“Thankyou, madam, please come back soon!” Kavar pushed the change across the counter, and the fur cloaked lady grabbed it together with her new fox fur mittens.
The bell at the door rang when she left, and Kavar stepped out from the counter to straighten his shop. He was tired. It had been a long day. He was glad it meant a full cash box, but he was running ragged trying to both make new items, teach his apprentices, and mind the store. He decided to hang up the closed sign early, and go back to the tannery.
He only got as far as the door, before a dwarf stepped inside. He bowed and walked over to the counter where he placed a red leather helmet. Kavar tried to hide his distaste. The dwarf was clad in ragged clothes, his beard was long and unkempt, and a dirty big toe stuck out through a hole in his boot.
Kavar said, “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I want to sell this helm.”
Kavar picked it up. He checked the seams, felt the leather. It was old and fairly well used, but otherwise looked decent enough. “I will give you a silver for it.”
“A silver! This is dragonskin! It is worth diamonds!”
Kavar laughed. One of those. He mentally rolled his eyes. “I am always happy to haggle, my good dwarf, but make a demand I can at least consider! There are no dragons. This looks like fine oxhide, but nothing more exotic I’m afraid. Two silver.”
The dwarf crossed his arms and lifted an eyebrow. “No dragons? I will tell you why there are no dragons.” He pointed at the helmet. “This is why there are no dragons. Fifty gold. No less. Though it is worth more than this city.”
Kavar lifted the helmet and peered at it. There was an odd structure to the hide. Something stirred at the back of his mind. An old memory. An old story.
But no. It must be ox. “Five silver. That’s as high as I will go.”
“Test it,” said the dwarf. “Take your knife and try to cut it.”
It was Kavar’s turn to lift an eyebrow. “I haven’t bought it yet. If I damage it, you can’t sell it at all.” And what if he didn’t? No. Ox.
“Do it, I can manage without five silver. And then when you are done, I will tell you its story, and you can decide on its price.”
Kavar drew out a skinning knife from beneath the counter and prodded the helm. He expected it at least to bulge inwards from pressure.
It didn’t budge.
He tried scraping at it.
He pushed harder. Lifted his arm and tried stabbing.
His arm merely bounced back. And there was still no mark on the leather helmet.
Kavar withdrew. He looked at the helmet. Then he looked at the dwarf.
“Tell me,” he said, fearing the worst. The truth.
Many years ago, in the days of the master forger Raq-krin, there lived a master leather worker with his three apprentices. Two of them – a man and a woman – were of his own blood and kin, while the third was a man of low means, yet great talents, whom the leather worker had taught as his own. One day the master decided that his working life was coming to an end, and that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labour. He thus decided his shop would pass to one of his three apprentices, and the others – as is custom – would leave to found their own.
Now, the three were all certainly worthy of the inheritance, and he must have found it impossible to choose one among them, for he decreed that the keys would go to the one who could procure him a dragon, or the hide of a dragon.
There was some laughter at this, since all believed as you, that the dragons are gone if they ever existed, but the three went out anyway.
The two children sought in vain, but the third found a fairy dragon – a tiny creature with the body of a snake and the wings of a butterfly – after a long and arduous journey.
I must remind you here, that the dwarves value craft above kin. Your master-brother is as valuable, or more, as your blood-brother. But the humans think family first, and the two children of the master had heard of this, and decided they agreed, that they had the greater right to the keys and shop. So when the third brought home his fairy dragon, they attacked him, they beat him, and they robbed him.
And they of course took the fairy dragon home to present as their own. Well, the master was a little put out that there were two of them vying for the keys, but if they had chosen to work side by side and halve their income, who was he to argue?
In the mean time however, the third arose from the beating and discovered the fairy dragon gone. And he wept sorely for his loss, for not only had he lost his chance at inheriting, a very valuable creature was gone, and he was angry that his master-siblings had cheated their way to riches. However, his tears fell on crystalline rock, and from within the rock he heard a strange voice begging release.
He was confounded, but took his hammer and chisel and set to work. After a little while he encountered a hollow within the crystal, and within the hollow was a grey skinned snake.
The snake thanked him for his help, and promised him any reward he should desire.
“I wish for dragon skin,” he replied. “Scales of a true dragon is the only thing that will change my master’s decision and let me inherit the keys to his workshop.”
The snake nodded and said, “your wish is my command.”
He directed him to travel north, further than the Vengvet hills, further than the Mounts of Fate, further than the plains, far into the realms where snow and ice reign eternal. There the snake guided him to a frigid cave wherein a wyrm slept its winter sleep.
Before they entered, the snake told him to follow its commands completely if he was to succeed. “The dragon does not feel pain while he sleeps, but he has ears sharp as the fox, so you must be completely quiet. Cut the hide and three scales from his tail.”
The apprentice readily agreed, and tip-toed inside the cave. He went to the large red tail curling around the beast, took his knife and cut first a square piece of hide.
Oh it was warm! He jumped and sucked at his fingers, but bit his tongue to keep from shouting.
Then he carefully cut the first scale.
Oh and it was warmer than the hide! He shook his hand and bit his tongue again, and kept silent.
Then the second scale.
He jumped around, tears streaming down his cheeks with the pain of it all, but dutifully – and fearfully – kept his silence.
Then the third scale. It burned, his flesh boiled, and he could not keep from letting out a tiny whimper.
The dragon woke and roared!
“Kill me, kill me now,” the snake said. “Kill me if you want to live!”
But the snake had provided the apprentice with his greatest wish – how could he kill him!
The apprentice ran instead from the wyrm, out of its cave, out through the frozen plains, across the Mounts of Fate, and was almost to the Parsan river when he heard the gruesome roar behind him. Billowing clouds of fire, smoke and ash tore up the grass where the dragon breathed.
“Take a scale and hold it up,” the snake said.
The apprentice did so, and the scale turned into a hard, round shield which protected him from the flames. The dragon roared with frustration, turned and flew back.
“Now kill me,” said the snake, but the apprentice still refused.
He ran on south, across the river and down the plains. He could see the welcoming peaks of Mount Zanubegil in the distance, when he heard the dragon’s roar again. It was ripping and shredding with its claws, tearing at the ground, pulling up trees, gashing the earth.
“Take a scale and hold it to your chest,” the snake said.
The apprentice did so, and the scale turned into a strong and hard chest mail that covered his torso, and protected him from the terrible claws. The dragon roared again and turned back.
“Now kill me,” said the snake, again, but the apprentice still refused.
He ran and crawled and crawled and ran, till he was under the shadow of the mountain itself, and then he heard the dragon again. Its tail was beating and crashing into the rocks, causing enormous stones to fall.
“Take the last scale and place it on your head,” the snake said.
The apprentice did so, and the scale turned into a strong and wellmade helmet that protected him from the rocks and the lashing tail. The dragon now finally gave up and flew home.
The apprentice happily entered the great doorways of the mountain kingdom, and strode as fast as he could to the caverns of his master, but his happiness was short lived, for the sound he heard as he approached, was the one of celebration. Indeed, just then was the master performing the ceremony of the keys, and his master-siblings were jubilating their inheritance.
He was ready to fall down and weep again, but the snake insisted, “if you want your prize, now is your last chance. Kill me now, or forever have lost.”
Blinded by tears, the apprentice took his knife and pierced the skull of the snake.
Wonder of wonders! The creature shrivelled up, and from the old skin a new creature emerged; a snake brilliantly coloured, and with the wings of a fairy! It flew across the ceremony hall, and tore the throat of the siblings’ fairy dragon, and from the destroyed dragon a mere snake emerged.
And thus – only the apprentice was in possession of both a fairy dragon, real dragon hide, and now the keys to his master’s forge and work shop.
“And the helmet you see before you, o tradesman, was that very same transformed dragon scale, which has passed from craftsman to apprentice through the centuries, before it now is mine,” finished the dwarf. “So what will you buy it for?”
“Nothing,” said Kavar. “For there is dwarfblood in my veins, from those who were willing to share with each other, but who paid dearly for their fault in robbing someone who should have been their sibling-in-craft. The helm is more costly than I could pay, and yet worth much less than their friendship might have been worth. What ill luck befell you and your masters that you have to sell this treasure?“
The dwarf looked down at the hole in his boot. “Trades will sometimes fail. An investment run afoul here, a squandering master there. We once had the forge, the shield and the breastplate, but that is many generations ago, and all that is left is this helmet. And if I cannot sell that… Well, a dwarf must eat and there is no food in dragon skin.” He lifted his head again and set his jaw. “If you won’t buy, I will have to look elsewhere, to sell it – even if it is for a fraction of its worth.”
Kavar stroked the helmet, thoughtfully. “Are you trained in the hide-makers craft, like your masters?”
“Will you work with me and be my master-brother?”