Chapter 1 – Leena the Lionhearted
Drippy shivered from the damp and cold of the River of Riddles that flowed past him and into the night. He peeked out from under the moldy bridge, knee-deep in mud. Water from the wooden beams above splashed onto his already wet nose.
He couldn’t hide here forever. He’d have to come out sometime.
Drippy felt a sneeze coming, but put a claw over his mouth to suppress it. Feeling some snot sliding from his nose, he snorted a loud sniff—then glanced around, afraid someone might have heard him.
Birds flew from a nearby tree in a fluttering burst —danger nearby.
Drippy looked up. There they were. All his relatives and neighbors, and a few teachers too, swooping across the sky. Their great dragon wings sounded like a clothesline of wet, slapping sheets.
His entire dragon clan soared low over the landscape. They flew in crisscross patterns, cleverly avoiding treetops and mutual mid-air collisions. Obviously out to get him.
Even with a full moon to show the way, they shot thirty-foot flames from their noses to light up the dark corners of the countryside.
Show-offs. Drippy slowly backed into the shadows cast by the bridge and watched. And waited.
It wasn’t for long. Dark clouds drifted in from the west, neatly covered the moon and started their slow dissolve into a light sprinkle, then a drizzle, and finally a steady downpour of thrashing rain.
Good. Dragons hate rain. It puts out their fires.
As he expected, every dark shape in the sky beat an urgent retreat over the horizon, rushing back home.
Unlike the other dragons, Drippy appreciated the water that now streamed in rivulets down his scaly back. Rain gave him a private world of his own, with no other dragons around to tease and bully him.
He was free to do what he wanted. With his head high, he strode out from under the bridge and continued his four-legged journey down the muddy path and into the woods.
He hadn’t felt this good since he’d stormed out of his fire breathing class and headed out on his own. Running away, the others would call it. But he liked to think of it as escaping. Getting as far away from their taunts and jibes as dragonly possible.
As he walked, he thought about everything that led up to his current situation.
When he was born a cute little bundle of joy with a big nose, all the grown-up dragons in the kingdom rushed to the Nozzledoffs’ cave to congratulate his happy parents.
After all, it wasn’t every day a pair of 200-year-old dragons got to celebrate the birth of a new baby.
There was just one problem. It wasn’t apparent at first, but Mr. and Mrs. Nozzledoff got a subtle hint when their newborn sneezed—and nearly drowned the dragon nurse in a surprising stream of cold, clear water that came gushing out of his nose. If she wasn’t a wet nurse when she walked in, she sure ran out as one.
“That’s one explosive baby dragon,” his father said.
“It certainly is a lot of liquid,” his mother agreed. “Gallons and gallons. Maybe he has an allergy.”
Doctor Dragonbreath breezed into the room carrying a clipboard and wearing a stethoscope, metal-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting white coat.
“Nice frock, Doc,” Drippy’s father said.
“Do you like it? I won it in a contest of wits with the Jurassic Giants of Grumbly Gulch. But they were more like half-wits, so…”
“Doctor, tell us, please,” Drippy’s mother pleaded. “Is there something wrong with our baby?”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Nozzledoff. You were right—he has an allergy. Of course, it’s the very worst kind… he’s allergic to air.”
“Oh, you mean he’s allergic to the dust in the air. Or the pollen.”
“Nope. Just the air. Allergic to oxygen, to be specific.”
“That’s crazy,” Mr. Nozzledoff interjected. “How can you be allergic to air?”
As if to answer his question, the baby dragon sneezed again, dousing everyone in the room with a crushing deluge of water.
“About like that,” the doctor said, as he twisted a corner of his lab coat to wring it out.
“But that’s terrible.” Mrs. Nozzledoff put her front claws to her face. “Isn’t there something we can do?”
“Not at this young age. Maybe he’ll grow out of it.” The doctor clucked his tongue. “Oh well, them’s the breaks. Now, for our hospital records: What name have you given the baby?”
“Drippingham, after my father, and his father before him,” Mr. Nozzledoff said. “Drippingham Nozzledoff the Third.”
“Oh. Good idea. He’ll love that.” The doctor rolled his eyes, wrote on his clipboard, and strode from the room.
As a toddler, Drippy used to love building sandcastles and making little thatched-roof villages complete with streams, ponds and waterfalls filled with water leaking from his impressive allergies. But the other young dragons loved burning and trampling his creations.
So he soon gave that up.
He tried joining them in games of hide-and-go-seek, but they always found him. They simply listened for the sounds of his incessant snuffling.
And as much as he wanted to, Drippy couldn’t participate in their favorite game, getting blindfolded and using their fire skills to play light-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Using a real donkey.
The problem was, Drippy couldn’t breathe fire. Not a bit. Not the tiniest flame. He couldn’t light a birthday candle on a molten lava cake.
By the time he was twelve, things should have gotten better. No such luck. For six long years, the other students had teased him about his watery eyes. Made fun of his sniffing and sneezing. And, most of all, laughed at his every attempt to shoot fire—which always ended in a firehose spray of wetness.
When he completely botched his first test of skills in Elementary Flame Throwing, that was the last straw. He was out of there.
Drippy pushed deeper into the woods, happy to know that with every step, he was putting a soothing distance between himself and his heartless classmates.
The rain was letting up now, reversing from downpour to drizzle to sprinkle, and then to no rain at all. Not good. His dragon clan would soon be taking to the sky again.
The moon reappeared to cast quivering shadows from the damp leaves above onto his muddy pathway. At least he had some tree cover.
A frantic rustling and the sound of snapping branches broke through his thoughts. It came from beyond that giant oak tree off to the right.
What was it?
He slowly tiptoed from the path and pushed his way through thick undergrowth—then tripped and slipped, his legs flailing as he slid down a steep incline. With all his might, he scrambled and clawed at the ground and bushes to slow himself. It was only with superdragon effort that he managed to keep from tumbling over a jagged cliff.
He gasped for breath to feed his trip-hammering heart. When he finally recovered from his near-death experience, he stretched his long neck to peer over the edge, afraid of who or what might be below.
He whispered. “Hello?”
“Yes? Hello? Anybody there?” It was a young voice. A female. A human.
Drippy offered a friendly reply. “Hi, I can’t see you. Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay. I fell off the cliff. Can you throw me a rope?”
He looked around for a vine but didn’t see one. “I don’t have a rope. I could throw you a tail, though.”
“Excuse me? Throw me a what?”
“A tail. Here, grab on.” He turned around, flipped his tail over the cliff and backed himself as close to the edge as he dared.
He heard no sound at first. Then her voice cried out, “Yuk. It really is a tail!” After another pause, she added, “Hey, wait a minute. Are you a devil?”
Drippy snorted. That’s great. Insult me while I’m trying to help. He considered a snappy response, but he couldn’t think of one. He shook his head in the dark. “No, I’m not a devil, thanks for asking. Grab on.”
“No way, José,” she spat back. “If you’re not a devil, who are you? What are you?”
“The rescuer who’s trying to save you.”
Her voice sounded quieter, deeper. “Thanks just the same, but I think I’ll wait for a rope.”
“Right. Okay. Well, good luck, then. Bye.” He started to step away.
“Don’t leave me!”
“But you said—”
“Never mind. I’ll grab the tail.”
“Suit yourself.” Drippy backed into his previous position and dug his claws into the dirt. “Ready when you are.”
He sensed something grasping his tail above the spear tip end, but it wasn’t skin. It felt like hands made of metal.
He inched forward. From the weight and feel, it seemed he was rescuing something small and desperate. And definitely metallic. Was he saving a talking machine?
As soon as he had pulled far enough to ensure her safety, he turned around to see a short, helmeted knight rolling away from his tail and standing on shaky, armored legs. With her silvery gloves, she removed her white-plumed helmet. Her long, disheveled hair fell out in a brown tumble.
Looking up, she froze—then sputtered, “You’re a dragon!”
“Good eye. Drippy the Dragon, that’s me.”
“Wow.” She gulped. “My name is Leena.”
“What kind of name is that?”
She stood taller. “It’s a nickname, if you must know. But I like it because it sounds like leaner. Like I’m the leanest, meanest Defender of Truth and Eternal Goodness in the whole world. Leena the Lionhearted, that’s me.”
“Okay… pleased to meet you.”
She placed her helmet on a nearby stump. “You know, I’ve never met a dragon before, but I have to say—wait. You can talk!”
“Of course I can talk. We’re both talking.”
“But you’re an animal.”
“And what’s weird about that? Lots of animals talk.”
She moved closer. “Oh yeah, like who?”
“Oh, you know. Unicorns, centaurs, griffins, three-headed dogs—”
“Cheshire cats, Easter bunnies, Mother Goose—”
“The Little Red Hen…”
She wrinkled her nose. “The Little Red Hen?”
“Of course. But all she says, over and over, is, ‘I’ll do it myself.’ So annoying.”
“If you say so…”
The moon light reflected off Leena’s tarnished armor. Drippy stared at his rescued damsel as she reached down to pick up her makeshift shield and wooden sword. She had a bow and arrows slung over one shoulder, but the arrows were tipped with rubber stoppers.
“Good outfit,” Drippy said. “Nice shoulder pads. What are you going as?”
Leena stamped her foot. “Going as? I’m not going as anything. I’m a knight.”
“A girl knight? That’s a new one. I never heard of a girl knight before.”
“Oh, really? What about Joan of Arc?”
“Never heard of her.”
“You don’t know much, do you?” She sighed. “Okay, I’ll tell you my story, since you rescued me and all. This suit of armor belongs to my rich Uncle Mordecai.”
“I think it means warrior. But Uncle Mordy isn’t at all like a warrior. Looks more like a cobbler. Or a lamplighter.”
“Or a town crier. You know, those guys who walk through a village yelling, ‘Hear ye, hear ye!’ all the time. Especially late at night, when you’re trying to sleep. Those guys never shut up.
“Anyway… I used to play on the upper floors of Moldavian Manor. That’s where Uncle Mordy lives. But one day I accidentally knocked over this suit of armor standing in the hall. Legs, arms, torso and helmet flew everywhere. I started picking up the pieces, but then got to thinking—and tried some on.”
“And they fit great. Bingo. Instant knight.”
Drippy frowned. “I thought there was more to it than that. Don’t you have to be knighted by a king or something?”
She folded her arms. “Minor detail. I figure that’ll come as soon as I accomplish my quest.”
“I’ve pledged to find the lost princess.”
“What lost princess?”
Leena’s eyebrows went up. “Haven’t you heard? Princess Gwendolyn is missing. King Olaf is beside himself. Nobody knows where she is. But I’ll find her. It’s my heroic duty.”
Drippy grunted. “I see. So, what were you doing, hanging onto the side of a cliff for dear life? In the dark?”
“Oh, that. I was… um… having a calamity, of course. Like any self-respecting hero. Didn’t you ever have a calamity?”
“Well, sure. I guess.” Drippy thought for a second. “I’m having one right now, as it happens.” He made a loud snort and wiped his nose with the back of his claw. “I’m running away from home.”
“You are? That’s great.” She nodded. “That makes us Companions in Destiny. We’re both running away. And both having adventures. Shake.”
Leena offered her gloved hand. Drippy squinted at it, then clutched it with his right front claw and shook it up and down.
“Hey, not so hard.” She took her hand back and scanned their surroundings. “I don’t suppose you might have anything to eat? What do dragons eat, by the way?”
Drippy grinned and showed his teeth in a mock snarl. “Eat? Dragons don’t eat. We consume. We devour. Gnats and bats and bureaucrats. Cats and rats and sniveling brats. You look crunchy, for a start.”
Leena took a step back, which made him smile. She smiled in return. “Okay, good one. I’ll tell you what. You promise not to eat me, and I’ll promise not to slay you.”
“Why would you want to slay me?”
“Because that’s what knights do, silly. They go on quests, they save princesses, and they slay dragons.”
“Oh. Okay, it’s a deal. I won’t gobble you up, and you won’t do me in.”
“Great.” She gave him a closer look. “I don’t suppose you’re holding any princesses hostage, by any chance?”
“How about quests? Got any extra quests I should know about?”
“You do. Oh yes, you have a quest. What is it? Tell me.”
Drippy’s face turned a little pink. “It’s not a quest, exactly. But I’m set on finding something. A cure.”
“A cure? Are you sick?”
“No, not sick. But I have allergies.” He gave a loud sniff.
“Oh, like a cold. I get it. I have allergies, too. I’m allergic to perfume. And jewelry. And scratchy dresses. I break out in red bumps. What are you allergic to?”