Margueritte awoke, startled by the dim light, and she sat straight up. Runt rolled off her stomach where it had curled up for the night. She could barely make out her surroundings as the morning sun came streaming down the cave but just eked into the tomb cavern.
Several of the babies were already awake, burrowing in and out of the coins in a game of tag or chase me. Mother also looked awake and turned an eye on Margueritte as she sat up. Mother was smoking.
“Mother.” Margueritte said, just to be sure.
“Baby.” The dragon mother responded, and Marguerite let out her breath.
“This is not going to work.” Margueritte decided, and she felt hungry. That little bit of horse flesh did not satisfy. Runt crawled up to face her, and she petted its head as she flopped back down on the coins. Again, her armor protected her from the impossibly hard bedding, though she did not suppose it would be worse sleeping in a gravel pit. Her armor, though, felt light as air, and the under things that came with the armor were immensely comfortable. That was why she slept, she thought. That and the dragon song.
As she petted Runt, she thought about how the beasts were made. Even with feathers on the outside, the dragons had their own sort of armor. It actually worked something like a finely jointed exoskeleton. They could give the appearance of slithering like snakes, but really, they were more like insects in that respect. Worms, indeed, she thought. Of course, if they had bones on the inside, they would have been much too heavy to leave the ground. It was only because of their almost impenetrable but extremely light exoskeleton, set like scales she imagined, that their wings proved strong enough.
“Fly.” Margueritte said to Runt. Runt lifted happily from the ground and circled her head several times, singing. “Wrap.” Margueritte held out her good arm. The creature wrapped and succumbed to more petting. That was when Margueritte noticed her burns were not hurting and, in fact, they were nearly healed.
Of course, she had no way of knowing that she had slept for almost two and a half weeks. Her father just then, with Roland and Chief Brian, set out to fetch her, having figured out what happened. Canto confessed.
Margueritte eyed the mother dragon then until she got the creature’s attention. “Hungry.” Margueritte tried at last. She figured she had nothing to lose.
Mother dragon stirred. Most of the little ones were awake by then. Two or three stuck their heads up from the golden pile and echoed Margueritte’s word. “Hungry.”
“Sheep. Cow.” Margueritte tried once again, but the great dragon said nothing, merely curled around to slither out the cave entrance, temporarily blocking out nearly all the dim light. Margueritte got up to follow and the babies went with her. At the entrance to the cave, Mother had one more word before she took to the sky. “Stay.” Margueritte marveled. She honestly did not know if the Agdaline were aware that adult dragons used command language on their own children, or if the Agdaline had bred that in on purpose. The babies stayed, and Margueritte felt obliged to stay with them, at least until Mother flew out of sight.
Margueritte headed for the lip of the rise, though the babies tried to stop her. “Stay. Stay.” A couple of them became quite verbal.
“Runt.” Margueritte called. She only felt a bit surprised that little one had already learned its name. She saw a lone tree near the bottom of the hill, one not utterly charred. A few green leaves tenaciously hung to the top branches. Margueritte paused. She did not know the word for green in Agdaline, and for a moment she wondered if the Agdaline were color blind, living, as it were, in a black and white world.
“Shades of gray,” she told herself in her own tongue. “Runt.” She got the baby’s full attention. “Tree. Leaf. Fetch.” She said the words even as several of the other babies got agitated.
“Stay.” One of the babies breathed, but Runt looked delighted with the command. It rushed to the tree, snapped off a twig with its razor-sharp teeth, nearly a branch, really, which sported several leaves, and rushed back to Margueritte like the most obedient puppy. Margueritte watched. There were still a few men among the rocks. She found this no surprise, though she had imagined she had only slept one night.
When Runt returned, several of the babies were eyeing her, suspiciously; but she took the leaves and tickled Runt, and soon enough, they all wanted to be tickled. It was great fun, until Margueritte fell suddenly to her knees. Three babies immediately went to her. One tried to lift her up and nearly snagged its teeth in her chain mail. She felt very grateful to Hephaestus at that moment, but she did get to her hands and knees and mouth what was on her mind. “Hungry,” she said. Several babies agreed.
Then she heard the men on the hill. It seemed as if they had been waiting for the dragon to leave the lair. And now they had seen a baby and better knew what they were dealing with. Margueritte chided herself for stupidly exposing the infant. “Home!” Margueritte commanded, though she hardly had strength to talk. “To the nest.” She pointed and prepared to give herself up. She had no idea why she should have suddenly become so weak. But three of the babies were not going to give up. They wrapped her wrists and middle as they had in the night and dragged her to the entrance. Runt stayed behind to chirp urgency and growl at the approaching men.
“Go!” Margueritte commanded as she staggered to her feet. “Go!” The babies went but hovered nearby. “Hide,” she added the words. “Nest. Hide.” She clearly heard the men by then. They were getting close.
Once the babies were out of sight, though they may have been just beyond the light, Margueritte fell to her knees once more. She felt utterly drained of energy, and famished, and she knew something was not right. Runt stayed with her. It looked over her shoulder when she heard the Irishman.
“Funny looking wee one, my dear,” McVey said.
“Not a little one.” Margueritte struggled to her feet and faced the man. There were four others with him, not nearly as many as she imagined from before.
“A queer bird, then,” McVey held his hand out to stop the men from rushing her. He clearly wanted to know what he was dealing with before venturing in.
“Not a bird.” Margueritte said as Runt darted forward. “Ankh!” It breathed, showed its’ razor teeth, and then darted back to Margueritte’s side. That was a warning.
“Not a…” Finnian McVey stopped speaking and all at once his eyes lit up. “A baby!” He understood and shouted the word. It echoed off the rocks and down into the tomb. “Hang the wee ones. The charmed Lady has provided even better.” He started to drool. “Get the baby,” he ordered. “And the garl if yeh can.” He drawled the afterthought.
Four men sprang forward, not having the least idea what they were facing, having only the word “baby” to go on and thinking that sounded harmless enough.
The babies rushed out of the darkness and counter attacked. One man jumped back to look at the stump where his finger had been. It got snapped off as cleanly as Runt had snapped off the tree branch. Two men found themselves wrapped and tied up, squeezed to death before their throats were ripped out. The fourth simply stopped where he was, a look of utter disbelief on his face as a baby simply bored right through his stomach and came out his back.
Finnian McVey had backed well away, and had drawn a sword, and Margueritte knew that might be a serious threat to the babies.
“Babies! Nest!” Margueritte ordered. “Now! Nest!” She yelled, and the babies were bred to obey.
“Protect. Defend.” One of the bigger babies mouthed to her.