(Continued from Part XI)

Cutter closed the door of his darkened home behind him and set his wicker basket on the floor inside.  It had been a good hunt, he thought, even though he had only harvested one wyrmling. Others remained in the river, for two had wriggled free of his grasp. It was a result, he noted sadly, that had occurred in the past year with increasing frequency. Wyrmlings were not getting faster, he knew, except in relation to him. His hands were not as quick as they had once been, nor was his grip as strong.

As he lit a small lamp and replaced it on the table, he wondered how many more hunts he would make before he finally submitted to Lady Moragan’s pleas for him to come live with her family near the capital.  On her estate he would be the best cared-for former dragon hunter in the kingdom. Still, it was not the fuss of servants he dreaded; like the court clothing they were constantly offering or taking away, such things could simply be endured. It was the idea of never hunting again that bothered him. His last hunt would come, he knew. But he was not ready for it just yet.

Cutter collapsed into his chair and rubbed his tired eyes, realizing immediately that he should have washed his hands before he sat down. It had been a long habit of his, for river slime was surely not as easy on the eyes as, well, a few of Moragan’s ladies. And there’s that one cook that… no, he scolded himself. If he was getting too old for dragons, he was too old for that, too.

As he raised himself back out of his chair, he heard a muffled sneeze followed by a giggle, then a voice trying to shush the giggler. Suddenly, his 6-year-old twin grandsons bounded out of the dark kitchen and jumped on him, pressing him back into his chair.

“Grandpa, Grandpa, you didn’t wash your hands first. Don’t you know that you’re supposed to wash your hands first?”  

He looked up to see Moragan and Dokken, hand in hand, standing in his kitchen door. He knew from their smiles that they were up to something. And no, he didn’t have to move in with them just yet. He had the dragon in his basket to prove it.

Moragan prepared some dinner for all of them while Cutter showed his grandsons the dragon. While they sat on his knees he told them for the hundredth time the story of Moira at the river. The twins never tired of Moira, drinking in the story with wide eyes and shivering in unison at all the scary parts. Cutter wondered if Moira had not grown larger in his endless retellings. By the time his grandsons were men, he feared she might be a 500-year-old great wyrm who breathed fire and ate entire cities for breakfast. Well, maybe just villages.

After Dokken blessed the food, the boys wolfed down the results of Moragan’s efforts then begged leave of the table to once again poke at the wyrmling.  Their mother granted that permission immediately.  She must really want them out of the kitchen, Cutter thought. Oh well, here it comes.

The three of them stared at each other across the table. Cutter noticed that by some coincidence each sat in the very same chair as that day long ago when Dokken had first come to Westering Village with Moragan’s dragon skin mask in his hand.  But unlike that momentous day, when words had poured forth like mead, an uncomfortable silence now served as the table’s only draught. All knew a question was forthcoming. Two knew what that question was.  None knew how it would be answered.

Dokken finally broke the silence. “You have been a dragon hunter a long time,” he began, “probably longer than I have been alive. You told me years ago that you learned the craft from your father, who learned it from his. You are a dragon hunter, the last in a long line of dragon hunters.” Cutter wondered why Dokken was belaboring the obvious. Why didn’t he just come out and say that the line was ended and that the time had come to stop pretending otherwise?

“Such was never my experience as a young nobleman. My father was a king, but as I was the youngest of five brothers, all knew that I would not inherit my father’s vocation. Whatever he was, the law all but guaranteed that I would be something else. Yet no man knew what that might be. So I received an education. It was the finest available and one far better than I appreciated (or wanted) at the time. And whether my sons appreciate it or no, they will receive the same. But I want something more for them.”

Cutter was confused. How could these grandsons of kings ever have more than what they had now, which was everything?

“I want you to teach them to hunt and harvest dragons,” Dokken said. “I will accompany you on your hunts, not only to keep them from tackling you into the river in a fit of excitement but because I am genuinely interested in learning the process as well.  Moragan has already begun to instruct the boys in the handicrafts – and as much as my royal brother dislikes such work and considers it unmanly, his rule does not extend to my children. I want my sons to be much more than the sort of unskilled, worthless young nobles that infest every court in the Little Kingdoms. I wish for them to carry on the family tradition of hunting dragons.”  

He looked at Cutter expectantly. Cutter glanced toward Moragan, hoping to discern her opinion before giving an answer. Her perfectly re-formed eyes twinkled and she nodded.

Cutter could not believe it. He was not going to stop hunting at all: he was going to hunt even more. And he was going to teach sons again. True, they were not sons of his own blood, but he could not expect that; he had lost his own blood through his own foolishness. That could never be undone. But as Moragan had received a new face, Cutter felt like he had just received a new chance to complete his life’s work by passing it on to her sons, his grandsons. It did not take but a second for him to respond.

“Yes, I will teach your sons to hunt and to harvest dragons.” The boys bounced back into the room as he spoke.

“We shall hunt dragons?” they asked their father simultaneously.  Dokken nodded.  

Then Timni, the older, turned to his grandfather and asked, “Should we catch one, do you think we might keep it?”