AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IGIBY COTTAGE
Just outside the town of Glipwood, perched near the edge of the cliffs above the Dark Sea sat a little cottage where lived the Igiby family. The cottage was rather plain, except for how comfortable it was, and how nicely it had been built, and how neatly it was kept in spite of the three children who lived there, and except for the love that glowed from it like firelight from its windows at night.
As for the Igiby family? Well, except for the way they always sat late into the night beside the hearth telling stories, and when they sang in the garden while they gathered the harvest, and when the grandfather, Podo Helmer, sat on the porch blowing smoke rings, and except for all the good, warm things that filled their days there like cider in a mug on a winter night, they were quite miserable. Quite miserable indeed, in that land where walked the Fangs of Dang.
CHAPTER 8: TWO THROWN STONES
Faster, Janner!” Tink yelled over his shoulder as he ran towards town. Janner was huffing behind him, unable to keep up. As they drew closer Janner heard a deeper sound, below Leeli’s screams and Nugget’s growls: the dreadful, unmistakable snarl of a Fang. Janner looked from one side of the street to the other, desperate for some clue as to where the screams were coming from, but they seemed to come from everywhere. Tink bolted down the main street, which was mostly deserted. The few adults who remained were hustling toward the cliffs. If they heard the screams and the growling at all, they showed no sign of it. Out of the corner of Tink’s eye, down a narrow alleyway between Ferinia’s Flowers and J.
Bird’s Barber Shop, he saw a Fang struggling with something. Tink skidded to a stop and Janner plowed into him, nearly knocking him down.
There in the alley, in a cloud of dust, Nugget the dog was darting back and forth between the Fang’s legs, evading the Fang’s furious efforts to stab him with a spear. Leeli screamed again, and without a second thought her brothers ran down the alley to save her, though they both knew that there was nothing two young boys could do, pitted against a Fang of Dang.
The narrow alley led around a corner to a small area between the back of Ferinia’s and her stables. Leeli was curled into a ball while a second Fang held her in place with the butt of his spear. It watched with grim delight as the other struggled with the little black dog.
Nugget was in a frenzy, pouncing in and out, snarling and snapping at the Fang. The Fang standing over Leeli was chuckling in a thin, papery voice, “What’s the matter, Slarb? Is the smelly little thing too much for you?”
Slarb growled as he jabbed again at Nugget. The spear nicked Nugget in the leg and he yelped. Leeli screamed and the Fang jabbed at her with the butt of his spear just as her brothers burst around the corner, Tink in the lead. Leeli saw them and began kicking at the Fang with renewed vigor.
“Help me!” she screamed.
Janner found himself on Slarb’s back, beating him with all his might around the neck and shoulders. It was the first time he had ever touched a Fang, and he was dimly surprised how cold the scaly skin was. Tink dove past the second Fang, grabbed Leeli’s arms, and tried to pull her away from it. Slarb, with Janner on his back, hissed and thrashed, his long, sharp fangs dripping with venom. Nugget bit the lizard’s leg and wouldn’t let go. The other snake man seized Tink by his shirt collar and yanked him backwards and to the ground, where he laid choking and clutching his throat. Leeli reached for her crutch, but the Fang snatched it away from her and crushed it into splinters. It strode over to Slarb and kicked Nugget hard in the belly, sending him flying through the air with a yelp. The little dog crashed into the wooden wall and landed in a motionless heap. Slarb hurled Janner over his shoulder and onto the ground. He bent over to Janner’s neck with his scaly jaw wide open, baring his dripping fangs to bite. The second Fang drew his sword and raised it to strike Tink. Leeli was helpless but to close her eyes and pray.
At that moment there was a dull thunk. Slarb’s black eyes rolled back and he fell unconscious on top of Janner. The second Fang had time to see that Slarb had been hit in the head with a fist-sized rock before he felt a stone smash into his own temple. He tottered for a moment then crumpled to the dirt.
Tink lay there stunned. “Where did those rocks come from?” he said breathlessly. Leeli’s hands were folded tight and her eyes were still shut. She opened one of her eyes, amazed that the three of them were still alive. They heard Janner’s muffled voice from beneath the Fang and Tink snapped out of his daze. After a few heaves he pushed Slarb off and Janner scrambled away with a moan, wiping at his neck where the venom had dripped on it.
Janner rushed over to Leeli and helped her up, inspecting her carefully. “Are you hurt?” he asked. She was trembling but she shook her head, pushing her hair from her face. She hugged her brothers and smiled through stubborn tears.
“Nugget!” she cried. She hobbled over to the little black heap. One of the Fangs groaned and stirred.
“We should get out of here,” Janner said. “We don’t want to be here when these things wake up.” Leeli was crying, stroking Nugget’s face. “Leeli, we have to go,” Janner urged, pulling her away from the dog.
Suddenly, Nugget yelped and leapt to his feet. Hackles raised, he bared his teeth and circled menacingly. But his fierceness melted when he saw Leeli, and he set to licking her face and wagging his tail as if nothing had happened.
Leeli struggled to her feet and pointed at her ruined crutch. “I won’t be going anywhere with that.”
“Here,” Janner said, sidling up beside her and pulling one of her arms around his neck. “It looks like you’re going to have to let us help you for once. Let’s go,” he said, and they hurried out of the alleyway, leaving it completely empty.
Except, of course, for the two Fangs lying in the dirt, the two stones that knocked them unconscious, and the mysterious figure on the roof of J. Bird’s Barber Shop watching the three Igiby children flee.
CHAPTER 9: THE CLIFF TRAIL
When they were back in the open street, two of the three children (and the little black dog) felt a little better. Leeli was mostly happy that Nugget was fine, Tink was mostly glad that Leeli was fine, and Janner was mostly terrified because he was the oldest and had begun to think of the future. Glipwood was a small town, and it would be a matter of time–hours, maybe even minutes–before the Fang called Slarb and his companion reported back to Commander Gnorm.
Then terrible things would follow.
“We have to go home.”
“Aw, Janner!” said Tink. “Can’t we see the dragons? Everyone’s there, and as soon as the moon rises–” “By the time the moon rises, you know what’s going to happen?”
Janner snapped. Leeli and Tink were silent as they made their way slowly through Glipwood’s empty main street. Janner tried to calm himself down. “What’s going to happen, other than the sea dragons dancing, is that those two Fangs will wake up. And once they do, every Fang in Glipwood will be looking for three kids and a little black dog. Oh, and the girl has a lame leg. Now tell me, do you think they’ll have a hard time finding us?” Janner finished, more irritated than when he began.
“What do we do?” Leeli said after a long pause.
“Mama will be at the cliffs watching the dragons, but that will probably be the first place the Fangs would look for us. Podo always stays home on Dragon Day. So that’s where we’re going. Podo will know what to do.” Janner set his face for the lane that led to the cottage.
“I hope he does.”
“Here,” Tink offered, wrapping Leeli’s other arm around his neck and picking up his pace. Nugget trotted along beside them very seriously, as if he too had realized it was a bad situation indeed. The light deepened as they walked, so when they were still an arrow’s shot away from the cottage they already knew that their grandfather wasn’t home.
No lantern burned in the window, no smoke lifted lazily out of the chimney. They stopped walking and the boys sat Leeli down on the grass while they bent over to catch their breath.
“Where do you suppose he is?” Tink said between gulps of air.
“I don’t know,” Janner said, pacing.
“Maybe he went to see the dragons this year,” Tink said doubtfully.
“But he never goes to the cliffs on Dragon Day. Why would he go this time?” Leeli said.
“Well, why wouldn’t he be here at the cottage? I think we should look for him there,” Tink said. “Then we might see the dragons after all–” A glare from Janner cut him off. Janner looked east in the direction of the sea. Maybe Tink was right. Maybe for some reason Podo had decided to watch the dragons this year.
“Fine,” Janner said. “Come on. But we’re taking the scarp trail. We can’t risk the main road. There will probably be Fangs everywhere, and it’s faster anyway.”
Tink moaned, but Janner was already helping Leeli toward the trail.
The Igiby cottage sat on the eastern edge of Glipwood. An old walking path led through the trees behind the cottage and wound precariously near the edge of the cliffs. In the deepening shadows the Igiby children made their way through the trees.
When they emerged, the view was terrible and vast. Shale and tough grass littered the rocky verge of the land. The horizon was silent and wide, and a salty wind sighed upwards, around their ankles and through their hair. The children stood without speaking, dizzy with the smallness they felt looking out over the Dark Sea of Darkness. Janner looked to his right and could make out a precarious trail winding over stone and brush, leading away to where the people would be watching the dragons. The scarp trail stayed mostly level on a narrow shelf while the ground nearer the tree line rose steeply above them.
Wiry shrubs and roots clutched the rock wall as if they too were afraid of falling.
“Janner, I can’t do this,” Tink said. He was standing with his back against the gray rock, eyes clenched shut.
“You have to,” Janner said. “The Fangs that might find us on the road are more dangerous than this trail right now. You have to try, Tink.”
Using the nearby boulders for support, Leeli hopped back to him and took his hand. “Come on,” she said. Tink jerked his hand away and forced a smile.
“I’m not really worried about me, you know. I just meant that, uh, I don’t think Leeli should be out here.”
“Oh, thank you,” Leeli said wryly.
Tink sighed and peeled his fingers from the rock. He inched along behind Leeli and Janner, careful to stay as far as possible from the edge. As the light faded, the trail rose and narrowed. They had to stop again for Tink to gather the courage to follow. Janner kept looking back to be sure that Leeli was able to navigate the trail without her crutch. But with Nugget at her side and all manner of roots and rocks to hold, she seemed more like she was taking a stroll through a park than edging along a perch above the Dark Sea.
Finally, they topped the rise in the trail and it widened out to a grassy slope. Janner and Leeli tried not to laugh when Tink burst ahead of them and paced the safe ground. His shirt was drenched in sweat and he was strutting like he had just won a race. Ahead and below them Janner saw the glow of torches where the people were gathered to watch the dragons.
“We made it,” Janner said. “Tink, help me with Leeli.” As they scrambled down the slope toward the throng, the moon began its soft ascent. Then they heard the most achingly beautiful sound in all of Aerwiar.
CHAPTER 10: LEELI AND THE DRAGON SONG
Along warm note like the sound of a yawning mountain rose in the air and bounced off the belly of the sky. The deep echo was absorbed by the tall trees of Glipwood Forest and was answered a moment later by a higher sound that felt like a soft rain. Even Janner forgot to worry over the Fangs for a moment. His chest tightened and his eyes stung with tears.
“Quick!” Tink said. “It’s starting!” Tink ran ahead, dangerously close to the cliff. His fear of heights was all but gone. “Tink!” Janner called. But there was no stopping him. The sound of the dragons had changed Tink somehow. Janner even thought for a moment that he looked different, boldly making his way along the precipice. Janner and Leeli moved as quickly as they dared till they could make out the dark cluster of the people watching the ocean below them. The verge of the cliffs was cluttered with boulders between patches of tall grass, places where one could sit and comfortably watch the sea.
The Dark Sea was so far below that it seemed if someone were to tumble over the cliff they would have time to stop screaming and take a final, breezy nap before crashing into it. The tiny, silent streaks of white on its surface were actually chaotic waves smashing into the jagged rocks below, and the mightiest spray was only faintly visible, like a poof of dust from a pebble dropped in the sand.
Janner and Leeli found Tink sitting on a flat outcropping of rock that depressed in the center. They were still an arrow’s shot away from the crowd, enough to satisfy Janner that they were well hidden. By the light of the big moon, Tink leaned out over the edge, straining to see something in the dark water below. Just that morning, Janner thought to himself, Tink had nearly wet himself on the roof of the house. From where they sat they could see the mighty Fingap Falls far to the north, roaring over the cliffs and pounding into the sea. To the south, the cliffs marched away into the distance, where they eventually curled backward and sloped downward to embraced Shard Harbor, home to Fort Lamendron, the largest Fang outpost in all of Skree. It was there that the Black Carriage bore the children taken in the night.
Janner shuddered and tried not to think about Fort Lamendron or the Carriage. It wasn’t hard, because the dragon song was rising in pitch and volume. Hidden in their cleft of rock, Janner forgot about the Fangs. He forgot about their desperate need to find their grandfather and mother.
And, like Tink, he forgot how precarious were the edges of the high cliffs as he leaned out over the empty air and felt his heart ache. Tink was the first to see them. His breath caught in his throat and he found that he couldn’t speak. He tapped Leeli on the knee with the back of his hand and pointed. She and Janner saw it as well.
In the churning white waters at the base of Fingap Falls, a long, graceful shape burst from the surface. Its skin caught and magnified he light of the moon. The sea dragon was easily twice the height of the tallest tree in Glipwood Forest. Its reddish body glimmered like a living fire. The head was crowned with two curved horns and its fins spread out behind it like wings. Indeed, it looked as if it might actually fly, but the dragon wheeled in the air and crashed into the sea with what must have been a sound like thunder but was inaudible over the constant roar of the waterfall. The dragon song rose into the air on a bright wind and filled the people gathered on the cliffs with a thousand feelings; some peaceful, some exhilarating, all more alive than usual.
A middle-aged man named Robesbus Nicefellow, who had wasted his life balancing records for the famed button merchant Osbeck Osbeckson of Torrboro, decided that he wouldn’t spend another day working behind a desk; he had always wanted to sail. Mr. Alep Brume, who was sitting beside Ferinia Swapelton (proprietor of Ferinia’s Flower Shop), turned to her and whispered that he’d secretly loved her for years. Mayor Blaggus silently swore he’d never again pick his nose.*
All of the passion and sadness and joy of those who listened wound into one common strand of feeling that was to Janner like homesickness, though he couldn’t think why; he was a short walk from the only home he’d ever known.
The few Fangs unlucky enough to stand watch at the cliffs, however, heard only screeching, a miserable wail that set their teeth on edge. Their green skin shivered and they snarled at the people closest to them.
Tink was leaning so far over the edge that it looked like he might fall to the sea. Eyes wide open, his jaw was clenched and his knuckles were white where they gripped the rock at his sides. He was as handsome as a king, Janner thought, so rigid and serene as he perched there in the warm dusk.
The song continued, and more dragons exploded out of the water the same as the first. They spun in the air and hung there for a moment before slamming back into the sea. Scores of horned bull dragons, amber and shimmering gold, swam circles around the thinner and more fleet mares that burst out of the water and over them in an intricate pattern. Now even the roar of Fingap Falls was not as loud as the crash of the many dragons into the Dark Sea. The strains of the song entwined and followed one another until a haunting melody emerged. Janner thought, as he thought every summer the dragons came, that there could be nothing more beautiful in all the world.
Leeli was still as a statue, her hands clasped at her chest. Janner heard a whisper of sound mingling with the dragon song. Her lips were moving like she was trying to remember the words to a song, or like she was praying. Her gaze was far away, resting somewhere beyond the dragons. A slight, sweet melody, the beauty of which Janner had never heard before, drifted from Leeli’s mouth. Janner looked at her with wonder. He was so enthralled with her song he scarcely noticed that after a moment it was all he heard.
The dragons had fallen silent.
They had halted their dance and were gazing up at the cliffs. Though they were leagues away and the dusk made it difficult to see, Janner knew with a shudder that the sea dragons were watching them. They were listening.
The breezy sound of gasps and whispers came from the crowd to Janner’s right; in all the years the dragons had come, this was something new. Tink and Janner looked in awe at Leeli, who seemed unaware of the quiet commotion she was causing. The wind carried Leeli’s voice along the cliffs so that it seemed to the crowd that the song was coming from the air itself.
Finally her melody came to an end. Leeli came to herself and focused on the shimmering beasts below her, silent and watching. For a moment the only sound was the wind and the sea. Then the dragons arched their great necks, spread wide their fins, and bellowed an answer that rattled Janner’s teeth. It echoed Leeli’s tune in a sad, hopeful reprise.
Then it stopped.
The dragons were gone as fast as they had come. The last fin disappeared in a swirl of water. Only the dull, even rush of Fingap Falls and the occasional cry of a gull interrupted the awed silence. Then Mr. Alep Brume blew his nose. Whispers turned to hushed voices, which finally became the chattering of the multitude standing and stretching, then turning to walk back to town. The moment was over. The dragons would make their way, so people said, back south to the Sunken Mountains to live out the winter.
Tink was still staring at the sea, at the place where the last dragon had sunk away. He blinked several times and came out of a trance of his own. He looked down, his face turned pale and he squealed like a flabbit. He skittered back and lay panting on the ground five feet away, clutching the grass as if the world might lurch to its side and try to shake him over the edge. Leeli giggled, her head full of music.
“What was that, Leeli?” Janner asked.
She shrugged, blushing. “I don’t know. I think it’s a song mama used to sing me when I was little, or something like it anyway.” She scrunched her face up, thinking hard. “It’s odd,” she said.
“I can’t remember it now,” Leeli said gazing at the Dark Sea.
“Well, it was…really pretty,” Janner said, unused to speaking that way with his sister. He was about to suggest that they find Podo and their mother when two cold hands grabbed him from behind. Janner was spun around violently to find himself face to face with the Slarb the Fang, who had a swollen, bleeding wound on the side of his scaly face.
* Mayor Blaggus broke his vow on the walk back to town