Greenhorn was a name for a nestling, but then Greenhorn, for all that had a lair of its own now, was scarcely out of the nest. The copper-rich tunnels that led to this lair gave an easy route back to the much larger lair where it had hatched. Its nest-parent still sat comfortably atop the hoard that had fed Greenhorn's growth from hatchling to nestling to a dragon big enough to make its first solitary ventures.
The first few ventures had not been successful. Some of the copper tunnels led to networks of caverns that echoed with the anger and violence of the giants who lived within them. Some potential lairs were already occupied by rats or cats bigger than Greenhorn, and far more experienced at defending their territory.
Greenhorn knew that this lair was the one it wanted as soon as it found the little space in the network of spaces between the caverns. A coil of copper wire lay on the floor of the space, welcoming as a nest, and the whole cavern network felt clean and peaceful and quiet. There was some presence here--not just the giants who lived in the caverns, but something else, something bigger than any of them, perhaps bigger than any dragon. The place itself had a sort of life, a spirit.
Greenhorn knew, the first time it settled down into that inviting spiral of copper, that it was being permitted into this lair, no less than its nest-parent indulgently permitted it to return to the nest after every failed search for a lair of its own. But the spirit of the place was not a dragon, any more than the giants in their caverns were, so Greenhorn did not mind sharing territory. And a lair without a spirit might not have been so clean, or so quiet, or so safe. If Greenhorn wanted to live to be much bigger, let alone grow enough to differentiate, to find a mate and make a nest of its own, it needed a safe place to grow in now.
This lair was a good one. Greenhorn had always known that.
A new giant moved into the cavern just outside Greenhorn's lair, and the spirit of the place seemed to like it. Her, for the giants were all differentiated, though the new one had no mate and did not seem to be laying or brooding over eggs.
Greenhorn liked her too, because she left copper pennies on the floor all the time. She spoke to the spirit of the place when she did it, and it was the speaking that the spirit seemed to drink up; it didn't object when Greenhorn slipped out into the cavern to bring the penny back to its lair. And after all, Greenhorn's lair was as much a part of the spirit's domain as the giant's cavern, so it hardly made a difference to the spirit.
Pennies were Greenhorn's favorite thing, even if gold would be more nutritious. Greenhorn had always had an affinity for copper--it was right there in its name, because it was copper that gave its horns their color--so the pennies were irresistible. They felt like a gift from the spirit of the place as much as from the giant who kept setting them down so deliberately, a sign of just how welcome Greenhorn is here.
Greenhorn hardly even bothered with venturing to the other caverns, preferring to spend most of its time in its growing hoard of copper. One night the giant came in long after it usually did, in the quietest part of the place's rhythms. The spirit of the place wasn't alarmed, though, more amused, and then Greenhorn heard the beautiful clink of coins hitting the cavern floor, bouncing and rolling in all directions.
The giant went quiet soon after that, and Greenhorn ventured out to see. There were numerous coins: pennies and two big shiny quarters, plus a nickel and a dime. Greenhorn made one trip after another to gather them all up, speaking over each one first, the way the giant usually spoke over the pennies, so that the spirit of the place got its fair share too.
The spirit seemed pleased by Greenhorn's care in this matter, so when all the coins had finally been added to the hoard, Greenhorn settled down to sleep, purring contentedly as it absorbed the bright essences of copper and silver.
It was dimly aware of the giant moving around again, but utterly unprepared for the huge pounding on the wall of its lair, and the giant's enormous voice, directed unmistakably at Greenhorn this time: "Don't be greedy."
Greenhorn held utterly still, staring, as it waited for an explosion of violence. The other giants in other places, the bad places, were vivid in Greenhorn's memory. But nothing happened; eventually the giant walked away, and Greenhorn let itself melt down to rest atop its hoard again. At least the giant had not tried to take back what Greenhorn already claimed. That would have been beyond enduring.
After a while, when the giant had been out of the cave for several hours, Greenhorn even felt indignant. It was a dragon, after all! What else was it supposed to be but greedy?
It gave vent to some huffs and growls of temper, distantly aware of the indulgent, amused presence of the spirit of the place--but when the giant returned, Greenhorn went silent again, and stayed that way.
After that, though, there were more coins around. Greenhorn left the one that the giant always spoke over for the spirit of the place, and picked up the ones in the biggest open part of the cavern instead. It spoke its own sounds over them, still. It might be greedy, but it knew better than to cheat the spirit of its due.
Greenhorn became accustomed to moving around in the vast spaces of the cavern, not just to the spot where the penny was always placed. It went sometimes even when it wasn't dark, even when the giant was in the cavern, as long as she seemed to be sleeping. Perhaps it was careless--it thought it might have been seen, once or twice, but the giant gave no sign of noticing it. Not right away.
Then there came another great knock on the wall outside its lair, and again Greenhorn froze. Had it been too greedy? Had it angered the giant? The coins seemed to be left deliberately, but...
"Hey, it’s okay to come out. I won’t hurt you."
The giant's voice seemed lower, softer, than the time before, but it was still enormous--and it was still a sign that the giant knew exactly where Greenhorn was, exactly where to find Greenhorn's hoard. Was she trying to lure Greenhorn into her grasp? All those times Greenhorn thought she was harmless, had the giant been lying in wait?
Greenhorn kept utterly still, in the maybe-safety of its lair, and did not venture out for a long time.
But the giant did not come back to the spot just outside, and did not try again to coax or deceive. There were coins in the cavern, and the giant did not seem displeased when Greenhorn took them, in ones and twos.
Maybe it was all right, then. Maybe...
Maybe the giant was something like the spirit of the place: amused and indulgent, unconcerned by Greenhorn's presence. The giant did seem to be supplying coins for Greenhorn's hoard on purpose, after all.
The clearest sign of that came on a night when Greenhorn ventured out into the darkened cavern to discover a whole pile of pennies in the cavern, and a trail leading all the way across one part of the cavern to the entrance of another. They could only have been laid down deliberately--and only for Greenhorn.
It was not greedy to take what was given, certainly.
Greenhorn gathered up the pennies, speaking over each to give the spirit of the place its due. Greenhorn took as many as it could carry in each trip back to the lair, each time moving closer and closer to the darkest part of the cavern, where the giant slept. And there, on the threshold, was a shiny quarter, glinting silvery in the dark. Greenhorn hesitated to admire it, speaking over it for the spirit of the place--and maybe for the giant, too, who had spoken to Greenhorn.
The giant should know that Greenhorn appreciated the gift, even if Greenhorn still wasn't willing to be seen.
It seemed sufficient. After that night the giant did not pound on the wall again, but left coins scattered as before, and Greenhorn settled into a happy existence, venturing out occasionally to explore the nooks and crannies of this place, the farther caverns. There were no other lair-places in it as good as Greenhorn's, no other giants who left coins scattered so generously.
Yes, Greenhorn had chosen its lair well.
Then came the day when the giant approached Greenhorn's lair--not simply using the part of the cavern just outside, as she regularly did, and not pounding on the wall. Not even that waiting stillness from the giant's first days in the cavern, when she had sometimes seemed to be lying in wait for some sign of Greenhorn.
The giant didn't come close to the entrance to Greenhorn's lair, but seemed to curl down into something far smaller.
And then the giant wept.
Greenhorn couldn't pretend to understand much about the ways of giants, but it could not mistake the sorrow in the giant's sounds. It didn't know what to do, so it stayed curled on its hoard, listening, wondering why the giant had come so close to its lair, but no closer. Did she want Greenhorn to know? Was something terrible coming, or had something terrible already happened?
Even the spirit of the place felt worried. Greenhorn felt a temptation to return down the tunnels of copper to its nest-parent's lair, but it did not wish to abandon its lair, or its hoard--or its giant.
Its reward for staying came not too long after, when it ventured out to investigate some time after it heard several coins hit the floor together. The giant was quiet, curled up in one of her preferred sleeping places--but the coins were almost under her nose.
She had said before, right to Greenhorn on the other side of the wall: It's okay to come out. I won't hurt you. Greenhorn ventured closer, close enough to see that the coins were quarters, five of them, shining silvery and bright in the daylight.
Greenhorn moved closer, closer--and then the giant opened her eyes and looked right at Greenhorn.
Greenhorn froze, waiting to see what would happen. The giant kept still, just watching. When Greenhorn blinked, so did the giant; when Greenhorn scented the air, the giant did too.
Greenhorn reached for a quarter, watching for the giant's reaction.
"Go ahead," the giant's voice boomed, but in the restrained way she had spoken before, not as loud as she could. Greenhorn couldn't help twitching at the huge sound, but didn't back down.
"They're for you. Take them."
Greenhorn waited another moment, then snatched up the quarter and ran for it, all the way back to its lair. It dropped the quarter in the very center and sprawled out over it for a moment, catching its breath and absorbing reassurance and strength from its hoard.
The giant had seen it. Spoken to it directly. Met its eyes.
A dragon the size of the giant could, and probably would, have eaten Greenhorn in a single bite. Even its nest-parent was only half that size.
But the giant had dropped quarters for it, and there were four more of them out there. Greenhorn gathered itself up and crept back out cautiously.
When the giant saw it, she began to weep again. Greenhorn froze, and the giant said, softer than anything she'd spoken yet, "Sorry. I’m just really glad you came back."
Greenhorn made its own soft sound in return--it would not want the giant to disappear either--and went for another quarter.
Still, all the weeping hadn't been for nothing. The spirit of the place was still on edge, and so was the giant--so Greenhorn was too. They were waiting for something, Greenhorn knew, but it didn't know what. It was the smallest and youngest in this place, for all that it was a dragon. So it burrowed into its hoard, drawing all the strength it could from the little mound of copper and silver, and hoped that it would be ready when the waiting ended.
It felt the spirit of the place react before it heard the banging--not outside its lair, but on the door into the cavern. He knew the giant felt the way Greenhorn had felt when the giant banged on the wall. Something much bigger than the giant was outside, wanting to come in.
Greenhorn crept out of its lair to see.
It was the giant's nest-parent: not much bigger than the giant in actual size, but even from this half-hidden vantage point Greenhorn could feel the violence, the cruel intent, rolling off the nest-parent. It was speaking to Greenhorn's giant, and the giant spoke back, but it didn't help.
The nest-parent grabbed it, and Greenhorn could feel its giant's pain and defeat radiating through the air of the cavern. Again Greenhorn wanted to hide--but if the nest-parent defeated the giant, what then? The cavern would belong to the nest-parent, and Greenhorn's lair wouldn't be safe anymore. This wouldn't be a good and quiet and clean place anymore. If the giant was defeated, how long could Greenhorn survive?
No. This was Greenhorn's place, Greenhorn's giant. And Greenhorn was small, but it was a dragon. It did not give up what belonged to it.
Greenhorn stepped out into full view of the nest-parent, and watched its color go sick as it stared.
Greenhorn growled a challenge, gathering itself to spring.
Greenhorn's giant turned and shouted at it, desperate and frightened, frightened for Greenhorn. That was what a kind giant she was.
That was why Greenhorn had to keep her.
Greenhorn hissed and leaped. It could only reach the nest-parent's knees at first, but it sprang higher, snarling when its mouth wasn't occupied with biting. It used its copper-infused horns, too, butting hard anywhere the giant's nest-parent was soft. The nest-parent turned this way and that, but it was too big and too inflexible to get at Greenhorn, too slow to catch it.
Greenhorn drew blood again and again, provoked cries of pain and panic--and then the great door into the cavern burst open again, revealing yet another giant.
This was one of the ones who lived here, one who the spirit of this place knew well. This one would help, which was good, because Greenhorn was suddenly aware of its own smallness, how easily the giant could crush it against a wall or the floor. How easily this new-coming giant could, if it did not like what Greenhorn had done.
Greenhorn gave one last sound of defiance and then jumped down to the floor and ran for its lair. It did not go in--only to the threshold, opening the way so that it could retreat quickly if it had to. It stayed there, listening, until the nest-parent was forced out. Until it was sure its giant was safe.
Then it crept back into its lair and burrowed down into its hoard, burying itself in pennies. Its horns ached, and so did its teeth. It ached everywhere, in fact, as the rush of battle faded.
But it had triumphed. It had defended its giant, defended the cavern.
The spirit of the place was pleased.
A long while later, when it was dark, Greenhorn woke and crept out from its lair to check that its giant was still safe. It felt safe--the spirit of the place was calm again--but still. Greenhorn needed to check.
There were coins on the floor, and giant was sitting up in one of her sleeping places beside them. Greenhorn made its slow way over to the pennies. It couldn't resist pennies, especially not now. It needed the sustenance; it was still recovering from that fight.
The giant spoke in its quietest voice, a relief after all that shouting. "Are you okay?"
Greenhorn sighed. It was okay, or it would be, but it was awfully tired, and now that it saw that its giant was just fine, it almost wished it had stayed in its hoard.
There were all these pennies, though. Greenhorn sighed again and picked one up to take back to its lair.
When it emerged to retrieve another, it found the giant waiting in part of the cavern just outside, and let out an involuntary yelp of surprise. The giant held out its hands, full of the pennies from the other part of the cavern. Greenhorn barely hesitated before it took a penny.
The giant waited patiently until Greenhorn had taken all of them, and Greenhorn tried to speak thanks to it when it took the last one, though it was a long way from learning to speak in the giants' language.
Still, the giant seemed to understand. "You're welcome. Go get some rest."
Greenhorn slept again, curled around the fresh pennies, absorbing their strength. It might have slept much longer, but it was awoken by the bright musical sounds of gold coins falling into a pile. It bolted to the door of its lair and through it, and this time it was the giant who was startled, and let out a little sound of surprise.
Then the giant seemed pleased, and pushed a pile of gold coins in Greenhorn's direction. "Here. I thought you might like these."
Greenhorn could only stare for a moment. Gold. It was what every dragon truly desired, even better than the shiniest copper, and the giant had brought all this here, just for Greenhorn.
Greenhorn scrambled out of its lair and, though it nearly hurt not to snatch them up immediately, past the gold coins, to the giant. She put out her hand, and Greenhorn lay its claws gently against the soft skin. It ran through all its repertoire of sounds, knowing that none of them came close to the giants' language, but hoping that somehow the giant would understand all the things Greenhorn wanted to say: that this was the best lair imaginable, a giant better than any imaginable, and that it would use the gold well, to grow bigger and stronger, to better protect them both. To make sure they both could stay here, in this good place, and grow bigger and stronger still.
The giant listened and watched intently, then nodded. "Me too, dragon. Me too."
Greenhorn gave a purr of satisfaction at their pact, and then turned and grabbed for the gold.
It was a dragon, after all.