Chapter Two

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            "Oy!" called a voice above Jaxx, startling him into nearly tumbling backwards down the stairs, "What be taking ye so long, then? Get a move on it now."

"Yes, sir," Jaxx said, running as quickly as he could the rest of the way up the stairs and into the mouth of the cave. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dark and he spotted a short figure walking to the back of the cave. Quickly, Jaxx jogged towards the man, feeling the uneven surface of the floor dig into his feet.

"I am here to help you with the dragons," Jaxx said once he reached the man. He stood with his hands behind his back, keeping his body erect.

The Master Caretaker circled him, shaking his head. "I ask for extra hands and they send me a scrawny boy."

Jaxx kept his head down and stared at the ground.

"Look at me when I talk to you," the man said, and then grunted when he saw Jaxx's eyes. "That explains a bit," he said under his breath.

It surprised Jaxx to see that the Master Caretaker was even shorter than he was himself. The long, gray braid and the tufts of white hair that sprouted in random patches around his cheeks and chin made him appear old, but upon a closer look, the skin around his ropy muscles was smooth, making Jaxx think he was younger than he seemed at first glance. He wore breeches, an apron, and gloves made from heavy leather and a matching vest over his rough woolen shirt. Jaxx wondered why he was wearing such heavy clothing in the hot temperature of the cave.

"Do ye have a name, then?" the man asked, peering at him with his one good eye. The other eye was hidden by a patch that only half covered the long scar running from his brow to his chin.

Before Jaxx could answer, he heard a sound just at the edge of his hearing, like the rush of wind or the low rumble of thunder from a far-off storm. He glanced behind him toward the mouth of the cave to look for dark clouds but the sky was still clear. The rumbling paused and in its place he heard a high, keening hum. The sound hit him with a crushing wave of sadness and loss that made him clutch his chest in pain.

The caretaker's eye widened. "Are ye sickly?" the man asked.

Jaxx shook his head to clear it and blinked back tears that, to his mortification, were welling in his eyes. What was wrong with him, he wondered?

"Are ye touched in the head?" the caretaker asked. "I asked ye what yer name is and yer acting like you just lost yer best friend."

"Jaxx, sir," Jaxx managed to say, "My name is Jaxx."

The caretaker gave him a hard look. "I'd send you back and get another boy but there isn't time. Ye will have to do."

The caretaker beckoned for Jaxx to follow him to a corner where he had stowed a pallet, a small fire pit, and a few meager possessions. He began to rummage through a small chest and pulled out a pair of worn, leather boots.

"Put these on yer feet," he said, "Ye'll need them so ye don't get burned."

Jaxx slid the boots over his feet, but they fell off as soon as he tried to take a step. Muttering to himself, the man found some rags to wrap around Jaxx's feet and stuff inside by his toes to keep them wedged in tight. Jaxx was not used to having shoes and did not like how uncomfortable and heavy they felt. He walked around a bit, lifting his feet high to keep from tripping.

"They're too big but it can't be helped," the caretaker said. "They'll have to do." He turned and grabbed a long rope from the cave wall and looped it over Jaxx's shoulder.

They heard a crash from below and the sad keening sound began again. Jaxx looked at the man, who only shook his head and motioned for the boy to follow, leading him to a rope ladder hanging off of the side of the ledge.

"The dragon queen's lost a young 'un," the man said, holding onto the rope ladder. He shook his head sadly. "She's grieving and not taking care of the others as she should. We have to get the dead one out. I'll distract her, and ye go in and slip one end of this rope around the wee one's neck. We'll pull the pitiful thing out when the ma's not looking.

"Ye must be silent and quick about it and not attract her attention. She'll not be happy with ye if she thinks yer stealing one of her babes, dead or not."

Jaxx nodded solemnly and peeked over the rim of the crater to the hatching ground far below. The body of a hatchling lay on its side, half out of its shell. The dragon queen paced around it, poking at it with her snout, trying to make it get up. When it wouldn't respond, she lifted her head and howled. Jaxx groaned with her, wishing he could do something to comfort her.

On the other side of the crater, three other hatchlings: a blue one, a brown one, and a green one, pecked, scratched, and snapped at each other. They were obviously hungry and needed their mother to feed them and keep them from harming each other. Jaxx realized he had to hurry. If the mother was not separated from the dead one soon, the babies would turn on each other and more dragons would be lost.

As quietly as he could, Jaxx dropped the ladder behind some large rocks and began climbing downward, trying to figure out how to loop the rope around the dead dragon-baby's neck without the dragon queen noticing. Once he did that, he thought, it would be easy to climb quickly back up to the ledge with the other end of the rope where he and the caretaker could get the body up and away from the other dragons. With luck, they could pull it straight up and not damage the valuable dragon hide by dragging it across the jagged floor.

As Jaxx started down the ladder, he looked across the room and froze, his heart racing as he realized how large the dragon queen was. The few times he had seen them flying during their training exercises, they had been high above and appeared small. Up close, he could see that the dragon queen's knee was taller than his head. If she stepped on him, he would be crushed. He did not even want to think what those enormous teeth and claws would do to him if she caught him. He looked up at the ledge, considering whether to climb back up the ladder and run away even though he knew he would be beaten if he did not finish his task.

As he stood there, undecided, the feeling of sadness washed over him again. He heard a very distinct-sounding, Noooooooooo.

Jaxx paused, looking around. Someone had spoken but he did not see anyone else there. Was he going mad? He shook his head to clear it, and quickly made his way down the rest of the rope ladder. By the time he reached the dirt floor of the hatching grounds, Jaxx decided he was only hearing things.

He crouched behind a rock and watched from across the floor as the dragon queen nosed the body of her dead baby, trying to make it stand up. When it did not move, she swung her head from side to side before raising up on her back legs and stretching her neck to the sky, wings spread. She threw her head back and let out a long, heartbreaking wail.

Jaxx felt his eyes fill with tears. It was the dragon queen he had heard, he realized, her cries sounding almost like a human-being speaking. He knew without being told that as long as the body of her baby remained on the ground she would keep trying to revive it, ignoring the distress of the others. He looked over at the other young dragons. They were frightening but beautiful. Even so, they were still only babies. He could not run away without trying to help them. He took a deep breath and steeled himself to be brave. He knew he was swift and agile, so it should be easy for him to run in, do what he had to do, and get out quickly.

To distract the other dragons, the old man dangled a large hunk of red meat over the squawking dragonettes. Their shrieks became louder and more desperate as they tried to reach for the food and missed. The sound attracted the attention of their mother and she moved away from the dead one to see what was happening to her other babies. Jaxx used the distraction to climb over the rock and run to the body of the dead dragon. 

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