The Old One

Posted on April 22, 2010

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The villagers watched the column of smoke rising from the cliffs above the sea for two days. It was a bad omen, and the fishermen refused to take the boats out even though the weather was fine. Instead, they milled about with the rest of their neighbors and speculated on the cause of such a blaze.

By dawn of the third day, the smoke had thinned considerably, but the fishermen still remained ashore. To put the rumors of disaster to rest, Findol and Coanh went to investigate the fire. No one knew the cliffs better than they did, for they had spent their youth exploring them, becoming excellent climbers in the process.

They had no trouble scaling down the cliffs, descending nimbly toward the cave from which the last smoky tendrils issued. They stood on the granite shelf before the cave’s mouth, twenty feet above the rocky shore, to catch their breath. A sulfurous reek lingered in the air, making their eyes water.

“It must be true,” Coanh said, gagging. “Only one thing has that stench.”

Findol wiped his eyes. “We won’t know until we see for ourselves. Let’s go.”

They went inside. The entrance led to a large cavern, which the morning light behind them did little to illuminate. Yet because they came here frequently, they had previously left candles and wood for torches. Findol struck a flint and lit two torches, and handed one to Coanh.

When their eyes adjusted to the gloom, they went further in, keeping close to the slippery wall. In the center of the cave, the floor dipped past sea level, leaving a large gap in the rock where the water rose and fell with the tides. Beyond this pool, the cave extended on into the cliffs and divided into passages and chambers of varying size.

There was a faint glow coming from a fissure above the furthest end of the pool, where Findol and Coanh had not yet explored. The only way to reach that part of the cave was to swim across; the path around the wall did not reach it.

“I think I can see a way up from the pool,” Findol said, craning his neck and squinting in the dim light.

“There might be whirlpools in the water,” Coanh warned. He held his torch over the pool, looking for chaotic wave patterns, but found none. Findol turned, grinning.

“Time to go,” he said. “Remember to hold your torch aloft in the water.” He clambered down the short decline and slipped into the pool. Coanh sighed at his friend’s recklessness and followed him.

Soon they were across the pool, their torches still burning. They dried their hands and feet on the sand at the water’s edge, and climbed toward the fissure.

Once through the fissure, they discovered a large, smooth-floored chamber before them. To the left was another, wider vent through which daylight streamed.

Findol went to inspect this new entrance, blinking into the light. Coanh joined him, gazing at the sheer drop from the lip of the cave to the sea.

“It’s no wonder we never found this one,” he said. “It’s completely inaccessible.”

“The only way to get here would be on the wing,” Findol agreed. He and Coanh exchanged a grim look. They turned toward the shadowed back of the chamber.

Behind a boulder jutting out from the wall, there lay something massive and unmoving. Beyond its great bulk lay a smaller, smoldering mass: the source of the fire.

Findol took a step forward, and Coanh gripped his arm. Findol shook him loose.

“If we were in danger, we would already be dead. We have to make sure, Coanh.”

He went on, Coanh lagging a cautious step behind.

They came upon the tail first, wide as a man’s torso, lying limp and cold. The six-pronged barb on its end was battered with age and old skirmishes, the points still sharp and deadly. They saw a hind foot twisted at an odd angle, the curved black talons long as a sword, no more a threat.

They went along the dragon’s flank at arm’s length, more from respect than fear, until they stood at the beast’s great head. Black scales shone in the torchlight, iridescing green and purple; one golden eye, half closed, stared into oblivion. Before him lay a charred heap that reeked of sulfur, burned wool and flesh.

“Here’s Bolan’s three missing sheep,” Coanh sighed.

“They say a dragon’s last breath is always fire,” Findol said. “He died before he had his last meal. Dragon fire burns like no other, so that must be why the sheep burned so furiously and long.” He reached out and closed the dragon’s eye, and stroked his head. A scale loosened at his touch and fell to the ground. Findol picked it up and put it in his pocket.

“How can we tell the others?” Coanh said. “The fishermen might never go out again. What will we do now he’s dead? Who will frighten away sea monsters and marauders who want to drive us from our homes? This is the worst omen there could be.”

“It’s true, the world will be different now,” Findol said. “He was our protector for centuries, but not even dragons are immortal. We’ll learn to protect ourselves. We will be like him, fierce and strong.”

“We could keep silent. If no one knows, his reputation could go on protecting us.”

Findol frowned at him.

“This dragon was no coward, and neither shall we be. I will tell them myself, and we will live as he did, with courage. We should go and leave him to his rest.”

They left the cave the way they had come. As they started up the cliff, Coanh said, “You are a fearless one, Findol. It is right that you tell the tale. I could believe you bear part of the old one’s strength in your blood.”

Findol smiled, feeling the dragon’s hard scale pressing against his chest through his pocket as he climbed.

Perhaps he carried the dragon’s spirit not in his blood, but in his heart.

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