the man said, his voice urgent but still quiet, almost lost on the wind. ‘Are they finished?’
Ackerley nodded. ‘They are,’ he said, then pushed the door closed against the wind so he could fetch the boots from where he had left them by the hearth. He had planned to give them a good polish this morning, in better light so he could see the shine, but if the stranger was in such a hurry, there was no time for that.
He turned the door handle and was almost bowled over by the wind as it blew the door wide open. It was even too strong now for the stranger to keep his hood over his head. His cloak billowed out around him, slapping against the door frame and the dragon man’s bare ankles. The dragon had disappeared, and Ackerley imagined it was back in its safe haven under the man’s cloak.
The stranger snatched one boot from Ackerley and yanked it onto his foot.
‘If you don’t mind me asking,’ Ackerley began, finding it difficult to shout and to be polite at the same time, ‘who are you?’
The dragon man looked up and took the other boot. His expression beyond his thick brow and thicker beard was curious, almost smiling despite his haste. ‘My name’s Rutherford,’ he answered, soft enough that Ackerley almost missed it. He straightened and delved his hand into his pocket. ‘If you plan on asking after me, though, this town knows me as the dragon man.’
‘Why?’ Ackerley shouted.
Rutherford shrugged. ‘Nobody ever asked back then.’ He pulled his hand from his pocket and took Ackerley’s wrist with his other. His fingers were cold and dry, rougher than Ackerley’s from a life in the mountains. Into Ackerley’s palm, Rutherford pressed four gold coins.
Ackerley’s jaw dropped open as he stared at the coins in his palm. He’d never even seen one gold coin before, and now he held four of his very own.
‘Many thanks,’ Rutherford said, and the wind calmed down a little. He looked like he was about to leave, but hesitated a moment. ‘Don’t go outside at night for the next few weeks, not for anything. I’ll come back to tell you when it’s safe again.’
Ackerley nodded mutely and fisted his hand around the coins as he watched Rutherford go. The wind blew back up again in his absence, and Ackerley struggled to close the door behind him.
The old cobbler stood at the bottom of the stairs, already dressed and tying his leather apron behind him. ‘What did he say?’ he demanded, then cleared the morning frog from his throat.
‘He told me not to go outside at night,’ Ackerley answered, frowning. ‘What does that mean, master?’
‘It means exactly what it sounds like,’ the old man said offhandedly. He looked out the window, back towards the castle again, then rested a hand on Ackerley’s shoulder. ‘Good boy,’ he said. ‘Go to the castle and tell Lord Allandridge. If he knows who said it, he’ll pay attention.’
‘Yes, master,’ Ackerley answered with a short bow, then ran back upstairs to get dressed, still thoroughly puzzled by everything that was happening. If Lord Allandridge knew just who Rutherford was, maybe he might be able to tell Ackerley something.
He threw a cloak over his shoulders and bent his head as he pulled the front door open once more. The wind had died down a lot since Rutherford had left with his dragon, but it was still quite strong. It couldn’t be mere coincidence, Ackerley thought with a shake of his head. He pulled the door closed and turned his collar up, then made his way up the road towards Renenyad’s castle.
The doorwoman bowed deeply as Ackerley approached.
‘Good morning, young Ackerley,’ she said smoothly. ‘How does this morning see you?’
Ackerley bowed back. ‘A little rattled, as a matter of fact. Please may I speak with Lord Allandridge?’
The doorwoman frowned. ‘Is it urgent?’ she asked.
Ackerley nodded. ‘At least, I think so. My master seemed to believe so.’
The doorwoman stood straight and put on a professional face. ‘Right this way, please,’ she said.
Ackerley followed her through the maze of hallways and grand staircases to a heavy wooden door.
‘Lord Allandridge is taking tea with Lady Elsalita,’ the doorwoman said, lowering her voice. She set her hand on the door handle and pushed it open with a quiet knock. ‘Ackerley, the apprentice cobbler, has a matter of urgency to discuss with you, my Lord,’ she announced.
Ackerley took his cloak off and folded it over one arm as he cautiously entered the room and bowed deeply.
‘Please, take a seat, my boy,’ Lord Allandridge invited, gesturing to one of the chairs around the small tea table. His wrinkled old face was smiling and kindly, but there was gravity behind his dark eyes.
Ackerley shook his head, hearing the door close behind him as the doorwoman left. ‘It’s not really a matter that needs discussing, my Lord,’ he admitted. ‘Rather a message my master felt needed to be passed on.’
Lord Allandridge frowned. ‘Oh?’
‘A man came to have his boots repaired yesterday. He says his name is Rutherford, but that Renenyad perhaps knows him better as the dragon man.’
Lady Elsalita gasped and held a hand to her chest. The gravity behind Lord Allandridge’s eyes spread to his whole face.
‘What did he say?’ The question was almost a demand.
‘He warned me not to go outside at night for the next few weeks,’ Ackerley answered, now more curious than ever. What was it that the whole town seemed to know, but he didn’t?
Lord and Lady exchanged worried glances.
‘He’s returned, Allan,’ Lady Elsalita said, her voice tiny and trembling.
‘So it would seem,’ Lord Allandridge agreed. He set his teacup on the table and clasped his hands under his chin, deep in thought.
Ackerley gingerly cleared his throat. ‘If it’s not too bold of me to ask, my Lord, who is Rutherford?’
Lord Allandridge looked up. ‘Your master didn’t tell you?’
‘No, my Lord.’
Lord Allandridge took a deep breath. ‘I think you’d best take a seat, my boy.’
Ackerley did so, feeling self conscious wearing commoner’s clothes in the sumptuous tea room of his Lord and Lady.
‘I’ve never heard him be called Rutherford before,’ the Lord began. ‘He’s only ever been known as the dragon man. He last came to Renenyad a little over fifty years ago, when I was around your age. He was certainly very polite and well-mannered when first he showed his face. He gave patronage to most of the townspeople, paid them well, gave money to my parents for Renenyad’s hospitality, played with the children, and then, of course, there were the dragons.’
Lady Elsalita moved around the table to sit beside him, taking one of his hands in both of hers and looking worriedly up at him.
‘Oh, they were beautiful,’ Lord Allandridge went on, though his voice was dark. ‘It was Spring, and every day he brought out another new delight. All manner of dragons that looked as though they had been made out of trees, with dainty blossoms sprouting from the tips of their tails and bright green leaves for their wings.
‘My brother and I were especially fascinated by them. We asked plenty of questions about them, where they lived and what they ate, and the dragon man was more than happy to answer.’
Lord Allandridge took a deep breath, apparently to still his anger. ‘Then, one day, my brother disappeared. The dragon man’s tone changed completely. He made ridiculous demands, forbidding us to burn any wood for a month, ordering everyone at the inn he stayed in, including the townspeople who ran it, to leave and sleep in the street for days. I tried to ask him what had happened to my brother, because it was clear he had something to do with it, but he had shut himself away in the inn and refused to come out.’
Lady Elsalita held his hand tightly, and tears began to stain her eyes.
‘Finally, he left, but not without one final threat. If ever one of us were to set foot in the mountains, Renenyad would be buried in snow and we would be left to freeze. But I had to save my brother, and it was late in Spring. There was no chance of snow, and I knew with absolute certainty that he was in the mountains, so I followed the dragon man.
‘On the second day, I found my brother. He was curled up and shivering beside the path, eyes wide with fear. I don’t think he recognised me at all. He didn’t say a word the whole way back, and continued to look at me as though I were a stranger, flinching whenever I touched him, turning his back towards me… He always looked ready to run.
‘When we reached Renenyad, just as the dragon man had threatened, the town was covered by a huge snowdrift. Only the top of the castle rose above it.’
Lord Allandridge fell silent. Lady Elsalita sobbed quietly beside him as she petted his hand.
Ackerley shifted awkwardly in the plush chair, wondering if the story was finished or not. ‘But they didn’t all die, did they, my Lord?’ he pressed nervously. ‘My master says he was around then.’
Lord Allandridge nodded. ‘Most survived for the snow to melt. But my brother disappeared again in the middle of the night a few days later.’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t dare follow him a second time.’
Ackerley stared at him, not sure what to believe. He shifted again in his chair then got to his feet and gave a deep bow. ‘Thank you, my Lord,’ he said quietly.
‘Whatever that man tells you to do, you do it,’ the Lord told him.
Ackerley bowed again. ‘Yes, my Lord, I will,’ he said, then quietly left the room.
The doorwoman waited outside to show him back down through the twisting corridors and staircases. Ackerley was glad she didn’t ask him any questions.
He slept restlessly that night, tossing and turning as the wind continued to blow outside and make the house creak and groan. He kept looking out the window to try and see whatever it was that Rutherford had warned him against, but he never saw anything but clouds racing across in front of the moon and stars.
He must have slept, though, because he was woken up by the crowing of the rooster early the next morning. He dressed quickly and ran down the stairs and out the front door.
Renenyad looked the same as ever. The trees had almost all been stripped of their bright Autumn colours, and the dead brown leaves rustled down the streets in the wind. No houses had lost any thatch on their rooves, no trees had been uprooted, and there was certainly no sign of any snow.
But then the calling began. First it was one woman down the street, calling her husband’s name in irritation. Then another, a man yelling for his son. Then a third, a fourth and a fifth.
Ackerley ran back inside and slammed the front door behind him.
‘What’s all the racket, boy?’ the old cobbler shouted down from his bedroom. ‘There’s no need to slam the door like that.’
‘They’ve gone!’ Ackerley cried as his master stomped down the stairs. ‘The butcher down the road, the florist’s son, and the nice old man next door! They’ve all gone, master!’
The cobbler paused for a moment, then shook his head and muttered something under his breath that Ackerley couldn’t hear. ‘Didn’t I tell you?’ he said, shaking a finger at Ackerley. ‘Do exactly as he says, and we’ll be safe here.’
‘But what do we—’
‘Nothing!’ his master snapped. ‘They’re gone, boy. There’s nothing we can do to get them back.’
Ackerley clapped his mouth shut, but he still looked worriedly towards the mountains. Whatever his master and Lord Allandridge said, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the disappearances weren’t Rutherford’s doing. Why would he warn Ackerley if he intended to harm the town? What if he was trying to protect them, just as it sounded? What if he could help, and he was just waiting for someone to ask it of him?
‘Get to work, boy,’ the old cobbler told him, breaking him from his thoughts. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’
Another half a dozen people disappeared that night, and three more the next. Lord Allandridge’s messenger came to the cobbler’s around lunch time to say the Lord was holding a town meeting the next day, and to warn the people not to go outside at night. The messenger said nothing about the dragon man, but Ackerley knew that was exactly what the meeting would be about.
There was a sick feeling in Ackerley’s stomach as he went to bed. He recalled the anger in the voices of anyone who spoke about the dragon man, first his master and then Lord Allandridge. Whatever was to come out of the town meeting tomorrow, Ackerley supposed it was likely to be violent.
He looked out at the diamond-studded night sky, streaked with dark clouds that raced across the moon. He liked Rutherford, what little he had seen of him, and his funny little fog-breathing dragon. He didn’t want to see harm come to him, certainly not at the hands of his own townspeople.
He couldn’t let that happen.
He got out of bed and quietly padded around his room, avoiding the floorboards he knew would creak loudly and wake up the old man across the hall. He packed warm clothes into a satchel, then crept downstairs and stuffed in a half a loaf of bread, some cheese and a chunk of ham. He filled a water skin from the rainwater tank, then padded quietly back up to his room. He dressed, pulled on a pair of boots and tossed a cloak over his shoulders, then lay back on his bed and waited for morning to come.
Ackerley drifted in and out of sleep, anxiously watching out the window and hoping it might have grown brighter since he last looked. Finally, some very definite colour touched the landscape, and Ackerley was up.
He crept downstairs again, pausing briefly to bid a silent goodbye to his master, then quietly opened the front door and pulled it shut behind him.
Nobody else was awake yet, so Ackerley was able to run unseen through the town and onto the path towards the mountains.
They looked beautiful this morning, with the cool, clear glow of the dawn sun lighting them up from behind. Their peaks glowed bright white while their peaks were still hidden in shadow. Trees clustered over the faces, like twigs stuck into the rocks. Their limbs clung to a last handful of dead leaves, remnants of their fiery Autumn glory, but Winter was coming up fast now.
Ackerley shivered and turned up his collar against the wind. He realised as he walked along the mountain path that he didn’t know where he was going at all. He had no idea where Rutherford lived, only that it was somewhere in the mountains. He only hoped that the path would lead him somewhere. If it didn’t, he would have to return home empty-handed.
His feet soon began to ache, not through any fault of his boots but for the fact that Ackerley wasn’t used to walking so much. Still he trudged on, staring at the path as it grew rougher and rougher. Weeds and even small bushes grew around the pebbles in the path, and Ackerley had to frequently catch himself to keep from tripping on the larger rocks.
His stomach began to rumble around midday, and he realised he hadn’t eaten breakfast, either. Panting from his hike, he collapsed onto a boulder and dropped his satchel on the ground. He sat for a moment to catch his breath before taking the water skin from his bag and taking a thankful swig from it.
As he tipped his head back, he saw a shape circling in the sky overhead. It wasn’t a bird shape, he thought with a frown, more like Rutherford’s snakelike little dragon. Ackerley took the water skin from his lips and watched the circling dragon.
‘How long have you been up there for, little guy?’ he wondered aloud.
As though it had heard him, the dragon pulled its wings in and dropped to the ground in an elegant spiral. It landed with a flurry of dead leaves and perched on its tail, looking inquisitively up at Ackerley with its wings spread.
This was a different dragon to the little birch creature that sat on Rutherford’s shoulder. It had blotchy silver-brown scales and its wings seemed to be made of dead maple leaves, with just a touch of yellow left where they joined the wing bone. At the tip of its tail was one of the maple’s whirlybirds. Its eyes were bright golden yellow and it stared expectantly at Ackerley through slitted pupils.
‘Maple?’ Ackerley tried.
The dragon nodded.
Ackerley grinned and laughed, making the maple dragon cock its head to one side.
‘Are you hungry?’ he asked it.
The dragon nodded again, twice this time.
Ackerley’s grin broadened and he reached into his satchel, drawing out the bread, cheese and ham he had packed the night before. The maple dragon watched him carefully the whole time, looking as though it was only waiting for his invitation to dive in and eat everything in sight.
‘What do you eat?’ Ackerley asked the dragon, breaking some of the cheese off and putting it on a chunk of bread.
The dragon cocked its head to one side again, then opened its tiny mouth as wide as it would go. It spread its wings wide and flapped up into the air, landed on Ackerley’s shoulder and began chewing on his hair.
Ackerley laughed and shook his head, batting the dragon away with one hand. ‘No, you can’t eat that! Here, have some ham. Do you like ham?’
The dragon hovered awkwardly in the air as he cut a piece of ham off. As soon as the piece was free of the chunk, the dragon’s head darted forward and it snatched the ham from Ackerley’s fingers, munching on it in mid-air.
Ackerley laughed again and took a bite of his own lunch. ‘Can you show me where Rutherford is?’ he asked the maple dragon.
The dragon was eyeing the chunk of ham, but it nodded in response to Ackerley’s question. He gave it another piece of ham in thanks.
When he had finished lunch, he packed the food back in his satchel and slung it back over his shoulder, following the maple dragon as it fluttered on ahead of him. After an hour or so it perched on his shoulder, jumping off only to show him when he was making a wrong turn.
The path had completely disappeared now, and Ackerley found himself having to climb over giant boulders and up awkward but blessedly small cliffs to keep up with the dragon. He wondered if this was really the easiest way for him to go, or whether the dragon was merely showing him the route it knew, a route where its little wings could take it easily up cliffs and over boulders.
Ackerley looked behind him several times, but he couldn’t see Renenyad at all. All around him the mountains were the same, filled with rocks and the stick-like trees that must have looked glorious a few weeks earlier. The sun disappeared behind the giant mountains, and Ackerley could feel worry creeping up on him.
‘Will we be there before nightfall, do you think?’ he asked the dragon.
The dragon, perched on his shoulder, curled around so Ackerley could see it, and nodded carefully. It jumped off his shoulder and fluttered on ahead, turning around to bat its wings at him and flit from side to side. Ackerley could only assume it was telling him it wasn’t much further to go.
‘I hope you’re right,’ he mumbled, half to himself.
The dragon flitted more vigorously before him, then disappeared around another boulder.
Ackerley took as deep a breath as his aching lungs would allow him and followed the little maple dragon.
It was growing quite dark when Ackerley caught a distinctly human sound. It was the sound of strings being plucked in a delicate tune that rose and fell on the wind. It wasn’t a tune Ackerley recognised, but it was beautiful and intricate all the same.
The maple dragon led him towards the quiet song, and Ackerley noticed the flickering orange glow of a fire against the rocks ahead.
Satisfied that Ackerley knew where he was going now, the dragon darted off around the boulders towards the firelight. Ackerley could hear Rutherford’s gentle murmurings under the plucking of his instrument as he talked with the little dragon. His tones sounded like those used by fathers talking to an over-excited young son, and Ackerley smiled as he came around the boulder into the light of the fire.
Only then did Rutherford’s playing stop, and Ackerley saw dozens of pairs of eyes on him. The maple dragon hovered in front of Rutherford’s face and the birch dragon still perched on his shoulder, its tail wrapped possessively around his neck. Others, too, lay around the fire, all of different sizes but none thicker than the width of Ackerley’s wrist. Some seemed scared to see him invading their quiet time, some were curious, others were expectant as the little maple dragon had been. Ackerley wondered if the maple dragon had already told them about the ham treats he had given it. Some ignored him completely and looked expectantly at Rutherford or dozed at his feet, curled up into a leaf-decorated spiral.
Rutherford sat cross-legged in front of the fire, with a strange instrument balanced on his knees that Ackerley had never seen before. It was a large block of wood, hollowed out with only a small opening in the top. Over the opening were stretched a dozen strings that Rutherford now had his arms crossed on.
‘Good evening, young apprentice,’ Rutherford said quietly. His Autumn-wind voice suited the mountains, Ackerley thought, cool and earthy against the rocks. It was lost in the streets and houses of Renenyad. ‘I don’t think we properly introduced ourselves last time. What’s your name?’
‘Ackerley,’ the apprentice cobbler answered. He took a deep breath, and his aching lungs protested with the action. ‘You don’t seem surprised to see me,’ he panted.
Rutherford shook his head. ‘Maple’s aren’t the only eyes that have been watching out for you today,’ he said, a faint sound of bemusement in his voice. ‘Hers are merely the eyes that were spotted.’
The maple dragon opened its mouth and blew fog at him, then darted behind his shoulder as he laughed at it.
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ he laughed, then turned back to Ackerley with a curious frown. ‘What I don’t know is why you’ve come.’
Ackerley took another deep breath to try and steady his thumping heart. ‘People have been disappearing at night, just like you said,’ he stammered.
Rutherford nodded and turned his face towards the fire, then began playing his instrument once more. His fingers danced over the strings like fluttering leaves as the lilting tune floated from the strings.
Ackerley looked around for somewhere to sit, and settled with a place in the dirt. ‘I think Lord Allandridge is going to send people into the mountains to find you,’ he said. ‘Rutherford, what’s happening? Why does nobody trust you?’
‘Because they have no reason to,’ Rutherford said easily, watching his fingers as he played the instrument. ‘Why have you chosen to trust me?’
Ackerley shrugged. ‘Because I think you’re trustworthy. You warned me about going outside at night time, and you paid me four gold coins to fix your boots, but…’ He paused and frowned as his exhausted mind tried to fit itself together after the climb. ‘But fifty years ago, when Renenyad was buried in snow. That couldn’t have been you, could it?’
Rutherford nodded. ‘That was me,’ he answered, his voice just as light and easy as when he had welcomed Ackerley. ‘Who told you that story?’
‘Ah, yes.’ There was a sombre note to Rutherford’s tone now. ‘I imagine he would have a somewhat skewed recollection of events.’ He looked up from his instrument, and the delicate tune faded away on the wind. ‘I never made any threats, and I never demanded anything of Renenyad or its people. I only warned them of what would happen.’
‘Why?’ Ackerley asked desperately. ‘Rutherford, I don’t understand.’
Rutherford took a careful breath. ‘My life is not as free as you might imagine,’ he answered. ‘I spent my youth looking for the secret to eternal life. I learned the dragon that lived in these mountains knew that secret, so I sought her out. Her name was Oak. She promised she would tell it to me if I would guard her egg until it hatched, then raise her hatchling.’
Ackerley nodded and looked at the dragons surrounding the fire. He wondered which one was the dragon’s baby.
‘Of course, I agreed. Oak gave me eternal life along with her egg. That was about a hundred and eighty years ago, now, and I haven’t aged a day since then.’ He smiled proudly and returned his fingers to his instrument.
‘The day I came to Renenyad was not long before the egg was supposed to hatch. There were hunters in the mountains looking for Oak and her egg, so I had to take it out of the mountains to keep it safe. Little did I know that one of the hunters was a young Master at Renenyad’s castle, Allandridge’s brother, in fact. I suspect he didn’t tell Allandridge he was a dragon hunter, either.’
A sudden and violent gust of wind blew up from the valley below, making Ackerley shiver and look nervously at the dragons. They all had their heads raised, and the fire reflected dangerously in their eyes.
‘I know,’ Rutherford told them gently. ‘He won’t take any more of you, I promise.’
The wind settled, but didn’t disappear completely. Rutherford continued to play his instrument, the notes catching on the wind and twisting pleasantly around Ackerley’s ears. He closed his eyes as he listened to it, and the dragons’ wind gradually died down.
Gently, Rutherford picked his story back up again.
‘The egg I had wasn’t the only one Oak had lain. Allandridge’s brother somehow managed to get his hands on one. I don’t know what Oak did to him when she found he had stolen it, because she won’t tell me herself. She only told me to warn all of Renenyad about coming into the mountains, or she would make certain herself that nobody would be left in the town to invade her territory.’
Ackerley shivered. ‘Why did Allandridge’s brother go back into the mountains?’ he asked. ‘He would have known what you were talking about, wouldn’t he?’
Rutherford shrugged. ‘I don’t think there was much left of his mind to know much of anything. Maybe he was trying to take the egg back to Oak, maybe he thought if he destroyed it the problem would go away, I don’t know.’
‘Destroyed it?’ Ackerley gasped.
Rutherford nodded as the wind picked up again. ‘Shh, shh,’ he said quietly, more like the Autumn wind than ever. ‘He’s gone now.’
Ackerley decided not to ask just what Rutherford meant by ‘gone’. Knowing what Oak had done to Renenyad simply because one of its residents had set foot in the mountains was enough. He didn’t want to know what she had done to the man who had broken her egg.
‘Are these all her hatchlings?’ he asked, hoping to cheer up the dragons.
Rutherford shook his head. ‘They’ve all just latched onto me over the years, whatever their reason. I can’t say how old they are, since dragons don’t seem to place any importance in age. They live so long it doesn’t matter.’ He stopped playing again and set the instrument beside him, then reached inside his coat.
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he murmured. ‘I know. No, he’s safe, I promise. And Birch won’t bite you this time. No, he won’t.’
Birch blew a cloud of fog at him and curled around his neck.
Ackerley leaned forwards as Rutherford drew his hand carefully out of his coat. Twisted around his fingers was a dragon half Birch’s size. Its scales were dark and very rough under the firelight, and the thick leaves of its wings trembled as they pressed against its body.
‘This is Olive,’ Rutherford said quietly, and Ackerley noticed the heavy-looking olive that hung from the end of its tail. ‘He can’t fly yet, but we’ll get there, won’t we?’
Olive looked up at him and nodded its tiny head, no bigger than the tip of Ackerley’s little finger.
‘He’s beautiful,’ Ackerley breathed.
‘He has a way to go yet,’ Rutherford said with a smile, then sent Olive back inside his coat. ‘But what’s a few hundred years when I have eternity? Oak won’t say how old she is, as I said before, but she speaks of events that happened thousands of years ago as though she was there, and I don’t doubt her for a moment.’
‘Can I meet her?’ Ackerley asked.
Rutherford looked up, and the firelight caught the twinkle in his eye. ‘She’s been here the whole time, young Ackerley.’
Ackerley looked amongst the dragons, but he could see none with wings like oak leaves.
‘No, think bigger,’ Rutherford told him.
Ackerley looked up beyond the campfire. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw that what he thought was a forest of oak trees wasn’t a forest at all, rather it was a mass of leaves that formed Oak’s wings. Oak’s impossibly long, serpentine body snaked away into the valley below. Ackerley’s eyes followed the rough, bark-like scales around behind him to find the dragon’s head.
Oak’s face alone was half the size of Ackerley’s house. Gnarled horns tapered back from her temples, big enough to be small trees in their own right, but her rough, reptilian features were pulled into a gentle smile, and Ackerley wasn’t scared at all.
There was a whisper of wind through the leaves of her wings, and it sounded pleasant, unlike the angry gust the smaller dragons had raised.
‘Yes, I rather thought so,’ Rutherford mused.
Ackerley turned back to him. ‘What did she say?’
Rutherford smiled. ‘You have potential.’
‘Potential for what?’
‘Ah, now that is something you’ll have to wait for,’ the dragon man told him. ‘You’ll have to earn her trust for her to allow you into her thoughts. It took me twenty years to earn that trust.’
Ackerley turned back to the huge dragon. He cleared his throat carefully, feeling it tighten at the mere thought of the question he knew he had to ask. ‘Can I ask you a question, please, Oak?’ he tried, his voice strangled.
Oak lifted her head high enough to nod, and Ackerley had to tip his head right back to see her face.
‘Think carefully before you ask it,’ Rutherford warned him.
Ackerley took another deep breath, but he felt no calmer for it. ‘Please, Oak, can I ask what has been happening in Renenyad the last few nights? Do you know? Or, or could you help stop people disappearing, perhaps?’
A chilling breeze blew up the valley and made the hairs on Ackerley’s neck stand on end as it rustled ominously through the leaves of Oak’s wings. A cloud of fog blew from the great dragon’s nostrils and into the night sky, thick enough to block out the stars behind it.
‘That was not a smart question to open with,’ Rutherford warned again.
‘What did she say?’ Ackerley asked, more aware than ever of how tiny his voice sounded.
Rutherford opened his hands. ‘Just what you heard,’ he answered. ‘But I can tell you dragons hunt at night and hold long grudges.’
A cold shiver ran up Ackerley’s spine. ‘But they didn’t do anything!’ he argued. ‘One of them was only a little boy!’
Rutherford held a finger to his lips to hush him. ‘Careful, young Ackerley. You have ham in your satchel. Did that pig do anything to you?’
The dragon man stood and strode over to Ackerley to rest a hand on his shoulder. It was a comforting gesture, but only slightly relaxed the nervous tension in his neck. ‘Earn her trust, or you’re nothing more than meat.’
Ackerley turned back to Oak’s towering silhouette. ‘I’m sorry, Oak,’ he called through the wind, the faces of Renenyad’s townspeople in his mind. ‘I didn’t mean to criticise your diet.’
Oak’s head dipped in a slow nod as an acceptance of his apology, but the wind still whispered around his ankles.
Ackerley took a deep breath, taking Rutherford’s hand on his shoulder as a boost of confidence. ‘Lord Allandridge held a town meeting today to discuss the people disappearing overnight,’ he said, his voice quivering. ‘Everyone’s scared. I think they may send people up here for you tomorrow.’
The wind swirled.
‘She senses ulterior motives,’ Rutherford murmured.
Ackerley shook his head. ‘No! I don’t want Oak or you or the other dragons or anyone to be hurt, that’s all.’
‘Are you trying to protect us or Renenyad?’ the dragon man asked.
Another cold gust of wind washed over him, this one generated by Oak’s immense wingspan. They blacked out the stars overhead as she flapped them once, twice, and with the third she was airborne. Her tail whipped out behind her as she soared over the mountaintops before disappearing beyond them. Ackerley guessed that Renenyad was that way, and a sick feeling began to stir in his stomach.
‘What can we do?’ he asked Rutherford desperately.
The dragon man shook his head and walked back to the campfire. The other dragons all had their heads up. They had been listening.
‘Very, very little,’ Rutherford answered.
‘But she trusts you,’ Ackerley tried. ‘Can’t you talk to her? I’m sure people wouldn’t mind if she took a sheep or a cow if it meant she would leave their families alone.’
Rutherford sighed heavily as he sat back down. ‘Maybe,’ he said, his voice suddenly showing the weight of his years. ‘She trusts me, but I can’t speak for Renenyad.’ He looked down at his hands as he wrung his fingers together. ‘I wouldn’t want to speak for Renenyad.’
Ackerley bit his lip and looked away. Why should Rutherford want to defend Renenyad? They thought him evil and dangerous.
He sat down beside the fire, its flames dying to coals, and drew his knees up to his chin. Rutherford and the dragons wouldn’t speak with Renenyad, and Renenyad wouldn’t dare cross words with Rutherford.
Ackerley felt tiny. He couldn’t reason with either party. Neither would compromise, and to suggest that one move to leave the other in peace would only end in pain.
‘Get some sleep, young Ackerley,’ Rutherford told him quietly. ‘You’ll think more clearly come the morning.’
Ackerley yawned and curled up in the dirt, using his satchel as a pillow. His mind continued to race as he tried to come up with a solution, but eventually he managed to drift off to sleep.
When he awoke the next morning, the little maple-like dragon had herself half-entrenched in his satchel as she nosed around.
‘Hey, hey,’ Ackerley scolded lightly.
Maple froze. Her whirlybird tail stuck out straight from the bag.
‘If you want more ham, you only need to ask.’
The little dragon drew herself backwards out of the satchel and rustled her wings eagerly. She looked up with hungry, expectant eyes, then followed Ackerley’s hands closely as he delved inside the bag for the rest of the ham.
‘How did you sleep?’ Rutherford asked him, his voice floating over from the rocks.
‘Well enough,’ Ackerley supposed. He watched Maple as she hoed into the small piece of ham he had cut off for her.
Rutherford came and crouched down beside him. ‘I may be slightly altered, I may live with dragons, but I’m still human,’ he said. ‘If I knew how to help, young Ackerley, I would.’
Ackerley sighed. ‘Thank you, Rutherford.’ He tickled Maple under her chin, then fed her another small slice of ham. ‘Do you know why Oak hates Renenyad so much? It can’t only be for one man’s actions, surely.’
Rutherford shook his head. ‘It’s all humans, I’m afraid, Ackerley. Renenyad’s merely the closest. You see, dragons hibernate over Winter. In a week or two, Oak will go to sleep and not wake until Spring.’
‘Is that why she’s been… eating more recently?’ Ackerley asked.
The dragon man nodded. ‘That’s right. Only people didn’t know this until two hundred years ago. Since then, dozens of dragon hunters have been coming to these mountains every Winter, because whatever the dangers the season dishes out, they’re only half as bad as what Oak and her kind would do to them.’
‘And that’s why she gave her egg to you to look after,’ Ackerley realised.
Rutherford nodded again. ‘But there’s only so much I can do. I may be ageless, but I’m not invincible.’
The young cobbler frowned and rested his chin in one hand as he thought. ‘What if I could convince Lord Allandridge to make Renenyad the mountains’ guardians? In Winter they could look out for dragon hunters and stop them.’
Rutherford half-lifted his eyebrows, and a crooked smile formed beneath his bard. ‘A noble sentiment, young Ackerley. But could you do it?’
‘It must be worth a try,’ Ackerley answered with a shrug. ‘I don’t want any of the dragons to be stolen, and I don’t want any more of my townspeople to be…’ He cleared his throat. ‘Could I speak with Oak again, do you think?’
The dragon man scratched at his beard as he thought for a moment. ‘She would usually return late in the morning, but if your townspeople have embarked upon the mountains in search of me, then I should expect her back a little later. Maybe just after lunch.’
Ackerley swallowed at Rutherford’s implications. He hoped desperately that his master wouldn’t be a part of the search party. He didn’t expect the old man to be, but he did have some moments of fierce protectiveness over his young apprentice.
It was an anxious and sickening wait for Ackerley before Oak returned, as predicted, shortly after lunch time. The dragon’s slender, flowing body snaked around the mountains before she drifted down almost silently to the rocky patch where Rutherford made his home. Her head lifted above the ground as she folded her oak leaf wings behind her, and she looked at Ackerley with an expectant air, as though she knew he wished to speak with her.
Ackerley bowed deeply to her before he began. ‘I know about the dragon hunters, Oak,’ he said, trying to darken his voice so she understood just what he thought of them.
As he’d expected, a cold chill blew up from the valley.
‘I think it’s a dreadful practice, and I’m certain Renenyad—my town below these mountains—would think the same if they knew it was happening right at their doorstep.’
The wind swirled. Oak brought her face closer to look at Ackerley with accusing eyes.
‘That’s enough rhetoric, now,’ Rutherford whispered behind him.
Ackerley cleared his throat nervously. ‘I want to make Renenyad the guardians of these mountains,’ he said. ‘In Winter, they can stop any dragon hunters going up there.’
Oak cocked her head to one side in thought, and the wind subsided a little.
‘She wants to know if you’ve discussed this with the town yet,’ Rutherford said.
Ackerley shook his head. ‘No, I haven’t. I thought it best to speak with you first.’
Oak’s reptilian features pulled into a smile, and the breeze warmed a little as it teased Ackerley’s ankles.
Rutherford gave a quiet laugh. ‘I rather hoped so,’ he said to the dragon.
‘What did she say?’
Rutherford waved a dismissive hand. ‘Never you mind. The question now is if you’d prefer a guide or a flight back to Renenyad.’
Ackerley’s eyes widened. ‘A flight?’ he asked, hearing his voice rise up a few octaves. ‘I’m scared of heights!’
Rutherford laughed and got to his feet. ‘So am I,’ he said. ‘Let’s walk down, then.’
It was far more pleasant walking down than it had been hiking up. Maple continued to fly overhead, spiralling through the air and making little corkscrews as she danced on the wind. Birch spent much of the time in Rutherford’s collar, but occasionally he came out to play games with the smaller dragon, taking turns to chase each other through the air until one caught a nip on the other’s tail.
Ackerley never saw any sign of the tiny Olive, except when Rutherford brought him out in the evening to feed him a few insects from the tip of his finger. Even Maple seemed to watch this exchange with fascination, though she may have been more interested in the insects Olive was being fed.
Ackerley learned a lot about the mountains from Rutherford, and even more about the dragons that lived in them. It was the dragons that made all the weather happen around them, but it was only once they were old enough that they learned how to control it. In Winter, there were fewer dragons around and so the weather turned wild.
In Winter, it was only the deciduous dragons that hibernated. Like the trees they resembled, they lost the leaves that made their wings, and with them, their ability to fly and to hunt. The evergreens, like Olive, would stay awake all through Winter but eat very little.
It was around lunch time the next day that they reached the town. The breeze began to pick up as they drew nearer.
‘Yes, I know,’ Rutherford said in response to Birch’s windy protests. ‘You don’t have to come to town if you’re scared. You can wait for us here.’
Another wind gust blew Ackerley’s cloak up from behind. He couldn’t help grinning.
Birch darted briefly out of Rutherford’s collar to fly over and nip him on the ear.
‘Hey, now that’s quite enough,’ Rutherford scorned.
The little dragon blew a cloud of fog at Ackerley before diving back under Rutherford’s cloak.
Maple dropped down from the sky to perch on Ackerley’s shoulder. Her tail coiled around the back of his neck and her cold little tongue licked at his ear where Birch had nipped at it, then she must have grown bored and jumped back into the wind again.
The streets of Renenyad were almost completely deserted. The few people that Ackerley saw on the way to the castle ran with their arms covering their heads as though they had been caught in a hailstorm.
Rutherford held a hand out to one of them as an example. ‘You see how your words get twisted?’ he said, his cool Autumn-voice sparked with irritation. ‘I only said not to go out at night.’
‘I know,’ Ackerley agreed. ‘I told Lord Allandridge that, too.’
Rutherford nodded and dug his hands in his pockets as Birch’s nervous wind grew stronger.
The same doorwoman waited out the front of the castle as they approached. Her eyes were fixed nervously on the sky.
‘Good morning!’ Ackerley called. ‘Don’t worry. The dragon won’t come in the day time.’
She pulled her eyes from the racing clouds to look at Ackerley and his companion, and her eyes widened in amazement. ‘Ackerley! You came back!’ she cried with a laughing smile. ‘So then…?’ she left the question hanging as she looked between him and Rutherford.
Ackerley dropped his eyes and shook his head. ‘No, they’re gone,’ he said quietly. ‘But I think I can stop anyone else from disappearing.’
‘You need to speak with Lord Allandridge?’
Ackerley nodded. ‘Yes, please.’
‘Follow me,’ the doorwoman said, then turned around to lead them into the castle. Maple dropped down from the sky and curled up on Ackerley’s head.
They were led through the maze of corridors and stair cases to a different room than where Ackerley had met Lord Allandridge a few days ago. Outside the door, she turned to Rutherford.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t ask your name.’
‘Rutherford,’ the dragon man answered with a slight dip of his head. As she turned to the door, he looked up at the tiny creature still on Ackerley’s head. ‘Don’t touch anything. These people are nervous about dragons.’ He smiled. ‘Good girl.’
The doorwoman turned the handle and stepped into the room. ‘Ackerley, the apprentice cobbler, and a man called Rutherford are here to see you, my Lord. They say they can stop people from disappearing.’
‘Send them in, yes!’ the old Lord’s voice sounded from the room.
Ackerley took a breath and walked through the door with Rutherford behind him.
Lord Allandridge was smiling warmly from his chair, until he caught sight of the dragon man. A flash of fear darted across his face, then anger. Lady Elsalita yelped and hid her face in her hands.
‘What have you done?’ he demanded, his voice low enough to almost be a growl. ‘Ackerley, what is he doing here? You know how dangerous he is.’
Ackerley shook his head, slowly so as not to disturb the little dragon. ‘Begging your pardon, my Lord, but he isn’t. Everything that happened fifty years ago was a misunderstanding.’
Lord Allandridge didn’t take his eyes from Rutherford’s face. ‘What about my brother’s disappearance, hmm? Was that a misunderstanding? Is he actually living happily in the mountains now?’
Rutherford shook his head. ‘He was a dragon hunter, Lord Allandridge. He stole and later smashed the egg belonging to Oak, one of the ancient dragons living in these mountains.’
‘So you killed him,’ the old Lord hissed.
‘No, Oak did,’ Rutherford told him, his Autumn-voice as calm as ever.
Lord Allandridge snorted. ‘How do you expect me to believe that after all you did in this town?’
‘Forgive me for interrupting, Lord Allandridge,’ Ackerley said quietly. ‘I think that if Renenyad were to cooperate with Oak, she would stop… people would stop disappearing at night.’
‘Cooperate with a dragon?’ the old man scoffed. ‘Let alone one with a grudge on our town. What are you playing at, boy?’
‘She doesn’t trust humans at all, my Lord,’ Ackerley explained. ‘Every year there are more and more dragon hunters in her mountains. I’ve spoken with her, and she agrees to leave Renenyad alone if you promise to keep the dragon hunters out of the mountains.’
Lord Allandridge’s frown deepened as he thought. ‘How can I trust either of you to keep your word?’ he wanted to know.
‘It isn’t our word you’ll be trusting,’ Rutherford reminded him, ‘but Oak’s. And if you’ll forgive my bluntness, Lord, you should be more concerned about her trusting you. She’s not had an easy life with humans in it.’
‘And I’ve not slept well with dragons in mine,’ Lord Allandridge muttered. ‘Where is she, then? I hope I’m right assuming that little one isn’t her.’ He pointed to the very still Maple on Ackerley’s hair.
Ackerley smiled. ‘No, my Lord, this is Maple.’
‘Oak will be joining us any minute now,’ Rutherford added. ‘Do you have a balcony, perhaps, where you might meet her?’
It wasn’t long before the three of them were gathered outside in what was now quite a strong wind. Lady Elsalita, who hadn’t even moved throughout their meeting, had stayed inside.
‘How’s Birch?’ Ackerley asked quietly.
Rutherford pulled his cloak around him as he looked towards the mountains. ‘You can feel the wind for yourself,’ he answered. ‘He’ll calm down when Oak shows herself.’
Rutherford told Lord Allandridge the same as what he had told Ackerley when he first met her, and it wasn’t long before the great dragon’s silhouette appeared over the mountains.
Ackerley gasped at the sight of her, and a few moments later he heard Lord Allandridge do the same.
She was even more magnificent with her wings spread out wide as she swept down from the mountains. Like a graceful winged snake, she twirled through the sky and down towards Renenyad. As she neared the castle, she drew her wings in and pushed the wind back to slow herself down. Most of her body she coiled around the castle, then reared her head up to be level with the balcony. Her wings folded behind her like a great oak forest.
Ackerley bowed again to her. ‘Good afternoon, Oak,’ he said.
Oak dipped her massive head in acknowledgement. Birch’s frightened flurries of wind were replaced by a cool but much calmer breeze.
Lord Allandridge didn’t seem to notice. He seemed about ready to run back inside as fast as his crotchety old legs would allow him to.
‘Have courage, Lord Allandridge,’ Rutherford told him calmly. ‘She’s here to talk and to listen, and she would appreciate it if you were here to do the same.’ He turned to Oak. ‘This is Lord Allandridge. He will speak for Renenyad.’
‘Right. Yes.’ The old Lord cleared his throat and stood tall. ‘Are you aware of the arrangement?’ he asked the towering dragon.
Oak nodded again.
Rutherford stepped forward. ‘We’ve told him that in return for keeping dragon hunters away from the mountains, you’ll not disturb the residents of Renenyad.’
The cool wind pulled around Ackerley’s ankles as she tipped her head to one side.
‘No, nothing,’ Rutherford answered. ‘Nothing yet, anyway.’ He slanted a glance at the old Lord. ‘She doesn’t trust you. She thinks you’ll get too comfortable with the arrangement. You’ll either grow lazy in your duties or demand something more to keep them up.’
‘I’ll have it in written in stone,’ Lord Allandridge said. ‘We’ll erect a statue of you in Renenyad to remind everyone of our agreement, and it will live for as long as you do.’
The wind swirled.
Rutherford laughed quietly. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘Is this acceptable to you?’ Lord Allandridge asked the great dragon.
‘She warns—and I would like to stress, young Master Allandridge, that this is Oak warning you, not me—she warns that if your town ever turns its back on your stone statue, she will crush it and the rest of Renenyad to dust.’
‘Yes, of course.’ He laid his hand on his heart. ‘You have my word, Oak.’
Oak dipped her head low in acknowledgement, then spread her wings and vaulted into the sky.
Rutherford turned to Lord Allandridge and gave a short bow of his own. ‘You have a long Winter ahead of you,’ he said, though there was relief in his words. Clearly a great responsibility had been lifted from his shoulders, too. ‘Start planning for it now. Dragon hunters crawl all over these mountains in Winter.’
The old Lord nodded, though he still seemed a little bewildered. ‘Of course,’ he said offhandedly.
Ackerley relaxed as he walked back through the castle.
‘Thank you, Rutherford,’ he said warmly.
‘Me?’ the dragon man asked. ‘I didn’t do anything. That was all your doing, Ackerley. There would have been no civil conversations had I been in charge.’
Ackerley grinned, and they stepped outside into Autumn’s last rays of sunlight. Maple jumped off Ackerley’s head and into the sky. One of the leaves on her wings dropped off and fluttered to the ground, making her stumble slightly in the air. She looked back over her shoulder at the two of them with almost a glare on her tiny face.
Rutherford laughed. ‘Of course you did,’ he said.
Maple repeated the manoeuvre to show that yes, she did mean it the first time.
‘Can I stay with you, Rutherford?’ Ackerley asked. He looked up at the dragon man to see a crooked grin on his face.
‘I rather hoped you might,’ he said.