Billy Bob and Sammy-Jo were up to something, Granddad decided, looking across at the youngsters huddled in the corner.
He tip-taloned across the cavern, before roaring, “Whaddya doing?” in Billy Bob’s ear.
The small dragon shot straight into the air with a shrill squeal, while his sister crouched lower over whatever-it-was in the gloom, gobbling it up in a couple of hurried gulps.
An irritated wisp of smoke leaked from Granddad’s nostrils. “And why are you eating between meals?”
“’M hungry…” Her voice was muffled while she continued chewing.
The delicious whiff of a meaty something didn’t improve his temper. “If you’d eaten all your breakfast, you wouldn’t be wanting something now.”
“Sorry, Granddad…” Billy Bob whimpered, his wings drooping submissively.
But young Sammy-Jo was made of sterner stuff. Her wings were still neatly arranged across her back as she muttered, “Didn’t like breakfast.”
Impudent little piece! Why, when he was a dragonet, if he’d spoken to a Lord in that insolent manner, he’d have been walking around with singed scales for a month.
Smoke was now trickling steadily from his nostrils, as Granddad growled, “And what does like have to do with anything? Answer that one, miss! There’s sub-Saharan dragons who’d give their wings for a tasty morsel like the one I picked out for you.”
“They can have it, then.” Sammy-Jo’s tone was sulky. “It tasted funny.”
Granddad couldn’t believe it. The rank ingratitude! His temper flared — a gout of flame belched out of his mouth with his roar, “Ahh!”
She dodged his fiery blast with ease. “You can’t singe us. It’s not allowed.” Sammy-Jo stretched her neck in an unmistakeably female way. “If we’ve been bad, we have to sit on the naughty crag and think about what we’ve done wrong and how to make a-mends.”
Granddad regarded her with smouldering dislike. “You’re just like your grandmother.”
“I w-want Mummee!” wailed Billy Bob, an acrid smell of damp charcoal settling around the howling dragonet.
Sammy-Jo wrapped a foreleg around the squealing infant. “Shh, Billy Bob. Mummy’ll be here soon.” Flashing a baleful glare at her furious grandfather, she added, “She won’t like it that you made Billy Bob cry. And she said we didn’t have to eat any of your tinned food if we didn’t want to. So there.”
“Want Mummee. Want nice din-dins…”
“We could all do with something nice to eat!” Granddad’s grumpy roar easily overrode Billy Bob’s baby squeals. “Your precious mother didn’t think to bring anything with her, I notice.”
Sammy-Jo’s answer was on the insufferable side of smug. “Mummy didn’t have to. Billy Bob and me hunt for ourselves.”
“S’right,” snivelled Billy Bob, starting to cheer up.
Granddad snorted, all set to be contemptuously amused. “Oh yes? And when did you go off hunting, then?”
“When you fell asleep. After you ate up all the breakfast.”
“I did not fall asleep — as you put it, Miss…” Granddad was uncomfortably aware that if Sammy-Jo presented his teeny power-nap in such terms to his daughter, she would probably have far too much to say, in that bossy trumpeting bugle of hers, “…just closed my eyes to meditate on some arcane magical secrets.”
“Tinned food is yucky.” Granddad almost preferred Billy Bob’s howling to his perky cheekiness. Almost.
Meanwhile, Sammy-Jo was in full flow. “Mummy says it isn’t natural to shut the food up in a can, like that. It should be fresh and free range. That’s what Mummy tells us. Then we’ll grow up big and healthy.”
“Well, that just goes to show how much your mother knows, then,” snapped Granddad, “because my tinned food is so fresh and free range, it climbs right to the top of my mountain.”
Sammy-Jo put her head to one side, “Why?”
Granddad had a vague idea that these tin-suited idiots were tired of life — which was why they struggled up to his lair and waved pointy sticks in his face until he became cross enough to flame them. But he wasn’t completely sure. Not something he was prepared to admit to little missy, here…
“Because they want to be eaten.”
“Ours don’t,” Billy Bob boasted. “Our food runned away. And we knock them — boff! Over they go — wriggling on the ground. And then they squealed… Like this.” The dragonet squirmed around on the floor, making bleating yells.
Sammy-Jo giggled as she watched him.
A dreadful thought occurred to Granddad. “This food… where did you get it?”
“Our food was living in those boxes sprouting in the valley. Most of the food was too big for us to catch, so we choose the two littlest ones.” His granddaughter half closed her eyes in remembered bliss. “Mm. So juicy.”
Granddad hadn’t felt so afraid since the day his mate deserted him, two centuries earlier. Rushing to the entrance of his lair, he looked down the mountainside. The food was upset, all right. They’d bunched together in a large crowd and were funnelling up the road towards the mountain. His mountain.
A dragon Lord learns many things. Granddad had learnt to count to thirty-nine in his six-hundred-and-twenty-one-year-old life and quickly realised that there were a lot more than thirty-nine beings heading towards his lair. And why thirty-nine? Because, in his prime, that was the maximum number of these creatures he could kill in one go.
Snarling a foul curse, Granddad, grabbed Billy Bob in a gnarled claw and turned to Sammy-Jo. “Fly! We’re headed toward Wyvern Peak. To find you a naughty crag.” Swinging out over the sheer drop, he extended his tattered wings, shouting, “Where you pesky lizards can sit — till you figure how to recover my lair!”
S.J. Higbee lives on the south coast of England, where she divides her time between writing and feeding the hordes of slugs and snails that have taken up residence amongst the tattered foliage that used to be her garden…