by Kenneth Darter
©2010 Kenneth Darter
Gorash scuttled down a rabbit hole, muttering to himself: Dirty, filthy skin bag! Fighting like that isnt fair. How would he like it, I wonder? Not one bit, I think.
He stopped to sniff at a fork in the tunnel. Sniffing carrots and grass down the right branch, he slithered through the tight space, squeezing his wings tight against his back. His long dark green nose sniffed the ground ahead, leading him further down to the rabbits hole.
As he closed in on his prey, Gorash crept forward as quietly as he could. Only the twitching of the spike at the end of his tail gave away how hungry and anxious he was. He emerged from the tunnel into a rabbits hole with several bins full of carrots and roots and other things that rabbits like. The bins surprised Gorash, as he had never heard of any rabbits smart enough to build such things. However, there was no other scent, and he was far from home. Maybe the rabbits around here were different? In any case, Gorash was not at all interested in any of that sort of food; he was hunting for the rabbit that should have been there but was not. He growled in frustration at the empty hole. He scattered and broke the neat little bins and smashed the little wicker bed.
After tearing up the little den, he huffed and little bits of steam filled the small hole. He dug himself into the ground and gathered his tail around him, stroking the deep wounds on it. His stomach grumbled and he looked at the carrots with disgust. For the past few days, he had not been able to find even a rat or a mouse to munch on. Frowning, he reached out and stabbed two carrots. He held them up to his nose and sniffed; his stomach growled even louder. With a grimace, he popped the carrots into his mouth. As he munched, he wondered if maybe the rabbit would come back. The carrots were definitely not food, but at least they filled his stomach. He popped a few more carrots in his mouth and drifted off to sleep, his nose twitching as he dreamed about rabbits and squirrels.
Now, you must understand that very few Dragons go to sleep thinking about rabbits and squirrels. Most of them dream of cows, or deer, or other meals with rather more meat to them. But Gorash was the smallest Dragon in the entire Land. Compared to the great Crown Drake who lived on the tallest peak of the Westrunne Mountains, Gorash was just an insect.
How Gorash came to be the smallest Dragon, and what happened to his egg and his mother before he was even born, are not part of this tale. But the smallest Dragon Gorash was, and his size put him at a very significant disadvantage in life. You see, Dragons do not like to share their space; even baby Dragons are kicked out of their mothers lair as soon as they can fly. Most Dragons find their solitary lairs and spend their spare time arranging all of their trees and caves just so.
There is a well-defined pecking order among Dragons. Young Dragons fight to get better lairs, preferably close to Westrunne Mountains. The biggest Dragons strive to get as close as they can to the fires of the volcano, Mt. Vester. Only the Crown Drake and a few others know why, and they do not speak of itand if I were you, I would not ask!
Gorashs mother had a lair very close to the Mountains. For most Dragons, this would have offered a bit of an advantage as a hatchling, but tiny Gorash was not Ômost Dragons. So it was that he now found himself in a small rabbit hole near the eastern Badlands, very far away from Westrunne. He had recently tried to wrest from another Dragon a nice lair nestled in the large trunk of an old tree with two fields nearby for hunting. Gorash knew he would never be able to fight a Dragon head to headmany years of trying had taught him that the hard waybut he had believed he could sneak up on the bigger Dragon this time. After all, it was just a dirty Forest Dragon, not a Mountain Dragon. Unfortunately, the bigger Dragon heard and smelled Gorash as he crept through the tall grass trying to get close enough to hurt him. The bigger Dragon snatched Gorash up and laughed at him. After giving Gorash a sound thrashing, the Dragon threw him out on his tail. As Gorash crept away, the Dragon landed a stinging scratch on his tail and said, Heres something to remember me by, you little worm!
Gorash had cried out in pain, his one spike twitching angrily, but there was nothing he could do to the bigger Dragon perched on his tree as Gorash disappeared into the brush.
In the rabbit hole, Gorash opened one eye halfway
but there was no sign of the rabbit. Gorash stretched his wings and dug out a little more space around himself to get comfortable. He munched on another carrot, wondering where he could go from here. He started to worm his way out of the rabbits hole when he felt a trickle of dirt on his back. He sniffedand, yes, he smelled a rabbit coming. He moved himself around in the hole and backed away from where the dirt was falling down, his claws coming out as he readied himself to finally catch a decent meal.
Gorash could not remember the last time he had eaten well. He had been living on nothing but little rats and mice for so long, his mouth watered at the thought of a rabbit. His spike quivered almost uncontrollably behind him. He made himself be still as the hole grew bigger. At the first sign of the rabbit coming through the hole, Gorash growled and reached out with his claws only to find himself holding another Dragons face. It was, in fact, a very angry Dragon, whose fire lit up Gorashs nose! He cried out and fell back; the other Dragon disappeared.
The burns on Gorashs nose stung and caused tears in his big green eyes. With a roar, he pushed himself up through the hole. As he burst into the air, he realized two important things: First, the other Dragon had planned on him following it through the hole. Something had a tight grip on Gorashs right leg, and he screamed as he fell to the ground in a tumble of wings and claws. He straightened out and turned to find a rope trap tying him to a large tree. Second, the other Dragon was a female; a small, dirty, grubby, russet-colored female. In fact, she was hardly any bigger than Gorash, and she was laughing at him, a low, throaty laugh.
Gorash roared, Untie me, you lizard!
He twisted and pulled and tried to turn and tear the rope, but the trap just pulled tighter and dragged him closer to the tree. He tried to get at the trap with his mouth and claws but the rope refused to cutwhat was the thing made of!?and every move he made only bound him tighter. Soon he could barely move at all. The lower half of his body was completely entangled in the trap.
The female Dragon laughed even more. You didnt think I would be ready for the little rat who invaded my lair? You must be the dullest Dragon as well as the littlest!
She batted at his nose with her paw, and examined his tail. It looks like this is not the first time youve been caught in a trap, little rat.
Gorash pulled himself up as much as the ropes would allow and pronounced, Im no rat, I am a Dragon of Westrunne. And I dont know anything about your lair; I was waiting to catch a rabbit.
The female blinked her large black eyes and grinned. Oh, excuse me, mighty Dragon of Westrunne! Your disguise fooled me completely. If you are indeed a Dragon of Westrunne, then you should already know things are not always what they seem at first sniff.
She flapped up to a low branch in a nearby tree. Of course at first sniff, I thought you were the runt, Gorash, who was chased out of Westrunne with his tail between his legs. And with those words stinging in Gorashs ears, the other Dragon flew off with a snort.
Gorash did not have a retort to that last comment. He did think of several over the next few hours as he lay in the grass, absently pulling against the ropes that held him tight. He even said some of them out loud, punctuating them with bursts of flames. Most of them amounted to saying that she was crazy and he would be happy if he never saw her again. The sun came out and shone down on his scaly skin and Gorash did what most Dragons do in the sun: He fell asleep. But even as his eyes closed, he wondered why he had not smelled the other Dragon before she burst into the rabbit hole
The aroma of cooking food woke Gorash up. The female Dragon was back; she had built a small campfire, and was cooking something in a large kettle. It smelled of carrots, oats, barley, and there was even a hint of rabbit. Gorash growled deep in his throat. He didnt care anything about the carrots and other things in the stew; those would do little to satisfy his hunger. The cooking rabbit smell, however, was too much; he had not eaten meat in many days.
The female Dragon looked up at him, Oh good, youre awake. I didnt want you to miss dinner. Then she narrowed her eyes. Of course, its my dinner, not yours.
Gorash longed to yank the kettle away from her. He pulled again at the ropes, but it was no use. As she stirred the thick stew with a glistening claw, he glared at her with his ears laid back and his eyes glowing slightly. The only response he got was a laugh.
You are a pitiful little Dragon! the female said as she munched on a large carrot.
The rest of the stew was now boiling in the pot. Gorash was so hungry, he could not think straight. The only thing he could see or smell was the cooking rabbit. His wings wilted and his stomach growled. The little spike on his tail trembled behind him.
The female pushed the bowl toward him but not close enough so he could reach it. You know, I believe you did come from the Westrunne Mountains; Ive heard other s talk about the Ôlittlest Dragon from the mountains.
Gorashs ears stood up and he growled at her. I told you I came from the Mountains. What business is that of yours?
Gorash was suspicious of the female, but the rabbit smelled so good he was having trouble thinking straight. She obviously wanted something from him, he just didnt know what. He did not trust any other Dragons, especially females, but it had been so long since he had eaten meat Perhaps she might give him some of he helped her? He reached out slowly and was almost to the point where he could reach the bowl with his claws.
Now the female reached in the pot and pulled out two large carrots. They were dripping with stew and the scent crept into Gorashs nose. Well if you were a smart Dragon, and you truly came from Westrunne, you might be able to help me with a small problem I have.
And then I might be convinced to let you share a few bites of my stew.
She held the carrots out toward Gorash and he lay down on his belly. He wanted to eat the rabbit, but was so hungry that even the carrots looked good to him now!
Gorash shook his head. What do you know about the Mountains? Youre just a Forest Dragon.
The female jerked the carrots away. A drop of stew flew away from Gorash and landed on the ground with a plop. Ants and bugs started forming lines toward the drop of stew. Gorash groaned out loud; he did not want to tell her anything, but he was so hungry
Youre right: Im just a Forest Dragon who grubs about in the earth. I dont know anything about the great Mountains. But tell me something, what interest does a great Mountain Dragon like Gorash have in my little rabbit hole?
She tossed both carrots in her mouth, wiping her paws on the grass. He eyed the drop of stew on the ground suspiciously but could not help himself. He wiped it up and started to lick it off his paws.
The female looked back in the cooking pot. Theres not much left. She pulled another carrot out. You werent hungry, were you, little Gorash? Im still famished.
Gorash growled but the stew had tasted so good, he could not help himself. All right what do you want to know about the Mountains?
The female chuckled as she stirred the stew. I want you to tell me about the Path under the Stars.
Gorash looked at the female with slitted eyes and wondered what she was really up to. He wasnt at all sure about this, but he knew he did not want to tell her anything, so he lied: The Path Under the Stars? Thats just a rumor, its not real.
He looked away from her and the female shrugged and pulled out a haunch of rabbit meat. She bit into it and Gorash could hear the crunch of bone and see the juices from the cooked meat running down her arm. He groaned with a bugling sound and put his head down on the ground, covering his ears. He could still hear her eating the meat, punctuating her dinner with grunts of contentment. Gorashs little spike trembled and his wings started to shake.
Finally Gorash turned around and put out his paw. Alright! Ill tell you what I knowbut give me some food first!
The female smiled and pushed the kettle to where he could reach it. Gorash grabbed a handful of carrots and gobbled them down, making rude noises as he licked the stew off his paws. He stopped paying any attention to the female until she reached out and untied him. She said, Help yourself. When youre quite finished eating like a troll, youll tell me everything I want to know.
Gorash just grunted at her.
Gorash was surprised that the female, whose name was Behain, had even heard of the Path under the Stars, much less believed in it. Only the very oldest Dragons, like Gorashs mother, remembered where they came from. Most Dragons had been born on Earth and were content to stay there, where they were the Kings of the Mountains and the Lords of the Forests.
Gorash told Behain what his mother had taught him before he could fly and she had raged at him to leave her lair. Dragons did not belong to the Earth; instead, they belonged to the sky and the stars. Long, long ago, the Dragons came down from the Heavens, and were pleased at what they found. So the Dragons of old decided the stars were through with them, and they were through with the stars. Most present-day Dragons knew that much, even if they didnt like to think about it. Only a few Dragons knew that they could return to the stars, if they chose, for the way backthe old Path, paved with the hottest flames Dragonkind could musterwas still there for any who wished to travel it.
Behain asked him about the Path, but she was more interested in what Gorash remembered about the time the Crown Drake had used the Path under the Stars. It was right before Gorash learned to fly; his mother carried him on her back, and they flew through the mountains. The Crown Drake appeared on the tallest peak and gave a mighty roar that was echoed by many Dragons in the mountains. Then he took off flying up to the sky. For a moment, Gorash saw him clearly pull in air with a great gasp and then with a bellow he let out the hottest fire Gorash had ever seen. The flame washed back over the Crown Drake, and he disappeared from the sky. He reappeared a few minutes later, in another ball of flame. Then he flew to his lair in the volcano, and, as far as Gorash knew, he had not come out again since.
The Path was dangerous, Gorash told Behain. Gorashs mother had told him that Dragons had left the stars long ago, and did not belong there anymore. The Path let Dragons fly near the stars again, but anyDragon caught up by the stars would be lost in the sky. Gorash often wondered if Dragons belonged on Earth either, or if they truly belonged anywhere.
Behain replied that she had long since decided to make her home in the little rabbit hole that Gorash had found. She discovered that by living like a rabbit and eating rabbit food, she began to smell like a rabbit. This made it easier to catch
Over the past year, Behain began to yearn for a lair where she could stretch her wings and fly without worrying about other Dragons. But in order to do that, she would have to drive off a larger Dragon and stake a claim on her own lair. As they talked, Gorashs initial reaction was that hed been right about Behain the first time: She was crazy, and he would be better off far away from her.
However, as the conversation continued, and the Dragons finished the last of the stew, Gorash thought less and less about how to leave quickly. Instead, he began to wonder if the females ideas might be a little bit promising. Perhaps two Dragons could work together, if they had the same goals? It was unusual, but not impossible. He decided to wait and hear the rest of her idea before leaving.
As the sun rose, Behain told him what she wanted to do. Gorash grunted at her, little flames coming out of his nose with a snort. He knew he was trapped now, just as if she still had him tied up.
Valsoot stretched his dark wings into the air and lifted up from his perch atop a large oak tree. The oak tree was the center of his lair, which included a copse of trees and two large fields where deer and rabbit liked to graze. As he arched his back and flew up into the sky, his stomach grumbled; he thought today would be a good day to snatch one of the deer from his eastern field.
He roared and bellowed as he thought of the runt that had tried to battle him a few days earlier. The little green rat was the smallest Dragon he had ever seen; he thought maybe it had come from the Badlands, where all sorts of vermin lived. It might not even have been a full Dragon. Valsoot found it hard to believe that any Dragon could be so smallbut with his horned snout and his black spotted tail with three large spikes, he also found it hard to believe that any creature who wasnt a Dragon could possibly have the courage to challenge him.
Valsoot spotted a plump deer grazing in the field and started to descend. And when his attention was fully concentrated on the deer on the ground, he felt a prick in the back of his left shoulder. But he didnt care about a light prick, for Valsoot was more interested in the deer than in whatever had hit him in the back. He could deal with whatever bird was bothering him after breakfast; it would make a nice dessert. Breakfast was approaching as Valsoot pulled out of his dive. Leveling off less than a body-length above the ground, the big Dragon poised his forelegs to grab the deer.
The deer started when it heard the Dragon and realized its predicament. It sprang away toward the forest to hide. Valsoot was no novice at this game; expecting the deer to run, he was already coming down right on top of it, his claws glistening in the morning sun. But right before he could snatch the deer, he felt a stab and throbbing pain in the joint between his back and his wing. He banked to one side involuntarily and the deer bolted away through the thicket.
Valsoot fell to the ground with a thudand then the real pain started. Gorash had flown behind Valsoot from downwind, just as Behain had taught him, and the prick had been his landing on the big Dragons back. Then he waited until just the right moment to bite into Valsoots shoulder, tearing at the tendons. As Valsoot crashed to the ground, Gorash screamed in triumph and blasted Valsoots wounded shoulder with the hottest fire his little stomach could make! Now Valsoot was screaming and rolling around on the ground, trying to grab the little Dragon; he knocked over a tree, and several deer scattered from their hiding places. Gorash scampered all around him, and every time Valsoot moved, Gorash flew off in a different direction, flaming, scratching, and biting the bigger Dragon.
Before long, Valsoot finally got a grip on himself. He put his feet on the ground and held himself still, his wings quivering against his side; he wasnt hurt too badly,though it would be a long time before his torn shoulder let him fly comfortably. He watched Gorash dance around him and his eyes narrowed. By the Crown Drake, how had that runt managed to get within claw range without Valsoots being aware of it!? Well, it wouldnt matter after he killed and ate the little lizard. Valsoot reached out with two big paws to catch the little Dragon, and took a deep breath to start his flame. Gorash dodged between the claws and flew away as fast as he could, laughing. Valsoot started to pursue the little Dragon, but his shoulder throbbed and his stomach still grumbled. He sent a jet of flame after Gorash but it did not even come close. Valsoot flew back to his tree to lick his wounds.
Later that night, Valsoot moved through the foresthis forestsearching for a little snack, something fat with fur. He could hear small animals moving through the bushes, and he smelled rabbit. Something bigger would be nice, but it would have to wait; a rabbit would be enough for tonight. He made a low moaning sound and chased after the rabbit scent. It led him around and around in circles, but stayed too far ahead to catch! By the time he finally started to close in on his quarry, it headed for the large tree Valsoot slept in. The rabbit seemed to stop in a large bush and Valsoot roared as he closed in
but the rabbit wasnt there anymore! Worse, there was nothing in the bush at all! Valsoot looked all around, sniffing and pawing at the shrubbery around him; he could smell them but they were gone. He sat down and wondered: How was it even possible for a rabbit to disappear without a trace? He glanced up at his tree and was startled by two pairs of glowing eyes staring back at him from the branches.
Then a fire lit up his face.
Valsoot roared as smoke and flames filled his eyes and nose. He sent his own flame back, but the two Dragons were long gone, laughing into the night. All Valsoot succeeded at was starting a fire in his favorite tree! As he tried to smother the blaze with his wings and body, he roared at the night: Stay and fight like Dragons, you cowards! But silence was his only answer.
Once he managed to put the fire out, there was not much left of his beloved tree; just a blackened little stump and charred branches spread all around the ground. Valsoot picked one of the larger branches up and shook it at the sky. Grumbling to himself, he stalked away to find a place to sleep, still holding the branch and wondering why he hadnt smelled the little Dragons at all.
Gorash and Behain continued their campaign for the next several days. Valsoot was unable to eat or rest in peace. He never smelled them before they snuck up on him, he only smelled rabbits. He became a sniveling, growling, fire-eating bundle of nerves. He twitched at every rustle in the grass and carried the large scarred branch of his tree. He would gnaw on the burnt side of it while muttering to himself.
Valsoot started thinking that every time he smelled a rabbit; the two little Dragons were trying to attack him. Thus he ended up with several fried rabbitsbut before he could eat any of them, Gorash and Behain swooped down, stealing the burnt meat.
On the fifth morning after the fire, Valsoot perched himself on the burnt stump of his great tree. He railed and called out and roared challenges to Gorash. Gorash flew over him and cawed at Valsoot. Now, you should know that among Dragonkind, a caw is a terrible insult, not at all something one does in polite company. And then, just to add insult on top of insult, Gorash also did something else to Valsoot from the air that you would probably never do in any company, polite or not! Valsoot took to the skies to chase Gorash. His wings still hurt from the burns hed received over the past few days, and he could barely see through his rage, but he flew anyway.
Come and fight me, you runt! Valsoot bellowed, with a stream of flame that missed Gorash as the littlest Dragon dipped and dove across the sky.
Youll have to catch me first, you great big elephant!
And then, without warning, Gorash bent his wings back and dived straight into the ground. Valsoot followed with an enraged roar. Gorash pulled out in time, zigzagging through nearby trees before he climbed to the skies again; Valsoot tried to do likewisebut even if the big Dragon had been just as maneuverable as his tiny nemesis, his shoulder throbbed in pain and he could not make it. His legs hit the ground and he flew through the trees, branches clipping his face and wings. He burst out of the treetops looking for Gorash who was just a speck up in the clouds.
At this point, any other Dragon would have laughed at Gorash and let him go. You see, Dragons are solitary creatures; as a general rule, they keep to themselves if no one is bothering them. One of the exceptions to this rule is an enraged, hungry Dragon and Valsoot was a very hungry and enraged Dragon indeed. If you could see the look on Valsoots face, you would feel very sorry for Gorash. However, Gorash was entirely unconcerned; he was enjoying flying through the clouds and feeling the cool water splatter on his face.
Valsoot beat his wings faster and faster as he flew closer to the little Dragon. He arched forward as his wings screamed, his joints ached, and his shoulder throbbed. The cold air blew past his face,and his claws glistened as he reached for Gorash. He tensed his whole body and then released all his energy in a final burst of speed, stretching his forelegs until, roaring in triumph,he grabbed the little Dragon by the tail.
Valsoot pulled Gorash back in an iron grasp, opening his mouth in a grimace that showed his sharp teeth. Gorash squirmed and twisted in Valsoots grasp until he was face to face with the biggerDragon, then he put his little paws on Valsoots face. Gorash extended his claws, etching painful lines into Valsoots black scales. The big Dragons claws merely twitched in responsebut that twitch was all Gorash needed to twist himself out of Valsoots grip and away from his jaws and sharp teeth. But he did not pull away from the big Dragon; instead, he turned and looked Valsoot straight in the eyes.
Now, you probably know that every Dragon has a fire burning continuously in their belly. But it is only the Dragons of Westrunne who carry fires as hot as the seething crater of Mt. Vesterfires hot enough to take a Dragon to the Path under the Stars. And as small as he was, Gorash was a Dragon of Westrunne. So he took a deep breath and pulled out a little of his flame, as he had earlier with Behain. This time, he bathed Valsoot and himself with his fire. The clouds and blue sky faded away into blackness. All around them, spots of light spun round and round. There was no ground, no up, no down, nothing but the lights spinning.
Behain was already waiting on the Path, where Gorash had sent her earlier. She hovered carefully on the faint phosphorescent trail hanging in the blackness of space. Valsoot and Gorash arrived together, but Valsoot was not prepared; he looked around wildly, not even trying to stay on the Path. Behain grabbed Valsoot, gripping his wing in her talons and pulling as hard as she could even as Gorash pushed him away. Valsoots flying reflexes, honed by a lifetime of Earthly experience, did him no good in this bizarre no-space; he gasped as his wings flailed uselessly, and he tumbled away from the trail and the lights spun faster and faster around him, getting closer and closer to him. Soon, there were thousands of lights all around him. The two smaller Dragons could barely see his dark scaly skin through the bright lights.
As Valsoot tried to stabilize his headlong spiral, he croaked, Cant be It cant
Gorash and Behain smiled. As one, they took in a breath and blew fire at Valsoot. His skin lit up in the dark sky brightly glowing dots pulsed and throbbed around him and then the lightssoaked into his skin. He looked around in surprise, the twinkling of a million sparkling motes reflected in his big, black eyes. He drifted away from the Path while Gorash held tight to Behain, keeping them both safely floating on the Path. And the Path Under the Stars glowed around them, shielding the two little Dragons from whatever fate Valsoot was helplessly drifting toward. The big Dragon realized what was happening, and he opened his mouth to scream; but before any sound could come out, the lights around and inside his skin pulsed brighter than ever.
Gorash and Behain watched as Valsoot faded into the distance, growing brighter and brighter. With one final flame, Gorash and Behain dove down through the Path. The lights swirled fast around them, and they fell back to Earth where Valsoots lair awaited them.
Later that night, after the pair sated their appetites with great charred haunches of venison, Gorash and Behain lay sprawled out on the ground looking at the stars.
Where is he, do you think? Behain asked.
Gorash scanned the sky and pointed to a star just over the horizon. There. If they let him come, he might get back in few hundred years.
Behain giggled. From a Dragons throat, even a giggle sounds like the promise of bloody mayhem.
Gorash said, I just hope no other Dragons will come looking to take over Valsoots lair.
Behain looked over at him. Why should they? This is very close to the Badlandsfew Dragons come here anymore. And even if one did, Im sure we could take care of it.
How? By forcing them onto the Path Under the Stars? Gorash shook his head. Sure, I did it this time, but it took a lot out of me. I cant flame that hot againnot now, and maybe not ever.
Now Behain grinned at himand a Dragons grin looks very sinister indeed. I dont think well need the Path again. Didnt I ever tell you about what I found in the Badlands?