One more story to the list:
The thatched roof was consumed in a loud roar of dragon fire, and the wooden frame of the small home caught aflame and creaked and shuddered. Though the low walls were reinforced with stone, in a burst of heat the wood combusted and filled the small living area with smoke. Ysabeau ducked aside as a charred support beam cracked and dropped by her head. The fire roared louder than the screams of the townsfolk outside, and the heat burned through her thick woolen kirtle.
Heart pounding, her eyes darted for Onfroi, her one-year-old son. He had crawled into the doorway, though stopped and began crying before setting upon the hard dirt outside. Ysabeau rushed to pick him up and sped through the doorway as the roof collapsed behind her. Her heart ponded as she caught sight of the burning homes and bodies of her neighbors. The charred body of Vaquelin, the blacksmith, recognizable only by the tools in his belt, lay face-down in the road, trampled by a panicking mob that fled to the outskirts of the village.
Ysabeau looked up as a gust of air gave breath to the fire. The dragon’s great wings beat overhead. There was nowhere to hide. The houses were burning, and some had already collapsed. Gosse, the cooper, shoved a young woman aside and tried to stuff himself down the well, but the opening was too narrow and his horrified face was nearly sufficient revenge for his blocking the one spot in town that might be safe from the dragon’s wrath.
Ysabeau had many friends among the crowd, but her responsibility was to Onfroi. She slung her wailing child over her shoulder.
“We’re going to find papa,” she whispered in his ear. Her husband, Roland, was gathering loose wood from the Lord’s forest. No smoke rose from the trees, and Ysabeau thought of no reason the dragon would burn the forest. It should be a safe place to hide. Her eyes moved to the Lord’s Keep. It too looked untouched. Why would the dragon pick on the poor townsfolk, when the Marquis sat in his stone fortress? Yet the dragon now swerved that way, and she could see the glint of helmets as archers and soldiers lines the battlements.
Time to run. Ysabeau kept to the long grass along the side of the dirt path that led to the forest. It was flammable, but deep enough she could drop on her stomach and hide should the dragon turn around. She patted poor Onfroi on the back and hummed Quand je bois du vin clairet, to which the boy loved to jump in his little dance. Now, it seemed to help little to ease his crying, but it somewhat relieved her mind of worry.
She reached the trees and took a deep breath as the dragon and the keep fell out of sight through the thick trees.
“Roland!” she called as loud as she dared. “Roland! Where are you?”
She walked into the protective cover of the canopy of trees, and felt somewhat braver now that she wasn’t visible from the sky. She trotted as fast as she dared without giving Onfroi too much of a jostle, and soon heard a soft whistle. It wasn’t a signal, but rather a disjointed melody. Roland had never learned to hold a tune.
“Roland!” she called again as she spotted him scraping dry branches from the ground with his crook.
He turned his head, and his face turned to a smile, then a question. “What’s wrong?”
The question fired Onfroi into a wail.
“A dragon attacked the village,” Ysabeau said. “Vaquelin’s dead. Our home is gone.”
Roland looked up, though there was nothing to see through the thick branches above.
“Over here.” He waved her to follow as he rushed along a worn trail through the trees. Branches had been cut away to provide easy passage, and the packed earth along the narrow path prevented any grass or foliage from sprouting.
Ysabeau eased her too-tense clutch on Onfroi as she followed. Roland soon hopped over a smooth log into a shallow trench. Ysabeau stepped over and slid on the slick slope. Roland grabbed her elbow and eased her to the bottom, which was littered with bones and rotting apple cores. Ysabeau knew the place, as the men used the edges of the shallow pit to drink and laugh as they ate their meals while foraging for wood.
A great roar pierced the air, and Roland wrapped Ysabeau in her arms as she knelt in the moist filth at the bottom of the trench. As he held her, she covered Onfroi with her own body. Then the air fell silent, and Ysabeau glanced up.
“Is it over? Did the Marquis kill him?”
Roland shook his head, and then Ysabeau heard the heavy swoosh of great wings flying low over the clearing. Again she curled over Onfroi and held her breath. Her heartbeats, which usually thumped along without her notice, now thundered like war drums. She felt Roland’s arms tighten around her, and his face pressed into the crook of her neck. She prayed as the great wings beat unseen overhead.
There was a cracking sound as branched broke from the trees, and a series of thuds. This is it. They were found. Ysabeau kissed Onfroi on the head for what she supposed to be the last time.
Only, after several seconds anticipating the heat of dragon flame to consume her, there was nothing. Roland gently shook her, and she opened her eyes, and peered from the trench.
There was a sliver of blue sky above, where the branches had broken away, but no dragon. Dead wood lay strewn along the forest floor. This would make Roland’s job easier, though it no longer mattered, as they no longer had a home or a hearth in which to kindle a fire.
Roland bent over and picked something shiny off the ground.
“What is it?” Ysabeau asked.
Her husband flipped a gold coin in his fingers, his mouth open. It was an écu d’or, a gold coin. She had only seen a few in her life, but the image was burned in her memory.
“That will feed us for a week,” she said, a glint of hope in her eye. “At least we needn’t worry that we’ve lost our food in the fire.”
Ysabeau set her still-weeping son on the forest floor as she crawled on her hands and knees and felt along the earth with her hands. Roland stooped over the ground, his hand rested on his knees, as he squinted and raked at the soil with is fingers.
Her left middle finger ran over something hard and flat.
“I found one!” she grinned. “This will replace the table.”
“Three here!” Roland shouted from the base of a nearby tree. “New dishes and shoes.”
“I’ve found enough for some clothing and sheets!” Ysabeau laughed. Fear had gone its way.
They continued the search, and coin after coin found that it would be no trouble to replace the possessions they had lost in the fire. And then, the trail of coins led to a small chest, a wooden box with black iron trim, cracked open at the base of an oak tree. Coins spilled forth in a small pile.
“The dragon must have dropped it,” Roland muttered. “Dragons are mad for gold. He’s made off with the Marquis’ riches, and dropped this in his departure.”
“Should we return it?” Ysabeau’s heart beat heavily as she firmly decided they should not. They had, after all, lost everything.
“We can’t go back to the village,” Roland frowned. “If we return the treasure to the Marquis, we still have no home. Will the Marquis reward us with a new one? Who can say?”
“He won’t,” Ysabeau insisted. “Remember when Monsieur Leclerc left that hole in the field after removing the old stump, and one of the Marquis’ men rode his horse into it, and broke its leg? He was beaten, and his wife taken, and his possessions claimed by the Marquis in payment. He is a wicked man.”
“With this money we could find a new home,” Roland said. “An even better one. Larger. Room for more children, and we’ll never worry about food again! But the Marquis may have seen it fall. Men could be on the way to reclaim it.”
“Hurry, then.” Ysabeau slipped out of her apron and spread it flat on the ground, and Roland propped up the lower half to the chest, which was sufficient to hold some of its lost contents.
“We could hire a nurse,” Ysabeau said as they picked up coins by the handful and dropped them in her apron.
“Yes,” Roland nodded. “I reckon we could. I suppose we could buy some land, and a herd of cattle.”
“A few farmhands to help with the work,” she added. “And a cook.” She knew her way around carrots and potatoes but longed for delicious meals like the dinner that the Marquis provided for the townsfolk every May.
Ysabeau’s heart swam with thoughts of what they could buy with all this money. Fine food and clothes, some beautiful art pieces. Perhaps she could become a patron for her own artists. A sculptor, a painter, a topiarist.
Her apron now had a wondrous pile on it, though many coins remained in the broken chest. Ysabeau groaned as she hoisted her apron off the ground. Coins were heavy in this quantity, but she gritted her teeth and folded her apron tightly around the sides. Roland likewise struggled with the cracked chest, though with some fine contortionism worked his arms into a position to carry it.
There was a loud cry from the ground.
“Onfroi,” she said. “I can’t carry him.”
“His crying will give us away,” Roland added.
“He’s better off here,” Ysabeau mused. “The Marquis will find him, and raise him.”
Roland nodded. “Yes. Who knows how far we have to travel before we can settle down? It’s no life for a baby.”
Onfroi, his face red, crawled forward.
“Stay, little one,” she cooed. “Help will be coming for you shortly.”
She tore her eyes away as she stepped back. She did love her son. More than anything. But there was nothing for him in the life of travel and excess she and Roland were soon to enjoy. A world too large and unsuitable for such a young child.
Here, he would be safe. The Marquis would see to it. Hadn’t he, after all, taken Mademoiselle Berger’s bastard son into his care when she died?
And with her thoughts turning back to her newfound riches, she followed her husband into the dark paths of the forest.
Denzig swooped back over the trees. With the rest of his treasure safely buried on the large island in the middle of the river, he was free to scour the area for the chest he had dropped. Smoke still rose from the human keep and village, and the flames would keep them busy enough to leave him alone.
He circled the area where he thought he felt it drop. He hadn’t seen it fall but could pinpoint where he was when he felt his load suddenly lighten. He descended slowly, trying to find a clear path to the ground, but seeing nothing suitable charged through the top of the trees.
It was shady in here, which he enjoyed, but a bit of a tight squeeze between the trees. Forests were no place for fully-grown dragons. He tended to avoid them, as elves got pretty uppity with fire-breathing dragons poking about near their flammable homes, and he didn’t want to antagonize the Elvingaard.
His wings dragged through the branches as he sniffed the air for his lost gold. One of these days he needed to learn to shrink himself. Being large was fine for fighting and pillaging, but too often created challenges as he tried to navigate along the ground or through subterranean caverns, where the best gold was often stored.
He sneezed, singeing a bush with a burst of flame. There was a stench overpowering the smell of gold. A human stench. He peered at the ground and sniffed at the soil as he circled his landing spot. It couldn’t be too far. His head snaked through the undergrowth until he found an area covered in dead branched. There was a long stick with a curved end. Some sort of human tool. Here sat a bound pile of dead wood. The smell of gold poked through, and it seemed to follow the trail of human stink. He crept along the forest floor, snaking through the trees.
Had humans absconded with his treasure? No matter. He would track them easy enough. He sniffed the ground for more detail. Two humans, headed into a deeper part of the woods.
A third human, nearby. Denzig followed this scent first, as it was strongest, and it was accompanied with a horrible but somehow endearing wail. There was a little creature here, on all fours. Was it a human?
No. It was young, and didn’t look terribly human. They walked on two legs, didn’t they? Perhaps it was a shaved fox. But the smell was certain. Perhaps baby humans were like tadpoles to frogs: almost a different creature entirely.
What should he do with it? It wasn’t large enough for a meal, and something stirred inside Denzig’s chest. The little thing was defenseless. A baby. No one to care for it.
“Come, little one,” Denzig said as he scooped the infant in his great claws. “Other humans came by here. Let’s return you to them.”
It wasn’t a long journey, but it was a difficult one as Denzig had to wade through the thick trees on only three legs as he held the crying baby. Soon he came upon a clearing, and a mound of dirt covered in sod, and a pair of filth-stained bodies peering from behind it. Their stink nearly made Denzig vomit, yet as he approached them, the little baby began to reach out.
“Mama!” it cried.
Denzig cleared his throat. “I believe you have found something of mine, and I have found something of yours. Let us make an exchange, and I shall be on my way.”
“We haven’t found anything of yours,” said one.
“That isn’t our baby,” said the other.
Denzig looked down at the infant, who still reached out for them. “It certainly thinks you are. I can smell my gold on you. You can’t hide it. Return it and take your baby.”
“We haven’t stolen anything from you,” the first human said again. Denzig could see now this was likely the mother, as she stood from behind the lump of sod. She bore the telltale protruding chest of a bipedal female mammal. She was trembling, but in an absent-minded show of courage, backed toward a patch of freshly-turned soil.
“You have my gold buried behind you. I can see its resting place, and I can smell it. You cannot lie to me, human. Now take your infant.”
“That is no baby of ours,” said the man, whose voice shook as he too stood. “And even if we did find some gold in the forest, it was the gold of the Marquis, not yours, who stole it from him.”
“And he stole it from you,” Denzig said. “He taxes the labor from your own backs. I steal what he has stolen.”
The woman wagged her finger. “Which you just said he stole from us! This is our gold. You’ve said it yourself.”
Denzig huffed a spark of flame, and both humans let out frightened gasps and backed a half-step.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “I’ve got most of it, anyway. Keep it. Just take your baby.”
The pair looked at each other. “That isn’t ours.”
Denzig could see they were lying, and he was puzzled. Didn’t humans tend to care for their own young? Their babies were otherwise helpless.
“Just take him,” he insisted. “You can care for him. You certainly have the money.”
“Take him to the Marquis,” the man said. “Let the Marquis raise him.”
Denzig shook his head. “I’m not going back there. We didn’t part on great terms, you see. Why don’t you want your baby? It’s very cute.”
It was cute. Babies were designed to be so, he knew.
“You take him, then,” the mother said. “We need to get out of here. Do we have a deal? We take the Marquis’ money – which you’ve admitted belongs to us – and you keep the baby.”
Denzig had often considered getting a pet, but he didn’t know much about how to care for one. One of the lizardfolk might be easier to raise. Those rascals were ready to go as soon as they hatched. Humans looked more like elves, which took years to raise to independence.
“Fine.” He nodded. He supposed it wouldn’t do to leave the poor child with this sort. What kind of parents would abandon a helpless infant?
Well, the expressions on the two human’s faces were sickeningly smug as they began digging up the gold and silver coins with sticks. Denzig took another glance at the child.
“Does he have a name?” he asked as the two madly shoveled their treasure into their spindly arms.
“Onfroi,” the woman shouted without looking back at Denzig.
Well. So this was her baby. Denzig couldn’t bear to let these two run off with his treasure while they abandoned their own child.
And so, with a deep breath, he fried them both and took the baby and the treasure for himself.
Bryant Reil currently resides in Kelowna, BC. Recent accomplishments include completing a Master's degree, and having finished two books, Elf Mastery and Elf Doubt. The third book, Elf Righteous, is underway.