One night, during his exile, Gregorin the Dragon was finding it hard to get to sleep, so he stared out of his cave over the valley, to see if anything was happening. He saw flickering, on the top of one of the nearby peaks, a fire which appeared to grow dimmer and lighter in a slow rhythmic fashion. He flew to the bottom of the adjoining valley and began to climb one of the shallower slopes to see what was going on. As he neared the top, he heard unearthly cries of glee as three witches circled their cauldron, occasionally casting obscure-looking plants into the pot. The overall aroma was tangy, but also temptingly intoxicating.
Suddenly, the witches stopped their wild motions and stared straight at the dragon. Gregorin, thinking himself invisible, was a little taken aback, but the three women did not seem hostile, so he crawled a little closer. As he approached, he noticed the differences between the witches. They introduced themselves. Bella Donna was the oldest and most beautiful of the three. However, Gregorin was a little puzzled by her manner. She was polite but with an ironical twist to her voice, and Gregorin sense a slight resentment to his presence. Ganish was more gentle in her welcome and smiled at Gregorin openly and without any veiled hint of anger. The third, and for Gregorin the most interesting, was Fingle.
"A fine dragon indeed," she whispered, "but a spoiled dragon, flabby and without the grandeur of the dragons of my youth."
"Thank you very much," replied Gregorin, somewhat put out. "And what might you be doing on my land?"
"Your land, on indeed, how is it your land?" enquired Fingle.
"Well, I live here and no-one else does, so it must be my land."
"We live here too, so it must be our land as well."
"And what are you doing here?"
"We are preparing a potion for weary hearts."
"Really," thought Gregorin, "I could do with some of that." He was feeling rather sorry for himself. "And how is it going?"
"It's excellent stuff so far," responded Bella Donna, "but we still lack a few vital ingredients."
"Yes, this is my first time," added Ganish, "It's all most exciting."
"Can I try a bit?" asked Gregorin, with a mixture of curiosity and charm.
"What do you think, sisters? Shall we let this apology for a dragon try some of our elixir? Perhaps it might build him up a bit."
Gregorin shot Fingle a condescending glance of rebuff. Raising himself up to his full height, he walked over to the cauldron and took a large gulp. The effect was as spectacular as it was swift. A burning, tingling sensation passed down his throat and out along his limbs until his claws shivered with pleasure. For a while, his loneliness was forgotten and he swished his tail with delight.
"There, dragon, perhaps that gives you a sense of what you've been missing." Fingle walked up to Gregorin's spinning head and examined both his face and limbs in some detail.
"Not as bad as I first thought," she observed, "but the problem, sisters, with modern dragons, is that they don't know how to fly properly."
"Of course I can fly," insisted Gregorin struggling to his feet. "Watch!"
He took off and swept up and down the valley in long, graceful glides. Well satisfied, he came in to land on the mountainside, but the potion slightly affected his judgement, and he came down with a bump.
"Exactly as I said," continued Fingle. "These long sweeping movements are all very well for the birds, but a real dragon should be able to somersault and barrel-roll rather than your childish attempts."
"If you know so much about it, you try then," taunted Gregorin with a certain amount of satisfaction.
"Right!" Fingle clambered up onto Gregorin's neck, and before he realised what was happening, he was in the air. Fingle taught him how to dive at the ground and at the last minute to open his wings and pull up sharply so doing a loop-the-loop. He also learned how to pull in his wings alternately leading to twisting sinuous motions through the night sky. Gregorin had the best fun he had had in ages and, having bid good night to his new neighbours, he crept back to his cave for a long, contented sleep.
The next day Gregorin was drowsy until well into the morning, when Fingle peeped her impish face round the corner of the mouth of his cave.
"Good morning," she announced in a sing-song voice.
"Is it?" asked Gregorin with a groan.
"Yes," replied Fingle, "I have come to help you with your work. You're probably as unskilled at that as you were at flying. But first, aren't you going to offer me a seat? Really, your manners are terrible!"
"Sorry," responded the still muzzy dragon, "I haven't had company for so long . . ." With a powerful claw he rolled a large rock over for Fingle to sit on.
"I am now going to teach you how to make real metal," she declared, and teach him she did. Fingle explained to Gregorin some of the metallurgy which he had only understood as recipes before. She told him about making coke from coal, and how to use this to turn his rather brittle metal into something tougher and much more useful. Fingle was privately quite impressed with Gregorin's ability to learn, although she was all too aware that he had been badly taught beforehand.
The lessons went on for many weeks and gradually Fingle learnt about Gregorin's life. But even though Gregorin found Fingle entertaining and helpful, when he was alone he reflected on how strange it was that he never felt that he got to know her any better. The sorceress was masterly at using conversational sleights of hand in response to any questions of a personal nature.
"It's better not to ask, Gregorin," she would say. "Try to enjoy the present. The future may not happen, and the past probably never did."
The mountain-top midnight sessions with Ganish and Bella Donna continued. Gregorin, with Fingle's help, would perform aerial acrobatics whilst the other two cheered or booed depending on the success or failure of the attempts. As the occasions recurred, Gregorin became a little uneasy. Something seemed to be strangely awry. Ganish, whom Gregorin liked but did not get to know very well, would sometimes stare at him with a look of sadness, almost pity. Bella Donna, on the other hand, occasionally looked at him with a glare of loathing, when she thought he was asleep, but Gregorin would keep his eyes just slightly open to watch her. Also, and most alarmingly of all, the three witches appeared to Gregorin to be growing older much faster than the humans whom he had known.
One afternoon, Fingle mentioned to Gregorin that that evening the three women were to prepare a special treat for him. She insisted that he would enjoy it much more if he had nothing to eat beforehand. However, Gregorin's temperament was not one greatly able to resist temptation so, having persuaded himself that just a few lumps of coal could surely do no harm to his appetite, he ended up having a substantial meal.
On the mountain-top, the three witches greeted him with the usual bravado, but seemed a little tense.
"Come on Gregorin," implored Bella Donna, "This special potion will be like nothing you have ever tasted."
Gregorin felt rather unsettled. The new mixture smelt different and slightly metallic, but he gulped it down to please his friends. Almost instantly he began to feel drowsy, and in a moment, his wings drooped, his tail was still and his weary head sank to the ground. He felt awful.
"And now sisters," announced Bella Donna exultantly, "We have within our power the means of our rejuvenation!"
Sadly, it was the fate of the the witches that they could live for only forty years before they rapidly aged and died. Their only hope was to feed on freshly-shed dragon scales. This was why they had set up their cauldron near to Gregorin's cave and were intent on poisoning him. Or should I say two of them were. It was Ganish's first time and she was still troubled by the deceit of the whole enterprise. She eyed her poisoned javelin warily and asked "You are sure it won't hurt him? I mean only his scales will come off?"
Bella Donna replied with reassurance, "In most cases that is all that happens. The scales come off. He has a headache for a few days, and that's that."
"What do you mean in most cases. What about the others?"
"Well, I suppose his teeth might fall out."
"And his claws," added Fingle.
"And his claws, of course. Very rarely other than that, things do go wrong. Say one time out of a hundred. . ."
Ganish began to look alarmed.
"Come on, Bella Donna, what does happen in one case out of a hundred?"
"Well, the dragon ends up sort of dead."
"How could we do such a thing?"
Bella Donna became angry.
"Dragons are evil creatures, Ganish. One almost killed me once with its treacherous flame. They deserve to die."
Gregorin began to revive from the drugged aperitif, but he was sensible enough to lie still and listen. He knew that he was going to die and that the last friends he had in the world had just betrayed him. Feeling very alone and without anger he concentrated on the lively debate which was reaching his brain through a mist of confusion.
"I thought you said only one in a hundred die."
Bella Donna looked a bit taken aback.
"Actually, thinking about it . . ." she counted on her fingers, "Maybe more like one in five, or so."
Ganish looked outraged. Fingle realised that her friend was wavering, so she decided to turn her against the dragon once and for all.
"My dear, Gregorin is a very dangerous animal you know. One minute he is playful and quiet as a lamb. You've seen him with us like that, but the next minute he turns on you and blasts you with flame. One time he burned down all the trees round about so he would have a better view of his enemies coming. He wrought untold havoc and was exiled to that cave as punishment."
Gregorin was wretched and motionless, knowing that he could escape, but that he did not want to. He deserved to die so he must let the witches play out their ceremony. Fingle saw that Ganish was being swayed, so she decided to embroider the truth a little.
"And when I was up in his cave once, in a hollow near the back, I came across chewed and broken human bones, victims of Gregorin's anger. He caught me searching and threatened to blast me into ashes if I whispered a word of what I had seen. I was so scared that I kept silent until this moment for fear of what might happen. But now you see the sort of wicked animal you are up against."
"Hold on a minute," thought Gregorin, "What's she talking about? What human bones?"
Gregorin's diet was strictly coal and flint and the very idea of eating people was horrifying to him. He remembered the inhabitants of the forest whom he had scared in his younger, thoughtless days, and of his promise to make amends. He cast a look in his mind's eye over the carefully prepared furnaces and kilns in his cave. He felt he had to finish his work and not let the effort of the previous year go to waste.
The three witches stood round him in a circle, chanting their sacrificial anthem. Closer and closer they came, each holding a jagged tipped spear of death. The chanting grew louder and louder, and faster and faster. The witches drew nearer and nearer, and clearer and clearer. Gregorin was being deafened by their screaming ravening howls until suddenly, they stopped. He opened his eyes and was confronted by the sight of all three of his foes poised to unleash their terrible artillery into his face.
For a split second he stared straight into Fingle's eyes. In the perfect silence of that moment he saw an empty hunger that spelled his own destruction. He leapt into the air as three shafts of pointed steel plunged into the ground where he had been instants before.
Gregorin climbed to about one hundred feet and set off for his cave. Three bolts of lightning burst through the night sky to send him tumbling to the ground. He knew that a long flight was not possible, with such powerful enemies in range, so he took to the air, barrel rolling and weaving from side to side to make himself a more difficult target. Finally, he landed on a stony beach which was next to the lake at the bottom of the valley. He gulped down several gallons of water and then gurgled for some time.
Ganish, Fingle and Bella Donna crept stealthily through the forest in search of Gregorin. They were very frightened of what he might do next, and Ganish and Fingle, at least, felt a little guilty. Gregorin burbled and hiccupped for several minutes more until a thick white fog began to pour forth from his mouth, which was exactly what he had intended.
He let the artificial mist seep down to the water surface, and it spread out over the lake. Once a considerable bank of cloud had built up he tiptoed down to the beach and dipped a timid foot into the water. Gregorin hated swimming when it was cold, but he made the effort on this occasion. The fog bank appeared to move move out over the water, to reach the other side of the lake, and then to slide up the opposite hillside. This would have seemed very odd to the witches if they had thought about it, but they were too preoccupied with the idea of an attack from the air.
Gregorin still dripping wet, slid into the mouth of his cave, and crouched there, staring out until day-break. The next night he stole up to the mountain-top to see what the other three were up to. They looked much older than the previous night as they wearily circled the still bubbling but rusting cauldron.
Gregorin slunk back to his cave to have a think. Now that the danger was over he felt very sad that the last company he had known had turned against him. In future, when he found a new trick or technique for his metal work, he would have no-one to show it to. In this doleful state he sat puffing away at a furnace to keep it glowing at the right shade of bluey white for the steel he was making. After a few minutes absorbed in this way he scratched his left side with his hind leg to overcome a particularly persistent itch. To his surprise a very remarkable thing happened. Some of his scales went clattering to the floor. He rubbed a bit more and even larger ones became dislodged. Gregorin had reached the age of one hundred and two when some dragons lose their scales, only to have them replaced by grander shinier ones.
Bemused, but not alarmed, Gregorin gathered the ceramic plates of his protection into a pile near the mouth of his cave. He wondered what to do with them. No much good as wall decorations or carpeting, he thought, but they would make rather nice presents as door stops.
He told himself off for being flippant, and steeled his nerves for what he had to do. He took the scales in a large sack and set off for a final time to the mountain-top. The witches were sitting now, exhausted and ancient, resting themselves against the cauldron. Bella Donna saw Gregorin coming, but she was too weak to summon up another thunderbolt. She stared with incredulity as Gregorin dropped his bag of scales into the simmering pot.
Ganish rose to her feet and drank a ladleful of the brew. Immediately refreshed, she rushed to aid her friends with more of the liquid. They stirred and looked brighter within a few moments. Ganish then sent Gregorin a smile which he never saw as he raced off into the night. He was fearful that the anger of the three might return with their growing strength. But he need not have worried, since the next day no trace whatever was to be found of the witches, the cauldron or the spears. Gregorin was sad, but relieved to see them go and within a few months he had a brand new coat of scales which was shiny black, with a lustrous hint of blue near the tips.
© 1984 Gavin Miller, all rights reserved.